It's only words... by Cally Phillips

‘Write because you have something to say, not because you want to say something.’ (F.Scott Fitzgerald.)

When I was Writer in Residence for DGAA this was the quotation I used most frequently to open the discussion regarding that perennial question:why write?It came back into my head recently as I was trying to find answers to our guest blogger’s post at the end of March. She raised a number of questions which I found worth revisiting. Not least of these was the power of words to confuse through their non-specificity. Wittgenstein said ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world,’ and while I’m not sure I wholeheartedly agree with Wittgenstein as regards his ‘private language’ argument (he argues there isn’t one) I do think it’s worth noting that the communicative act under discussion (writing) leaves much to be desired. People understand each other inadequately, people pre-judge or misinterpret each other’s statements and all that this proves is that communication is a difficult thing. As writers this has to concern us, because as words are our primary tool.

Is writing a communicative act? For me the answer to this is yes. For others it may be yes and/or no. I totally understand the concept and value of writing as therapy but in that case I think there is still a communicative act going on between the writer and the reader (even when they are one and the same) Reading something written down allows a kind of reflective stance.

This is an area which is of special interest to me at the moment as I am deep into writing a trilogy of novels which deal with the very nature of narrative: exploring narrative psychology and the way people ‘create’ each other’s lives and truths (in fiction and in life.)

One part of the trilogy exists, having started life as a 'blog' novel and progressed to paperback. The 'narrative' has already mutated or evolved through a number of stages and is currently being revised with the wacky (yet serious) intention that it will be possible to read it a number of ways -chronologically or episodically – in order to explore how one’s perceptions affect one’s understanding. But until ‘the whole’ (which is all three novels) is completed next year, you’ll have to remain in suspense, unless you want to become a BETA reader.. I’m looking for people willing to ‘try’ the various structural possibilities and give me their considered feedback… warning.. you will have to read ‘the same’ words twice.. but if you can see beyond this and understand it’s not the same ‘story’ twice, then get in touch and I’ll send you a digital copy.

I have a notebook and I’m not sure if this is just funny or extremely profound. It's certainly very orange and I'm deeply suspicious of anything orange. Otherwise I'd be Buddhist. I digress...

On one level it’s obvious. You think things. That’s your internal world. Your ‘self, if you will. You write things down and you have at least started to accept an external world beyond the self. (Even if you are Orwell's Winston Smith!) This might be either your own self as ‘critic’ or ‘recipient’ or a potential ‘other’ reader. Then you publish (however you do that) and you have to take the consequences. Is that what ‘publish and be damned’ really means? Is publishing inevitably a communicative act? It surely has to be. I can write for myself but as soon as I put my work out in the public domain, I’m doing it to engage with ‘the’ reader in some form.

I acknowledge that the ‘process’ of writing can be therapeutic, requiring neither a public end result or an obvious desire to communicate to others. Such creative therapeutic acts have much value. I myself used to want to sing. I learned to play guitar (badly). I spent many unhappy years because I couldn’t/wouldn’t / didn’t think I was good enough to perform in public. Because I mistakenly believed this was the point of playing music. Then I changed my attitude and took a ‘professional’ attitude to learning songs and playing; like practising regularly and learning more about writing music and lyrics. Result a) I got better and b) I started enjoying it in and of itself. But if I recorded myself and put it on YouTube I wouldn’t expect people to think of me as professional. I would, however,be changing from my own ‘therapeutic’ act to a ‘communicative’ one, and if I made an album

and released it for the world, I'd understand that I was doing this to get ‘an audience.’ Don’t worry, I strictly perform private, living room concerts, so you won’t be forced to listen. The dogs say I’m pretty good though.

I still have some sympathy with the ‘I’m not writing for the reader,’ stance our guest blogger stated. After all, one of my great writer heroines is Emily Bronte and she wrote primarily for herself. Although I’d argue that much of the Bronte’s writing from childhood on, was at least a communicative act between them as siblings – this is the premise of my first play We Wove A Web in Childhood. (20th anniversary edition to be epublished in 2013). I think there may be a confusion between 'reader' and 'marketplace.' for our guest blogger. I think I once had this problem. But I may simply have misunderstood her. (See, words are tricky communicative tools.)

