Hello, my name is Paul. And I’m a frustrated writer.
I say this into an imaginary room full of hundreds of thousands of other frustrated writers because those two words go together like Mac n’ Cheese, Laurel and Hardy, Donald Trump and ‘dumbass’. There are, simply put, a hell of a lot of writers out there, all struggling to make their voice heard, all with minds overflowing with ideas, all frantically punching words into their laptops, sometimes with their fingers, sometimes with their bloodied foreheads, hoping to get somewhere.
Let’s face it, being a writer today is pretty difficult.
There’s one very simple reason for that: everyone can write. Or at least, everyone thinks they can write. It’s dangerous territory to say that because it sounds horribly elitist, especially when you take into account the fact that, well, yes, everyone can write. It’s a basic skill most people learn at a very early stage in life, and so for many, claiming that writing is some sort of special talent worthy of acclaim is a lot like claiming breathing is. Everyone breathes and everyone writes. What’s so great about you, eh Poindexter?
That’s all well and good, but there’s a difference between writing and Writing. I’m not talking about typing out an email, or jotting down a shopping list. I’m not even talking about writing a blog post, which yes everyone can and should do because writing is genuinely good for the soul. I’m talking about writing as a profession, writing as a form of communication that requires special understanding, granular detail and a level of clarity that’s very very difficult to achieve. I’m talking about the difference between these two statements:
Mike left the room.
Mike exited the room.
Two sentences comprising four words, three of which are exactly the same. Big whoop? What’s the point? Well, the one word that’s changed here is pretty significant. ‘Left’ and ‘exited’ are essentially the same word to most people: they mean the same thing. But the English language is a wonderfully complex and fluid tool that’s dictated by emotion as much as cold, hard facts. So while words can mean the same thing they can seem to mean something different.
Looking at my example, ‘exited’ sounds harsher than ‘left’. Left is a pretty neutral word, and when Mike has left the room, the other people in there probably just got on with their lives, unconcerned by what happened. ‘Exited’ is different though; the ‘x’ makes it harder. So when Mike ‘exited’ the room, it sounds like he did so with a certain brusqueness. Was he angry? What was he angry about? Who was he angry with?
It’s one word and one little letter. But it makes a big difference.
That’s the difference between writing and Writing; a person who writes and a Writer. But this seems to be slipping through the cracks of our national (even global) understanding. The same can be said of literary concerns as a whole. I don’t mean this as a complaint against the current ‘War on the Elites’ that Trump and Brexit have ushered in, because I also see it among those who are supposed to be educated. I can’t count the number of times intelligent people have dismissed writing as something that everyone can do. Indeed, just last week, I grimaced during a media conference I attended when a speaker dismissed creative disciplines as “fluffy”. More practical concerns were of greater importance, he seemed to be suggesting.
It’s an understandable, if fundamentally wrong-headed, point, and I’m sure anyone who studied literature, art, film, or the media at university has gone through the same thought process as they tried to find a job that uses their skill. It’s pointless, society seems to say, to understand art, and certainly nowhere near as important as a science, which provides tangible results – an actual thing at the end. Such is the state of Western society. We’re obsessed with things and an action is not worth anything unless a thing is produced at the end of it all. Science does that; art does not.
The sciences are, of course, utterly critical, but just because studying a piece of art doesn’t have a tangible ‘thing’ at the end of it, doesn’t mean it’s pointless. It just means its use is a little more difficult to grasp. Again, here’s an example.
A little while back, I watched the 9,568th entry into the X-Men franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse. Lots of other people have done the same, and lots of other people will have opinions on it. My own is that it was a solid entry into the series whose interesting character dynamics are swamped by humour that’s desperate to keep pace with Marvel Studios and special effects that become very dull very quickly. It’s a solid, if forgettable, piece of comic book hokum.
There’s nothing special about this thought. Anyone can write, anyone can formulate an opinion about a film. But there’s a difference between criticising a film and critiquing it. ‘This film is fine’ is ok, but going into depth on why it’s ‘fine’ and what that film has to say is a different thing altogether.
Returning to X-Men: Apocalypse, I’d argue that it’s at its strongest when exploring real-world parallels (a consistent strength of the X-Men series). A powerful moment finds the pre-Cyclops Scott Summers struggling with his nascent powers while in a history class that’s focusing on the events of the previous two films. Another involves Magneto, who at the start of the film has moved on from his villainous past, relocated to Poland and started a family. Tragedy, of course, is just around the corner.
Both these moments speak clearly to the plight of LGBTQIA people and immigrants struggling to create a new life for themselves. The Summers scene made me wonder how it must feel to be in class as a closeted LGBTQIA teen and learning about the horrors that people like you have historically suffered. How difficult must it be for you to experience that? How much must you want to hide from a world that has shown people like you nothing hate. The Magneto storyline, meanwhile, links to the struggles of immigrants and how the West has created its own enemies by showing refugees and those with less privilege than us nothing but scorn. When the world rejects you, the storyline asks, why should you accept it?
This is by no means exceptional critical thinking, but it’s a step up from ‘yeah, it’s ok’, and it’s really important for society to do it more often. We think of art as disposable. “Ah, it’s just a film, isn’t it? Don’t take it so seriously.” And yes, it is. But that meal is just a pizza and a can of coke. Just because it’s ‘just’ something doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. After all, you wouldn’t wolf down that pizza and guzzle on that Coke if you didn’t have some informed insight into what’s actually in them. The same applies to art: you shouldn’t consume a piece of art (or TV news, or an advert, or anything like them) without questioning what exactly is beneath the shiny surface.
At the same conference I grimaced through criticisms of “fluffy” disciplines, I also grinned through a panel about Fake News. There, a speaker was asked what the term means to him, and he used one simple word that cut through the bullshit of Trump’s favourite excuse: Propaganda. He went on to speak eloquently about the need to improve our education system’s use of Media Studies and how that will help give people the necessary tools to identify and act against Fake News. Had I not been at the course with work, I’d have stood and applauded. Finally: someone got it.
The rabbit hole goes pretty deep though, and for us to change our perception of Fake News, we need to change our perception of media studies, the arts, writing as a whole and the nature of value vs worth. Just because you can’t sell something doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold value. Just because something doesn’t churn out a tangible thing doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Just because everyone can perform the physical actions required to do something doesn’t mean they can really do it or do it well. This isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, but society’s struggling to grasp it nonetheless.
Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope that things will get better any time soon. In the internet age, we’ve reduced writing to a tool to win clicks and raise ad revenue. Until that changes, nothing I’ve mentioned here will change; in fact, they’ll only get worse. It’s hardly a happy note to end on, but I don’t think there’s any other way to end. When society gives up on writing it gives up on the art of communication, and when that happens, we end up with people who spout empty slogans and blatant lies without a second’s thought.
Sound like anyone familiar?