It is my experience that writers, as a matter of habit and, probably, survival, regularly delude themselves into believing that what they do is useful, not only to themselves, but to other people.

I will come right out and say I just don’t think this is the case.

The title of this piece, for those who are unfamiliar, is a reference to Office Space.  In it, Richard Riehle’s character, Tom Smykowski, is a mid-level functionary at “Initech,”a software company.  In this particular scene, he attempts to explain to “The Two Bobs” (a pair of “efficiency experts” brought in to streamline the company’s operations), what exactly his job is and why it (and he) is valuable:


Especially considering recent trends towards approaching art as one among many entertainment and recreation industries, Tom Smykowski and writers have more in common than any writer would like to admit.

I should be careful to point out that I understand there is writing that is useful. There is writing that is more effective or less effective.  Writing might be instructive or persuasive and it may succeed or fail in its mission.  It is possible for writing to do or encourage people to do or think things.  But as a creative practice in which the genus, execution, and natural conclusion of project are almost entirely avocational–a hobby or recreation for writer and reader alike–it is tough to take too grave and earnest a view of its practical purpose without sounding like a very desperate human being to anyone who is not likewise deluded (see:  other writers).

Anyone who has tried to talk seriously about writing or books with non-writers knows what I’m talking about.  This is how we end up in “communities.”  The literary community is a thing by, for, and unto itself.  We’re a sort of glorified cat lady club that has, unlike the cat ladies, managed to convince the world that our particular obsession is at least a little important.  That they should pay $9.99 to play with our cats.  Our beautiful, beautiful cats. That everyone should support our cat-production program for the enrichment and happy-making of the people, especially ourselves.

We can’t imagine why everybody wouldn’t want an “eagerly-anticipated” cat.

(I always wonder by whom it is anticipated.  I was almost never anticipating any of those books.)

I suppose it is true that for some, writing is a vocation in a manner of speaking.  At least insofar as there is pay involved.  But, as many here are all too well aware, in most cases writers fight tooth and nail, every inch clawing, to wring mere cents out of every word.  It is not a situation where writing presents itself as a traditional vocation–where there is a need and people actively seeking out and hiring individuals qualified to fill that need.  Trying to sell writing means a lifetime of, realistically, direct mail marketing, cold-calling, and door-knocking.  In most cases, the fact is that there is very little need at all for anything any single creative writer does, and in most cases, s/he will find himself aggressively and forwardly pushing his/her unsolicited “services” on an unwitting, skeptical, and largely disinterested public rather than being sought out by anyone at all.  Not readers, not agents, not publishers.

In  the film, The Two Bobs do liquidate Tom Smykowski’s job, but everything turns out a-okay for him.  He is hit by a drunk driver after being interrupted by his oblivious wife in the middle of a poorly executed suicide attempt and will collect a settlement for the rest of his life as a result.  At a party celebrating his retirement, we see Smykowski in a wheelchair, full-body cast, and cervical halo, proclaiming, “Good things CAN happen!  I mean, look at me!”

Rationalizations on full display, a number of writers with formerly lofty artistic goals resign themselves to the whims of the market, emerge from door-knocking and cold-calling haggard, bruised and broken but nevertheless with a book that at least kind of sells, and go, “GOOD THINGS CAN HAPPEN!”

They grin gap-toothed and proud past the split lip of their creative self-respect as their pummeled integrity swells into a massive shiner, impossible for anyone but the writer in question to ignore.  Other writers grimace understandably.  Not out of spite, but at the understanding that this could happen to any of us.  That this does happen to a lot of us.  That there are only so many options.

In such cases, the writer’s traditionally romantic artistic vision of writing is replaced not by reality, as many writers who have settled will insist, but a new kind of delusion:  That which assumes their situation has improved just because it has changed dramatically or because they have traded one discomfort for another.

In sum:  No one, in the end, is really looking for any of us.  Creative writers are not necessary.  To want to be a creative writer for a job is, in the greater cultural scheme of things, a fairly scandalous, decadent thing to demand.

When thousands of people are vying for a handful of positions that only sort of exist (that is, they only exist insofar as our powers of rhetoric can convince people they do), schisms predictably follow.

Writers of one type declare another type or all other types irrelevant, impractical, failing to deliver on the “true” purpose of writing.

