The Myth of ‘The Writer’ and the New Writer

interviewing a legend

Talk to almost anyone who has pursued higher education, especially a master’s degree, and they will tell you, the main benefit is the network. Now, almost five months after graduating from my MA, I see the importance of those networks. From them, I have been inspired to start a multidisciplinary salon series, join a writer’s collective, and now, with two friends from the LitMod program, start a feminist literary journal called Canthius.

Drawing by Cira Nickel

Drawing by Cira Nickel

Last night, after talking to poet Hoa Nguyen after her poetry workshop, I agreed with her that yes, poetry, and writing, and the creative business can be lonely and siloed. It made me think how we can benefit from creative networks almost as much as anyone in business or tech and other fields. It is a disservice these days, in talks, in books and advice to creatives, to not give higher importance to building a network. In fact, it is a disservice to think of creative fields as somehow so different and far removed from other sectors. We can no longer differentiate so clearly the lines and borders between roles and titles. So much is now liquid and hybrid, and so many roles require us to do so many things. What role is without some aspect of sales in it? We are always selling something for someone. Networks are, and must remain, integral to creative fields, as every other field. And writers, more than ever, need networks to further their careers and their personal lives, as well. Innovation stems from groups.

That is how Canthius came to be. A group of friends getting together over a bottle of wine and some nutella croissants, misspelling canthus: a noun

  1. the outer or inner corner of the eye, where the upper and lower lids meet.

So when I read Northrop Frye’s CBC Massey Lecture The Education Imagination, I thought of the echoes of his question still ringing true today as relevant and urgent as it was then in 1962, “Is it possible that literature, especially poetry, is something that a scientific civilization like ours will eventually outgrow?” I say, not exactly.

We will still read and write poetry and literature until the end of the world, but what has to change, what we have to outgrow, is the discourse of “the writer”. The idea of the lone figure, chain smoking atop a mountain-view cabin, clacking away on his old typewriter.

Robbe-Grillet theorized about this and other things in his For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction in 1965 when he said, “The myths of the nineteenth century retain all their power; the great novelist, the ‘genius,’ is a kind of unconscious monster, irresponsible and fate-ridden, even slightly stupid, who emits ‘messages’ which only the reader may decipher…alcoholism, poverty, drugs, mystical passion, madness have so encumbered the more or less romanticized biographies of artists that it henceforth seems quite natural to see them as necessities of the creator’s sad condition…between ordinary mortals and an obscure power, a force beyond humanity, an eternal spirit, a god…”

Now, if this all sounds old-fashioned, and a thing of the past, why is it that Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDTalk was about this very idea of the “Elusive Creative Genius”. This myth of the writer is still very prevalent. Julia Cameron grapples with this too, in her book The Artist’s Way. Stephen King works to shed a different light on this myth, in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, when he writes that his wife was a secret to his success: “I stayed physical healthy, and I stayed married.”

We have to seek to find our ways, and voice, and not conform to these old myths. The old myths of ‘writer’ and ‘artist’ are what we have to outgrow, not literature itself. The new writer, the new novel, the new artist, is the thing we move forward with through the networks, through the support of family and friends, and not alone. We must all move forward without the chains of any myth, except to critique them.

Sometimes, we just need someone to tell us to take out the garbage to remind us that are aren’t beyond anything or anyone, but a part of humanity, and we better start acting like everybody else.

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