photo by Alex Lear
THE MYTH OF SOLITUDE:
NO WRITER IS AN ISLAND
>>No writer is an island.<< No writer creates alone. Even those who withdraw from human contact — the Salingers and O’Toole’s of literature — are actually shaped by their social development, or more precisely, in the cases just cited, by their social deficiencies. No matter how technically brilliant such writers may be, unless under-girded by social exchange and observations thereon, their writing will not stand the ultimate test of greatness: is the work relevant across time and across cultures?
In order to achieve both linear (across generations) and lateral (across cultures) greatness, writers must be both immersed in a specific era/culture and conscious of that era’s relationship to other eras and other cultures. It is not enough to report on or even analyze the news of the day. The ultimate meanings of human existence transcend the specifics of any given moment.
In practice achieving greatness means moving beyond topicality, requires that we insightfully deal with how and why humans are shaped by social and environmental forces, and deal with how we respond to our specific shaping processes.
>>As writers, our goal is the expert use of words<< to convey ideas and information, emotions and experiences, dreams and visions. On the one hand we must study, and study hard, the development of our craft, but, on the other hand, we must never forget that craft without content is meaningless. Beyond the craft/content argument is the more important question of writing for whom? Who is our audience? Are we connected to others?
An audience is the single greatest determinant of the shape and relevance of one’s craft. How is this so? This is so because as writers our whole craft is based on communication and, quiet as it is too often kept, communication requires an audience.
Some of us insist that we write to please no one but ourselves. But does that mean we write for an audience of one? No, it does not. When we write only with ourselves in mind, we are implicitly trying to communicate with the social elements that shaped our being. Indeed, who does not want to be understood by their parents, their children, their siblings and peers? Besides, if we were writing literally only for ourselves as an audience of one, we would have no need to share our writing, no need to publish or recite our writings.
In the contemporary United States, “audience” has been collapsed into the concept of consumers, people who literally buy whatever is marketed. That is ultimately a very cynical approach to determining who is one’s audience. To write for and about a specific audience does not necessarily mean writing to sell to that audience. What it does mean is using the culture of the intended audience as the starting point (and hopefully an ending point) for our work.
Writing well in English presupposes that we deal with the history of English-language literature, a significant part of which includes use as a tool in the historic process of colonizing people of color. As able a craftsperson as Ralph Ellison was, craft is not what distinguishes “Invisible Man.” Rather, Ellison’s insightful handling of an investigation of the anti-humanist effects of exploitation and oppression on those who are victimized by a dominant and dominating society is the significance of that novel.
Ellison, understands at a depth few others have so thoroughly presented in the novel format, that both those who fight against their subjugation and those who are not even conscious of their condition are twisted by social forces. However, Ellison’s novel is not merely a political screed because Ellison is more concerned with the range of human responses to social conditions than he is with advocating a specific social order. Moreover, far more than many books that on the surface seem to be more political, Ellison’s novel is grounded in the cultural mores, the folklore, of mid-20th century African American life. Invisible Man can not be fully appreciated without an appreciation of Black culture.
A horrible truth is that too many of us are unprepared to write significant literature because we have no real appreciation of our audience as fellow human beings, as cultural creatures. We know neither history nor contemporary conditions. We talk about “keeping it real” but have no factual knowledge of reality. Thus, we glibly bandy generalizations, utter hip clichés as though they were timeless wisdom, and inevitably offer instant snapshots of the social facade as though they were in-depth investigations of the structure and nature of our social reality — in short, we lie and fantasize.
Moreover, unless we consciously deal with our conditions, we end up replicating our oppression in our literature. When we are poor we write admiringly of being rich — when we get some money, we write guiltily about poverty. What is this madness? This is the psychology of the oppressed captivated by their own oppression.
If this analysis sounds extreme, run the litmus test of examining works of popular literature and see if this is not the case. Look at the rap videos, notice the lifestyles portrayed. Look at the movies. At some point, we need to be aware that videos, movies, televisions, all of those media employ scripts — these scripts are our popular literature. The absence and/or low level of craft in popular literature, both in publishing and in electronic, broadcast and video mediums, points to one of our real problems — many of the people who are scripting for the media, can’t or don’t write well.
