Writing Right with Dmitri: What Kind of Writer Do You Want to Be?

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Writing Right with Dmitri: What Kind of Writer Do You Want to Be?

Editor at work.

Please don't answer that. I really don't want to know. No, seriously. This is the kind of question people call 'rhetorical'. That means it's one to think about. Thinking about things without feeling the immediate need to 'share' is a sign of maturity. Let us give this skill some exercise in this case.

What started my thinking on this topic was the announcement that Toni Morrison died (at 88). If you haven't read anything by this Nobel prizewinner, you should, but that's beside the point. I began to think about what kind of writing she did, and how that was a choice she made. She could have chosen to become a screenwriter, say, which might have been more lucrative than writing intellectual novels. Or a playwright, or pulp fiction writer, or romance author. Her own reading tastes – we're told she enjoyed Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy – may have played a role in her choice of medium.

Writers, like other people, often fall into the types of writing they do because of circumstance, need, and opportunity. Toni Morrison was an academic, which made it more likely that she would write what used to be called 'mainstream' fiction: the kind of serious novels that explore the human condition in an earnest fashion. Those are the kinds of works that garner Nobel Prizes for the 'best of the best'. But that isn't the reason the books are written. Writers of this kind of fiction have a drive to craft what they hope will be 'seminal' stories – stories that spark revolutions in readers' minds. Stories that change the world. They really want their stuff to hang around, so they sweat over it.

Serious novels aren't the only kind of writing that's worthwhile, however. And that sort of endeavour isn't for everyone. I know some of the novelists in that field I wish would have left it alone. Pulp fiction can be honest and useful – and reach a wide audience. The same goes for screenwriting.

The other evening, I was watching the first-ever episode of Law & Order: SVU. I don't think I'd ever seen it before, although it's hard to tell. The plots of these shows seem to run together in my mind. Sitting here now, I can't remember what went on. I do remember the characters: Elliot, the father-of-four detective with the wry grin, his partner, the forthright Olivia, their deceptively mild-looking captain, conspiracy-nut Munch, and that rookie cop who was shamed in court because he misspoke 'frottage' as 'fromage'. These shows are more about familiarity than storyline, I thought. And then it hit me: they were also about the recurring themes.

Does anybody seriously think it's an accident that there's a #MeToo Movement, and that a US television series dealing with sexual crimes has run for the last 20 years, and is still going? I would argue that the affection viewers have for these actors and their characters has given them a platform to affect social attitudes. Mariska Hargitay certainly believes it: she's the founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which supports survivors of assault, domestic abuse, and child abuse. She does this while still playing a cop on TV.

Mariska Hargitay may have a lot of influence as a famous person, but part of her message comes down to writers. Writers who script stories for radio, television, the web, or films may find that one of the satisfactions of the job is seeing the ways in which they help present complex issues to a broad public. That's Life, the Universe, and Everything for you. And yes, it's a responsibility, which is why I yell about lazy writing. Not all educational writing is labelled as such.

Of course, you may not write for money. So far, nobody around here has got paid for anything. That's okay. You write for the enjoyment of the process, just as some people act for fun, or play music just to share, or take their hammer-and-nails and go build someone else a house for the love of the thing. I'm looking at you, Jimmy Carter. (Just remember to hydrate.) The words 'amateur' and 'volunteer' are not pejorative. They don't mean 'not good'. They mean, 'I believe in what I'm doing so much, I'll do it when there's no money in it.'

Can you write volunteer stuff that's good? Sure, you can. Can you write volunteer stuff that helps others? Ask the thousands who voluntarily churn out church bulletins, club newsletters, round robins for organisations, etc, etc. They do it for love, and sometimes, they do it very well.

Can your social media involvement be a contribution to social betterment? Of course it can. But not if you see that computer space as an ersatz punching bag for you to take your frustrations out on. Or a free soapbox for you to tell the world about how you 'know better'. If, on the other hand, you remember that there are hurting people out there, and try to say an encouraging word here and there, you'll be a force for good on this planet. Even if nobody notices.

'Oh,' you say. 'I thought the purpose of writing was to become rich and famous and grow monumentally conceited.' I can't help you there. I'm sure there's somebody who will promise that. They usually charge a few thousand dollars for a weekend seminar.

Toni Morrison believed in the importance of the written word. A lot of people are quoting what she said, so I'll leave you with that.

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

1993 Nobel Lecture

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

26.08.19 Front Page

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