Saturday, March 05, 2011

Overanalysis of a Marge Piercy Quote

Today's Literary Quote of the Day (courtesy The real writer is the one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved. - Marge Piercy.

This is a terribly rich quote. Let's take it a bit at at time.

The real writer is the one who really writes. - This seems obvious to most creative writers but let's parse if both ways and see what it means. Forwards: To be a real writer, one must really write. True; if you're more interested in the trappings of "being a writer" than in acquiring craft and producing quality output, I don't think you can claim to be a real writer. Backwards: If you really write, you are a real writer". This is a bit less obvious to me. If one defines "really writing" as "writing containing a progressive and expanding sense of craft and desire", I'm down with the definition. I suspect a prolific and widely-reaching writer like Piercy probably meant it that way, or something like it. I do not, however, accept the position that all creative writing hobbyists are "really writing"; many are occupying time with literary sameness.

Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. - A brilliant line, but I don't buy it. Perhaps this is the geek in me poking out, but consider the origin of the phlogiston: Before the isolation and discovery of oxygen, there was for a short time a theory that all flammable materials contained a substance - phlogiston - could be liberated by fire. Clearly, the theory was wrong; flammability is raw material, plus oxygen, plus ignition. Now, I believe completely that combustion is a great analog for writing. One must have fuel (interesting content), oxygen (your personal contribution of style, form, genre, etc.) and....

Work is its own cure. -- this is the real ignition. While I believe in inspiration, work is the real spark. It's what takes the fuel and the necessary environment and makes it come to life with meaningful heat.

So back to the phlogiston, I'd say the need for something to burn is a necessary input in writing, but that's not "talent". Talent is the combination of fuel and spark. However, I do believe that good writing is not understood by those who do not study it well; perhaps there's the implication of that belief in Piercy's use of an unlikely and incorrect theory in comparison.

You have to like it better than being loved. -- What's the old saw? "If you can imagine yourself being anything else, go be that, because you're not a writer." A poetic overstatement by Ms. Piercy, but true enough.

Interesting challenge, trying to define the "real writer" and "real writing". In a poetry spectrum that ranges from Silliman to Collins (and beyond them on both sides, to be sure), I don't think it's really possible to define "writer" to the complete satisfaction of the trade. But I think the analogy of the solitary builder of a nourishing fire (using the correct modern definition, that it is) is good place to start.

No comments: