Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Guide to Understanding Writers

Writers in my opinion are one of the most misunderstood people around. I have come to this conclusion after spending a fair amount of time in this line of work. Eight years to be exact. After much exasperation and frustration thanks to my dealings with non-writers whom I had the misfortune of interacting with in the course of my work, I felt compelled to sit and write this post. My primary objective is to air my grief! The secondary objective being to put into perspective the general traits and characteristics shared by those that possess the soul and temperament of a writer.

To be a writer, one must have a deep and consuming love affair with the language one writes in. Language is the vehicle and the weapon of the writer. Not the quill, the pen, the typewriter or the computer keyboard. A good writer expertly uses language to engage and captivate an audience the same way lawyers use the law to convince the court of the merit of their case. Although a mastery of language is important, not all good writers must necessarily be grammar experts as well. The sentence must sound right of course, but one need not be a grammar technician.

Writers might lead mundane lives. Trudging to work day after day like the rest of the multitudes. But their thoughts, views, opinions, beliefs and convictions seldom are. To an average person a pair of Nike shoes is just that.

A writer for instance will look at that same pair of shoes and see a whole story behind it. The shoe is seen as a product of cheap labour. Produced by poor workers in sweat shop like factories in a third world nation bent on transforming its once marxist like economy into a popular exporter of consumer goods. While the severely exploited workers who toil long hours under slave-like working conditions, were once peasants who were lured by the promise of a better life in the city only to become bonded labourers.

Yes we writers are deep sorts. We are anything but superficial. By this I am of course excluding those that produce 'chick-lits' and all those stereotypical romance novels. But the producers of these sorts of fiction must be applauded too. For if not for them, the masses would not be compelled to pick up books of a story nature and get acquainted with language.

Back to my point on the nature of writers. We are always observing, thinking, creating. With every breath a thought is formed. If it's exciting enough to last more than a few minutes, we run for pen and paper to scribble it down in the hopes of expanding upon that thought later. For us, beneath the surface of everything there is a 'something'.

To write about something in an intelligent and convincing manner for more than five paragraphs, one has to be well-informed on the subject matter, be it an essay on female infanticide or a book on the Mughal empire. Must one have a deep and abiding passion for the subject? not necessarily, but before the writer begins to write, he or she must have done a fair amount of research, and if possible interviewed people who would be able to shed more insight on the subject being written about. In this manner, we writers are like actors and actresses who research the personalities, way of life and mannerisms of the characters they are going to portray.

Now for any writer what I have rambled on about is pretty basic. It is so basic I should not even be writing about it! However I felt compelled to write this down because many a time I have had the misfortune to meet people who gravely doubt a writer's ability to write intelligently about a subject matter which the writer in question was not qualified in.

What these people fail to comprehend is that we writers are essentially communicators. It is in our very nature to absorb the essential facts and ingredients of a subject matter before we begin communicating it to an audience in written form. Plus being a communicator and a 'creative type', we have the knack of presenting the information in a highly readable manner.

You see having the knack of capturing the reader's attention is at the heart of our career. If nobody felt compelled to read us, what are we then? That is why from very early on in our career, we have compulsively developed the art of capturing and holding an audience not unlike an entertainer.

To all those who doubt our capability to write intelligently in fields we were never trained in, I have this to say: If you want your very scientific or technical subject matter to interest the general public, hire a writer. If you want a piece loaded with jargon and technicality, hire someone who is qualified in the said field to write. Then decide what is your original objective in commissioning the piece. Did you want to inform and educate your target audience? or did you want your audience to be impressed with your writer's command of the subject knowledge and be thoroughly bored or worse still intimidated by the information presented?

Now I come to my second gripe. A writer is an individual who 'thinks'. We are thinkers. We think more than the average person on a huge variety of issues. We never accept everything and anything that is presented to us as 'The Bible'. That I assume makes us rather intelligent and discerning.

Taking this into consideration, I wonder why there are so.........very many people out there who think they can treat us as stenographers! Assuming that it is our jobs to write down every little thing they say. ( A common problem faced by journalists) True we must get the facts right or risk misleading the public. But as thinking people, it is our prerogative to decide which facts should be written, how it should be written, in what order it should be written, and which bits should be excluded.

Yet many a time, writers are reproached by ignorant ego maniacs wanting to know: " Why did you write it that way?" "Why did you not use the exact words I used?" "Why did you omit those facts? it was important you know." "That was not the way I put it!" I mean really, if our job was to merely write what has been conveyed to us word for word, without evaluating the information, we might as well go perform some non-cerebral blue-collar job.

There is however a reason why we are treated as such. It is contempt.There are two breeds of people who have this contempt for us. Type A have love hate relationships with writers. They are aware that we have the talent to both glorify and vilify them. Plus the ability to support our assertions with facts and convincing arguments. So they are rather wary of us to start with.

The ones with some dignity, avoid us like the plague and maintain and elegant silence when approached. These types are to be respected. Then however there are the types that somehow try to convince themselves that at some level we are really stupid and can be bought over with flattery, bribes and what they presume to be convincing arguments in their favour. Though nursing a great amount of contempt, they still persist in wooing us.

Type B sorts have a very low opinion of writers to begin with, and a hugely inflated opinion of themselves. The way they see it, we probably didn't do very well for ourselves in life. Which is why we ended up as writers. In their view, writing for a living is a third-rate job. For them the primary function of a writer is to serve them and make them look good. We are little more than serfs in their opinion.

For all their perceived intelligence, they don't seem to understand that a writer is not a scribe. When we write, we think first. There is no such thing as literally copying. While a scribe is a copyist. In ancient times, people employed as scribes copied down valuable manuscripts word for word. These scribes could be found in libraries, at imperial courts and in monasteries as monks who copied down religious texts for the purpose of preservation.

Some of these scribes were also educated slaves. For instance the slave cum scribe of Roman Senators followed their masters to the senate and political meetings, recording minutes and senatorial proceedings. No measure of a scribe's thoughts, opinions or personality went into the words they copied. Of course there are some writers who might whimsically refer to themselves as scribes. However this in no way means they are like the scribes of old.

Now these Type B sorts see us as the scribe of ancient times. They think it is our job to write of their glory. They see us as a medium through which they can communicate their views or basically what they think should be made known to a target audience. Hence the common phrase most writers would have heard at one time or another in their career: "Write nicely okay?"

What Type B people really mean when they say this is that they want you to write the said piece in a way that makes them, or whatever cause or view-point they are championing look glitteringly good! Don't they understand that writing of that nature is advertising? if that is what you want, hire an advertising agency who will assign a copywriter who will do a fantastic cosmetic job on you.

Or if you are a highly placed, or aspiring to be a highly placed politician or something along those lines, get a ghost writer cum spin doctor to spin a dazzling fairy tale about you. At this point I must add that these ghost writers cum spin doctors can be found hiding behind the facade of respectable writers and journalist. For fat pay checks they have sacrificed ethics and used their talents to mislead, twist facts and deceive their audience for the benefit of their paymasters. How can anyone blessed with such talent use it towards such ends? No wonder there is so much contempt against our kind.

In my opinion one does not become a writer merely because they fancy the written word. Writers I believe, have an in-built knowledge centre which they begin cultivating from a very young age. Many do not even realise this. This knowledge centre contains life's experiences, societal observations, knowledge acquired, as well as emotions and thoughts felt at different stages in a writer's life. This in total gives rise to an emotional or intellectual attitude. Excluding the writings produced to earn a living, most of a writer's serious writing will be in one way or another influenced by this knowledge centre. Without this, one is not a writer.

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