At many points through my playwriting career/journey, I confess I used to say ‘I’m not writing for an audience.’ (Meaning, I think, I'm not writing for the market-driven, plush seat, middle-class 'audience' sector/profile.) It seldom drew a good response from directors. Or audiences. And I grew to realise that unless you are thinking about the communicative act between the play and the 'appropriate' audience, you don’t achieve much in conventional theatre. Audiences, like readers, are entitled to their ‘expectations’ whether you charge them or not. Even if they’re not paying, they’re giving you their time (a far more precious commodity than money I think) and they are entitled not to be sold short or let down. They may ‘feel’ let down, you can’t help that.. that’s why one adopts a ‘professional’ attitude to the creative communicative act. You do the best you can and then you let them make up their own minds. You cannot control the responses of others. You can’t MAKE people like you, or understand you in everyday life. Even less in the creative communicative act of writing.

My personal dissatisfaction led to a re-evaluation of my relationship with theatre and as a result, I actually moved towards more ‘processual’ drama (yes, there is a distinction between drama and theatre, but that’s for another time) and I have adopted an adapted Boalian style in the last ten years, where those ‘taking part’ are the communicative partners. But it’s still an act of communication. In fact, it’s been an extremely liberating communicative experience for many adults labelled with ‘learning disabilities’ which really means people with ‘communicative problems.’ (or non standard ways of communicating.) .

People who cannot read/write and have difficult expressing themselves communicatively have learned new skills and found new joys in communicating. As have I. My most enjoyable creative and communicative experiences have been played out in this arena. I’ve also learned a lot about communication and taking ‘others’ into account in the creative process. I’ve learned about myself and about other people and I like to think, something of the nature of creative communication as a power for good. Still, with this group if/when we/they ‘perform’ to an audience we explain the unusual process we adopt, reassure in what we are doing and why. Otherwise the audience might be confused because this is not what they are used to. You have to manage expectations in communicative acts. I am no longer a 'professional' playwright, in that I don't write plays for conventional theatre. I still use my playwriting skills to write plays though - I might be defined as a 'drama professional' or a writer of non conventional drama.... or.... the list may be endless.

A loose definition of the word ‘professional’ can cause problems. What defines a professional? A confusion that often arises here is that between a definition of professional as in ‘making money from doing a job’ – in our case writing/publishing – or having a ‘professional’ attitude. Having the second is not a necessary or sufficient condition for the first. And vice versa. A professional writer, in my opinion, is one who works in (as in actively engages with) ‘the industry’ or ‘the business’. I was a professional screenwriter for over 10 years. I no longer consider myself a ‘professional’ screenwriter, because I don’t actively engage in that business (attending meetings, making pitches, getting depressed about the lack of opportunities and the like). If I wrote a screenplay now, it would be of professional standard (once I rehoned my skills) but unless I re-engaged with the ‘business’ I would have no right to call myself a working, professional screenwriter. Money is another issue. I certainly have never enjoyed writing for money as much as I have writing purely as a communicative act. That’s because when others have an investment in what you write, they have effectively ‘bought’ the right to change things, or at least question things. It’s at least partially a financial transaction. One can be ‘professional’ in terms of standards without engaging in the money side of things (most writers make so little money this is just as well) but to be ‘a’ professional writer implies that you are engaged in a ‘deal’ of some sort with others. If you agree to play in a game, you have to accept the rules of the game. There’s football, there’s rugby football (league and union) and Aussie Rules and American football.. they stem from the same root but they each have unique rules that are only relevant to the game. The sports of Shinty and Hurling come together from time to time but Shinty-Hurling is a hybrid which adopts a set of rules specifically for the occasion and is thus a ‘game’ in its own right [okay, enough sporting analogy]

(because there's not enough dogs in this post)

For me, epublishing offers a ‘new’ version of an old game. (Actually just a new platform for an already established old game.. we might call it WRITER RULES publishing.) It allows writers to take the means of production into their own hands and become publishers. But make no mistake, if you are a publisher, self or otherwise you need to adopt a ‘professional’ attitude and when you make the communicative act known as publishing, you have to acknowledge there are some expectations on the part of the ‘other’ party (the reader). For me, the definition of ‘vanity’ publisher, is someone who publishes solely for themselves. There is no shame in the self, but as we all know, vanity is a sin (both secular and religious). I would defend anyone's right to write ‘for themselves’, there’s no such thing as a ‘vanity writer’ but when you publish, you do take on a responsibility to manage expectations of someone other than yourself.


