I see excellent writing as a work of art. I include great technical writing in this category too. For reasons I can’t decipher, writing as both a medium and an art-form is losing steam in our ultra-visual social media society.
On the one hand, I can understand the meteoric rise in the production and consumption of social media as a replacement for writing. Its rules are less strict. It takes fewer skills to communicate effectively in social media than in writing. I have always contended that reading is a deconstruction skill and writing is a reconstruction skill.
On the other hand, I can’t understand why we would willingly discard the single most incredible tool mankind has ever developed for recording and transmitting our culture from one generation to the next. Yes, I said it. Writing is the essential tool in allowing us to know and understand what came before us. It should be the primary tool we use to pass on our experiences to our descendants.
Perhaps, the decline in excellent writing is linked to the decline in reading. In 2018, the American Psychological Association reported that one-third of teenagers have “not read a book for pleasure in a year.” Kids are spending their time on digital media platforms. It makes sense. We raised them to be digitally-native. They’ve grown up with media devices around them their entire lives. Is it any wonder that’s what they reach for to pass the time?
Another explanation dovetails this trend but with an important nuance. The rise of social/digital media and the decline in reading books may be linked to how we consume news in general. Psychology Today referenced two studies from the RAND Corporation (yes, the same RAND Corporation that made the infamous report on the Vietnam War) that demonstrate how news reporting has become more subjective over the last three decades. With more slant and bias inserted into the news comes inevitably rushed and sloppy writing to be the first to break a story. I can’t tell you how many typos, grammatical errors, poor syntax, etc., I read in breaking news stories. It’s like the writers have never met an editor or won’t spring for a software package to check their work.
You’re probably thinking, but, Chris, you write about the news. No, I write editorials. I don’t do any investigative reporting whatsoever. I mentioned that some time back in a previous column. Furthermore, I openly admit to being a writer. I’m not a journalist. I write fiction, and I write Op-Ed pieces. That’s my wheelhouse. If I cover something topical from the recent news, I do so through secondary or tertiary research of other legacy media sources. I link my work to those sources for readers to get the scoop from the news media. I’m an opinion guy. That’s it.
Setting aside my disclaimer, I think Op-Ed writing is a natural ‘best fit’ for non-fiction social commentary. My fiction is also social commentary, except it offers stories intended to remain timeless in their allegories.
I was asked today if I would consider writing a sequel to my first novel. I jokingly said that would be hard to do with how I ended the first book. After a few chuckles, I followed that up by saying I don’t want to write for pure entertainment value. Of course, I want my readers to be entertained. Occasionally, I write blog posts that are ‘just for fun,’ as that category describes if you notice the labels attached to these musings. Still, I want to leave my readers with an idea to wrestle with while providing commentary. Sometimes, it means making readers uncomfortable. I can usually tell if I’ve hit the mark by seeing the number of likes or comments. Whether my writing makes you uncomfortable or not, I want you to take something from it that broadens your perspective on the issue I have raised.
For me, this represents the artistry of writing. It’s not enough to be technically-proficient as a writer, though it is a required first step. Artistic writing should present ideas that provide the reader with an ‘aha’ moment where the concept has more clarity than before. It doesn’t have to be delivered through complicated prose—though it might take that form. Some of the most artistic writing is found in music. An entire idea is compressed into three or four minutes and set to a beat or rhythm that stays with us for decades.
Each time we hear certain songs, we stop what we are doing to listen to them again because the artistry has enraptured us. It may be the beat, rhythm, voice, or arrangement that keeps us locked in like an Ancient Greek sailor hearing beautiful music, only to find our ship wrecked along some rocky coast. I suspect the songs that move us the most superimpose these elements on top of lyrics that touch our souls.
To illustrate this, I’d like you to think of Lady GaGa. Please set aside any preconceived notions you have about her as an artist or otherwise. I find her to be technically-proficient and highly competent as a vocal artist in general, though I don’t care much for her music. All of that changed when I watched her sing the soundtrack to the 2018 remake of A Star is Born. Suddenly, I saw her in a different light. I knew when I watched the movie and heard her singing that I witnessed true artistry at its finest. Again, I’m not a fan of hers. Still, I was mesmerized by the words in her songs and how she delivered them.
I understand Lady GaGa had a team of experts to help her write, arrange, and practice her music before producing the movie and corresponding soundtrack. I get all of that. It doesn’t diminish the unparalleled quality with which she delivered a performance that moved me to tears.
Lady GaGa’s performance in producing the movie’s soundtrack took her to another level in my eyes. I won’t ever be a fan of her other style of work. It simply doesn’t do anything for me. At the same time, I’d be a fool to ignore how she captured her emotions and held them right under the surface for the project’s duration. It is the epitome of artistry to carry the feelings of the moment or idea being conveyed right under the surface. In this way, I see writing as performance art.
I recognize writing is not categorized as a performing art. I happen to think that’s a shame because writers have to carry the emotions they convey just under the surface to elicit desired responses from readers. If I want to evoke your feelings alongside your critical thinking, I have to do it in a way that pushes my emotions through the page and into your mind. If this isn’t performance art, I don’t know what is.
All of this is what makes for excellent writing. Readers want to revisit stories that evoked a myriad of responses in their souls and psyches. It’s the same response we feel when we hear great music.
Sadly, not all writers agree with me. Just this week, in an informal meeting with other writers, I got slapped down (figuratively) by a writer who is more successful than I am. I told the writer I respected their ability to connect with an audience. The author’s readership speaks for itself. I said it was my opinion we needed to move in a different direction to elicit a thoughtful response from our readers. I suggested writing more pieces that pushed our readers to think critically about the topics we were presenting. I opined that this strategy would pay for itself in the long haul by generating a more loyal readership base because people would become more invested in what we shared with them.
It was not to be.
The other writer is successful using their current format. As a result, the other writer sees no need to change. It was a sobering reminder that not everyone who writes considers the medium to be an art form. Perhaps, my lack of success frees me from the restraints of formulaic technical-proficiency. Regardless, I know that I would much rather be an unsuccessful artist than a wildly-successful technocrat.
As always, this has been the World According to Chris. Please hit the like button or leave a reply.