Is Your Writing Art – and Should it Be?

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Welcome to the revamped Aliventures! If you’re reading this by email or RSS, you might want to pop over to the site (aliventures.com) to see how it looks.

I’ve got a new tagline for the site, up there in the banner (along with the rather huge picture of me): Master the art, craft and business of writing. I think the “craft” and “business” aspects are easy to grasp, but perhaps like me, you wonder whether your writing really counts as “art”.

Where Do We Draw the “Art/Not-Art” Line?

There are certain types of writing that you’re probably comfortable thinking of as “art”:

  • Shakespeare’s plays.
  • Dickens’ novels.
  • S. Eliot’s poetry.

And there are types of writing that are pretty far removed from art:

  • Shopping lists.
  • Automated emails.
  • Keyword-stuffed website pages written for search engines rather than humans to read.

But somewhere in between those, there’s a massive grey area.

Literary fiction by authors like Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan … probably art.

Books like The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey … that’s a bit tougher.

Is it About the Money?

Some people feel that once you start writing for money, rather than for love, that’s when you stop producing art.

I really don’t think that’s true. After all, fanfiction is written with no (legal) possibility of monetary reward … and yet I don’t think most of us would consider it more worthy art than, say, a Booker prize-winning novel.

(That’s not to knock fanfiction, by the way; plenty of it is really well written and more enjoyable to read than some Booker prize-winning novels.)

Most authors write “for the money”. That doesn’t mean that the money is their sole motivation, or that their work is just hackery. Shakespeare (with wealthy patrons) and Dickens (paid per instalment) wrote for money.

There’s a rather aggravating idea in some literary circles that writing for money, particularly daring to hope to make a decent living, means that the writing is somehow lesser:

Right now there is a distressed writer sitting in front of her computer somewhere, worrying not about whether she’ll make enough money to give up the day job or how many copies she will sell, but obsessing over form and language, meaning and truth. Exactly what, in the long term, readers will always be hungry for.

Whatever happened to writing for love, not money?, Sameer Rahim, The Telegraph

Perhaps Sameer is blessed with the ability to only focus on one category of things at a time, but personally, I’m quite capable of worrying about how many copies my books will sell while also wanting to make them as good as they can possibly be. I imagine Dickens felt the same.

If you want or need to write for the money, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that – and it in no way takes away from the art of your writing.

After all, writing “for the money” basically means writing for an audience who care enough to pay for your work. Doesn’t that imply not just a certain level of quality in “form and language” but also an ability to touch readers with “meaning and truth”?

Is ALL Writing Art?

We can’t just say that all writing is art (unless you want to include shopping lists and automated emails and spammy web pages) … and I don’t think we can even say that all fiction is art, though that’s closer.

I think motivations start to come into play here: art isn’t just about the finished product but also about the person who created it.

Let’s say I decided to write erotica.

I’m sure there’s plenty of erotica out there we could also consider to be art (one of my more memorable assignments at university involved a discussion over whether certain passages of fiction were “art or pornography”) but I’m not sure that I could write erotic and call it art.

If I wrote erotica, I’d probably buy a “how to” book and set about it like a paint-by-numbers activity – in much the same way I wrote plenty of technically decent but emotionally barren short stories around the start of my creative writing Masters degree.

But perhaps if you wrote erotica, it would be something truly from your heart, not something coldly calculated to make money. It would be a book that readers loved, rather than one they bought, read, and discarded.

So I don’t think we can say something as simple as “literary fiction is art” and “creative non-fiction is art” and “thrillers aren’t art” and “sales brochure aren’t art”.

I think it’s very much about the intention of the author and – inextricably bound up with that – the experience of the reader.

Putting Your Heart into Your Writing

Those emotionally barren short stories I wrote years ago worked on a craft level, with decent narrative and dialogue and characterisation … but they didn’t resonate with the reader. I wrote them as relatively cold-blooded exercises, with the hope of getting a few small competition wins. (I managed a couple of prizes.)