Literary types accuse the commercial types of bastardizing the art,  commercial types accuse literary types of partitioning literature off from the masses in violation of the “point” of written storytelling.  Creative non-fiction is ass-backwardly decried as some new bastard child of non-fiction and fiction, poetry (what’s poetry?) is declared a dying, elitist, useless art, and fiction is regarded down poets’ noses, perceived as the promiscuous C+ cousin of them all.

Allow me to clear up a few historical misconceptions.

The “true” purpose of writing, the first writing, for the record, historically speaking, was for accounting, itemization, and taking stock of material goods.  Plainly, writing was invented to make lists.  Not to make entertainment.

After that, it was “for” governmental and religious propaganda, and consisted primarily of embellished historical accounts of the conquests of empires and their leaders.  I suppose we could call those instances creative non-fiction, but that would be at least a little disingenuous.

The first fictional novels as we understand them didn’t even appear until the 18th century (generously), coinciding with a general rise in literacy.  Reading, in the broad historical sense, never belonged to the masses at all because historically speaking, the masses couldn’t (and at any number of levels, still can’t) read.  Very few people were literate in “civilized” ancient societies predating the Romans, and humanity (Western humanity, to be frank) returned quickly to a near-uniformly illiterate state for hundreds of years following the demise of The Empire, only to pick up the skill en masse again as late as the 20th century, depending on what one considers “widespread” literacy.  As of 1900, the American illiteracy rate for individuals over 14 bore striking resemblances to today’s unemployment numbers.  This means about 10% of the American population, nearly 60% of them either non-white or immigrants, could not read when L. Frank Baum was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Compare that to a small fraction of a percent now.

We are, incidentally, once again, becoming less literate as a species following a modern historical peak in the 70s.

All these things considered, your H&R Block representative, Joseph Goebbels, and the silky-handed, teeming faux-elite of planned McMansion communities are arguably “truer” writers in the long-term historical sense than any of us (not that there aren’t accountants, propagandists or idle bourgeoisie among us, but that’s a different discussion, and I doubt those individuals think to count these qualifications among their writerly credentials).

So to pretend that the act of writing as we undertake it has some long-standing, sacred proletariat history that we are beholden to or entrusted to maintain or that makes one type of creative writing more correct than another is simply incorrect.  The truth is quite to the contrary:  Arguably, of the arts (written, visual, performing, and musical), writing is the newest and  most exclusive of them all and its relatively recent overall democratization has served in large part to remove the luxuriousness from an item that never quite had much more than luxury going for it.

So writing–the writing we are generally talking about when we feel compelled to defend the importance of writing–really isn’t all that necessary at all.  In fact, humanity (potential readers and writers alike) got along quite well without recreational reading or writing for the overwhelming bulk of its history, and even after its emergence, huge portions of the population continued (and continue) to get along without it just fine.  Our feelings, as writers, about our own importance are almost certainly unfounded.

It’s easy to despair at the thought.  That writers are never necessary, simply tolerated. That we are of indifferent value and generally disposable.

It could be depressing.  Or it could be liberating.  After all, though the road may be a lonely one, if no one really needs you, you’re free to do just about anything you please.

If I could let go of my pride and truly embrace the idea that my writing and I are accountable to no one and that nothing I might say is particularly important to anyone, what kinds of accidentally important things might I be freed up to say?

It’s time, maybe, to knock a wall out of my cube and start cleaning fish at my desk.  To go to The Two Bobs of the world–and more importantly The Two Bobs in my head–and, when they say, “What do ya do here?” tell them exactly the truth.

“Virtually nothing.  And therefore anything I want.”

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BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

44 responses to “What Would You Say Ya Do Here?”

  1. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Well, at the very least your writerly purpose fulfills my need today, Becky. Because I’ve discovered that my narrator, who happens to be me, is intent upon alienating an entire audience… The *audience* of course being an imaginary crowd of masochists who will spend enough of their hard-earned money on my brand of I’ll-reject-you-before-you-reject-me bravado to make me rich enough to quit my day job.

    I’ve also applied your theory to my songwriting habit. I’m doing this for my own entertainment. The fact that it’ll be awhile before I quit sucking at it is pretty irrelevant.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well that’s just it.

      The best thing to do is whatever you want. My personal sense is that, whether one is a Tom Smykowski or a Peter Gibbons, whether one takes his/her writing too seriously or not nearly seriously enough, one’s chances of “making it” (however approximately defined) as a creative writer aren’t all that different.

