The ‘Writer’ Aesthetic: Performative or Productive? by Jasmine Jade

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Artist and composer Vladimir Franz by Ida Saudkova, ca 2000

                     ‘Writing is writing. Everything else is everything else.’

–          Mark Siddens[1]

I spent most of my early childhood believing I was some sort of sorceress because I often found myself spinning verses about the moon and stars at silly hours on school nights. That was when I was able to write at all, other times I would be kept awake by some unnameable urge, pen poised above paper, literally without the words to express myself. I would later find solace in Clarice Lispector’s assertion that ‘one can have vocation and not talent; one can be called and not know how to go.’ I would read these rhyming verses aloud to my teddy bears and occasionally my parents and, eventually my mother, who had read little save for newspapers and quit smoking guides since school, took me to a poetry reading at our local library. The poet, whose name I cannot recall, was a bright new talent reading from her first collection. Sat in the dark of the back row, my eyes filled as the syllables fell from her tongue with an effortlessness I had only hitherto heard in the soft repetitions of a priest’s refrains, on the few occasions my grandmother had taken me to church. She seemed to photosynthesize the spotlight, gathering energy and gradually growing taller, sitting up straighter, transcending herself. I yearned in my childish egoism to supplant her; me, a child who still referred to English class as ‘literacy’ on occasion, with my insightful stanzas about moonlight and dreamscapes and my twenty-six—and counting—spiralbounds. That evening, feeling both entirely out of place and yet strangely at home amongst academics and artists, I discovered a dream. I went out a sorceress and came home a poet.

A narrative such as this one is not uncommon amongst writers. Indeed, most of us will treasure similar moments which printed writer on our brains with an imaginary click of typewriter keys and shaped our decisions thereafter to include anything which allowed us to put words on paper (or equivalent white-coloured square of arranged pixels.) David Almond has described these moments as ‘personal mythologies’, which rightfully indicates a gap between the reality of the experience and the recall of it.[2] The dream of writing is particularly prone to this kind of embellishment, due perhaps to the emphasis on meaning inherent in the craft and the romantic stereotypes associated with the profession. As well as harbouring ‘personal mythologies’ about how we came to write, there are more widely held mythologies surrounding the ostensibly enigmatic ‘writer’s lifestyle’. Born of these mythologies are two opposing ‘writer’ aesthetics. I aim to examine the productivity of these in practice, addressing the commercialisation of a distinctly middle-class writer aesthetic through social media and its consequences, as well as the poet-maudit-esque, impoverished writer aesthetic, and how the stereotypes arising from these differ from the reality of the productive and at least semi-sane full-time writer.

I detail the anecdote above firstly to introduce the romantic vs. reality dichotomy with which this essay is concerned, and also to demonstrate that while my child-self, despite my nocturnal scribblings, my enjoyment of and inherent easiness socializing with artists and general desire for the attention the spot-lighted poet garnered, was not a productive writer. She was, at this point, concerned with aesthetics: she did things she knew to be typical of writers; stayed up writing by streetlight, nestled, nose-in-a-book, under a tree, kept a journal like the red-wine-sipping academic beside mam at the poetry reading with the curly cursive. Writing is, however, a craft: it requires honing. That is to say, aesthetic does not equal productivity, nor talent, and where the two become muddled, issues arise.

Any lifestyle has the potential to become enmeshed with the regular consumption of particular services and goods, and thus, there is unsurprisingly a consumer aspect to what I term here a ‘middle class writer aesthetic’.[3]  At the time of writing, I sit with a steaming thimble of espresso in a certain green-logoed coffeehouse listening to indie bands and admiring the satisfyingly consistent circumferences of coffee rings some inattentive barista forgot to wipe from my table. I might as well add that among my favourite things in the world besides coffee, are new typewriters made to look vintage and the musk of old books I collect but will never read. I type ‘#writerlife’ into Instagram. Here is a list of what I see in the posts:

  • A chocolate-topped cappuccino beside a MacBook and folded jam-jar spectacles.
  • A plastic cup skewered with a green straw atop an open journal endowed with illegible cursive (link to fountain pen used in caption.)
  • A perspiring scotch on the rocks beside a book (this dedicated bookworm’s 30th read this year, the caption informs us, and there’s an affiliate link to Amazon Audible—your first book’s on me, guys!—but she just had to have a physical copy of this particular gem.)
  • An advertisement for an Indiegogo-funded new-fangled writer’s laptop that supposedly inhibits its user from procrastinating by having no functions other than typing and saving, to the tune of £267. Has anyone informed the hipsters that £1.49 notepads are also devoid of ‘distracting apps’?

Social media platforms are the new lifestyle magazines. Glossy screens have usurped glossy pages, but the intention is the same: to sell. Whatever your profession, interests or niche, there is a hashtag infested with influencers and advertisements, ready to endow you with all you need to be successful at it, for a price. We are being sold an idea of what it is to be a writer, and it is costing us.

