Lecturette: The Writer’s Manifesto

Another in the series of lecturettes from old and/or defunct courses. This, from DU’s course called Writers on Writing.   ~Jenn

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On Attempting to Talk About Art–the Writer’s Manifesto

One of your major projects for this quarter is to compose a short Why I Write piece: a writer’s manifesto. What is it?

It’s a declaration of independence, an assertion, sounding the “barbaric yawp” (1) that says, “Yes, art is essential. Here’s a plethora of reasons why…”

But the catch-22 of this situation is that the moment you attempt to describe/capture this winsome creative process, the essence of it escapes words. Chapter 3 of Zen in the Art of Writing is called “How to Keep and Feed a Muse,” and addresses this issue with zest and gusto. (2) Yet artists and writers still compose essays about what they create. Can it be helpful to them, to try and pinpoint a method to their own incomprehensible, joyous madness?

An art-history major friend of mine once (in a sadistic mood, no doubt) forced me to read her homework. It was Kandinsky’s Artist’s Manifesto, and was (my friend moaned) not only badly written, but off-pissing as well.

K says that humanity is divided up into layers which, stacked on top of one another, form a pyramid. Peasants fill the largest, bottom layer, then lowly artisans, merchants, and so on up until you get to the artists, perched on the very top in the “upper triangle” of existence. Needless to say, anyone in the stratified layers below are either too stupid or too jealous to ever understand or appreciate art (let alone create it!) and the light it supposedly attempts to shine into the darkness of their ignorance. (3)

Uhhh, okay,  Mr. K, but I’m a peasant and an artist. Does that mean I’m too stupid to understand my own work? (4) Or is it that only artists understand art, and therefore audiences, viewers and readers should be obsolete? Boy, K, a little lonely in that upper triangle? That latest brilliant painting too misunderstood by the plebes to pay rent this month?

Shut up and paint.

Shut up and paint.

Kandinsky is a terrific artist–I’ve always loved his work. But get him to start talking about his art and, well, you see the problems in this particular instance. Unfortunately, Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. LeGuin notwithstanding, I’ve read even great writers with a healthy vision of their work fail to describe why they write, or wax cosmic until they realize they’re trying to describe the indescribable. My Kandinsky-suffering friend and I concluded our rant with a Koran whose wisdom I often find useful: “Shut up and paint.”

Okay, Jenn (you’re no doubt thinking): so why are you assigning such an impossible task to us?

Because that’s what all writing is: an attempt to pin nirvana into a fleeting image with words. To put one foot into the infinite, come back and tell the tale, like the shamans of old. An accomplishment is merely a frame around one small leaf of the great tree (5) but by saying yes, I write. I write because…you add a dash of Tabasco to your labors.

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(1) Walt Whitman

(2) zest and gusto are two of Bradbury’s favorite words he revisits in that book.

(3) Really. It’s all there in his manifesto–this sort of classist hierarchy.

(4) Shaddap.

(5) “Leaf by Niggle,” Tree and Leaf, J.R.R. Tolkien

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