      BUT. However barely, I’d suspect that the edge goes to the Gibbonses of the world and that they are also much more likely to be happy in the conventional sense and successful in a more well-rounded way while doing +/- nothing than the Smykowskis of the world.

      The slow sickening of literature as an artistic institution seems to me to be a matter of fact, and it may well be inevitable. It may even be necessary. But one has to accept that the more writing becomes about business, the more writers are asked to be business people. And not everybody in business gets to be Bill Lumbergh. In literary business, just as in literary art before, many of people at the top will probably not deserve to be there.

      Here’s to progress!

  2. Jim says:

    I often wish that I had the same drive for, say, carpentry as I do for fiction writing, but then I’d likely have a garage full of brittle unsafe chairs and wobbly tables. All too often, most writers (and I once felt this way) take themselves and their projects way too seriously — as someone, maybe it was Joyce Carol Oates, said, “It’s just a book!”

    There’s a lot to be said for timing, focus, talent and a wealthy spouse, too.

    Oh (oh oh oh), and thanks for including Office Space, a highly underrated film.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      You’re very welcome, Jim.

      In terms of its metaphors–including its personifications–Office Space is much better than even many of its fans recognize.

      I’m a big fan of Mike Judge in general.

      As for me, I’ve always sort of been interested in gardening. That’s not particularly functional either, but my neighbors and others who have to behold my house really have no idea how lucky they are that I chose writing instead.

  3. But, but … but I’ve read Leo Lionni’s Frederick. I know I’m vital to the community. I just know it! It says so in Frederick! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGwdwvkn0Cw

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Frederick is cruel!! Oh my God!

      “You know how you’re absolutely STARVING right now? Close your eyes and think of food. Nothing but delicious, crunchy, filling, nutritious mouse food.”

      Sweet baby Jesus.

      I’m going to go to Joplin, MO and tell them to close their eyes while I recite a tantalizing lyric poem about how beautiful their homes and community used to be (and might be again if they can just keep from getting sick or going broke or starving or committing suicide for a few months).

      Then I’m going to go, “You feel all better now because I’m a poet.”

      Then I’ll bow.

      And ask for a check.

      • Heh. Yes. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it makes for a great story — apparently, Lionni regretted writing Frederick when his son grew up and eschewed college to be an artist.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I resent my parents for telling me I could do and be anything I wanted to.

          The thought was noble, and the sentiment was indeed true, but they left off the part about how MOST of the things I would want to do and be would make me poor and bitter and functionally retarded. Like wanting to be an academic and a writer.

          It’s a good case for crushing a child’s dreams, really.

          Tonight, I’m going to go home and talk to my belly directly like it’s a person for the first time.

          I’m going to lean forward (as much as I can these days) and hiss, “If you’re not planning to be a doctor or a lawyer or an economist, don’t even bother coming out here.”

  4. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Well said, a straight shooter like you has upper management written all over.

    I know this has been said before, but one thing about writing is that a majority of people can do it, more than can strum a guitar or mix oil paints, and do it now all the time in the various near-literary ways as posts and tweets and online rants, the sheer volume of which everyday I find astonishing. So the pool of the likewise deluded is presumably getting larger. Whether or not they actually read as they write is maybe another matter.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, and, despite my belief that writing is not a useful pursuit, I still manage to be kind of elitist about it.

      Because I don’t think a majority of people can do it at all.

      Mostly I think they can’t in the sense of “can’t [do it well or even respectably].”

      But I also think that, outside of a certain cultural and socio-economic bubble (that is, the cultural/social bubble of writers, mostly), not only can’t a great many people write a coherent sentence, most of them have no real desire to be able to, let alone to write a great number of sentences one right after another in the hopes of undertaking a masochistic marketing campaign to get paid nothing or next-to-nothing for doing it.

      This is what the bonafide creative writers I’m talking about tend to do and therefore believe everyone is doing. But realistically, no person who is genuinely trying to write a book is in any major competition with even a casual blogger, let alone in competition with just anyone who knows their ABCs.

      When we’re talking about the glut of writers suddenly on the scene, we’re talking–certainly not exclusively but overwhelmingly–about white middle-to-upper-middle class “norms” (I think the class matters more than the race, though). The idea that everyone is a writer now predominantly exists among writers. Writers are, thanks to technology and the self-publishing frenzy, maybe just now realizing NOT how many more of them are hopping on, but rather how many more of them have always been there, unseen.

      If that makes any sense.