    Where livelihood, identity and lifestyle become inseparable, a certain interdependence is produced between the three, one which is perhaps not particularly helpful or productive. ‘Lifestyles are creations of markets and media, mutually reinforcing each other through a cycle of advertising images that arouse consumptive desires to fashion a self compatible with a particular lifestyle.’[4] The question becomes, then, what is the result when both livelihood and identity become contingent upon a lifestyle which demands specific levels of social and economic capital in order to be maintained?[5] This is a particular issue for younger aspiring writers, especially those with working-class upbringings, whose lack of professional experience coupled with their exposure to these idealistic and consumerist portrayals of what it means to write might be enough to turn them away from the profession entirely. The internalisation by working-class writers of the false necessity of such writer ‘accessories’—audiobook subscriptions, particular pens, laptops and the regular consumption of extortionate coffee—as prerequisites to or the paraphernalia of success might well contribute to and perpetuate feelings of imposter-syndrome and self-doubt, and prevent already underrepresented voices from being heard.

The other issue inherent in this interdependence between lifestyle, livelihood and identity is our proclivity to decide on prerequisites to writing, these lifestyle ‘accessories’ we come to believe we require to write, which may or may not have anything to do with the act of writing itself. Coffee, perhaps, is one of my own. Another is being ‘out of the house’, which usually equates to being in a café. I once knew a very talented aspiring writer who would only write alone in a dimly lit room with a glass of red. I had to wonder how much more productive he might be if he could write on his morning commute to his day job, or at his desk between taking calls. There is something performative in this, an apparent need to play the part of what one suspects a writer to be, which may prohibit writing when access to such conditions is unattainable. Eliminate the obstacles you yourself impose. They are procrastination masquerading as productivity.

Ernest Hemingway boldly asserted, there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ This quote introduces some of the main qualities of the second writer aesthetic I will examine in this essay—that of the tortured and impoverished writer. The quote, from the same writer who advised us to ‘write drunk, edit sober’, suggests that writing is a process for which one must suffer, but there is undeniably an element of self-indulgence inherent in the assertion. The language alone is romantic, and the suggestion that writing is merely an outpouring of one’s emotions which comes as freely as blood from an opened vein is of course a highly romanticised perspective on the craft. This indulgent, perhaps even hedonistic and excessively emotional ideology is typical of the poete maudit (that is, the ‘cursed poet’) for whom the craft of writing becomes bound up with a lifestyle characterised by drug and alcohol abuse, crime, insanity and generally living on the peripheries of society. One might hesitate to label this stereotype an ‘aesthetic’, but there is undoubtedly something performative about it, a certain pleasurable sadness inherent in projecting to the world the lengths to which one would go for their craft, irrespective of the suffering it causes to its creator. We see this in perhaps its plainest form in artwork created using the artist’s own bodily fluids. Take Rose-Lynn Fisher for instance, who, in her Topography of Tears, creates landscapes from her own true and onion-induced tears.[6] Or Gottfried Helnwein, who, confronting his country’s Nazi past in his youth, was expelled from university for painting a portrait of Hitler using his own blood.[7]

Poverty, mental illness and substance abuse are the three defining factors of this aesthetic, and it is important to note that the latter two are inextricably bound up with the former. The prevalence of both mental illness and substance abuse are highly correlated with poorer socio-economic circumstances.[8] Could it be then, that the existence of this aesthetic provides a counterpoint to the aforementioned consumerism-focused aesthetic to which less privileged writers might aspire? Personally, I have always gravitated more towards this aesthetic when trying to decipher my place in the world of writing, simply because it is closer to my own experiences external to my professional life: working-class parents and peers who drank and smoked, and suffered with depression among other mental illnesses.  Whether the perpetuation of this aesthetic through artists and writers whose work emerges from and perhaps romanticises these circumstances is validating or problematic for aspiring writers is a complex question. Perhaps both are so.

Mental illness is often associated with the creation of good art, and indeed, much enduring literature has been composed from such experiences, from the darkly poignant work of Sylvia Plath, to the scathing cynicism and black comedy of David Foster Wallace. It is true that both the process of developing and overcoming mental health issues can provide insight into the human condition, which makes for convincing, emotive and universally relevant writing. It is also worth noting that the creation of art, including writing, is often prompted by a desire for self-expression, and thus can be considered a therapeutic endeavour. There is, undeniably, a link between mental illness and artists: ‘In 1983, the psychologist Kay Jamison, herself bipolar, surveyed 47 British artists and writers and found that 38 percent had sought treatment for mood disorders — a percentage about 30 times the national average.’[9] According to Jamison, ‘poets had it worst of all: Half of those surveyed had been hospitalized for depression and/or mania’. Jamison attributed this to poets having the most ‘creative fire’, and Sarah Nicole Prickett in her article ‘A Woman Under the Influence’, addressing Jamison’s work, states ‘this seems a suspiciously convenient thing for poets to believe: It’s better to burn, burn, burn than to pay the heating bill.’[10] Again, there is this romantic and excessively emotive idea that one’s life and one’s art are mutually reinforcing entities, as if ‘burning’ with creativity could actually negate one’s survival-driven requirement for warmth.

