Friday, April 21, 2017

To Be or Not to Be a Writer in 2017

What does it mean to be a writer in 2017? I know what you’re probably saying. Are you seriously starting off an essay with a question? That’s grade level stuff, man. The kind of stuff they teach you in school when you’re writing a persuasive essay. I should know since I teach seventh graders and tell them that starting off with a question is just one of many great ways to hook a reader. They’re a great way to start since they demand an answer. And the answer to my question is this: To be a writer in the year 2017 means you have to change your definition of what it means to be a writer altogether.

Let me explain. Being “a writer” essentially means the same thing it meant back in 600 B.C., i.e. that writing a language is the act of making words visible. That will never change. But the concept of being “a writer” has surely been altered over the years. For example, is a blogger a writer, or is a blogger a blogger? Is a poet a writer, or is a poet a poet? Surely the intent of how you write is equally as important as what you write. But in an era when news can be gathered in 120 characters or less, you have to wonder, has our beloved art form become less…sophisticated? Here’s a good one: Is a tweeter a writer? Is “Tweeter” even a word? (I looked it up. It is.)

I’m certain most “serious” writers will wonder if I’m mad to even pose such a question. Tweeting is not writing, silly. Tweeting is…whatever. A monkey could tweet. But am I really so crazy? Writing has always been one of the most malleable art forms out there. Look no further (Or look a lot further, if you like) than writers such as James Joyce, Hunter S, Thompson, and Ernest Hemingway. Hell, do you want somebody a little bit more current? Look at Mark Z. Danielewski, author of House of Leaves. All of these writers, and many, many more, have forever changed the idea of what “good” writing actually is. As a father and teacher who writes articles and ebooks in my spare time (shameless plug: Find my books on Amazon), I’ve had to reevaluate what the modern reader wants when they take time out of their busy schedule to actually sit down and “read.” And no, I didn’t make a mistake when I put quotation marks around the word “read,” since the concept of reading has changed over the years, too. But more on that later.

When I write today in 2017, I always wonder, how do my readers want their stories presented to them? Do they want them in audio form? Comics? Facebook videos? Instagram pictures? And do they want them to be lengthy, or short? Also, if I make them short, how short should they be? One hundred words? Fifty? Ten? A single image?

These are questions that writers weren’t asking themselves a hundred years ago, or even ten, for that matter. Sure, writers have always been asking themselves what the audience wants. But as videos and social media become more prevalent forms of getting stories and information out there, the way we distribute our writing is something we have to seriously consider. It’s gotten to the point where we really do need to ask ourselves, am I compromising my art for an audience that seems to want more bite-sized (and visual) renditions of my greatest hits? And, is it really a compromise at all, or is it an evolution? How has “reading” changed? As a teacher, I can tell you that it has changed substantially. My students are now sometimes tasked with answering questions after watching a video. The videos themselves are now considered a form of “reading.” In other words, the game has changed.

One thing that will never change though is that we need to be engaging. I recently wrote a short story that I’ve been shopping around about a future where there are no longer any human writers, except one. Almost all stories are written by highly advanced computers that are spit out through algorithms. This might seem crazy, but it isn’t if you’ve been following recent headlines. Computers have already started writing sports and business articles, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between them and human beings. Writing has often been thought to be one of the few areas where computers can’t infringe on the creative spirit, but that looks to be a thing of the past. Computers have already beaten people in Chess, Jeopardy, and now the Japanese strategy game, Go. So why couldn’t they write the next great American novel? Really, what I’m asking is this: how do we prevent ourselves from becoming expendable?

The answer is to be limber and to adapt to change. Here’s a question I often ask a lot of my reader friends. If you listen to an audiobook, are you reading? Some say yes, and some say no. I can tell you that it’s usually the stuffier people who rigidly claim that listening to a book is not the same thing as “reading” a book. But to millions of people out there, there really is no difference. Are they getting the same story that you’re getting but through their ears rather than through their eyes? Yes. In a sense, some might even say they’re getting a truer version of the story if the actual author is reading to them. So, what I’m saying is this: If writers want to continue to exist, we need to pull our heads out of our butts and follow the trends. One could say that the audience for “traditional” reading is shrinking. But it really all depends on what you consider modern reading to be in the first place. If you consider it as the consumption of ideas, then one might say it’s bigger than it’s ever been in its entire history.

The most important thing to remember is that “readers” don’t care what “writers” want. They don’t even care whether their writers are human or not. Unlike self-driving cars, readers don’t tend to fear a future where robots are in control. In many ways, a reader will always be a reader, but a writer is not necessarily just a writer anymore. A writer is a blogger, a vlogger, a tweeter, a shapchatter, a podcaster, or whatever else the reader demands them (us) to be. And we as “writers” need to take note of that, since the most important aspect of being a writer is being “listened to.”

Whatever that even means.

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