Lee said…
There are types of transactions other than financial - or implied financial - ones. Think of a gift as opposed to a barter/market economy.

When I first began to publish, I promised myself that I'd always make my writing available in some form for free. This frees me to be thoroughly aprofessional.

Despite my guest post - and yes, I reserve the right to contradict myself or change my mind! - I'm actually rather uninterested in questions of taxonomy i.e. professional vs. nonprofessional, genre vs. mainstream etc.
Hence 'aprofessional'.

In this way, readers are free to love or hate my writing, to read it or not; to be utterly indifferent to it. They are perfectly able to look after themselves. They are not my responsibility.
Susan Price said…
Cally - I'm impressed! And I love 'Writer Rules Publishing'!

Lee, I think - if I've understood - that Cally is arguing that you can be 'aprofessional' as regards money, but not as regards the 'writing game', not once you allow others to read what you've written anyway.

If you accept money for your writing, then you also have to accept that the piper calls the tune, and can demand that you make changes. By refusing to accept money you can be aprofessional in this sense. You are free to write as you please.

However, once you allow others to read what you've written, you're taking part in a whole other - and very ancient game - and you have tacitly accepted the rules of that game. It's called Storytelling, and goes back to the caves. You may tell your story how you like, in all kinds of novel and inventive ways - but the rules of this game say that you will engage your audience's attention and interest. And the 'professional standard' here implies that you will learn and practice how to do that. It doesn't mean that you only have to give your audience what they're used to, or that you can't challenge or even offend them - but it does mean that you have to engage them. And, in that sense, every writer who 'publishes' their work, however they do it, should have that professional standard and play by Writer's Rules.
If you don't, you will quickly lose your audience. If you don't care a jot about that audience, don't care whether they're bored or not, then don't publish. Keep your writing private and use it as the valuable therapeutic tool it is, use it to communicate with your audience of one, yourself.

This, if I've understood correcly, is what Cally is saying - once you publish, however you publish, you have to play the storyteller-audience game. which means adopting those 'professional standards' - which in turn means agreeing to honour the rules of the game by engaging the audience's interest.
Lee said…
Susan, Cally's arguments are pretty standard - I've heard them a kwakabazillion times. (And they leave out all the juicy bits of literary and cultural theory from the past, I don't know, or 60 or 70 years.) Good writing will automatically engage some reader, somewhere on earth, whether it's all about stretching language or creating complex characters or painting a big sociopolitical canvas. If I do engage a reader, that's fine. But if I don't, that's fine too. It's simply something I don't think about.

I think about the words, their patterns and sounds, (quite a lot of music in there), the people who come to live in my head, the architecture of a particular piece etc. Writing is heaps more than storytelling! What happens afterwards to readers is up to readers: they rewrite the story anyway, each and every one of them. I can't begin to secondguess their experiences and wishes and expectations. Some may emphasise the commonality of it all; I see the uniqueness.

Writers who focus on reader expectations tend to produce rather conventional work.
Lee said…
Susan, now I'm wondering if I've really understood your comment. Do you mean that engaging audience interest is the baseline for measuring professionalism? If so, just how many readers consitute an audience?
Susan Price said…
One other person or listener constitutes an audience.

And when you say you think about the words, the patterns, the sounds etc - well, I took that for granted. But when you do that, you're making a judgement: do these sounds work with the sense? Do they accurately convey my meaning and feelings, or those of the character? - And when you do this, you are considering an audience, even if it's only yourself at a later date. More likely you're considering either one other individual, or several, even if you never want or intend to entertain thousands. However select your audience, you are entering into a pact with them: that you will engage their interest and make some kind of sense, even if they have to think hard about it.
'Professionalism' seems to be a word we are arguing endlessly about. For me it means something like, taking a pride in what I do, trying to do it to the best of my ability, having a respect for my audience - however many people that may be.
Lee said…
Susan, I find myself agreeing with much that you say: I certainly do want to make sense. Even if it's my own kind of nonsense...

