The Other Columbus: What writing isn’t

As National Poetry Month comes to a close, Alive’s columnist weighs in on the act of writing, and the increased urgency of doing so in this moment

Scott Woods
Kirk Jackson loves old manual typewriters. “It’s almost like playing the piano,” Jackson said in Nashville, Tenn. Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020,

I’d like to spend some time talking about what writing isn’t.

Whenever a writer starts talking about what writing is, there’s a 99.9 percent chance they can be proven wrong in five seconds by a good librarian. For every noble definition of writing, there is a stack of trash novels that say otherwise. And as we close out National Poetry Month, it seems appropriate to weigh in on the act of writing itself.

Writing isn’t revolutionary or beautiful or powerful or life-saving. It can be any or all of those things from time to time, but it is not writing’s job to be those things. That’s the job of the writer, the reader, or both. You don’t get to put your inability to change the world on a book.

For many writers, the act of writing often feels like a religious experience. You get caught up in it, you zone out, you feel euphoria, people respond to it with great emotion, etc. I’ve been running a weekly poetry open mic for 21 years; many poets refer to it as coming to church. I get why, but, honestly, I’m a horrible pastor. Part of why that’s true is because I only subscribe to what writing is for the writer, not what writing is, period.

Let’s look at what some famous writers have had to say about this and why they’re wrong.

Harlan Ellison

“Writing is the hardest work in the world. I have been a bricklayer and a truck driver, and I tell you — as if you haven't been told a million times already — that writing is harder. Lonelier. And nobler and more enriching.”

Not true. There are lots of jobs harder than writing. And, in fairness, Ellison was a luddite who wrote on a typewriter in a world where computers were a thing that actually existed.

Thomas Disch

“There is no other form of writing that feels so good as a lyric poem as it gushes forth in a steady flow. If that metaphor rubs you the wrong way; if you would at once insist that poetry is Hard Work and not a luxury product for intellectual sybarites; if poetry suggests to you rather the possibility of a Seriousness higher than prose rather than the possibility of sheer music — then nature did not intend you for a poet.”

This isn’t even true for all the poets at my open mic, let alone in all of poetry, but I like the sentiment. Poets take themselves too seriously, so I like how Disch deflates them a little here by essentially countering Ellison.

Kurt Vonnegut

“Writers get a nice break in one way, at least: They can treat their mental illnesses every day.”

THIS IS HORRIBLE ADVICE. Writing can be therapeutic, but should never be seen as a replacement for actual therapy. If you need therapy, I implore you to get it (and save me some grief at open mic).

Jeanette Winterson

“The writer is an instrument of transformation.”

Now THIS is as true a truism as could ever be true. This is a truth that applies to any book ever written. The writer transforms by virtue of having been creative. It may only change the world of the writer, but the world isn’t the world. The world is made up of billions of worlds interacting with one another. And if by chance your world encounters mine — even from several steps away — then it has had an effect.

The world as we know it is on fire. But if you’ve been paying attention, the world has always been on fire. More of us are just smelling the smoke these days. In many writers, this generates an urge to action, a compulsion to do the right thing. Generally speaking, this is a good thing. Lord knows room is always made for the writers uninterested in engaging the world in its brimstone moments. It is my hope, as someone who is both targeted and dismissed by the world on a daily basis, that as many writers as possible deem it important to participate with society in a way that speaks to such moments.