On Writing

It’s difficult to be a writer in America in 2022. Of course, it’s always been difficult to be a writer. Anywhere. It requires a measure of sacrifice; a Sisyphean sense of the futile; and an overinflated perception of self. Writers in the former USSR had it very tough. I lived in Armenia for a season, engaging with their literature – an amazing ‘Armenian Boom’ happening simultaneously in Los Angeles and Moscow and pointed at Yerevan, where a nucleus of great writers draped in the snowy winters of that South Caucasus town debated the timelessness of their land and produced in their arcane but beautiful language some extraordinary literature. Naturally, it was difficult to be a writer in Armenia in the 1930s – many of them executed or sent to Siberia. This made their writing more meaningful – each book is not only a story in itself, but has its own story. That is what makes amazing writing; stories superimposed upon stories. Almost as if their tears, their suffering imbue their books with greater meaning than that which they possess on their own.

Put another way: facile writers produce flaccid writing.

Which brings me back to America. Our new stories have no stories (I’m not referring here to DH Lawrence or Edgar Allen Poe, from the days when Americans had to struggle and fight). Our massive publishing industry churns out books by celebrities or by writers they know will sell. Oprah or Tom Clancy. Famous people famous for being famous and more famous because their books are always on the shelves. Do the books have stories? Sure, everybody has a story – but ‘How I became a billionaire’ is not that compelling a tale, except for others who want to be billionaires and read the books in expectation of finding somewhere between the covers the key that will unlock the door to their own success. “How to have rock-hard abs in 10 minutes”.

Perhaps it’s the difficulty that causes greatness. Scarcity, after all, does drive up the value. What if, during the Armenian boom, there had been millions of titles released? A glut. Would Gurgen Mahari’s extraordinary tale of the life of Armenians in pre-genocide Van have been noticed – without being accompanied by Mahari’s own escape, first from the genocide to an orphanage in Dilijan, and again from Stalin’s Siberian gulag after 17 years of exile? Would it have been noticed, without his last failed escape attempt, from the mobs of angry Armenians burning his novel on the streets of Yerevan, accusing him of being sympathetic to the Turks? Would it have been noticed, had he not died of a broken heart a year later? I certainly would not have noticed it. Each page drips blood, the blood of his family, of his loved ones – and in the end his own blood. I even hunted down an original copy, in Armenian, that survived the bonfires – bought for $3 in a used bookstore – placing it proudly on my shelf, ready to tell its own story.

Which brings me to myself. As I said above, part of our curse is an over-inflated sense of self. This morning I read a few chapters of my 4th novel “I, Charles, From the Camps” on the metro. I was taking it as a gift for somebody, and was killing time. This book, self-published and in which I spent significant effort and editing, also sweats blood. It’s a novel about Africa; about the camps; about the injustice of life for a young African man, lack of choices and opportunity – frustration. It comes from my ten years, living on the continent and working in five different civil wars; disease and violence and injury and loss, all of which I also lived personally. It is a story which also has its own story. The challenge is, in America, that is not something that matters much. Every tweeter with their twitter considers themselves a publisher; every blogger with an idea is a writer – and if everybody is one, nobody is one.

There is no solution for this problem; I do not wish more violence upon myself or my fellow Americans and I certainly do not yearn for the gulag. But I do yearn to be read – for those 10 years of disease and violence and death to not have been lived in vain, beyond the simple few who I was able to touch; I want others to learn from them.

My stories; imbued by my stories. Because after the ticker tape parades, which never materialized, they are all I’m left with.     

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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2 Responses to On Writing

  1. Currently reading Woolf’s “Orlando” in which she nails the frustrations of every writer. As you say, what we do is all we’re ever left with.

    Liked by 1 person

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