      • Nathaniel Missildine says:

        Yes, I think you’re absolutely right that writers are just realizing how many more of us have always been there. My idea about more people who can write is better said as “more people who can appear as though they can write” (whereas I, for instance, can’t even make it appear as though I know how to perform interpretive dance).

        But when “Shit My Dad Says competes with (and finds infinitely more success than) many Pulitzer winners and even certain high-falutin’ critics hail it as the future of literature, we are in competition on a serious level with casual bloggers and those who almost have nailed their ABCs. But this maybe gets going onto a larger, snootier point that’s been addressed in these corridors before. The crux of it being I manage to be both elitist and think we’re really just handing the fax to the software people, as Tom S. says, too.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’d be willing to bet easily-digestible, novelty and/or humor books like “Shit My Dad Says” have almost always sold better than fancy-pants literature (did fancy-pants literature ever sell well?).

          They’re calling it a memoir, but it’s not. It’s a gimmick. Let us not forget the success of the Chicken Soup stable of faux-profound sentimental smut that began its terrifying sweep of the nation in the early 90s, long before Twitter was even a thing. So people have been enthusiastically gulping down literary empty calories at the sibilant behest of the prevailing zeitgeist for as long as someone’s been putting them out there.

          I know it’s over-worn territory, I agree, but really, I must insist. Bear with me:

          While that book may be selling better than Pulitzer winners, the issue is that most people who are standing in Barnes & Noble paining over a reading decision do not have Shit My Dad Says in one hand and The Road in the other.

          It’s just not the same reader. It’s probably not even really competing with honest-to-God memoirs, let alone fiction, let alone critically-acclaimed fiction.

          I mean, maybe only the writer in question can say who he/she is competing with. I don’t know the context in which high-falutin’ critics are calling SMDS “the future of literature,” or what the elaboration on that point might be, but I know that if I want to win a Pulitzer, I don’t look at SMDS and say to myself: “There’s the one to beat!”

          The idea that writing a truly exceptional literary work and writing a book that sells well are often not goals a writer can reach with the same book does not come out of nowhere. It’s not necessarily the writer’s fault. The readers are two totally different groups of people. One is much larger than the other, which would account for the disparity in sales.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          For the record, I do recognize that you’re agreeing with me overall, I’m just finding this to be an interesting tangent.

        • Nathaniel Missildine says:

          This Shit Your Dad Says praise came from David Shields in his interview with Brad here last year, where he cites it as an example of where art is going, which actually I find false and alarmist.

          I didn’t weigh in on it then so maybe it’s not worth revisiting and he’s probably not a high falutin’ critic but just a high falutin’ contrarian, still I think we might be surprised at how many people are holding both this book and The Road in their hands. There’s the readers who know they should go highbrow when in the end they go low. Then, there’s the readers, like Shields, who have convinced themselves that old guys tweeting about their farts is edgy and innovative.

          But yes, even with this territory covered, a good tangent.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Yeah. When I was talking about context, I was wondering if it was “this is where art is going and that’s good,” or “that’s bad,” or “this is where it’s headed whether we like it or not.”

          It does seem sort of dumb to me, since I guess I don’t see SMDS as art, or anything trying to be art. It’s pop culture more or less as we’ve always known it. Stemming from a fad, turning into merchandise, etc.

          Essentially what he’d have to be saying is that art will simply be overwhelmed and subsumed by pop culture and cease to exist.

          How can the pop culture phenomenon underlying SMDS getting a book deal be avant garde if it’s nothing even kind of new?

          Maybe all semantics.

          I should probably read more interviews around here. Of course the truth is I don’t really like listening to writers talk about writing. I wonder who does? Someone must, I guess.

  5. Art Edwards says:

    That’s it. I quit.

    (Just kidding. Buy my book!)

    • Becky Palapala says:


      Phase two: Shamelessly whore myself out for an overwhelmingly mediocre piece of work in a total contradiction of my apparent principles and CLEAN HOUSE.

      All your slut money is belong to ME!!!

      Just kidding.

      In truth I was totally going to buy your book, but I bought Shit My Dad Says instead. I like it because it’s accessible.

  6. Mary Richert says:

    Damn straight, Becky. You were so exactly right on with this one.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Thanks, Mary. “Damn straight” really never gets old.

