Sunday, July 26, 2015

On original writing

Good, original writing is difficult to come by. I think you know what I mean by "good".  Although the adjective is subjective, beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all, and sometimes, like a good wine, writing takes time to become good even if it is deemed dull and not worth a second glance at first pass by the critics, overall you get my meaning.

Original, on the other hand, may take some explaining.  Anyone can write something truly horrid and still be original.   By original I don't mean to say that it is completely foreign to the history of writing. Perhaps the first writings ever could be called somewhat original, but even in that case the thoughts themselves most likely were not. No, by original I mean the same thing a wine taster (wine appears to be an apropos analogy when it comes to writing) might mean when he notes a wine as being original.  How can it be?  Wine is simply grape juice fermented over time in a cask. Yet just the right mixture of various factors such as location, temperature, time, etc. make a mostly banal list of ingredients into something original and praiseworthy.  The same can be said of original writing.  An author takes in life experiences, including the writings of others, lets them ferment for a while in their "cask" and if everything is just right the outcome can be very original and refreshing.

I've read writings by others that have been more an anthology of other writers than original thought of their own.  The book is full of quotes and footnotes and although the arrangement and commentary can be interesting, the writing can hardly be said to be original unless the author completely misrepresents the people they are quoting (which happens surprisingly often these days). Clearly in the case of biographies and anthologies I doubt people are really looking for original thoughts.  They want to know the thoughts behind the character or characters being written about and not necessarily those of the biographer or compiler of the anthology.  But I'm not really talking about that here. And it is true that a bio (although I don't think I can say the same for anthologies) can be original of presented in a certain light.  But this is tricky and often times results in something original and false. However, I think it is clear that that is not what I am meaning when I use the word original.

In the case of original writing quotes can be good if, like spices on a good meal, they are used to enhance the flavor not change it.  However I suspect many times people quote others because they themselves have very little in the way of original thought themselves.  Or, perhaps, they feel compelled to include quotes because they are afraid their writings lack authenticity otherwise.  That somehow the critics and the reading public will not take them seriously unless they do so.  That they don't have the strength to stand on their own literary two feet.  And the may be correct in some sense. How often do I see a book written by a "nobody" endorsed by a number of nobodies.  The endorsements make no real difference and adds nothing to the work.  But publishers and writers alike know that by self-endorsing (i.e., getting someone else to toot your horn) they have a better chance of selling the book.  Note, I didn't say "read" but "sell".  Selling is, unfortunately, the end game for most publishers and not a few writers (I would snark here a bit by suggesting such are not real writers, but that's not the purpose of this post, so I'll shut up now on that matter).

When I read an original writing, no matter what media form it is in, I mean that it consists of the thoughts of this writer that are purely from their own mind.  Even if the base ingredients are not, these they write from have been processed, fermented, percolated, churned, mixed, dissembled and reassembled and have truly become their own.  They own these thoughts and now they are presenting them in their own unique setting.  They are fresh and their originality is refreshing.

These sorts of writings don't come along often.  One reason is that we miss them.  They may seem so odd and counter-cultural, so antithetical to our perception of reality, so anarchic to acceptable procedure, that we dismiss them out of hand.  Another reason is that people typically lack the patience to allow these thoughts to form.  It take time and effort to let all the ingredients do their thing inside of our heads.  Many writers are chomping at the bit to express their opinions to the whole wide world that they blurt it all out before the real work is done.  They vomit instead of digest (much like this post).

Original writing comes at a cost both to the writer and to the reader.  The writer must be ready to both allow the time necessary for the ingredients to coalesce into a final product for real consumption and the reader must be ready to take each work at face value and think outside the box for a little while.  Take each writing and set aside prejudices and preconceptions for a moment in order to hear the writer speak for himself or herself.   This doesn't mean you don't pick those things back up again or that you read completely devoid of a moral framework or personal-historic setting, but only that you give the writer a chance to speak without immediately being shot down as uninspiring and unoriginal (as critics are wont to do).

Perhaps I should rephrase what I said earlier about the rarity of original writing.  Perhaps it is best to say original writing is rare because it comes with a rather high price tag both for the writer and the reader.  I think I'll leave it at that.

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