Two separate tutors, both with quite different teaching styles, told me I needed to put my heart, not just my head, into my writing and I finally listened.

For me, that meant writing the novel I’d been thinking about for years – Lycopolis.

For you, putting your heart into your writing that might mean working on poetry or a memoir or an epic fantasy trilogy or a blog or whatever it is that you’d love to write.

You can’t expect it to matter to a reader if it doesn’t matter to you.

But if it does matter to you – if you love what you’re writing (at least some of the time), if you keep getting drawn back in, if you want to get it right, if you can’t just stop and walk away and never pick it up again … then that’s when you’re producing art.

The Dangers of Art

Of course, “art” isn’t necessarily better than “not-art”. Putting your heart into your writing leaves you open to some potentially major problems:

#1: Not Being Able to Detach Yourself from Your Work

If you want to get your work in front of readers, you need to clearly distinguish you from your writing.

  • If you workshop a piece of fiction, people will suggest amendments and improvements.
  • If you leave comments open on your blog, you may realise that readers totally missed the point of your latest post.
  • If you send your non-fiction proposal out to publishers, it might well get rejected.

While it’s perfectly normal to feel a bit down when your work gets negative feedback or a rejection, you have to avoid seeing it as a personal attack. However much it might feel like it, people aren’t criticising you – they’re giving you feedback on the craft of your work.

#2: Thinking That Art is Enough

You can pour a whole lot of passion and enthusiasm into a piece of work without it necessarily being worth reading.

I’ve seen a few writers over the years feel that art should be enough. They dash out a first draft, and think they’re finished. When they’re workshopped, they fiercely defend every word, refusing to listen to suggestions.

Most writers, of course, know that craft is just as important: that the first raw rush of words, while often great fun to write, will require careful reworking and editing.

#3: Treating Every Writing Project as Art

Not everything you write needs to be a work of art. You don’t have to pour your heart and soul into work-for-hire … especially if doing so leaves you drained and unable to work on the writing projects you truly love.

I don’t do as much freelancing these days as I used to, but I still do a bit. It’s a nice break from other writing projects, because I’m not invested in the same way, and I’m not trying to produce art – just decent work for a decent wage.

This also applies to emails, forum posts, tweets, and other more ephemeral forms of writing: they don’t have to be masterpieces worthy of a place in your bibliography some day.

You’re perfectly entitled to see yourself as an artist and your writing as art without having to apply that to everything you write.

 

If you want your writing to be art, write what you love. Write wholeheartedly. Write because you can’t imagine not writing.

I’d love to hear about your current writing projects, whether you consider them art or not: drop a comment below and tell me what you’re working on.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

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17 thoughts on “Is Your Writing Art – and Should it Be?

  1. My simple English dictionary (my go-to before I bring out the big guns) defines art primarily as “The creation of works of beauty or other special significance”. In this instance, it’s eye of the beholder stuff, whether you created or consumed the work. I call something art and you disagree…neither of us can be right or wrong.

    Another definition is “Human creativity as distinguished from nature”. I believe this puts all writing in the realm of being art, which is why the primary definition is both as broad and as limiting as you choose to make it.

    As you say, a shopping list would rarely be considered art. But Michelangelo’s shopping list gets placed in a museum [ http://www.openculture.com/2013/12/michelangelos-illustrated-grocery-list.html ]. And the artist Michelle Reader uses shopping lists among other discarded items to create art [ http://www.michelle-reader.co.uk/Profile.html ].

    There is possibility in everything!

    In other news…Yay! Ali’s back! 🙂

    • Good points on the possibilities … I’ve even seen poems created out of spam emails, which I suppose is a “found object” type of art.

      Thinking about it, I’m sure a short story could be told purely through shopping lists. (I may have to give that a go some time!)

      It’s great to be back. 😀

  2. Hi Ali,

    Good to see you and Aliventures back. Great topic to start with too.

