Of Writers and "Writers"
There have been ripples passing through the journaler community recently over the Jim Valvis piece on
why keeping a journal "doesn't work" (for the writer) "to improve his craft, become more productive, or add to his success in the trade". I don't read Dairy L and haven't seen the discussions that I understand this to have fomented, but two of the journals I read (with respect and interest) fretted a bit about their own writing and purpose when Valvis published his criticism. I applaud anyone who takes the writing craft seriously, although I don't think I much agree with his premise that writing a journal won't "improve your craft" or allow you to "become more productive", but this has to do, I suspect, with my own little corner where I practice my particular and somewhat narrower writing interests.
I get a kick out of the sound and clarity of a sentence and how they work together in the building of a paragraph. (And let's be clear. We're talking about a hobby here. Something I do in the evenings because I like it. I write and rewrite and don't rewrite enough and my progress is slow and my results are spotty, but I don't worry over the speed of things and whether or not I'll ever reach some plateau approaching excellence.) There's a whole world of writing I don't know about or attempt, the more traditional world where edifaces like chapters and books, short stories and essays, plays and salty expressions clutter the landscape. I don't find clarity all that easy when the rhythm is working or the rhythm all that easy when the clarity is right. So I practice in the evenings.
If my objective were to write short fiction or novels, then I suspect I might not write a journal, not because I couldn't learn the clarity and rhythm elements I'm pursuing (toward the development of a style), because I could, but because I wouldn't be learning and practicing the internal elements that must be mastered in the short story format or the more complex development inherent in the structure of a novel. If writing for you is only about short stories and novels, well then, maybe you should be working on your short stories and novels rather than your journal, because the journal just doesn't seem long enough with its 500 word format. Saki could do it, but he's dead and Vashtar isn't talking.
I write a journal and I take photographs. I got me a domain name and a Nikon camera. Am I a writer?
Some days I think I am and most days I don't. Sometimes I write a sentence or even a paragraph I like and that's good. I think maybe, if I keep at it, I might write more good sentences and paragraphs and that's good too. But whether or not journal writing or journalism or advertising or exhortations exhibited on a big blinking sign overlooking Times Square is "writing" or not, well, I don't know. A photography analogy might be better. Have I ever shot a photograph, a really good photograph worthy of the best professional standards comparable, perhaps, to a good sentence or paragraph? Yeah. I think so. Can I do that routinely? Can I make that kind of photograph happen on a regular basis and tie them together into an exhibition or a book, much like the writer of fiction might write a short story or a novel? No. Can I even consistently recognize the fact that I've taken a good photograph? No. (But I'm getting better.) Every now and then you get lucky, every now and then everybody gets lucky with a camera and takes a great photograph. Same with the writing. Every now and then it comes out gold and you think "hot shit" and then it doesn't come out gold anymore and you get hot and say "shit".
The people I knew who became "writers" became writers by writing a lot for a long time and then by writing a lot for a long time again. And again. And then they got published and wrote a book every year or so that earned them a living, some better than others. Some write good books and some write better books and that seems to be about the whole of it. Now whether they are writers or "writers" or whatever, well, I just sort of read what they've written and decide for myself. I'm just a sentence guy, working toward paragraphs.
Anyway, what started me off on this nonsense was reading Chuck Atkin's journal this morning over coffee at work. Read it. I suggest his challenge will one day be considered one of the mythic "Gunfight at the OK Corral" journal entries of our craft, something to be remembered and read and read again for some time to come. Chuck is pretty good at this sentence and paragraph business.