Moreover, I understand that the majority of scriptwriters for Black-oriented projects are not Black writers, however, the lack of Black writers in the dominant and dominating mainstream media underscores rather than invalidates my premise. A major part of our problem has nothing to do with craft and everything to do with consciousness — our consciousness and the consciousness of our fellow humans in the United States of America.
Our daily lives are shaped by our social conditions and the consciousness that emerges from those conditions. A significant percentage of writers who are craft conscious are also writers who are psychologically alienated from their own culture. Indeed, for the person of color, the act of acquiring education and expertise typically is also an act of alienation. It is unfortunately generally true that mainstream training in craft is simultaneously a directive to distance one’s self from the culture and consciousness of our Black communities. Explicitly, to become professional means to emulate the other and eschew the Black self, the working class self, and, for women, to an even greater degree than many may realize, becoming a professional also means eschewing the self-actualized female self.
Thus, it is no surprise that once we become professionals, we insist on the right to be seen as autonomous and self-defined individuals who desire to live beyond the restrictions of race, class and/or gender. Indeed, we are often proud as peacocks strutting around glorying in our individuality — look at the beauty of my butt feathers! We disdain groups, assert that organizations stifle our creativity. Meanwhile, people who are organized control the production and distribution of our creative work.
The status quo system loves those of us who think we can make it as individuals precisely because individuals are dependent on the status quo for life support. When you don’t have a community of friends and comrades, you end up going to your enemy for supper and shelter, both literally and metaphorically.
>>The challenge for conscious and self-identified writers is both external and internal.<< External to the individual, we must build community by working with and achieving an understanding of the people with whom we identify. Internally there is the individual quest to develop a craft that reflects and projects our individual feelings and ideas about ourselves as well as about the world we live in. This struggle for social and artistic development is not an abstract concern. In practical terms such development requires that we who identify ourselves as Black writers:
1. Study Black music and Black history.
Music because Black music is our mother tongue — the language through which the deepest and most honest emotions of our people have been expressed in the rawest and most “unmediated” manner. More than in any other sphere of social activity, African Americans have determined our own musical expressions and have communicated with the world through that form of expression.
History because if you don’t know yourself you will inevitably end up betraying yourself.
Is it possible to write without a working knowledge of Black music and history? Of course it is. Is it possible to produce great literature without such knowledge? Probably not, and certainly none that would be considered Black literature. Ultimately, all literature is a product of culture, whether that culture is one’s indigenous culture or an adopted culture.
2. Study the craft of writing.
One certainly would not claim to be a carpenter without learning how to build, nor a farmer and be unable to raise crops. Moreover, we also need to tackle the development of our own approaches and the development of a theoretical foundation.
During the Black Arts Movement, this process was called the Black aesthetic — the development of an aesthetic is still needed. Craft is the concrete manifestation of philosophical aesthetics. If we don’t consciously shape our own aesthetics, our craft will invariably and often in a contradictory and conflicted manner reflect someone else’s aesthetic, generally the aesthetics of the dominant social order.
3. Join with like-minded colleagues.
We should join writers associations, guilds, organizations, both formal and informal. Workshops are important in one’s formative years. As one develops, peer associations become extremely helpful both in terms of career development and in terms of craft development. We literally find out what’s going on by being in touch with others. We become inspired and get ideas from interacting with others.
The internet is a major source of community activity for young writers today. There are on-line workshops, resource web sites, informational web sites and specifically, a number of Black oriented literary web sites. A young writer who is not on-line is literally “out of it” — outside of the ebb and flow of ideas and information. With the advent of public access through libraries, arts organizations, schools, and relatively inexpensive commercial services, there is no excuse for not being on-line.
>>Writing is not just the words on the page.<< Writing is documentation of social praxis. There is both an art and a science to writing, a feeling and a thought.
Not only is no writer an island, it is up to each one of us to develop as social creatures (i.e. men and women) and as professionals. For our ancestors, for our selves, for our children and those yet unborn, let us as writers come together and create a literature that is as persistent and profound as our people who outlived centuries of chattel slavery, segregation and degradation, and who stand now on the verge of creating a new definition of what it means to be a free, proud and productive people.
—kalamu ya salaam