Write it now: grounding your writing in practical realities

The other day I heard a panel discussion on New Zealand’s national radio. They’d called together a group of Kiwi artists – a couple of composers and a couple of writers – to comment on their work.

I usually listen to these things with a certain cynicism. Here in New Zealand I find ‘arts’ discussions tend to veer into pretentious displays of woofy intellectualism – assertions of personal status within the tiny sub-culture of ‘high art’. Meaningful to those involved, perhaps. To the rest of us it’s the intellectual equivalent of the gentlemen among the group standing up and waving their You Know What at the audience while shouting ‘oooh, haven’t I got a big one?’

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

Pretentiousness in the arts? Not for me. I prefer practical industry when writing (that’s me on the right, in the hat).

The arts aren’t the only field where pretentious status contests dominate, of course. So I sat back to listen to this discussion, expecting to hear the usual claptrap. Except it wasn’t. As I listened to this programme I suddenly discovered that this particular arts discussion was practical. These were nuts-and-bolts artists – everyday people like you or me who had a passion for what they were doing and wanted to share it with other everyday people. It was properly grounded, properly practical, and smart.

And that, it seemed to me, was where things should be.

Writing – which is one of the arts – needs to be grounded. It’s about the writer having a thought, an idea, an emotion, and being able to transfer that to the reader. And who is that reader? I suppose some will have aspirations with the pretentious literati set. But for the most part readers are ordinary people – again, like you and me. That means being practical, it means writing what people want to read – not what will earn the writer status among a closed group of woofy literati who use their interest as a device to validate their pretensions of superiority.

Writing should be by – and for – everyday, practical people. People who don’t give a toss about status within exclusive in-crowds, or within academic departments. People who have real lives and go out and get jobs and come home tired, and love their families, and play sports on the weekend or do a bit of home maintenance or hang out with friends. People who want to be entertained in practical ways, to have a laugh, to weep, to get excited, to feel joy – to do, in short, all the things we do as humans.

That’s the real audience for writers. People like us. It’s what writing is about. Being real. Being practical. Being human. In everyday ways.

What’s your take?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: more writing tips, more geekery, humour – and more. Watch this space.

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9 comments on “Write it now: grounding your writing in practical realities

  1. This is one of those perfectly obvious ideas that seems to have escaped notice. After all, for what audience were most of the Renaissance masters working? For whom were most of the great operas and symphonies composed?

    Yet the entire notion of “mass market” is opposed to the idea of “art” being for the cognoscenti. That doesn’t mean the standards for art should be any less, nor that one should sacrifice quality of any sort for broader appeal. I think you’ve hit on it; contemporary art needs a certain practicality in its outlook.

    At the end of the day, most people come home from a job they don’t care for very much, to the people they care for; or they come home to an empty space. Either way, a lot of them are looking for something to fill that empty space, to let them lift their eyes above something a little more than day to day reality.

    One could do worse, as an artist, by starting with respect for that reality.

    • I think the principles of ‘literature’ apply perfectly well to practical mass-market writing – indeed, they are essential…and the emotional response such mass-market writing generates is, I think, no less valid than the emotional response the literati gain from reading high-brow ‘literature’. Indeed, it is all the greater because it shared by a much larger audience. What I find irritating is when the ‘high art’ is applied for no better reason than to impress those who think it conveys a status and intellectual superiority. There’s no room for snobbery or pretentiousness in writing, and – certainly on what I see locally – high-art literature unfortunately seems to cultivate it.

  2. hmunro says:

    Hear, hear!! To be meaningful, writing must indeed be grounded in something — our experiences, hopes, or fears — and it must also be genuine. That’s why I always say that the most important audience to write for is yourself: Write the story that YOU most desperately want to read. Chances are it will find its way to a wider audience. But even if it doesn’t, you’ve at least created something real, and practical, and human.

    Thanks for another wonderful, thought-provoking post!

    • Yes, we have to write what fires us up – something that we, as writers, might want to read. There’s a fair chance it’ll fire up readers, too, if it’s done right. That’s the tricky bit…

  3. Imelda Evans says:

    Oh I do agree! Also, ‘woofy literati’ is now my new favourite phrase.

  4. bevrobitai says:

    I’m in full agreement too! The NZ “Literature” scene has been pretentious and a closed club for a long time now and it’s good to see some new ideas gaining traction at last. Self-published books can be good? Gasp! Who knew? And now that the NZSA has some indie publishers at the helm we should see some sharp winds of change blowing through those woofy literati!
    Speaking as a writer who is ‘jeans and t-shirt’ rather than ‘velvet smoking jacket’, I like the notion of being grounded in reality.
    There should be room for both high art and popular art on the nation’s bookshelves.

    • High art on the higher shelves, giving a literal meaning to the phrase ‘out of reach…’ for us ordinary folks :-) There’s an arts festival/writers week happening here in Wellington, featuring all the usual suspects. I haven’t been invited and haven’t gone to see them spout off. Too busy writing a practical book about real everyday things (real everyday scary things, actually).

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