Producing Words

At my core, I am a writer. That is my art, my talent, the one thing about me that I seem to have some natural creativity in. I am glad to have it; I don’t have another one like it. Some people are naturally creative in virtually any medium — they can sing, dance, draw, paint, act, etc. — and it appears effortless. I know better. I know “natural” talent is not enough and that without work — and lots of it — that talent, that creativity, that art is never fully realized. However, for most of my life I’ve envied those who are able to create those things that I could not. I have envied their ability to create works that are beautiful, compelling, thought-provoking, timeless and enduring. I sort of knew I could communicate well through the written word ever since I was a kid, but I never appreciated it and, until much, much later, I never honed that talent.

Wm Spear Designs

Thankfully, that is no longer true. I am conscious that I am, in fact, creative in some way — in my way. I appreciate it and I work at it — a lot. My output has ebbed and flowed over the past few years, but I write constantly, regularly and… painfully. Grabbing my palette of words and punctuation, placing them just so on a blank canvas and being happy with what I paint happens, but the process is arduous. It is never easy. And no matter how good it is, I am my worst critic — it could always be better. And, in rereading much of what I’ve written in the past, some of it wasn’t ever good to begin with. Such is the angst of art.

With the possible exception of the news stories I wrote while a journalist, the essays that populate my blog represent the bulk of my published work. The other significant difference between those two outlets is that I don’t get paid for this stuff. My news stories all had a price tag of one kind or another — either as part of my salary or piecemeal as a freelancer. And the writing was, of course, much different. While journalism does have an artistic element, it is also confined by many rules that limit its creativity. This writing has no such bounds. I don’t do it for money, I have no ads or other monetization on my website/blog. But I think about it sometimes… maybe I should.

I have conflicting beliefs regarding art and its production. On the one hand, I place a lot of weight on the notion of “art for art’s sake.” Artists produce because they are compelled to create, to make a statement that has all of the above-named qualities. Taken to an even deeper level, in theory, it is not produced with any audience in mind, it does not require or want for any attention or accolades. It just is. On the other hand, that’s all bullshit. We are doing it for more than just some utopian “purity.” That is not to say there are no elements of that pure essence present, but I write to be read — even if I am the only reader (I read more own stuff all the time, I always get new insight from it). To be recognized with real, tangible, compensation is even better.

I hear people talk about writing their future books as a means to an end, and that end is money. That is the primary motivating force. Yes, they might have a story to tell, a interest to promote or an idea to develop, but when I hear their plan (and, since I am a writer, the aspiring writers in my extended circle always want to tell me about it) I often hear dollar signs. And, really, who knows what will sell? There is no shortage of good ideas out there and it is also true that bad ideas can be very lucrative. But if money was my primary motivation, I would have already written that book and retired by now. There has to be something more, something other than just money. The fact that I write so much for no money makes this painfully clear.

I have written enough in my blog to compile two or three books of essay collections. My father once suggested I do that. I began the process, but it, like the other two books I have in the works, is currently sitting on the proverbial back burner. I always intend to get back to them. In fact, this very essay is a step in that direction. I’d love to get paid for my words, I’d love even more for people to read and enjoy them. However, that is not what produces them. What produces them comes from somewhere else. It is painful. It is hard. It is compelling. It also, apparently, does not require any monetary compensation. I write them anyway.

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Michael Althouse

Lecturer/professor of communication studies at California State University, Sacramento. www.michaelalthouse.com