The futility of writing and why we keep doing it anyway

“Writers are either optimistic or seriously stupid—perhaps a combination of both.”

Did I really want to read another article by an old white man about writing and how desperately tragic it is? Especially when, in two days, I leave for Wellington to immerse myself in poetry at the Institute of Modern Letters? I was surprised as anyone when my parents reacted with pleasure to my announcement. “Mum, Dad? I’m taking three months out of my life to get a certificate of proficiency in a field with extremely limited career prospects and in all likelihood I’ll be living on 99c Countdown bread for the forseeable future. Which means until I’m forty.” (Which, a reminder, this will be my last post for a while).

I don’t think I’m optimistic or stupid, to be honest. I am stubborn. I am hopeful. I have confidence in my passion. I know the reality. I’d still rather be a poor writer than a rich asshole.

Anyway, the above quote is from a piece by Fernando Sdrigotti, who is Argentinian and not old at all.

He’s not really talking about writing being futile because you rarely reach financial success, but because even if you do, you will still mostly like disappear into obscurity.

“The futility of writing is something I face up to every time I set pen on paper or hand to keyboard. Why am I doing this? My compulsion to write does not occlude the uselessness of filling pages with words. I know that what I do is pointless, one more message in a bottle in a moment when everyone else around me is also casting messages adrift.”

He speaks of walking into a library, seeing thousands upon thousands of books, and wondering on the point of adding to them.

And yet, he says, “I believe that it is not stupidity or the need for attention that moves us but the ‘virtual shelves.’ It is the promise of the shelves that are yet to be that keeps us going.”

I remember being told that writing was useless, because everything worth writing had already been written.

Now I see that that cannot possibly be true.

We are in an everchanging landscape. We live with an evolving language. Technology rips forward. History rips back. No one writing ten years ago could have written what I could write today. There may not be much space on the shelf, but Fernando seems to be suggesting – let’s build new ones.

“Social media is where most of our writing takes place today. I have no doubts that it can be used to produce a particular form of literature, and on a daily basis I see people making, or attempting to make, art one post at a time. Publishers should be compiling this publicly available material and editing contemporary collections–they would even be spared their already meagre royalty payments.”

I agree with the first half of this idea. Twitter is micropoetry. Facebook is relational narrative. But of course I don’t believe publishers should be responsible for building collections – writers should. My own mentor has told me – mine your Twitter archive. There is gold there, among the dirt. (He didn’t say dirt, I did). There is stuff I can use, either as it is, or as the genesis for something more. (Maybe this is me trying to justify the amount of time I spend on Twitter).

It’s too easy to label something as futile. It’s an excuse. It’s lazy. I’d rather be accused of misplaced optimism, or plain stupidity, than laziness.

Fernando’s piece ends on the same gloomy, laconic note it began.

“Whether we set pen to paper every day or not, whether we make a name with the written word or not, whether the shelves are empty or full, whether the Library or the library, life goes on around us. People keep living and dying and having much more interesting things to do with their time. Writing is useless and impossible to justify in a reasonable way. It is something to do. A way to spend one’s time. Something to love and hate. Something to dedicate one’s life, regardless of the always certain failure.”

I guess you have to ask yourself why you’re writing. Why do you want to be a writer? Perhaps if your aim is fame and fortune then, with the odds of that occurring, I could agree writing is useless and impossible. But if it is to learn, to educate, to share, to express, to navigate, to record, to cope with the living and dying that goes on all around us… how could those things be useless? I feel I can provide a million utterly reasonable justifications for writing. For me, it has never been “something to do.” And I absolutely don’t believe in “certain failure.” That sort of attitude should have died with the romanticists.

I admit, in my younger years I used to picture myself as a tragic and beautiful figure, bent over a wooden desk in candlelight (why on earth I’d be using candles in this day and age is anyone’s guess), bleeding and weeping, desperately and agonisingly pulling forth a manuscript that would only be recognised for its sheer brilliance years after my death from alcoholism and ennui.

Today I work in a lazyboy where the dog usually sleeps, on a laptop whose cursor spontaneously disappears every few pages, with hot water bottles tucked strategically against my arthritis and wearing two pairs of Kmart socks with cats on them. And yes, I go on Twitter a lot.

No, no, there will not be certain failure. Because no matter if I ever share my writing, no matter if I ever get published, no matter if I ever make any money from writing and my books ever fill Fernando’s virtual shelves… it makes me happy. It’s not what I do. It’s what I am.

And I suspect I played exactly into his hands by writing this response.


Fernando Sdrigotti was born in Rosario (Argentina) and lives in London since the early noughties. He is editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s] and a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine and Número Cinq. He is the author of Tríptico and Shetlag, and has a forthcoming collection of short stories in English, Dysfunctional London Males.

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