What Poets & Writers Magazine Taught Me About Writing Today

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I recently concluded reading my first issue of Poets & Writers magazine (the March/April 2017 issue). As I let the last page fall shut, I paused in reflection, struck by a great many things about the publication and my experience reading it, some good and some bad. On the exceptionally positive side, reading anecdotes by successful authors about their daily writing habits reaffirmed to me the importance of writing consistently, no matter the fruits of that labor. These writings could be fragmentary thoughts joined together in association only by the shakiness of one’s penmanship after a tall cup of coffee, or exercises that seek to broaden style, or any other wild ruminations that should surface to the mind during the writing…

On the other side of the page, however, lay the dark underbelly of the writing world. Poets & Writers seeks to portray itself as an invaluable resource for writers at all stages, and indeed it possess kernels of wisdom within its pages. However, by indulging in expounding upon the business side of this very creative pursuit, they deflect the emphasis on well-crafted story— writing what you wish to read—onto writing what people will buy or Google—namely, what is perceived to become popular. Two features in particular stood out in my mind as manifestations of facets of this re-prioritization.

The first feature of note in the publication was an analysis of a submission accepted to a writing residency (performed by the co-director of that residency). It revealed deep insight into the state of quality standards and supported the widely evidenced truth of the sentiment that one merely needs declare oneself expert to be deemed so by society-at-large.

A character walking through a door into a shop, written about in unremarkable prose suddenly becomes a grand literary device, a first sentence worthy of note, using language with a sense of “actual physical motion that pulls us along and also with deft scene-setting that triggers the senses” (PW pg. 78).

“George pulled the inner door and entered what felt like a grown-up candy store, except for the fruity, woody smell of skunk.”  (PW pg. 79)

The act of pulling open a door is hardly remarkable, an action not helped a whit by the use of such equally unremarkable language. Perhaps the sentence might have been more striking if instead George had catapulted himself through the door, tripping on a crack in the sidewalk, hoping no one inside noticed his lack of grace. 

Though, far be it from me to judge a work of art, something that is so inherently subjective. I too arguably lack the ostensible credentials which would allow myself to perform, in the eyes of my critics, any sort of meaningful critique of literature and the wider society. However, what I do wish readers to appreciate is the necessity of viewing works presented with a critical eye. Please do not mistake my intention. It is unnecessary to tear down every piece of writing, photograph, or painted canvas one comes across declaring it unfit for public eyes, the work of an imbecile. This is hardly constructive practice. Instead, it is more important to approach a work (or an analysis of a work) from a position of questioning, rather than blind acceptance. To what end was the work created? In what context? What reaction does it produce, and what was its intended reaction? Just because an arbitrarily distinguished tastemaker declares something to be good does not unequivocally ensure the truth of that declaration. Challenge the tastemakers through informed and engaged discourse and with artworks that fall outside the realm of popular understanding.

The second feature provided an analysis of a self-published memoir featuring the words of the author of the work, a consultant and book coach (what do book coaches do?), and a publicist. I understand the necessity for intelligent and streamlined marketing practices, especially in the realm of self-publishing (truly, I could surely benefit from effective marketing practices on this blog), but the presentation of these practices, elevated above any concern for content or construction of the book itself, seemed in need of adjustment. The publicist’s suggestion to change the book title to incorporate easily searchable keywords seemed to relegate the book itself to a state of little value beyond its marketing presence.

I too seek external self-validation. Why else would I have a blog? However, an artwork suffers if it is approached from a place of self-aggrandizement written only with the intent of securing its author fame and fortune. Surely this memoirist wrote her story from a place of self-expression and deep emotion. Reducing that work to a handful of SEO keywords is an affront to the idea of art for the sake of self-expression. Can we not be satisfied creating something, content in the idea that it was made from a place of truth? It is a natural desire for outsiders to appreciate your work, but what good is external appreciation if you, the creator, are not capable of appreciating it yourself?

After reading this first issue, I am excited to continue my relationship with Poets & Writers.

I feel that I will learn more about writing than I previously imagined…

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