Nothing Sets My Teeth On Edge Like Pretentious Writing Essays

There are two books that I go to pretty regularly when I’m struggling with writing. I head straight to On Writing by Stephen King when I’m thinking my Life As A Writer is useless and when I think I Should Never Dream of Writing Again. His biography is similar enough to my background to make me think that I can do this thing and the fact that he gives permission to write means a lot more to me than he probably ever intended for a random stranger.

If I’m in editing mode, I grab The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. She has unbelievably amazing advice on gaining distance and practical guidelines for getting to the heart of your story and telling said story in a cohesive way. While she uses The Great Gatsby as her go-to example, I can forgive that because of the practicality of her advice.

Now, two books cannot be all things all the time. So, when I’m hunting up inspiration or whatever, sometimes I’ll dig through my own pile of writing how-to books or I’ll check out books on writing from the library.

One such book I grabbed was Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction. It’s filled with essays from authors like Norman Mailer and Terry McMillan and Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert. So I snagged it thinking, like I do, that these authors know what the heck they’re talking about and I could do worse than listen to experts in the field.

I get the book home. I sit down to read. I read the first essay — it’s Norman Mailer’s so it’s kind of arrogant but nothing untoward.

I read the title of the second essay: “Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks.”

Like a record scratching to a halt, my brain goes: “Wha–?”

The writer of this essay is Joy Williams. I’ll tell you up front that I haven’t read any of her other work and she’s been nominated for a Pulitzer and is quite prolific. So, she’s a good writer, no doubt. I am not saying in any way that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about or that what she has to say has no merit.

This essay just hit my buttons, bro.

In spite of my “Wha–?” reaction to the title I figured, “What the hell?” And gave it a shot anyway.

The essay is everything that irritates me about college writing classes. Throughout the essay there are these sweeping, declarative sentences about writing and writers.

Example A: “The writer must not really know what he is knowing, what he is learning to know when he writes, which is more than the knowing of it.

(I don’t even know what this sentence means.)

Example B: “The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the absurdity, the disorienting truth, the question that is not even a question, this is the koan of writing.

(I had to look up ‘koan.’ It means, according to Merriam-Webster: “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.” Sooooo, wow. That’s a heavy way of looking at writing.)

Example C: “The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery, he cares for it like a fugitive in his cabin, his cave. He doesn’t want to talk it into giving itself up.

(I’ve never heard any writer I know speak of writing like this. I feel kinda icky even thinking of stories in this way. Are all stories designed to ‘transmute’ and ‘disturb’? This kind of overarching declaration bothers the crap out of me. It brooks no disapproval and makes me think of a teacher wagging a finger at a questioning student.)

Example D: “The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him.” AND “I am too wary about writing to enjoy it. It has never fulfilled me (nor have I fulfilled it). Writing has never done anyone or anything any good at all.

OKAY. This is the part that REALLY REALLY irritates me because, on one hand, it makes the writer look kinda humble because “Oh, gee, the writing itself is what’s important” but it also declares the writer of said sentences super important because “Oh, gee, I’m doing this in spite of the fact that writing has done nothing good for me. Look how awesomely self-sacrificing I am.” 

Also, don’t say writing has never done anyone any good. You don’t know that. 

Look, writing and the chance to write and tell stories is a blessing. One that shouldn’t be over-thought or over-analyzed. The idea that someone is doing it and not enjoying it, not getting ‘anything good’ out of it, or thinking they are not being ‘nourished’ by it can freakin’ stop right now. There are plenty of us will to jump in and be nourished. Plenty of us willing to ‘drink and be filled up’ as Stephen King says. 

I realize, again, that Joy Williams is an accomplished author and writer of fiction. And she does come to a conclusion about why she writes for herself. I just really wish the whole essay had been about her motivations and not the ephemeral presentation of why all writers write. 

However, if the question posed to the writer is “Why do you write?” then please, please, please don’t presume to answer for the rest of us — which is what happens when broad declarations, rhetorical questions, and generalities are presented.  

It makes my teeth hurt. 

"Uncanny the Singing that Comes from Certain Husks" essays On Writing Stephen King Susan Bell The Artful Edit why I write writing advice

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I have never read anything by that author, but if that is a sample of her writing style … her books are not for me! “Uncanny the Singing that Comes from Certain Husks?” Are you kidding me?

  2. Her fiction could be very different — sometimes the extended metaphors are quite effective — so I can't speak to that. I was having a hard time enjoying (read: I reacted quite negatively to) this particular essay.

  3. I agree with you. I don't see how anyone could say writing hasn't done anyone any good. What of all the stories and characters that help readers through difficult times? What of satire? Poetry?
    Sad that she seems to derive no joy from it.

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