      • Mary Richert says:

        Now that you mention it, I have probably written “damn straight” on pretty much every one of your essays that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It’s just that I never get tired of your observations. I’ve had this argument with myself before about whether writing or art is justified and weather I have any right to expect people to appreciate my writing. In the end, the answer always seems to be that I do not, for the exact reasons you’ve laid out here. You’re so thorough… So on point… I’m jealous. And you’re right about the final point, too. Once we accept that art/writing is essentially a self-centered pursuit, we’re free to create whatever the hell we want, which seems to increase our chances of others appreciating it.

        Anyhow, great work. Damn straight is my short hand for that. :p

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Eep! My ego is growing an ego.


          That last point was an epiphany for me. A big one. A big naked one.

          Like throwing off my clothes and running into the ocean.

          Fuck ’em, Mary. BONZAI.

  7. Oh shit. I eagerly anticipate books. And I love cats. I am a book-anticipating cat lady. Damn. I thought I was going to turn out so much cooler than this.

    They moved my desk four times already this year and I used to be over by the window and I could see the squirrels and they were married…

  8. Richard Cox says:

    Without wading in an argument about the history of the written word or a definition of needs a la Maslow, I agree books themselves aren’t inherently necessary. But I do wonder about storytelling being something extremely beneficial to humanity, if not outright necessary. And in this case writing and books would be simply a vehicle for the underlying desire to produce and consume stories. The stories themselves being a way to convey information and emotion in a more entertaining way than simply reciting facts.

    In any case, my own desire to write emerged from the consumption of other stories. For me, reading the occasional novel does qualify as a need, insofar as I get agitated when I’m not doing it. It’s of course a manufactured need, because if technology died and my life was suddenly consumed with the struggle to survive, I would probably stop “needing” to read books. But in the life I have now, reading is a luxury that has migrated to something more important, and I assume that’s the case with other people as well. Therefore, someone must produce the books that some of us “need.”

    As far as writing for profit becoming a thankless and grimacing pursuit, I think once you set aside your all-consuming drive to be FAMOUS! or RICH! or to work full-time as a creative writer, you can more thoroughly take on the task of writing stories that make you happy. You might be fortunate enough that those stories make other people happy, and maybe enough of them will that someday you might stop having to fill out TPS reports. But even if that never happens, and even if you never publish a book of any kind, the act of writing can still prove cathartic for your own emotional struggles and questions.

    Lastly, almost any interest or pursuit is going to produce groups of people who are enamored with it. If you’re not clustered here at TNB, you might find companionship on a BMW enthusiast forum or in the comment boards on Salon.com or whatever. The desire to spend time with like-minded folks is a separate need from the writing itself, and just as worthy in my opinion.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Indeed all the points you raise are exactly the points writers usually raise in the course of making a case for the necessity or function of writers/writing.

      Including the temptation to hedge usages to the point where “writing” and “storytelling” and “writing” and “books” are used synonymously. Writing is not as important as language and not as important as storytelling. Neither is it as old, neither is it evolved like language or imaginative thinking. As you yourself say, it is simply a vehicle. Writing is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for storytelling or language; it is not, at least at its genesis, even a symptom of storytelling. “Creative” writing is a zany recreational application of a practical administrative tool. It is play.

      Play, Richard. Play is okay.

      But since (speaking of wading into mucky waters) this bears all the hallmarks of a conversation that is trying really hard to become a semantic argument about the definition of “need,” let me make it clear that the definition of need hardly matters when this fact remains:

      In most cases, the fact is that there is very little need [or demand or yearning or ‘anticipation’ or whatever you prefer] at all for anything any single creative writer does, and in most cases, s/he will find him/herself aggressively and forwardly pushing his/her unsolicited “services” on an unwitting, skeptical, and largely disinterested public rather than being sought out by anyone at all.

      It shouldn’t even been an item of debate that no one needs any given one of us. Any of us can see that perfectly well for ourselves in the conversations we have here every single day about how we can convince people to buy things they don’t need, and furthermore to buy our versions of those unnecessary things.

      Someone may “need” to write the books, but there is no shortage of someones. You, me, that guy over there, do not “need” to write a goddamn thing. No one is pining for us, Richard.

      Indeed, if EVERYONE ACTUALLY STOPPED WRITING STORIES, a need would go unfulfilled like a need would go unfulfilled in LA if all bikini waxers suddenly dropped dead. But that’s getting a bit literal to no real point. The point is not that people shouldn’t write. The point is that people should let go of the idea that their writing is a grave responsibility or that it is accountable to some imaginary reader who, like a masturbatory fantasy, is out there, somewhere, breasts heaving in anticipation. Or maybe it’s more like a rape or mashing fantasy, since most writers accept that no one’s breasts are heaving for them. Instead it’s more of a They don’t know they need it, but they do. And they’ll like it when they get it. I know I like it when I get it.


