Writing can be seen as having the ability to function, that is to serve, as a moral instrument. Literature has the potential to create compassion and empathy for others, something separate and apart from everyday language that serves more to inform—less to create lasting connections. As you can easily see in discourse face-to-face or online, we constantly misunderstand or cannot relate to another. That discord is even more potent now in a contentious election season. But how can we relate? The answer, I think can be found in the reason we, as human beings, feel the need to write literature.
I should say up front that I think moral function and moral purpose are not the same and point to a noted difference in the way writers approach their audience. (See craft books by Stephen Dobyn's Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, partially from where these ideas came.) If we say that something has a purpose, this is to also say that there is a specific result or aim, an agenda. I would argue that the only agenda a writer is called to is one in which she can connect to the reader. Such an agenda is to create an authentic form of communication not found in discursive language (non-literary language, i.e. conversation). This must be approached with a sense of humility, a sense of not knowing, a genuine curiosity about life and its situations and dilemmas.
Because the truth is that no one holds the truth. No one can say they know something utterly. That is the reason many people feel the need to write, to try to understand the nature of their life, to examine their life and the lives of others so that they can live more mindfully, with more fulfillment. When a writer writes something with the intention of forcing an idea onto an audience, without the urge for authentic connection, we stop creating literature and instead create propaganda, diaries, or self-serving scribbles.
I do believe in the value of writing for one’s self, to heal and to mend the mind and body of trauma, to name one's experiences and try to understand them from our own personal perspective. This is how most of us get involved in writing, because of how it makes us feel, how it relieves or inspires us to live differently or with more awareness. But we do not live in a vacuum. However you define your audience—whether it be your own community, or the world at large—ultimately, there are readers who are vastly different from you that you must try to reach. Why? Because as human beings, we are driven to connect to other people, and one of the best, most effective ways in which to do that is through literature. When was the last time you felt moved or otherwise opened into another person's world? I would bet it was from a story, a poem, a novel, or even something you read online forwarded to you by a friend, in which you imagined the life of another person.
But how do we, as writers, connect to our readers this way? Is this a tall order, something too defined or lofty? Shouldn't we just write for its own sake, for enjoyment or pleasure? It all comes down to the issue of craft. Many of us come to writing for its simple joy, the pleasure of language, its beautiful sounds and our ability to play with it. It is like learning to make pottery when your intention is to become a professional craftsman. The first experience might be the pleasure of working with materials, the physical delight of clay in the fingers. The more you practice, the more tools and understanding you gain on how to move your hands, what extra instruments you might need, practices and ways of doing things that save time and are more effective. You do all this with an end goal of making a useful piece of pottery, a cup, a bowl, a plate. You don't get to say what goes inside the cup, the bowl, onto the plate, unless you made it for yourself only. You don't get to fill it.
The same can be said of writing. Are you a writer that wants to be the potter who make pieces for himself? Maybe at first. But I believe even the novice writer should aim for making a useful cup, a plate that can be utilized. There is something that grows in us when we think of making something that can be useful to others. The thought that goes into it makes us more actualized human beings.
Like a craftsman or artist who uses her hands, this entails learning craft, skills and being an apprentice or having guidance from someone who learned what pitfalls to avoid, how to do things with more ease. Look to the people who have callused hands, even if you don't like their finished pieces. They have spent time as practicing writers learning, understanding, and studying craft issues like figurative language, sentimentality versus creating emotional resonance or connection, authorial distance, the arrangement of information, tone, narrative versus lyrical, and the sonic qualities of language. This takes time to know, to practice and try to understand. Practice with these craft issues become, eventually, what a serious writer focuses on in day-to-day life. Inspiration is not enough to sustain you as an artist. Learn to work, to be a craftsman. It has helped me create a life as a working writer, and if that is what you want, I wish that for you.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is the author of FUEGO, published by Saint Julian Press, available at Brazos Bookstore, Casa Ramirez and Amazon. She is a Houston native and teaches workshops with Writespace and Inprint Houston. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Storyscape Literary Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, and Tinderbox Literary Review.