An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston
For the last several issues, I’ve shared my thoughts on how humanity might appear to total strangers, say aliens from space. This time I’m going to take a break and write about something a little closer to home: writing, reading, art and the purpose of it all.
I’m a bit emotionally worked up. I just received word that Poly Styrene died in April. Now, who’s Poly Styrene? some of you might ask. And, should you not know, it’s good to ask because better to learn late than to never learn at all. Poly Styrene was the stage-name of British performing artist Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, best known as the lead singer of the early punk band X-Ray Spex. Inspired by a Sex Pistols show, Poly Styrene put out an ad, collected some like-minded people and began recording songs.
Not yet eighteen years old at the time, half Somali-half English, dressed in bizarre clothes and with a strange hair cut, at times performing with dental braces, Poly Styrene did not look like someone who should be the lead singer of a band. Nor did she sound like one, alternately introducing songs with a little girl voice and then shouting out lyrics—often unintelligible lyrics—as loud as she could. Yet Poly Styrene was, indeed, lead singer of a band. And, should anyone care, that band and their most popular song, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” is in my CD collection four times. Once on the band’s classic album, Germ-Free Adolescents and three times on various compilation discs. It is with shame, regret and a feeling of being a poseur that I confess the group to be absent from my much older vinyl collection.
Poly Styrene had somehow managed to reach the age of 53 at the time of her death, a mind-boggling feat for anyone who has seen videos of the early X-Ray Spex, videos that froze a certain image of the band in time.
Is the song “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” great art? Obscure, perhaps, but it has clearly had an inspirational impact on many people, and, now, perhaps sadly, has outlived one of its key creators.
These are both goals that I aspire to as a writer, and like many people connected with this publication, I am a writer. What that means is that just as teenage Poly Styrene once saw a punk show and cried “I want to do that too,” at some point in my life I finished a favorite book and shouted “Hey, could I, too, write one of these things?” In other words, I embraced the punk slogan, D.I.Y., Do It Yourself.
There is, as far as I know, no way to become a professional writer that does not at some point involve announcing oneself as a writer to the world and then seeing how seriously people take your claim. And it’s a strange feeling when you first do it, a feeling of perhaps being an imposter.
Like the punk singers, I wanted the world to notice me, and react, but, let me tell you, it ain’t easy. And, like many punk rock singers those same demons that drive one to cry “notice me” and drive you to seek attention hoping that in some small way you can change the world for the better, are often the same demons that get in the way of one’s production as an artist. Drugs, violence, alcohol, behavioral problems and addictive, damaging relationships can all provide life experience, ideas for stories, and an interesting perspective and outlook on life which make for better writing, but at some point the resulting mental, physical and emotional problems start to hinder your ability to actually write, finish and market anything. Remember, if you want to be a writer, you must be physically and mentally able to focus yourself on projects long enough and regularly enough in order to string out long sequences of words that make sense to other people. And then you must be able to put these passages together into an article or a story and send it somewhere where people will show it to each other.
Think of all those artists—punk singers, as well as writers—who destroyed themselves. Sure, some died young and stayed pretty, becoming icons, but most just wound up forgotten.
So, if you want to write, take care of yourself, at least well enough that you can actually produce writing that makes sense to other people and get it to a market.
And don’t expect to start at the top. Yeah, it’s happened, and, yeah, I just might marry Jennifer Lopez now that she’s single again, but it’s never a good bet. If you want to write and you want to change the world consider contributing to forums like your local paper’s Op-Ed page. You’ll gain valuable experience working with editors, writing on a deadline and with limited space, and, like the punks, if you do it right, you can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, always a good rule of thumb when deciding how to act.
Which brings me to two ongoing writing debates I’ve recently faced.
Should writers read and should writers include messages in their writing?
Some writers read and some don’t. But I believe great writers read and they read extensively. Writing is their art. How can they grow as a writer if they don’t have a love of this art that manifests itself through a strong desire to experience the writing that already exists? What sort of visual artist, if given the chance, does not visit art galleries and art museums? What sort of musician does not listen to music? Do you think Poly Styrene listened to other people’s bands or not?
Those who disagree with me, argue that they read when they were younger but are just too busy at this point in their life. A friend of mine likes to quote a widely published pulp writer he knows as saying, “Why should I read? I can write a book faster than I can read one.”
I think in a case like this it comes down to motivation to write. If you write for money and are able to get paid to churn out content to fill voids in publishing catalogs, you probably don’t need to read. But don’t expect many people to read what you write after you’re gone if you do. After all, you’ve virtually admitted to yourself and others that you don’t care what you write so long as you are paid to do it. And if you don’t care what you write, why should I care what you write?
Other writers write for other motivations. Some of us are looking for attention. We want others to see how intelligent, insightful, knowledgeable, important, or outrageous and crazy we are. I’ve been there and done that. But I think that once we reach a certain point, achieved certain goals, then we’ve got to focus again on what we are doing—creating art. And what sort of artist says, “I don’t need to see any more art. I saw all I needed years ago.” What sort of musician stops listening to music because they have heard enough to last a lifetime?
Similarly, some writers debate if fiction should be written to share a message. Yet they generally seem to think that it’s essential to have a theme and character growth. How can one include theme and character growth without even considering the possibility that this growth and change in the character might produce growth and change in the reader? Sure, a lot of stories have been destroyed through heavy-handed attempts at selling a message. But a lot of stories have been destroyed through poor characterization, wooden action sequences, clumsy dialogue, and laughable portrayals of sex and romance, but no one uses this fact to argue that fiction is better off without these things.
Recently I stumbled across a list of 25 highly rated novels chosen by the Cincinnati library. (Why Cincinnati? They were high on a Google search.) It’s astonishing how many of these great classics had clearly defined messages and this is certainly a part of why they have lived on beyond their time.
So, in conclusion, if you are going to use writing to express yourself, then stand tall, speak out, speak clearly, say what you want to say, look to other writers for inspiration in not just technique but also the power of your chosen art and, above all, say something that makes the effort to write and read your pieces worthwhile.
If you do, Poly Styrene would be proud.