Remembering who we are

Reviewing additions to the “literary failure memoir” genre in the 3/25/13 New Yorker, Giles Harvey concludes that the authors are making an inordinate fuss over their failure to succeed at a career in which success is unlikely (since the career barely any longer exists), and that some are such poor writers they don’t deserve to succeed. Redemption, even learning, seems to be lacking.
Doubtless some will read my previous post (“Good writing done me in”) as an apology for poor writing skills, a dismissal of knowledge and craft in the service of letting it all hang out, and terrible advice to school kids who need to learn the best possible communication skills.
Not so. I’m arguing that it’s useful to match degree of craft to purpose in writing. When I gave up fiction for journalism in the early 60s, a lot of people castigated me for selling out. (I castigated myself.) But I needed to eat (and wanted to drink, oh yes). Some of the best writing I ever did was reporting for the Sunday magazines, helped enormously by the scrupulous writing skills I’d taught myself for fiction. (It must be hard for today’s North American writers in all genres to believe that my fiction and journalism usually went straight to the printer with not a comma changed or a fact checked, even with a lead time of six weeks: editors had learned to trust me (but my sentences were simpler then–my 16-year-old self would have been horrified at the idea of parens within parens).) It was unthinking prejudice that led some to assume attempting to write fiction was always a more worthwhile pursuit than making a career in journalism. I’m not sure many would make that mistake these days. (Though you’d be surprised how some envy me for having novels published when they never pick up a novel and know nobody who ever reads novels.)
Expertise in basic skills is useful for any writer, and essential for the wretch on fire with a passion for writing. Nothing will stop the truly passionate from learning what they need to learn. But every kid in any class might learn to value any attempt they make at writing for the gifts it might bring, some unknowable at the time of writing: I think every kid through every stage of development, however clumsy the attempts at writing, should save every word in a time capsule to open periodically through life to help him understand where he came from and who he is.
We forget who we were, especially who we were when we were very young. I had no memory until I read Aubade thirty years after I wrote it of how angry I was as an adolescent. I had no idea when I wrote Aubade and my headmaster banned it that one day teachers would recommend it to their students as the “ultimate gay young adult novel” (because it was written by a young gay adult). We can never know how valuable our words, however clumsily shaped, may one day be to us, or even to others.

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