    All Writing is not Art. The difference between the two is intention and a creative process. Although taste and changing attitudes do play a part, for instance “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Lolita”.

    Spammy, thrown-together, copy-and-paste, content isn’t Art. It’s not Writing either, not good Writing.
    Your point that not all Writing needs to be Art is a good one which made me think about what it is we try to do when we write each blog post, or piece of fiction, or article. Good or bad, we’re trying to get people to do, or think, something differently. If we succeed then maybe that’s all that’s needed.

    Btw, my shopping lists are always works of Art 🙂 .
    Tom Southern’s last blog post ..Why Nobody Reads Your Blog Posts (and What To Do About It)

    • Well, you’re going to have to share a shopping list with us now, Tom. 😉

      I’m leaning towards the idea that art is about meaning. Spammy webcontent aimed at search engines isn’t meaningful to anyone — not the writer, not the reader. Getting people to take action, or encouraging them to think, IS meaningful.

  3. Hi, Ali.

    This is one of the best definitions of art I’ve read (copied from Jeff Goins’ website quite a while ago):

    “Entertainment gives you a predictable pleasure. Art gives you pleasure but leads to transformation.”—Mako Fujimura

    I wonder if that is the difference: when you come into contact with art, you are changed by it.

    That’s subjective of course, and definitely some art is more transformative than other art, but for me it catches the essence of it. I like that Mako mentions pleasure too. Aesthetic quality, in my mind, is part of the definition of art too.

    I recently shifted from blogging to writing a TinyLetter. I’m not sure any of it qualifies as art yet (as per the above definition), but the intention is certainly there.

    Thanks for the article and your website. I really appreciate your thoughtful perspective and the lack of hype (compared to so many other writing sites).

    • I like the idea that art changes something about the person consuming it. I’ve nothing against writing as pure entertainment — but I’ll admit that I always forget the thrillers I read quickly, whereas some novels (not necessarily literary ones) live with me for years or decades.

      Hope your TinyLetter goes well — I think intention is a big part of it. We can’t control how people respond to our words, but we can put the best of ourselves into them.

      I’m not a very hype-y person (I’m too British ;-)).

      • Yeah, it ties in with what you said about meaning. If it doesn’t have any depth or something that makes me think or remember it, I’m probably less inclined to call it art.

        I’m a Kiwi; we’re pretty understated too. Probably related to the British roots. 🙂

    • Thanks Rick! It’s lovely to be back. 🙂 Kitty loves to “write” on the computer now so I’m sure I’ll be sharing some photos of her before too long…

      Hope you and your family have a wonderful year too!

  4. Like the website and your picture on top!

    Art for me is something that an indefinable quality that you just can’t put your finger on. Whether it’s a painting, a story… something that draws you in.

    • Thanks Corianne!

      Maybe the “draws you in” part is to do with creating meaning and change? (Two things that seem to be coming out as themes above.) I absolutely agree that some stories seem *real* to me in a way that others just don’t, and I feel like I’m living — at least partially — within them while I’m reading.

  5. Hi Ali,

    I’m happy you’re back. Happy New Year.

    Your website looks beautiful and clean. The logo looks drop-dead gorgeous more than the previous one. I would say it worths about a couple hundred of bucks lady. 🙂

    My writing is art and is not art. The word “art” makes me think about paintings in museums and national parks. Screw it. If I get someone to showcase my work like that, thank God. If it doesn’t, then so be it.

    Great post, by the way. It’s nice to see you on board again.

    Abraham.

    How are your two little fellas?

    • Thank you, I’m glad you like it! And you’ve got a great robust attitude to your writing there. 🙂 I’ll definitely admit to daydreaming occasionally about fame and glory … but I really love writing in and of itself, regardless of whether it ever gets any sort of showcasing.

      My little ones are mostly delightful and always energetic! They definitely keep me busy. 🙂

  6. I think the art of writing can be just providing your reader with something that has made his time reading your stuff worth while.