A Writer

I've maintained a blog for nearly nine years. I've contributed posts to other people's blogs many times throughout that timespan. I've written some more formal articles for online publication. Professionally, I've written a number of formal pieces, published within industry. I've contributed to academic articles. I've written lyrics and rhymes my whole life. And, occasionally, I write short stories. Considering all that, I suppose I can fairly make the claim that I am a writer.

I don't claim that everything I write is good, nor do I claim that I am a professional. Given the sheer volume of words I have committed to some form of publication, however, there is simply no getting around it. I am a writer.

Larissa MacFarquhar is also a writer. I recently read the transcript of a conversation she had with Tyler Cowen, and it got me thinking. Throughout the interview, she interjects small details of her own beliefs about what constitutes great writing. It's clear that she loves the small nuances contained in the way individuals choose to phrase things. It's clear she's drawn to prose, but not from the standpoint of seeking the ideal way of expressing a thing. Rather, MacFarquhar seems attracted to a person's communicative individuality. That's a strong asset for a person who profiles other people for a living, as she does. It's clear, or at least plausible, that she has risen to her level of career success in part from having an asset like that.

A fixation on the way written prose is constructed, an attention to detail with respect to the poetry of the act of writing, is something I have noticed that many writers have. Being wordsmiths themselves, they seem to delight in the act of wordsmithing, almost as a spectator sport. They can find the uniqueness of the way that somebody did it, and analyze it carefully until it is much more than less attentive people would ever have known. This strikes me as being very natural and normal. Of course it would be so.

Yet, this is an attribute I have never shared with other writers. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the linguistic acrobatics of James Joyce and the sublime perfection of Herman Melville's prose. Anyone could love that. I, however, don't tend to notice lesser prose. If you gave me five generic magazine writers and asked me to rank-order the quality of their prose, I'd be able to do it, but I'd be splitting hairs. Unless I see a Shakespeare or a Melville, I don't tend to notice the distinctness of a writer's prose.

Nor do I have any such obsession about my own writing. Over the past year, I have been slightly more diligent about the way my sentences are constructed. I second-guess my use of passive voice more often now than before, although I give myself greater license to use it. I make a point of avoiding repetitious vocabulary. I'll rearrange my adjectives and adverbs until they bounce a little more lightly on the tongue. This is all in service of trying to avoid sounding like a technical manual when I write. I want my written sentences to approximate the lightness of the thoughts than inspired them; even if I never reach it, I think it's important to try. I may not really have any readers other than ye Russian bots, but if someone accidentally happens upon one of my blog posts, I'd prefer they enjoyed their accident.

But, I repeat, this does not come from a place of prose-obsession. I am not hunting for the world's greatest metaphor or patting myself on the back for writing seven consecutive sentences in which all the adjectives trace their etymological roots to Sanskrit. Conceptually, that would be kind of cool, but it's just not my bag.

So, I lack an obsession I've noticed that many successful writers have. I am not particularly interested in an aspect of writing that appears highly correlated to commercial success as a writer. Were I to form a Bayesian prior about that fact, it would be that this makes me unlikely to ever be a successful writer. On the other hand, it's not clear to me at all that successful writers are those who possess this obsession. What about Dan Brown, for example? His prose isn't particularly swell -- in fact, I don't happen to like it at all -- and yet he is one of the most successful writers of my lifetime. And no one read Fifty Shades of Grey for its deft use of iambic pentameter. Those writers who are capable of tapping into the fiction market zeitgeist may not need to be great writers from a mere technical standpoint. Maybe they just need to have a good story to tell.

It's hard to definitely say what makes a writer good. Given that writing is an art, perhaps "good writing" just means there is something in it that speaks to the reader on a personal level. Good writing may in fact be the opposite of blog writing; blog writing happens when a writer writes about something the speakers to the writer on a personal level, and hopes that the reader finds a sentence or two to quote and hyperlink-to.

I don't know if I'm a good writer or a bad one, and it might not be for me to say. But I do know that I'm a writer, I've been writing, and I'm trying to polish that ability a little bit in hopes of having something to say in the future. We shall see.

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