Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Words are Hard

People get more excited and happy about art than about writing. Is it because words are hard?

I have several amazingly talented artist friends whose blogs teem with comments from adoring fans, who are also mostly artists. There is much discussion of the images, and even more praise. It is all deserved, and I join in the praising sometimes. I like peeking in on these communities. It's all very positive and gives me warm fuzzies.

But people just get so darn excited about pictures! About music! It's a minority group that gets excited about words. And within that minority group, the majority seem to be a serious lot. No one's going gaga for anyone's sentences. They're having cool discussions and being as somber as they can manage. Or they are instantly polemical, without any provocation.

I'm not talking about my own blog. Yes, I am a member of the wordsmithing minority, but as far as these interactions, comments, and discussions go, I'm talking about what I see on all the blogs, columns, etc. I read that are mostly comprised of well written word-content. Seriosity. Lack of excitement. No sense of humor. It's not always like that, especially among friends and colleagues, but when you compare the whole of writerland to the whole of artland, it's pretty bleak and unfriendly.

I have trouble writing seriously (at least in public) for more than a few paragraphs, and I certainly don't try to bring any kind of severity with me when I enter into a discussion on someone's work. Maybe I'm meant to be a humorist, and not an academecian. But do academecians have to be so stodgy? So competitive that they don't praise one another? I know many who are funny, light, and open outside the classroom -- but what about in their professional discourses? We're not lawyers. We don't need to put on a "trial face" or something. Wait, what do I know? Maybe we do. I'll be eaten alive when I make it to my first big conference presentation (there were nothing but friendly professorial faces and smiling younger students who had to "take my word for it" at the undergraduate one).

I admit there is a big difference between language and visual art in that we writers are always saying something, and someone is bound to disagree with it, or want to say it better. You can't disagree with a sketch of someone's best friend or a caricature of a 1960s actor. You could try to draw it better, but you won't. That's just not nice. Also, you don't mind if an artist friend posts a wobbly pen drawing, a work in progress. You accept that and love it, and can't wait to see the final result. For some reason, words aren't supposed to be seen until all their soft parts are covered up.

Maybe we should just scan in some scrawled notebook pages, and at least we wouldn't lose the immediacy and personality that our writing sometimes has before it hits the screen. It wouldn't lose its "aura."

Regardless of what our language is communicating, writers are often engaging in a kind of art when we start spraying words onto a page. Even those of us who like to think we are all analysis, all the time, do things with words that are outside "communication." We also do things that make us vulnerable -- and maybe we should do that even more often.

But as readers who are writers, maybe we should do this: Once in a while (not all the time, for we all love our discourse), if we read something really good, we should stop and see what the words look like (sound like, feel like -- choose your sense...everyone probably mediates words differently) and just take them in. This is how us wordmongers read literature, even the analytical sorts. And we should treat each other to that approach when it fits. Not just in the online community, but in writer's groups, at conferences, and in authoritative positions as writing tutors and professors.

So we all must know by now, that for much of the population... words are hard to look at, and pictures are easy to look at (though just as hard, if not harder, to create!). So we can't rely on every type of person with eyeballs to just come visit us in writerland and buoy us up. We have to rely on one another, because words are hard.

Afterward (All the stuff I left out as not to ramble or muck up my message with my usual autobiographical commentary. My new stab at brevity begets afterwards!)

I'm having a hard week, being miles and miles away from my closest "meatspace" friends, suffering only written interaction with them and with some good e-buddies. I was blaming the internet for not "keeping me in touch" the way it claims it can these days. Then I peeked in on some friends in artland, and I was so excited to see people talking and sharing so openly. I think I might "hang out" with them for awhile! Last night I called a fellow writer friend (on the phone! gasp!), one of the very few friends I have in the area, and demanded some human interaction time (she was more than obliging of course, so I probably didn't have to demand). So I get to have a Saturday night out, with someone who likes my words, someone whose words I like too. I'm sure it will be rejuvenating to say the least. And after the last hilarious email she sent me (a description of sci-fi/fantasy fans at a book signing), I'm trying to get her to start a blog!

So that probably explains these last two semi-autobiographical, exposing-the-soft-spots posts. I'm doing this blubbering and babbling while I can, before grad school starts up and a competitive environment makes me have to put on my classroom face, and get all severe up in here.

