So, Nadine Gordimer once gave some advice to Christopher Hitchens which Jeffery Eugenides quoted in an address to the winners of a literary award. You may have read about this already in any number of places, but if not, he said:
“A serious person should try to write posthumously,” Hitchens said, going on to explain: “By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.”
…All of the constraints Hitchens mentions have one thing in common: they all represent a deformation of the self. To follow literary fashion, to write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they’re popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place. When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember?
Todd Hasak-Lowy and Will Wilkinson both offer bruising dissent. As for me, I think that, like a lot of advice, it’s very good for certain people at specific times in their lives, but it does Procrustean violence when viewed as a general rule applying to all writers irrespective of age, experience, and motivation. Again, what if wanting other people to approve of you is part of who you are? Why should perfect self-containment be the ideal toward which artists strive? Why should the purity of the artist’s intentions be the measure of the art’s worth, rather than the effect it has on a given individual in the audience? What if Eugenides’s archetypal artist was himself inspired to his lofty perch by art created by flawed individuals with base ulterior motives?
The simple fact is, if this advice is true, we only usually realize it, we only feel the truth of it deep in our marrow, once we’ve tried flirting with the boundaries of fashion, money, and approval. We tend to discover where those lines are by crossing them. Personally, I think this sentiment is worth pointing to as a polestar, as an ideal one may want to aim for. But I suspect the character that infuses one’s writing will come from the valuable experience of the laborious process of saying “not this, not this,” to so many things along the way. Even good advice will become empty posturing if adopted at the wrong time, the very same posturing such advice was meant to forestall. There’s no shortcut around making mistakes and outgrowing them.