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Balance for the Writer

I find the phrase, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” works for so many things.

When a woman is wearing earrings too big for her neck to reasonably hold up. When I feel like giving my snarkier answer. When my 3-year-old decides she needs to stand up on the swings: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I’m afraid it’s becoming a pet phrase that’s going to show up in my writing if I’m not careful, like too many “looks” or “likes.”

John Updike made this plea to publishers about digitizing books. We didn’t know enough about this man (I’m predicting many more people are about to find this out). From a recent PW article: “Publishing scarcely needs glamour,” he said, “when it has at its command something better, beauty—the beauty of the book.” And “Books are intrinsic to our human identity.” I’m inclined to agree. Not to mention that copyright is effectively unenforceable online. The web doesn’t care and neither do browsers. Words are no longer controlled, packaged, and protected. But now, more than ever, it’s vital we don’t lose the ability to attribute ideas to their origins.

We don’t need to dismiss physical books and ownership entirely. We need to rebalance them with emerging markets.

This idea of balance is essential for writers. We don’t live in the present. We live in the past, largely of our experiences. We live some in the future too, but never the present. We’re forced to ignore it completely. Tune it out. Work to overcome it, block it, restrict its influence by every possible means, going to extreme lengths to ensure the present doesn’t impinge.

How do we maintain this, living in another time and place? By strength of will. We reassure ourselves that destroying the present is the greatest thing we can accomplish in this moment. Stealing it for stolen words. Escaping it, transcending it and reaching beyond to the future by anchoring the past. “He who neglects the present moment throws away all he has.” –Johann Friedrich von Schille. Yet our forfeit of our present lives is another’s liberation, whether the book is high literature or genre fiction.

Spending your days writing changes not only the perception of time, but adds a dose of satisfaction to successfully neglecting it. Throwing away all we have can sound deliciously enticing. There’s something in here about killing ourselves in order to live…

Dick Cavett’s recently rereleased discussion with Updike and Cheever from 1981 brought another idea about balance to mind. What makes a book “literature” as opposed to genre fiction? Updike wrote penetrating social commentary that expanded my understanding of empirical truths. But as we move further and further toward a world bent on disconnecting and escaping, I'm finding more novels have less in them. Genre fiction is a simpler sketch of life, a diluted mixture drawn from the richer substance of the real world—"great taste, less filling." Escaping into these books is delightful, relaxing, something like a good day at the beach or watching an old Fred Astaire movie. These books are important for that reason—as detox from full-strength life.

The other kind is harder to read. These books heat different passions, hatch stranger ideas, crack icy hearts, and break through made-up minds. Many require a certain agreement from the reader to believe in the larger aim, that the reward will be great if we can get there. When you forfeit lighter entertainment to engage the mind and heart in exploring themes more fully, the mystery is often more what will happen to you as a result of reading it, as opposed to what will happen in the story.

The spectrum between pure entertainment and pure "education" novels is broad and neither can exist without something of the other. We laugh when something is so true and put so well. And we learn when we’re not even trying. Laughter teaches too. I believe the goal is balance. “Those who make a distinction between education and entertainment don’t know the first thing about either.” (Google tells me this quote comes from distinguished sociologist Marshall McLuhan, whose great book The Medium Is the Massage is essential reading).

The point is writers must find who they are—and write from that. Don’t write to a trend unless it’s one of your passions. And don’t force yourself to write what you aren’t naturally inclined toward already. We’ve got to understand that writing what we know means first being who we are. And when it comes to writing,

“Just because you can…

6 Responses to “Balance for the Writer”

  1. Heather says:

    Two thoughts:
    First, this reminds me of a test I once took for our premarital counseling. The administrator, now an army chaplain, pulled at his crew-cut, hemming and hawing. “Remember it’s just a test. Sometimes they’re wrong. Don’t take it to heart.” Another pause. “Heather, it says you’re out of touch with reality.”
    Second, I wonder if the oncoming onslaught of ebooks will mean proportionately fewer literary novels or greater. Could this coddle a niche for those of us who want more? Or will the genre-lovers drown it out? Or perhaps it will grow at the same proportions.

  2. Tina says:

    This a great post, Mick. Thanks.

  3. I hope you are writing late at night.
    Your thoughts, the rare kind you revisit, mentally transcribe, underline, belong in the realm of Updike’s beauty — the kind with an artful spine.

  4. Mick,
    Always a pleasure, randomly opening your site and finding a treasure…
    Your posts never cease to inspire me to reach farther and be a somehow better version of myself.
    Thanks. Always thanks.

  5. Lenore Buth says:

    Balance. I find that a continuing challenge. As part of a smaller church I’m often asked to write this or that “you have such a way with words.”
    That’s joy for me. It seems the fitting way to repay the Giver and yet…
    I can’t remember who said it, but this quote says it all for me.
    “The good is the enemy of the best.”
    Now will someone please tell me which is the best?

  6. Patricia says:

    I’m enjoying reading your blog. I especially like the advice to “find who we are” and then to write from there.

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