      There is, then, as you mention, the argument in which the value of writing is to the writer. This is the free-to-be-you-and-me position. The one that insinuates that bashing the necessity of writing is to bash the necessity of self-expression or the validity of self-expression or emotions of others. The writing-as-therapy approach. Or as affliction. People will call it either or both as suits them.

      “The weapon and the pressure on the wound” as one of my more melodramatic exes once called me. A writer. Go figure.

      People saying things like, “writing is my life,” and “I write to give voice to others,” and “I write because I have to. I can’t NOT write,” “writing is a disease,” “writing keeps me sane.”

      I mean, I guess I just don’t know what else to say to all of that besides “bullshit.” What writing is unadulterated egomania peppered with insecurity and near-constant attention-seeking. These grave-sounding motivations are nothing but attempts to legitimize and make noble a patently self-glorifying act. Learning to do it all so you don’t look like you’re doing it is a revered art unto itself.

      Writing may be cathartic, but so is screaming into a pillow (which would be the truly private, personal thing to do). The difference with cathartic writing is that it’s tragi-glamorous (like the relationship with that ex of mine and like his metaphor) and holds the hope or even assumption, whether conscious or not, that one’s private struggles and neuroses are fascinating and important enough to be recorded in some kind of semi-permanent format for posterity. People will say, “I write for myself,” but–and I don’t know any other way to say this or how to put it gently–that is simply a lie.

      I don’t know anyone who writes things they never (no matter how slightly or secretly) intend to publish or let anyone else see but just want to have around to go back and look at in 5 years when those long-forgotten melodramas and the emotional juvenile who wrote them are nothing but a total embarrassment to them and the person they’ve become having learned from those experiences. Is there any other reaction to have to one’s own cathartic writing? Does anyone have any reaction other than embarrassment? Honestly? Who writes to get that horrible feeling?

      I don’t know why writers feel such a powerful compulsion to advocate this disingenuous narrative about writing’s inherently compassionate or selfless or bashful/humble nature. You wrote that shit down with the idea that someone else would read it, and that’s that.

      On your last point, I agree. Writers gathering together is just as worthy as BMW enthusiasts gathering together.

      Maybe even a little bit more worthy, but just a little.

      My point is more that BMW enthusiasts may well gather together, but BMW enthusiasts don’t try to make “BMW enthusiasm” their profession. The arts are unique in this way. They are unique in the sense that a huge portion of their job is convincing the world that what they do is a job and that advocating for the necessity of their job is a necessary and noble part of their job. They say this to the public and through the mouth of the academy, all the while primarily selling their wares amongst themselves.

      It’s madness. Writing is constantly having to invent its own market. One way to do that has been to invent more writers.

      As far as writing for profit becoming a thankless and grimacing pursuit, I think once you set aside your all-consuming drive to be FAMOUS! or RICH! or to work full-time as a creative writer, you can more thoroughly take on the task of writing stories that make you happy. You might be fortunate enough that those stories make other people happy, and maybe enough of them will that someday you might stop having to fill out TPS reports. But even if that never happens, and even if you never publish a book of any kind, the act of writing can still prove cathartic for your own emotional struggles and questions.

      I win because I said this in only this many words:

      If I could let go of my pride and truly embrace the idea that my writing and I are accountable to no one and that nothing I might say is particularly important to anyone, what kinds of accidentally important things might I be freed up to say?

  9. dwoz says:

    This conversation has taken a very interesting turn.

    Becky, I agree about the origins of writing. The earliest written works were credit accounts.

    Sort of ironically interesting that “writing” and “usury” are twins of the same mother, eh?

    Also, I firmly believe that “writing, the process” has an incredibly important role in humanity and evolution, while “writing, the result” is probably of only passing interest.

    Thanks for this piece, some nice jerky to gnaw on.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Well, that would depend on what you mean by evolution. And how abstractly you’re treating the word “writing.”

      It is unlikely that writing has had any input, process or otherwise, into physical human evolution, including the evolution of the human brain.

      At any rate, happy to leave you chewing.

      • dwoz says:

        I’ll see if I can’t scare up the research that I was reading, that pointed to written language (as opposed to oral language) being a factor in physical differences between brains of different individuals. I’m not making it up. Maybe THEY were making it up.