Afterward II

There were many helpful, even argumentative comments from professors on my undergraduate papers, even some that embarrassed me (a couple of giant red question marks will do that). But I don't think I would have the confidence I have now if it weren't for the occasional warm fuzzies. Professorly marginalia humor (Richard Westphal: "I'm surprised you didn't mention paradox more" next to the "A" on a paper on paradox) , the rare but precious unmitigated praise of an idea (Patrick Dunn: "This is SO SO awwwesome!"), and the pure reaction-to-prose comment (Sara Gerend: "Beautiful sentence!" Westphal: "...a pleasure to read in the bargain") made all my pains worthwhile. These scrawls on my papers are what I'll have to remember these people by. I think I mentioned many of my professors before, but these comments all flash back to me now, because today I picked up my cap and gown, and had to fill out an exit-interview form. "Who was the faculty member who meant the most to you and why?" That pushed a big, mixed-feeling sigh out of me.

Appendix A

Here's a post I wrote forever ago about writers commenting on a writer: "Attack of the Smartypants"


  1. O Robyn my Robyn, words are hard. If someone does a crappy drawing, you can still call it art if they're well known, but good writing takes skill and a lot more thought. And some people still won't like it. But for some reason people always like "art", because they can create their own meaning for it and seem intelligent even if they have no idea what they're talking about. Plus, dumb people don't read as much. You're writing is always a pleasure to read, and you're damn good at it.

  2. You made my eyes leak a little bit with this one. Your comment about professor marginalia humor hit me straight in the chest. Especially with the last semester, I will miss all of those comments and enjoy going back an reading them again and again. For after all, when Patrick Dunn writes, "A model paper," you know you've at last accomplished something.

    The reason I decided to study English is because of my obsession with the written word. I can never get enough of well written prose or poetry, and I definitely do not have a problem appreciating another writer when they have done well.

    I enjoy your blog, thank you for sharing. Your words are truly beautiful!

  3. You had me at the first sentence. As a fellow writer, I feel your pain. I just started a blog (yes, you talked me into it) and I doubt anyone will ever read it. Non-writer's eyes just seem to glaze over when writing comes up. My family still thinks I'm going through a "phase". Enjoying books, it's just a phase.

    Have you ever been to a site called "Deviantart"? I haven't been on there in a long time, but from what I remember, it's a bunch of white people trying to be Asian.

    I think people get so excited about visual arts because it's easier to fake knowing about it. There's symbolism involved, but it's very different from the symbolism found in writing.

    This is probably going to sound sad, but this post really made me miss my mentor :( I miss those deep yet exciting philosophical afternoons.

    [Or they are instantly polemical, without any provocation.] Hmm, could this be referring to a certain...hotheaded individual that crossed my path recently ;)

    I like what you're saying about the difference between writers and visual artists. It's probably been that way for a long time.

    [For some reason, words aren't supposed to be seen until all their soft parts are covered up.] Or until some editor screws up and posts the unedited version of a story rather than the re-edited version.

    I like the idea of scrawled notebook pages. It's a rough draft revolution!

    You really are on to something here, Robyn. Quite an inspiring post and I loved every word.

    By the way, here's how much of a narcissist I am: I actually squeal whenever I see something about me in your blog ("She's talking about me"). I'm always excited when I see a new blog post by you though. It's so wonderful to read an actual person's words. I find it rather comforting, like warm comfort food.

    I can't believe you're already picking up your graduation gear. You're all growed up :) Just kidding, but seriously, I can feel your melancholy. It's my last official semester at C.O.D. and all I can think about is how I'm going to keep in touch with all the wonderful professors I met there.

    Excellent post, as always, fellow writer friend

    P.S. I'm a bit excited because anatomy is over for tonight and we get out early tomorrow.

  4. Thanks for your comments ladies!

    I don't have any problem with the ease of appreciating the plastic arts -- in fact that's what's so great about visual art. It effortlessly opens up a space for contemplation. Written art can do the same, but it takes a little more application on the part of the "viewer" I suppose. I think writing used to be nearly as cool as drawing, but it's fallen out of fashion, for sure.

    Renee, that last semester really did a number on us! Dr. Dunn is a great professor for the capstone course. I think we had to be more introspective than some of us cared to be about everything we've done, and he knew all the weirdnesses and discomfort that would come out of it. And I will never forget how he deals with certain students who have no idea what's going on...though I don't know if I'll borrow those tactics if I teach someday! I'm going to miss all of those English folk (well, except the one...).

    Lauren I'm glad you could join us! I stuck you on my "blogroll" (sounds like something made out of baloney...ugh), and maybe we can share the love on some entries if there are things we both want to write on.

    I always feel like a jerk when I write stuff like this post, but it just has to come out sometimes. Woolf is always who I turn to, to see if something's "right," and I don't think she would be afraid to make candid, personal comments on whatever the 1920s equivalent of this writing community would be.


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.