Money? Fame? Glory? On the “Whys” of Writing

“4 O’Clock Sun” © J.A. Carter-Winward photography

Someone asked me the other day why I write.

“Is it therapeutic?” she asked.

I tried to not allow my disdain and revulsion show.

Yes, writing can be therapeutic, but when you are a professional writer, there is a difference between turning something painful or difficult into universal resonance, and opening your tatty raincoat to show people the uglies of your life.

It’s one thing to write about your childhood trauma, for example, as long as the subtext is absent the whining refrain of, “Poor me, aren’t *I* a sad tale? Feel sorry for me. Victim, victim, victim…” and then conversely, “But look how awesome and strong I am now!” Or worse, “Ouchie, it still hurts. Group hug?” Ugh.

Here is a poem I wrote about my past.


my therapist asked me why i wasn’t angry.
i told him i can’t be angry at dead people.

my parents are dead,
what harm can they do?

what harm have they done, he asked.
then i thought about getting angry.

but i can’t be angry at dead people.

there’s no way
they can say, “ i’m sorry,”

and there’s no way
i can say, “me too.”

Notice the lack of detail, but the very obvious hint at conflict, pain and dysfunction w/r/t the relationship with my parents. There is no “poor me, my mommy and daddy were mean to me.” There is no tidy ending, wrapped in a neat, red bow, tying all of the complexity into a lovely package of didactic sentimentality. The levels and nuances are multi-faceted, yet the language is simple, straight-forward; the piece itself, brief.

It allows the reader the dignity of deciding for him or herself how the poem reflects in their own lives and experience, as they wonder about the reflection and impact on my life. I treat my readers as if they are intelligent grow-ups, capable of coming to their own conclusions.

There are many categories of “bad writing,” but one of my least favorite is writing that is self-indulgent. The writers who pray to the gods of Ginsberg and the word-salad writings of many greats who followed Ginsberg’s axiom before he coined it: “first thought, best thought,” thinking that meant no editing, no censoring, no changing, just…flow. And whatever comes out is perfect if you are in flow.

Some writers have gotten away with it because they can — they are that good. They break every writing rule, and it works for them — because they are that good. Not everyone can do it. As a matter of fact, few writers can get away with it. Hemingway, Butler, Wallace, Faulkner, Joyce — yes. They can, and did. I read the lament of one writing professor, bemoaning the release of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and the many papers and writings following up its success — papers attempting to adopt Wallace’s voice, style and techniques. The instructor cringed with every pale attempt.

Some writers keep a Thesaurus nearby (not online, that would be crass; they have near them the well-worn copy they got in high school, with its markings, warped pages, feathery soft with time) and use $25-words whenever they can. They employ metaphors that are nonsensical because they believe the more obscure and dissonant the lines, the better the poem. Who told them poetry needed to be inaccessible to be good?

I do poetry content editing on the side, and not every editor and writer are a good fit. One writer sent me a sample poem to see if I would edit his collection he planned to self-publish.

Here is a sample of the type of writing he sent:

“joining the stars in their dancing/ scree of amelioration/ascending into an exclusive shower/ of universality.”

Line after line of nonsense, and after reading, I knew we were not a good fit. Why? Those four lines alone would require at least three or more paragraphs to convey how and why they don’t work within the greater scale of writing as a whole, not just the poem itself.

When I edit, I always explain why something works and why it does not, so the writer understands the principle behind the whys and why nots. I make clear what is my opinion, and what is accepted or unaccepted “craft.” In other words, his poetry book would take way too long for me to edit simply because of the nature of his writing. It would not be worth my time.

Additionally, and as crude as it sounds, many writers write simply to verbally masturbate and allow their spunk to splatter on the page for their own enjoyment. Usually, when met with a critical eye, these types of writers fire editor after editor until they finally decide no one “gets them,” they are “ahead of their time,” and so they self-publish, in hopes of finding an audience who “appreciates them.”

I usually tell all of these types of writers that we are not a good fit, and give them a word of encouragement, and an “off you go, then.”