As to pacts, well, I suppose I have entered into a pact to interest myself in what I'm writing. Otherwise, I wouldn't write it. For me writing is like an elaborate chess game in five dimensions, the fifth being aesthetic. My engagement is with other writing, not with readers, though in a sense I suppose you could say that I'm then engaging with readers at second or third remove.
Rosalie Warren said…
Cally, I love the sound of your trilogy. To my mind, this bending/breaking of the temporal and spatial constraints inherent in traditional books is one of the amazing consequences of ebooks. I'd like to know more.
julia jones said…
I like the fact that below Cally's post comes Sheridan's 'What's in a name?' Let's call it 'what's in a word' instead, because words are wise things. They are the repository of the thoughts and feelings of all the people who have used them with sincerity. And in a shared language you can't get away from the roots of words - vanity has the root meaning of emptiness. Vanity publishing is making public something which is essentially worthless. The decision to publish something is a decision to spread something around, to make it public. It must be a responsible decision - in the sense of answerable. If you publish you are looking for a response. Of course this is a communicative act: you are saying, give me a little of your time and attention and I will have done my best to give you something that is a fair exchange for the time and effort you have expended. The best test of a book (or play etc etc) is when, at the end you say "so what?" And you can answer so ... something.
Dan Holloway said…
First - I love Waldo Pancake goodies!

Second, there are some very important points here. I struggle with Wittgenstein because I think he sows the seed for the "death of the author" threads that we see running rampant through much contemporary criticism. I think my main problem, though, is with a reading of him such as Sue gives (meant as an invitation to discussion rather than a beratement!) - the noption that to engage in the language game of the "author" is to take on the rules of that game vis a vis its other participants. I think that's too static, and ignores the fact that the language game is actually constituted in its enactment and that readers are every bit as bound up in it as writers and that we are wrong therefore to place burdens on authors if we are not prepared to place them as much on readers.

But that's more about what Wittgenstein is trying to say. My main problems are twofold: I think he epitomises boxed-in thinking. I really really struggle with the idea that as a writer we should commit ourselves to "professional standards". That seems to me to be profoundly wrong. We should commit ourselves to what we have to say and nothing else. In 99.9% of cases, those standards that have come to be seen as signs of professionalism - proofreading, spelling, grammar through to showing not telling etc etc will serve that end, but we must never forget that we use them because they serve that end and that our duty to the truth we have to tell comes first.

Which is my second problem with writing as communication, which is something I have a lot of time for. Only, I think we communicate best when we forget that we have an audience and become absolutely introspective - it's only by focusing totally on reaching inwards to our very personal truth that we avoid the fake constructs that can get in the way of it when we actively try to find common ground by some means or other that isn't quite the whole truth (myths about common ground with readers that fit some aspects of our commonality and not others for example). And that's back to the Problem With Wittgenstein. His language is too passive. There's never an opening gambit. And that's very deeply not my experience of how language games work - there *is* a creative act, an opening move, made by a writer who has looked into themselves (yes, that self-reflection is actually a reflection of their wider experience, but not consciously so) and placed the cards of their truth on the table. And it has been up to me as reader to respond.
julia jones said…
I have a small personal dislike for the word 'professional' as it is too often used to pull rank and belittle oters. It's a self-reflective word referring to standards as defined by a particular group, be they editors or social workers. We all agree that high standards are essential to our self respect as well as good manners to our readers and we are allowing ourselves the right to define these personally as well as by external rules. So I think I'll just re-iterate my support for the word 'amateur', too often dismissed as the opposite of 'professional'. An amateur is some one who is doing whatever it is they are doing because they LOVE it. And will therefore, one expects, do it to the utmost of their ability and the highest standards possible.

(I'm probably saying all this to get awau from the fact that I haven't read Wittengenstein!)

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

The Splendid Rage of Harlan Ellison - Umberto Tosi

A Glittering Gem of Black, Gothic Humour: Griselda Heppel is intrigued by O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee