Writing Into the Void, August, 2015

Does it matter if anyone reads what you write? It is a question that faces most writers, and the parallel question faces other kinds of artists. Looking back on Van Gogh’s life, we know that he was destined to become the world’s best selling painter and therefore the struggle for recognition during his lifetime has a romance that he probably didn’t experience at the time. Should we then as writers and artists create in the belief that our work will reach a ‘public’, even if it’s unlikely to attain the status of Van Gogh’s work? But what about all those Van Gogh’s whose work isn’t recognised? It’s obviously hard to name any undiscovered geniuses, but the singer-songwriter Rodriguez is a good example of a genius who almost sank without trace. Should he have bothered if his work had never reached an audience? And on the flip side, what about those artists who assume that they are Van Goghs, but are in fact Jeffrey Archers whose work is fine entertainment but no more than that. Is the absence of a public leading them to waste their lives because their delusions are never tested by coming up against reality, X-factor style?

This issue has implications for our motivation as writers, but there is a deeper question about how it affects the work itself. Without an audience, to what extent is our work purely expressive rather than communicative? To what extent should an artist’s work be intentionally communicative; is it exactly the attempt to communicate that condemns it to be a Kane and Abel rather than Sunflowers? These are difficult questions to answer, but at a basic level I think that art needs a mixture of expression and communication in order to be worthwhile. I think the opposite of the aphorism that ‘if you can paraphrase it, it isn’t poetry’; I think if you can’t paraphrase it, it isn’t art, but if you can paraphrase it too easily it also isn’t art, or more precisely it isn’t good art. For example, in Raymond Carver’s story ‘A Small Good Thing’, a baker is giving two grieving parents rolls and butter, and says ‘It’s good to eat something… Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.’ That last sentence, ‘There’s all the rolls in the world in here’ means something like, ‘it’s not much of a comfort, but I will provide as much solace as I can in the only way I’m able and I want you to feel you can receive it without feeling any obligation or guilt’, or something like that.  If that line had been completely un-paraphrasable then it would have had no emotional or artistic impact in the context of the story. But equally if the line spelt out the meaning unambiguously then it would have lost all metaphorical and symbolic power. It’s a fine line, but I think finding the balance is crucial for any artist, though only you as an artist can ultimately judge whether you have got the balance right.

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