Invincible Convictions

What are your most deeply held personal beliefs?No, you don’t have to tell me in the comments section below (unless you really want to), but take a moment to think about it. Chances are a few gut reactions will boil up to the surface of your thoughts.

“I’m a liberal.”

“I’m a conservative.”

“I believe all people are created equal.”

“I believe in a higher power.”

“I’m an atheist.”

Does that sound right? You might also hear other thoughts echoing up from the deepest recesses of your mind:

“All fiction should illuminate the human condition.”

“Stories should be enjoyable escapism.”

“Movies are better than books.”

“I write because I want to entertain myself.”

“I write because I have something to say.”

Some or all of these may be true for you. Maybe none of them are, but I’m sure you can replace them with convictions of your own.

I’ve been reading Morris Dickstein’s excellent book Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. The book is a thorough examination of American arts and letters during one of the most harrowing decades of U.S. history. Writers, photographers, poets, and other artists were compelled to either face the hard times in their arts, or turn away from the abject poverty, social unrest, and crumbling security. No matter what their choice, they could not long ignore the effects of the Great Depression.

Writers like John Steinbeck fully engaged with the injustices and travails of the poor in such seminal works as The Grapes of Wrath, while poets like Robert Frost at first almost seemed determined to ignore the plight of the poor and displaced in favor of his homespun poetry than ennobled folksy wisdom and the joys of New England life.

I’m not as equipped as Dickstein to examine the art and politics of these two men, but in his book I came across a quote by Robert Frost that spoke to the creative soul in me, and I thought I’d share it with you.

(This is from a letter by Frost to B.F. Skinner, as quoted by Dickstein, so it’s paraphrased a bit.)

All that makes a writer is the ability to write strongly and directly from some unaccountable and almost invincible personal prejudice. Those who don’t hold fast to their own prejudices simply adopt the prejudices of others, the “received wisdom.” A strong writer (he cites Karl Marx as an example) is one who can impose his prejudices, his ruling metaphors, on those around him. Who persists and persists in the face of all rival claims. This makes creative power hard to distinguish from personal ambition.

Of course, Frost isn’t speaking of prejudices in the modern pejorative sense, but rather as the deeply held beliefs and convictions that motivate us all to create.

When I read this bit, I immediately thought of the great Hive-Mind of writerdom (this blog included), and how full it is of advice, help, criticism, do’s and don’ts, and outrage (righteous and otherwise).

There are some days when my head is so full the latest internet-fail or of well-intentioned advice that it stymies my writing to a degree. I suppose this post could be a simple lesson to log off Twitter or Facebook, unplug that router and just write — but Frost’s quote got me thinking about things on a deeper level.

You have a unique voice. Use it. When you are writing, clear out the sometimes-wonderful, sometimes-not plurality of other voices in your head. What matters in your storytelling is what matters most to you. Hold on to your conviction like it is a life raft in a tempest-tossed sea, because that’s exactly what it is.

All that other stuff is just a monster wave eager to swamp your boat.

Frost’s advice seems a bit curmudgeonly on the surface (it is, and he was, I suppose), but the man had a point. Dickstein admits Frost’s fatalism and self-promotion makes an odd combination, but that’s the knife’s edge all writers are balanced upon, I think. Frost’s “ruling metaphors” are key to winning reader engagement. If you are absolutely confident in the story you are telling, your audience will know, and they will follow you to hell and back. Or Alpha Centauri. Or Middle Earth. As for ambition, I don’t think it’s shameful to admit that writing can be an ego trip sometimes. We may be trying to enlighten, or to entertain, but we should be confident that we have something worth reading, a tale worth telling that can only be told in our voice.

A quick side note: I’m not encouraging anyone to be an asshole. Some folks will disagree, but I think you can be a powerful writer without metaphorically (or literally) battering your readers and colleagues. “Don’t be a dick” is a good rule for everyone.

So back to your convictions. What are they? What moves you to write?  Whether your chief goal is to enlighten or to entertain, don’t shy away from what matters to you. Own your ambition.


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