Guest Post by Michael Hoffman
Writers! Beware of success. This is not what you’re in it for. You see things others don’t see, you feel things others don’t feel. If you’re talented you can convey your vision and your feelings in words. It is your business to do so – your calling, rather. Whether others praise you or mock you, flock to your standard or ignore you, is not your concern.
The pursuit of success will blunt your unique vision, and if success should pursue you – it’s rare but it does happen – you will be forced to choose between mining your solitude for what it and only it can yield, and pleasing a crowd that… well, we all know what crowds are. Their opinions don’t mean much. They seek amusement, distraction, titillation, and are soon bored. Your business as a writer is not with crowds. It is not with the many but with the few.
Writing is a serious business – not a serious commerce. There must be nothing dishonest about writing, while commerce, on the other hand, embraces dishonesty. That is not a criticism. It is simply a fact of life – who would deny it? What is advertising if not creative deception? What else can it be? Its purpose is to entice – at the cost of truth if necessary. When the truth is appealing, it is dressed up to seem more so. When it is not, it is hidden, or tossed overboard. In commerce as in life, deception within limits has its legitimate place.
It has no place in serious writing, however.
Let’s start with what a reader starts with – the cover. A corrupt cover bespeaks a corrupt book. Blurbs are toxic. Does anyone believe them? Of course not. Everyone knows better, just as everyone knows not to take ads at face value. And yet we are enticed by them – all of us, the wise no less than the foolish. In another context it’s called brainwashing. Personally I prefer my book covers black and, except for the title and author’s name, blank. That’s all you’ll find on my book’s covers (present and future though not, alas, past). What my book has to say to a reader is in the text – only in the text.
Fine, you say – but who will notice such a book? There are millions of books, all clamoring for readers’ notice. Silence gets you nowhere in a noisy world. It’s true. But silence has a value all its own, especially congenial to that most silent of activities, reading. A writer must be content to get nowhere. There is nowhere to get to, nowhere to be, except right here. The writer who has not learned that by mid-career is not serious.
Among the prominent members in good standing of the book industry are people known as editors. My stubbornness extends to the point of refusing to have anything to do with them. What can they do for me? Can they tell my stories better than I can? They seem to think so; I beg to differ. Do they know the English language better than I do? Maybe they do, though I hope not – but even if they do: what is the value to the reader of a book or story or article bearing my name and purporting to be by me that is not entirely by me, whose words are not entirely mine? Suppose my prose is imperfect – might not imperfection improve a work of art, make it more genuine, more personal, more moving on that account? Is Don Quixote a “perfect” book? Or The Idiot, or Moby Dick? What would a competent editor have done to them? Made them over for sure, and no doubt the changes, considered individually, would not all have been for the worse. You’d have ended up certainly with more professional writing – at the cost, however, of that inexplicable and flawed quality called genius.
Writing is solitude – not only in the sense that you work alone, but in the more important sense that you must think alone. It’s hard, and it’s lonely. If that frightens you, don’t be a writer. Don’t embark on a writer’s journey expecting to be coddled and petted. If you are coddled and petted, it’s a sign you’re on the wrong track. Grab your things and get off at the next station – or risk seeing your talent, your unique vision, turn to dross. Court failure rather than success. It’s bitter but it’s real. “Better to fail in originality,” said Melville, “than to succeed in imitation.” That’s it. That’s the writer’s life in a nutshell.
Michael Hoffman is a fiction and non-fiction writer living in Hokkaido, Japan. His two latest books are Little Pieces: This Side of Japan (2010) and The Naked Ear (2012). His columns and feature articles appear regularly in The Japan Times, the latest feature being “Gender-Bending in Japan: From Myth to Post-Sex” (July 14, 2013).