The creation of particularly original and enduring writing has sometimes been attributed to the involvement of drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, and LSD and other psychedelics, particularly that of the modernist period wherein the sharing of writing in bars and jazz clubs was common practice. Jack Kerouac once advised ‘if possible, write “without consciousness” in semi-trance’, an approach perhaps best facilitated by being under the influence.[11] Ginsberg yearned to transcribe his intoxicated nocturnal experiences in his generation-defining poem ‘Howl’, lamenting those ‘who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish’.[12] Erik Mortenson suggested this desire to capture such experiences is also mirrored in the form of ‘Howl’, describing it as ‘benzedrine-inspired’.[13] During a panel discussing the association between artists and mental illness at Newcastle-held event New Art Social, the topic of writing under the influence of alcohol was raised. Several audience members attested to the suggestion that alcohol can be beneficial for the initial stages of writing, particularly for writers prone to perfectionistic thinking. This has been true of my experience also, as a writer who finds it difficult to begin new work with the unrealistic expectation and desire for the first draft to be flawless from the start. Drinking alcohol can certainly facilitate writing by lifting such expectations, which is possibly why it is touted for aiding creativity; it lowers inhibitions and thus we are more likely to explore ideas and write liberally.

Certainly, the use of substances in the creation of art, and channelling experiences of mental illness into art can be advantageous, but here we return to this issue of having prerequisites for writing. Enduring and esteemed writing has and can be produced without its creator having utilized drugs or suffered mental health issues. It is therefore my conviction that the tortured artist aesthetic can be considered a romanticisation of mental illness which can contribute to maladaptive behaviour in aspiring writers and at worst, ultimately result in the development of mental health issues and even addiction. With regards to mental illness and the creation of art, one need not look further than the symptoms of depression (including lack of motivation, disinterest in previously enjoyed activities, low mood and decreased self-esteem) to deduce that the mindset produced by such an illness is not a productive one. The insight attained from these experiences might be applied to writing productively post-hoc, but such insights may also be collated from interviews and other research, as well as first-hand experience. Where substance use is concerned, one might consider the consequences on productivity the following day, as well as the long-term consequences of substance use, including dependence, particularly if writing is one’s full-time profession.

We all come to writing with preconceptions about what it means to be a writer. The writer ‘aesthetics’ discussed here are two which I found to be particularly impactful whilst trying to discover what kind of writer I was aspiring to be. I have found, however, that whilst expensive accessories bolster motivation for a time, and a few whiskies can lubricate a creative block, it is imperative to rely on nothing save for words when it comes to writing. No amount of espressos, bleeding, depression, vodka or evenings spent shivering (even in the dazzling presence of one’s imperishable ‘creative fire’!) can ensure that one’s words reach the page—that is our work alone. ‘Writing is writing. Everything else is everything else.’[14]

 

 

 

[1] Mark Siddens, Introducing ‘Useless Suffering: Marina Tsvetaeva in Moscow‘, (Reading given at Ernest, Newcastle: 2019).

[2] David Almond, ‘David Almond on the Notebook’ (Lecture given on October 16th, 2018).

[3] Lynn D. Wenger, ‘Cigar Magazines: Using Tobacco to Sell a Lifestyle’ in Tobacco Control, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2001), pp. 279.

 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mark Tomlinson, ‘Lifestyle and Social Class’ in European Sociological Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 97-111.

[6] Rose-Lynn Fisher, The Topography of Tears, (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2013).

[7] Peter Selz ‘HELNWEIN: THE ARTIST AS PROVOCATEUR’ (1997) (Available online here: http://www.helnwein.com/artist/biography/article_3414-With-his-own-blood-Helnwein-paints-a-picture-of-Adolf-Hitler-Fuehrer_-The-Professors-are-discomposed-and-the-school-administration-confiscates-the-painting). [Accessed 16/05/2019].

[8] Iris Elliott, ‘Poverty and Mental Health: A review to inform the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Strategy’ (London, 2016), p. 16.

[9] Sarah Nicole Prickett, ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ (2018) (Available online here: https://thenewinquiry.com/a-woman-under-the-influence/) [Accessed 16/05/19].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sarah Ramshaw, Justice as Improvisation: The Law of the Extempore (Abingdon: Routledge Publishing, 2013), p.70.

[12] Allen Ginsberg, ‘Howl’ in Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009).

[13] Erik Mortenson, ‘High Off the Page, Representing the Drug Experience in the Work of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg’, (Wayne State University), Online PDF Access: < http://www.janushead.org/7-1/mortenson.pdf> [Accessed 16/05/2019].

 

[14] Mark Siddens, Introducing ‘Useless Suffering: Marina Tsvetaeva in Moscow‘.

 

About the Author:

Jasmine Jade is a poet from South Shields, Britain. She won the South Tyneside WRITE Festival Poetry Slam, was shortlisted for the Terry Kelly Poetry Prize 2018 and came second in the Mind Short Story Competition 2019. Last year, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the Newcastle University.