        It does, of course, leave open the question of whether or not that can be passed along in your DNA. One is treated to the endearing notion of a man reading books aloud to his spermatozoa, to ensure smart babies.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Lemarckian evolution (the notion that acquired traits can be passed on to offspring) enjoys no particular contemporary support that I’m aware of. Maybe in some very derivative, hyper-theoretical way, but nothing like what it sounds like you’re talking about.

          Unless an acquired trait affects the DNA of one’s sex cells, causing mutation, there’s just no biological way to deliver the trait. While books can indeed be powerful, I’m not sure they’re as powerful as high-level radiation.

          But that doesn’t mean that brain differences–most believably differences in the way brain structures are used–can’t exist between individuals in literate vs. non-literate cultures. It just means they’re not genetic.

          Still, I find myself wary since, of course, the differences between literate and non-literate cultures usually also include skin color, and the (I understand approximated) findings you’re suggesting sound like they could have a little touch of the racism.

        • dwoz says:

          I would be quick to dispel your concern about racism and eugenics being in play here. Sure, that literature is out there, and it’s only appropriate to ridicule and condemn it. The work that I was referring to had no stink of that…that I could smell, anyway. The population groups weren’t cut along racial lines, they compared siblings, twins where they could, with one literate and one not.

          The actual interesting part of the study had more to do with things like the ability to work with abstraction, and consider classes of objects. Our own Don Mitchell treated me to a lesson on this, where he described the different taxonomies used by oral cultures to describe objects, how they related, and their varying state through time. The presence of written language was a factor in how these very different taxonomies formed.

          You know what, though…

          Reading aloud to your spermatozoa or egg may not help, but it probably doesn’t hurt either.


        • Becky Palapala says:

          Hmmm…well…the linguist in me takes exception to the suggestion that anthropologists are the authorities on cultural variations in language, and I think you’d find that there is a great deal of disagreement–mostly about methodology and implications–among equally competent scholars in equally rigorous disciplines with regard to this topic.

          Academic politics, you know. I’m certainly not calling Don a liar, I just know there’s more than one school of thought on this topic, especially.

          Twins, you say? Did it draw off the Twin Study at UMN? How old a study are we talking?

          I’m wondering where they found a broad cross-section of literate and non-literate people that didn’t fall along racial lines.

          Where did the constituency come from? Country?

          So many questions.

        • dwoz says:

          I’m going to have to beg forgiveness for the paucity of my reference. As I said, (did I?) that this isn’t an area in which I have any expertise, I just find it fascinating.

          The article was on *gasp* paper, in a journal published by some entity within Harvard. The great God of the North, Noam Chomsky was quoted in it, as there was a tangential mention of Sapir/Whorf, and he of course had two cents to contribute to THAT discussion.

          As I recall, there were two populations, (again this is off my not-so-reliable memory) one Peruvian and one perhaps Cambodian or probably Javanese. The cohort size was quite small as you can imagine, so there was a great deal of qualification and dissembling around the conclusions. If memory serves, It was actually a critical review of the study, not the study findings themselves, so there were some cautiously open-ended rebuttals and “optional happy endings” to the piece.

        • dwoz says:

          (and of course, you find many eugenicists discussing Sapir/Whorf and using it to support their racism. Therein probably lies some measure of it’s denigration and rejection in the academic linguistics community. I find Sapir/Whorf interesting in the realm of computer languages, where there are very clear and striking differences in the kinds of abstractions and declarations you can make, depending on the compiler semantics. But that’s a very different can of worms and not really part of this discussion…)

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’m sure that’s some factor in its denigration, but public intellectuals and academics aren’t beyond picking it up as it suits them to advance their socio-political ends, either, whether they fully realize they’re doing it or not.

          I mean, the very nature of the politicization of science results in scenarios where the same theory or idea set or data pile is often presented as “proof” to promote ideologically opposed ideas. Some of the ideas underlying Sapir/Whorf, for example, may be used to support racism and to support the federal criminalization of hate speech (which some might, in their turn, call 1st amendment violation, and on and on and on).

          It’s more a measure of the rhetorical savvy of a given political advocate and less any commentary on the theory itself or the “proof” of the rectitude of a given ideological stance, but that’s how it’s billed. You’d be surprised how many people fail to register this.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Wow. My name popped up and I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I’m not being called a liar.

          What are “cultural variations in language?” I don’t know what that means. I might have an opinion about it if I did.

