While following a symphony orchestra labor dispute recently, I was reminded of the public’s perception of professional orchestral musicians, i.e. these people don’t work hard or fulltime. Wrong! It’s the same thing with writers although with professional writers, the professional tends to go in quotes and work is actually hobby. Makes my blood boil.
It doesn’t help that getting paid for one’s art is so difficult. If I were to have gone into journalism and written as a journalist, there’d be no question that my writing was worth my salary. But a novel? Short stories? Just how much work goes into creating fiction? I’ve written before about creative writing as a job and what the job description would look like. There’s a lot more that goes into the work than people know or even think about. It’s not a matter of simply sitting at a desk and putting words to paper (or computer screen), although that’s part of it. I can safely say that I’m working at my writing all the time, even when I’m at my part-time job. Writing requires thought. It requires inviting the imagination to come out to play. Writing requires the study of language and vocabulary. And it requires a dedication and determination most fulltime jobs don’t require.
For example, I listened earlier today to a video of a composer and a writer talking about an oratorio that they had created together. At one point, the writer talked about writing one section while he was driving his car on a short trip. He wrote down the words as he drove. That writer, although he was traveling to do something else, was working on the oratorio as he drove. I tend to do some of my best writing in the shower or walking outdoors.
Writers need to keep their imaginations in shape, stimulating them in whatever way works for them. For me, I read voraciously, attend theater, movies, and listen to classical music. I indulge my curiosity often. I also pay attention. Let me repeat that: I pay attention. What does that mean? It means to be in the world, in the moment, and open to all that is surrounding me. I do not commute to my job with earphones in my ears and my head bent over a smartphone. I listen to the voices around me (often one side of a phone conversation) and how they use language or look out the window at the landscape, or I read with ears always listening. I laugh out loud every time I encounter someone on the street who’s bent over a smartphone, furiously texting, oblivious to where he or she is walking. Oblivious to the physical surroundings, to Nature, to other people who are present, in person, in front of them. Be observant. How can you write about something without knowing it? Observe human behavior. Listen to the way people speak. Observe human bodies and the way they move, unique to individuals. Observe and research. Leave no stone unturned, as they say.
This is the work of writers. Living as well as observing life. And then writers take the tools of their profession — language, pen, ink and paper — and draw from their extensive pool of raw material from all that observation, research, and paying attention to compose stories. It is beyond a fulltime job. If a writer slouches off, the writing and the stories suffer. It’s not easy. Most people just don’t have what it takes to do it. They write a family history or a couple short stories or poems for themselves and a small group of family and friends. But they are not committed to it.
How are writers like professional orchestra musicians, then? Well, people who don’t know think that musicians only work during rehearsals and concerts, like they think writers only work when they sit at their desks. Maybe an hour or two of practice. But that’s it. The reality is that musicians, like writers, work nearly all the time — they must practice at least 4 hours a day to stay in shape technically and to learn new pieces of music or relearn old. This work is in addition to rehearsals and concerts. The orchestra musicians who also teach add another layer to their music work.
I sometimes rage against a society that does not value its artists or what they produce. It’s fine if you’re a Stephen King or Jackie Collins because you make millions and have proven that you’re a writer. And that’s what capitalism does to art which is another blog post entirely. Let me end with the words that writer I mentioned earlier wrote while driving his car, and that were set to music by the composer:
Hymn to the Eternal Flame
Every face is in you,
Every sorrow in you,
Every love, every memory,
Woven into fire.
Every breath is in you,
Every longing in you,
Every hope, every healing,
Woven into fire.
Every heart is in you,
Every trembling in you,
Every soul, every shining,
Woven into fire.
–Michael Dennis Browne