Writers, Right?

One of my friends is looking for ways to support local writers. For six or seven years she has hosted a monthly salon, at which local writers are free to read aloud from their work — but the building where the salon meets is going away, and it’s not clear that a replacement will be available.

The town where we reside (Livermore, California) provides pretty good civic support for visual artists, but there’s really no equivalent for writers. We have a local Arts Commission, but if they’ve done anything to support writers, I blinked and missed it. The city does, in fact, have an official poet laureate, but this person’s effectiveness in supporting local writers is open to question.

What’s not clear to me is exactly how a city could support local writers. Writing can’t readily be put on display, the way visual arts can be. The act of reading, which puts one in a relation of audience with the writer, is a private act, not a public one. At our yearly Art Walk, you can stroll down the sidewalk and view the work of local painters, jewelry makers, and so forth. While looking at a painting, you can talk to your friend about it. It’s hard to imagine an equivalent experience of writing.

The act of reading requires sustained attention. You have to sit there quietly for half an hour, an hour, or more. The act of viewing a painting can take anywhere from two seconds up to two minutes, and it’s up to you, after two seconds, to decide whether you want to go on looking. Spending two seconds with a short story is not going to tell you anything.

It has to be said, also, that the art of writing requires more craft than the art of painting. Painters may bristle at this assertion, but consider: If you set out to paint a sailboat and get the shape all wrong, your eye will tell you. Without the least conscious effort, your brain will report that the boat doesn’t look right. My experience with aspiring writers is that their mistakes are sometimes invisible to them. They write something that their brain tells them is sensible, when in fact they have failed to communicate what they intended. Or possibly they sense that something isn’t quite right, but they aren’t sure what it is. The art of reading your own writing “from the outside,” as it were, seeing how it will be perceived by others, has to be learned.

Painters can dodge into abstract expressionism if viewers complain that a work is jumbled or lacks coherent detail. “No, see, that’s a tree over there, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t see a tree. It’s about the feeling.” Writers have no such refuge. If the writing doesn’t make sense, you’ve failed. All it takes is about three misused words to send a story spiraling downward with smoke gushing from the engine.

For all of these reasons, reading the work of aspiring writers can be less emotionally gratifying than viewing the work of aspiring painters. We have a number of very good writers in Livermore, and a few fine ones, but I’ve also heard one or two things read aloud at my friend’s salon that I felt were the verbal equivalent of a lumpy sailboat.

In my darker moments, I suspect that the local establishment doesn’t do much to support writers because writers are dangerous. Writers have traffic with ideas, and ideas all too often threaten the status quo. Local government is, by definition, the status quo.

There’s also the civic beautification factor. An important reason why local government is happy to support the visual arts is because murals and outdoor sculpture look nice in a drive-by. Writing is invisible.

Maybe if local writers were to tackle topics of civic concern — pollution, homelessness, the fact that support for the public library is drying up — they’d get noticed. Of course, that would require research, and the need to do research is another reason why writing is harder than painting. You have to get your facts straight.

A lot of local painters paint vineyards. This supports the local winery industry. Hang a painting of a vineyard in a local gallery, and someone on a weekend wine-tasting trip may buy it. A painting of a homeless guy sitting on the curb, not so likely to sell. But also, to write a heart-warming story about a winery, you’d have to research wine-making. You can’t just look at the vats. And when you’ve finished the story, where will you sell it? There is no literary equivalent of a local art gallery.

Well, not exactly. In fact, my friend has put together five yearly anthologies of work by local writers, a labor of love that I know many people appreciated. But I’m pretty sure the writers get paid only in free contributor’s copies. The market for local writing extends no further than the pages of our weekly newspaper, and they don’t buy fiction.

The writer’s lot is not easy. Maybe I’ll take up water color.

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One Response to Writers, Right?

  1. John D. Hogan says:

    As the lone captain of my own “lumpy sailboat”, who must sail into the dangerous oceans of oil and turpentine, tack through brackish waters of acrylic emulsion, or prow-first, plow past pigments-earths-edge into a digital void, a plethora of pixels of Oh’s and Ones, I agree with my esteemed college, writing is hard!

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