In an interview with Tinhouse’s J.C. Hallman, Walter Kirn refers to a common anxiety among writers:
J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?
Walter Kirn: Creative writers have no obligation do anything, including their own creative work. That’s what makes them “creative” in the first place, not merely productive. That being said, a novel or a short story is an implicit piece of criticism. It suggests that the job – some job; that of telling a story, say, or representing reality with language, or torturing reality with language – can be done better, or at least differently, than it has been done before.
Kirn’s right, of course – but at the same time, we all know how paralyzing this can be. There have been so many authors! Every story has been told! Everything’s been said! Blogging’s one thing, but who am I to presume that I can enter the world of writing a book that belongs on a bookshelf with all those authors I love and respect and admire?
Even the great Dr. Johnson suffered from a version of this internal narrative, giving up on writing poetry out of a belief that Alexander Pope had perfected the art, not to be surpassed.
(Ack, I hope I haven’t misremembered this – I can’t find the quote. In any case, I think the point still stands. Moving on…)
So what to do? You write spooky supernatural tales – good lord, there’s Stephen King dominating the field. You write historical novels set at sea during the Napoleonic Wars – but how can you top Patrick O’Brian? You feel drawn to write a story set in Dublin on a single day – well, hello there, Mr. Joyce! And on and on and on.
But guess what? Poetry didn’t end with Pope and Dryden. Spooky supernatural books don’t begin and end with Stephen King. There’s plenty of room for new stories, new books, new voices. And that’s where you come in: you can add your creative skills to the mix. And find your readers! They’re waiting for you.
Don’t internalize the gatekeepers. Break on through!
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