Writing is a question of motive, reading the same. It’s important to know why you’re doing it.
I can tell you why I write: it’s because I love the world as much as I hate it. Because I know it’s all I’ve got. Because a place can fill me up till I can’t breathe any more, pouring its stories into me like intoxicants. I can feel them in me, making me woozy even if I can’t always make them out, even when I can’t tell insight from pure imagination, or if those two things can be told apart.
I write because every time I so much as go for a walk the universe bowls me over. The daily litany of wonders: the sun, the wild Atlantic, murky Africa, the long coastal grasses and the man who won’t say hello to me even though we’ve passed each other by down at the water a thousand times. The litany of wonders and how it grinds. How it rubs raw.
I write because I won’t live for long. Because I’m a fucking mayfly and it makes me angry. It makes me grateful too. I write from the gratitude and I write from the anger. I write because I want to give you something and I write because I want something from you. I want your touch, like a cheap song; I want your breath on my neck. I write to make music of the noise, to make a noise in the dreadful silence, to find a silence in the roar. That is why I write.
Why do I read? See above.
The truth is it isn’t easy to tell reading and writing apart. Not when they’re done well, when each participant is pulling their weight, reaching out for the other through the unifying space of a story. If you are scanning this text with your cursor hovering over a share button, you are not reading. If I wasn’t bursting with anger and gratitude right now, I wouldn’t be writing. They are among the noblest things an ape can do, but they don’t come easy. Both elude, like all good things. Like wisdom. Like love.
Sometimes, I write for money. It has been an aspiration of mine to do more of that. To be called a writer by the world and not merely by myself. Since I write about places so much, the travel writing industry has beckoned. By now it’s an online industry of course, and that has meant a new set of rules for the writer.
Not that they call it writing anymore; it’s called ‘content’ now; writers are ‘content providers’ and there have been other changes. Consumerism – that great ratcheting vice we call the ‘free’ market – has made its mark here as much as anywhere else. If a publisher still uses words like ‘quality’ or ‘unique’ – and they do – they don’t mean the same thing they used to. Some writers may still be unaware that they merely refer to Google criteria. The business of writing is more automated than it has ever been, more a question of inexorable process.
What we might mean by ‘quality’ doesn’t get a look in. Writing is dealt with in the language of management jargon and what pass for editors these days are often more like Key Performance Indicator managers. If your objective in driving traffic is to sell something at the end of it all – houses, cars, holidays – then this is all very well but make no mistake: if you’re a writer, you are behind enemy lines.
The IT-driven transformation in publishing filters down finally to the sentence itself. A writer’s job now is essentially to push buttons the reader can’t see – SEO, or whatever replaces SEO as the new orthodoxy. Never mind narrative – we line up the wonder of the world in numerical order: Hawaii’s number two beach, Spain’s number seven. The third best gallery in Paris. The eighth best masterpiece in that gallery. The eleven bagel stands you really shouldn’t miss when in New York (it’s alright to miss the others, but it would be foolish to miss these eleven). The four different types of traveller. The five different types of mother. The six different types of category.
Let me tell you what content is: straw – something dead and hollow to fill an empty box. What is ‘quality’ content? Fresh straw. Same box.
If you believe it’s a coincidence that writers are expected to behave more and more like software – keywords, tags, metadata, lists – then you probably still believe that we won’t be replaced by it. You probably don’t think that someone is working on that right now, or that they’re close.
Anybody who runs a blog will be familiar with the comical bot comments their spam filter catches.
“removal fee will be the most cost-effective the a will methods burnt even under-arm, well, it energy process. genitals. Pulling the hair out by the root is one of the your the seems hair regrowth your eliminate all hair growth. Spreading ho”
“SEO is is missing a few factors, for one you do not use all three H tags in your post, also I notice that you are not using bold or italics properly in your SEO optimization. On-Page SEO means more now than ever since the new Google update: Panda. No longer are backlinks”
Well, they’re going to get better at that. Machines will generate convincing language. At least, it will be convincing if you don’t listen, or read, too hard. And when it happens it won’t be their fault, these so-called publishers who dance the Google dance. They’re just playing the only game in town. The monkey/organ grinder analogy comes to mind and we aren’t talking about the organ grinder here; it isn’t as if they’re much further up the food chain than I am. They’ll be replaced by software too.
It probably isn’t even Google’s fault; I strongly suspect that the algorithms are less to blame than their quotidian deployment by the unimaginative.
And I don’t suppose we can lay all the blame at the feet of the writers who play along for a few crumbs. Writers need crumbs; they always have and they’ve always been prepared to churn out some shit so they can get a sandwich (or a drink) and get on with the real thing. No, the culprit here is the only one in the equation that we never seem to mention. The only one we let off the hook every time. The only one to whom we allocate zero responsibility.
Because by the time (and it won’t be long now) you find yourself reading an article about the six quietest parks in Connecticut, replete with map coordinates and a decibel graph and compiled entirely by a bot, that is what you will have come to accept. That is what you will call reading – your own compulsive, consumptive hopping from one distraction to another. ‘Reading’ will be the diseased behaviour you present with whenever you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Writing won’t be anything human at all.
And it will be your fault.
You’re probably not expecting me to say at this point that I’m feeling rather hopeful about the whole sorry business, today, but I am, even if only because, having been a willing participant, I don’t really care about it anymore. The marketplace is leaving meaning behind and therein lies the death of the marketplace. Like all consumers it will eventually devour itself.
So writers are to be squeezed out of the business of writing. So what? We’ll still be there afterwards. People will still need stories. We will always need stories. Writers and readers will find a way to each other and to new spaces to share. Maybe make a few quid while we’re at it, maybe not.
It might be because the hostile man down by the water broke his silence today, after all these years. I almost didn’t notice him with my head down and my eyes partly shielded by my winter hat, but when I glanced up he was passing me by and he greeted me. He greeted me. Not the minimal nod that I might have expected, or a raised eyebrow, but an honest-to-god thumbs up, as if he’d been pushing against the barrier between us and his hand had suddenly burst through.
We’ll be straight back to the awkwardness tomorrow, I suspect, because I didn’t have time to respond, but it gave me quite a lift. It meant something, that humble little bit of human contact. It means something. I made my way back to the house with a spring in my step, to get down to some work. There’s no way I can promise myself, even having written this, that I’ll never write another list. I need my crumbs. But it won’t be today.
Today I’ll write something good.