          What I wrote to dwoz about was mostly a cautionary tale about looking for regularities in human language and culture — namely, on the assumption that there’s always going to be some system of classifying plants and animals in there someplace, what form is it going to take? It is going to be in there somewhere, but maybe not where you’re looking.

          I went to do ecological anthropology, as a graduate student, expecting that at some point somebody would start explaining taxonomy to me and that it would have a more or less hierarchical structure analogous to family/subfamily/genus/species. Many linguistic and bird shooting (and eating) adventures later I had not found anything more complex or interesting than (for example) “all birds,” which included specific birds that were not grouped together — thus a two-level classification. People were very sophisticated in their understanding of how birds resembled each other (for example “all parrots”) but had no term for “all parrots” that sat under “birds.” I had frustrating conversations in which I’d say “but you see how that would work, right?” and people said, “Yes, of course, but we don’t do it like that.”

          Eventually, as I told dwoz, I learned that the meaningful classification of all things in the world — the structure that made sense to them, and that they used — was embedded in their ways of counting things.

          If there’s a clamoring for a description of “counting classes,” which very few languages in the world have, I can put it in a comment. I will say that among the people who speak this language I’m talking about — the Nagovisi people of South-Central Bougainville — the use of counting classes has dropped almost out of sight, leaving them in the position of having lost their embedded classification of all things.

          I don’t think they’ve lost their 63 pronouns, though. It’s hard for them to understand how we make do with our clumsy, pathetic set.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Your name popped up because dwoz said you were telling him all about taxonomies.

          I remarked that linguists have some pretty impassioned ideas on the topic (what ideas do/don’t exist and how based on things like counting) that don’t always agree with anthropologists, and that a broad consideration of the idea probably shouldn’t be restricted to one discipline.

          Then I returned trying to figure out what study he was talking about.

          It’s okay if you don’t know what I mean by cultural variations in language. The point isn’t central enough to require that kind of close work, I don’t think. Sorry to have alarmed you.

  10. Gloria says:

    I can say for sure that I’m glad creative writing exists. I sought it out. I seek it out. It’s one of the most enjoyable ways I can escape and reflect. I especially love Fiction – that smelly hooker.

    I did a live reading for TNB back in January about a short run-in with a meth addiction in my teens. Afterward, a guy in the audience came up to me and said that he was really moved by my piece. When I used to blog about my divorce, strangers would sometimes stop by to commiserate – because the felt less alone. My dream of dreams is to teach literacy to women in prison. Then women in Pakistan. Then school kids in rural Tennessee. And once they’re more literate, I won’t give a shit what the read. Literacy is empowerment – having an avenue on which to share your own history (for yourself, for you children, whatever) is just as powerful as being able to connect with perfect strangers via their stories – real or imagined.

    We writers are not all created equally. Some of us are superior to others – and that’s not the benchmark for whether we’ll make money. But who cares? I’m glad that we all do it and I want to personally see to it that more people are able to.


    • Becky Palapala says:

      That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.

      Again, the point of this isn’t to encourage people not to read or not to write or not to teach others to read and write. The ability to read and write and the act of doing so are not pointless or without merit. And it’s apparent enough that they must be enjoyable. None of these things are in question.

      I agree that literacy is empowering, but I’m not sure it’s empowering because it allows a person to read, say, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Or even more “respectable” or emotionally evocative creative works.

      I think it has more to do with people being able to give informed medical and political consent and sign their own names and read a brochure about birth control or the instructions on baby formula and so on. In prison, in Pakistan, in rural Tennessee, I think those issues should probably be addressed before the Eat, Pray, Love issue.

      Figuratively speaking, I think a lot of creative writers would really prefer to think the Eat, Pray, Love issue comes first. That what we are doing is THAT important. And it’s a way to inflate the importance of our own emotions and experiences and imaginations and attachments: To go about the business of insisting (as is the writerly habit) that our creative self-expression is not a personal indulgence but a public service.

  11. Erika Rae says:

    “Creative writers are not necessary. To want to be a creative writer for a job is, in the greater cultural scheme of things, a fairly scandalous, decadent thing to demand.”


    “What do ya do here?” tell them exactly the truth.

    “Virtually nothing. And therefore anything I want.”


    • Becky Palapala says:

      Right? Doesn’t it make writing seem so much more fun than dumb stuff like “story arc” and “target audience” and “deadline”?

      Boooooo “price point”.

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