• Stephen Altman

The Writer as Blockhead


Samuel Johnson famously said,“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” He said this about 250 years ago but it still holds true. Yet the blockheads are still out there. I'm one. There are zillions of us.


When I used to teach writing for adults I'd tell them the first thing to do was decide why they were writing. The biggest danger for a beginner is that they'll just give up. But if they know just why they're writing at all, they'll be less likely to get involved in a project that might not be the right one for them, and that'll leave them discouraged and wondering if they should take up something else entirely. Like skydiving, say, or spelunking.


I have asked myself many times why I write, and below I offer my answer. I look it over every time I begin a new project. Since life continues to revise me, I continue to revise my answer. I try not to lie or over-inflate the mission. But with the mission fresh in my thoughts I'm more likely to finish what I begin, and to be satisfied that my story, win or lose, is the one I was meant to try. Blues for the Muse, the story I just finished, and one that's unlikely to make me much money at all, took me 8 years. I stuck with it because it fit the mission.


You're lucky! You get the long tedious answer first, but then you'll get the short answer, which I arrived at in Sonnet #199 of the book.


The long version:


Some years back the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote this: "We're living in a technological age that turns everything ephemeral. Newspapers become blogs. Letters become text messages. Everything becomes a temporary version of itself." [And this was before Snapchat!] It's true, no? But I think it's also true that we are--each of us--temporary versions of ourselves. As we make our way along the path we change, and at the end we're gone. But creativity is our means of marking the path--to record our progress, to reveal ourselves and earn love, to help us recall just where we've been and what it's meant to be there, to reassure ourselves that we exist and to leave behind some relic to prove it. So even though the age is trending toward the ephemeral, lots of us still write stories. Some of us still read them. It's been this way a long time and it's still that way. And whether stories happen to take the form of epic poems sung around campfires in ancient Greece or plays staged in Elizabethan playhouses or vast novels read by gaslight in Victorian parlors or stories we've written on a laptop and stored in the cloud, they're all about not being ephemeral. They're about marking the path.


So much for the long version. The short version is a couplet:


There will be proof of sorts that he was here,

And for the friends he’d made, a souvenir.


And though there may not be any money in it, any blockhead will tell you that's plenty reward.


--


As for the image above, I could have posted a portrait of Samuel Johnson or a photo of David Brooks. But then I thought, wouldn't you rather look at Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn? The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938.





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