This morning I read a great article by Linda Caroll, a writer here on Medium, who writes for a publication called “100 Naked Words.” I enjoy her articles: brief, to the point, informative, and frankly, her writing voice is friendly, accessible. I like her.

I read her piece entitled, “Do You Write for Money or Attention?” I laughed to myself at the title. Anyone who becomes a writer for money OR attention is indeed naive, to say the least. But her article made me think of the reasons I write, reasons I just recently penned for an up-coming poetry collection.

As I organize and choose poems for the book, I thought addressing that question, “why do you write” would be an appropriate foreword. The reason is because the book is filled with poems that address, on many levels, suffering. Sound cheery? Eh, probably not. But redemptive? Oh yes. Which is why people watched the film, Schindler’s List. They knew how brutal it was, but they knew there was purpose, a sort of… human necessity in being witness to the brutality, and ultimately, the redemption.

So here is my foreword, and ultimately, why I write. I hope you enjoy. Thanks to Linda, for her inspiring words, today and always. Peace to you all.

Unless you live in a vacuum, you must know suffering lurks and hovers everywhere, and over every one and thing.

It’s so easy to go in when you suffer. I go in. But I also go out, out in a way that is like magical hands, reaching, trying to touch the aching in the hearts of my fellow travelers, to salve their suffering with my words.

I can’t take my own blood and smear it on theirs to comfort them. I can’t take my tears and allow them to fall on their heads to heal them. I can’t present my own suffering like a package, gift-wrapped in shared experience, and expect communion.

So, I take the blood, the excrement, the piss, the vomit, the pus, and all the poisonous effluvia of pain, and I pour it into a vat, like an alchemist. And then I pray over it. I shake my rattle. I sing, oh, holy, oh, holy, holy, holy, and I dance as my tears and blood drip to the floor.

I bless, sanctify, and weave a magic spell of sounds on the bubbling, writhing mass within the cauldron. I allow my hands to hover over it, breathing it in. Then I thrust my hands in, fingers splayed, up to my elbows, as my mouth and nose inhale the vapor. I let fire under the vat meld the sordid experience of being human into a cohesive brew.

When the fires have done their work, I let the creation sit outside, all night, at the foot of a sacred glacier, one that has been standing guard over Mother Earth since Time and Life slithered into existence.

What is left at the end of my ritual is my humanity. Our humanity.

And it is good.

Growing up, I urged both of my daughters to take their pain and transform it. Take what is ugly, and make it beautiful, using their words. Take what is painful and make it a healing balm, using words. Not just healing themselves, but healing others. The All. And then, use color and shape. Transform it externally, and it will transform within.

My oldest is a poet and writer. My youngest paints. They are healers, alchemists, like me.

When asked if I write because it is “therapeutic for me,” I always say, no, it isn’t for me.

I write to transform the dark into light. I write to cast a light, however brief, into that which must be, and will always remain, dark. I write to darken brightness that is too bright; acerbic beams so fiery, they blind.

I write because a shaman, an alchemist, a witch, a magician — artists: we are the keepers of holy secrets. We are shown what other humans cannot see. We are charged with helping them find themselves within the eternities, within the history of this planet. We are charged with shaping and telling stories of the human spirit and its unlimited capacity for joy and suffering. We write to hold mirrors up to the eyes of the world, so it can see the reflection within.

We pray, intone, rattle and dance — write, paint, capture, weave and sing, to show us ourselves, in each other. To remind us that we were born from a womb, covered in the most vile secretions of our biological selves, but that our work is and can be the warm water that gives sway to pink, florid skin; brand new, wonder-filled eyes, and a tiny hand, grasping a finger, the beginnings of miracles, pulled out within an inglorious, yet universal shriek of pain, joy, ecstasy and darkness.

That, and this.

This, that — both, is

why I write.

— J.A. Carter-Winward

February 27, 2017

J.A. Carter-Winward: award-winning poet, novelist, artist. Follow her here and her writing blog: Writing in Blood

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