Creating Your Way
What I read: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on Writing on Your Own Terms by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Published January 14, 2022.
Writing advice abounds. Do a search online for books and articles about writing and it’s an onslaught of people telling writers how to write. Some of the material is quite helpful, such as Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Some of it is awful. Some of it is trite. But none of it gets at any inalienable truths about writing since no two writers think or write alike. Nor should they. Art should not be constrained by the opinions of others.
That said, the article by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on Literary Hub (a great site for readers and writers) landed on me with greater impact than most writing advice. Sycamore doesn’t so much offer advice as convey their own process, their own motivations, their own unique way of positioning writing as an art form not constrained by capitalist impulses.
I fully understand the irony of mentioning writing not constrained by capitalism while doing so on a platform on which some of my readers support my writing with paid subscriptions, a fact for which I’m incredibly grateful. We live in a world that requires us to pay the bills to keep a roof over our heads, the lights turned on, and food in our stomachs. But the carrot that dangles in front of so much of what we do in life is underpinned by the capitalist ethos that pervades our entire culture.
Eschewing that ethos is not easy. But perhaps the best art must do so to sing loudly with the artist’s true intent. This went through my mind as I toured a recent art show of Banksy’s work, again ironic in that he’s now a wealthy person from his work that started and remains anti-capitalism, anti-greed, and anti-injustice.
Sycamore is an interesting figure I’ve respected for a while. Their passionate involvement in LGBTQ activism is unquestionable. Even if someone disagrees with any of their stances over the years, one can’t reasonably claim there is anything propelling Sycamore’s honest view of their truth besides a dedication to how they see the common good.
As a long-time LGBTQ activist myself, I aligned at the time with Sycamore’s disagreement with the push for same-sex marriage. Not because I disagree that we queer folk deserve every single right and privilege extended to heterosexuals, but rather because at the time it felt like it was on some level buying into heteronormativity while turning our backs on the best of the liberation that queer culture has to offer. But same-sex marriage happened. I can see the obvious benefits because so many of our laws and policies are embedded in the marriage paradigm. I hope that changes someday, but for now I embrace that it benefits many who might otherwise see their civil, legal, and economic rights stripped from them were it not for the codified institution of marriage.
But the article is not about Sycamore’s politics. It’s about writing. It’s about how Sycamore sees the best of their writing occurring without the end goal of making money constantly looming above the blank page.
Every professional writer such as myself wants to make money through their writing. That’s why we’re professional writers. I’ve made money writing in the corporate world. I wrote books and many articles. I worked in the entertainment industry in studio script departments. I founded and owned a book publishing company. The written word in one form or another has paid my bills for many years. But writing for money can come at a cost.
Especially for writers whose work dances at the edge of societal norms, but for any writer really, the editorial and publishing gatekeepers to varying degrees always have the “but will it sell” mantra in their heads. Some in the publishing world approach their work with more altruism than others, but it’s nearly impossible to escape the reality that most publishers, magazines, newspapers, and websites want to make money or at least garner enough eyeballs to otherwise generate profits by their presence. That’s not likely to change anytime soon.
And this is still the problem—the gatekeepers, the publishing industry, the tyranny of the market, the branding of creativity, the myth of universality, however you phrase it.
Should a writer be in a position to do so, writing purely for the act of the writing itself offers tremendous benefits. My laptop is full of half-finished drafts, snippets of text, or entire unpublished works, all written at the time simply because I wanted to write them. Maybe some will see the light of a reading audience someday. Maybe some won’t. But writing as a discovery and creative process can be its own reward.
What Sycamore speaks to directly is writing without the market in mind, without that nagging thought in the back of our heads wondering if what we’re writing fits neatly into some predetermined and marketable category or “enhances our brand.”
It’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to literature than questions about audience. Then again, it’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to literature than literature…
Over and over again we are told that in order to make our work accessible, we have to speak to an imagined center where the terms are still basically straight, white, male, and Christian. When we write on our own terms, and by this I mean when we reject the gatekeepers who tell us we must diminish our work in order for it to matter, we may be kept out of the centers of power and attention, this is for sure. And yet, if writing is what keeps us alive—and I mean this literally—if writing is what allows us to dream, to engage with the world, to say everything that it feels like we cannot say, everything that makes us feel like we might die if we say it, and yet we say it, so we can go on living—if this is what writing means, then we need to write on our own terms, don’t we?
If you are a writer or find the thoughts of an esteemed working writer interesting, I recommend you read the entire piece. But it was a certain section that jumped out at me in a warm embrace of validation.
When I’m working on a new book, I just put everything in one document, with no intention of plot or structure, and I see what happens. Sometimes I do this for years, before I take a look at it as a whole. I want the form to emerge from the writing itself, and not the other way around. I don’t look at it as a whole until I sense that I have arrived somewhere, even if I don’t know where I’ve arrived I can sense that there’s a current in this text and now I need to guide it.
As I’m writing, I become interested in particular themes or subjects, certain cadences or explorations, obsessions or emotions, moments of brokenness or possibility, and I keep coming back to them. Maybe it’s the way the light looks on a building at a particular time of day, the terrible overpriced clothes in the window of a yoga boutique, or the search for connection in a world that refuses it. Maybe it’s language itself, the way it circles around to find its own embodiment. I want to be there for this whole process. Because I want to be here.
So it keeps growing, this text. Maybe I’m dancing, or I’m thinking about dancing but I don’t have enough energy, or I have enough energy but I don’t have anywhere to go. Maybe I’m writing about the trauma of everyday survival, the daily interactions that leave me feeling hollowed out, but also there’s that sudden moment on the street that might change everything, and how I’m always searching for that moment.
This is how I work. I dump words into a document. I do so on my laptop, on my phone, or perhaps scribbled on a napkin in a restaurant. Sometimes I write stream of consciousness. My daily walks are replete with me randomly tossing around words in my head. I rarely outline anything. I rarely predetermine plot in those rare instances I write fiction. My process mimics what Sycamore does and like a young child staring into the face of another child and giggling at seeing a person like themselves, I quietly cheer and hoot when I encounter writers who work like I do.
For years I tried to parrot other writer’s processes. It never stuck. I kept writing my own way. Sometimes I vomit forth words with barely a kernel of an idea as to why. Other times I write for hours with unswerving, focused dedication. Then there are times when I stare at the blank screen dumbfounded at my lack of creative spark. Often I write down a word or few just to capture a thought that will undoubtedly escape my brain unless I put it someplace for later reference and elaboration. It’s an odd process, somewhat chaotic, but it’s mine. I doubt I’ll ever change.
So, if you have a unique creative process, celebrate it. Whether you write, design buildings, knit, paint, create music, perform, code, organize communities, cook, produce events, or do any of the multitude of creative pursuits a person can undertake, revel in your own process. Sure, learn from others. See how they do things. Take bits of wisdom and knowledge where you can. But don’t try to be a copy of anyone else. Don’t create like someone else. Create as you. That’s where the golden ring of great art and self-satisfaction reside.
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