What Are You Writing For?

Posted by Cila Warncke

This is one of my favourite Bill Hicks clips. I love the way his face conveys astonishment, scorn, outrage, and despair all bundled together so seamless-awkwardly it can’t help being hilarious. He doesn’t have to clap hand to forehead; the words make the motion for him. “What are you reading for?” is a patently silly question. Reading for something is hardly reading at all. Note how people instinctively make a distinction between books they’ve read and books they’ve read at another’s behest. “I read that for school,” is understood to be subtly yet substantially different from having simply read.

This, I know. Yet somehow it has, till now, escaped my attention that the same differentiation applies to writing, or any creative endevour. Hicks’ joke isn’t a mere jab at ignorance (unkindness is rarely the beginning of insight) it is about an attitude. The face on his verbal punching bag is that of righteous American productivity. The held-to-be-self-evident truth that to be worth doing something must result in demonstrable rewards. It is, at heart, an attitude that holds Michaelangelo to be important because he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and not the other way around. Historically, our culture confuses prestige with importance, and money with success.

Art cannot breath this air.

Stumbling along, mistaking productivity for creativity, I’ve failed to write anything worth reading. Not because there’s something wrong with the way I line up words on a page (not-art can still be artful) but because my intentions are bad. If it is to be art, it must be created out of a sense of urgency; it must convey truth, or illuminate beauty; it must be profoundly selfish.

I cringe to think of all the hundreds of hours and thousands of words I’ve frittered on writing for. A deep-rooted habit, it will be hard to break. Writing for has a veneer of industry and respectability and thus serves a superficial social impulse; it makes me feel like the worker worthy of her wages. It also kills cold everything that matters. Break it I must. Now, how?

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