# 285: Is Writing Art or… What?
Story behind the Passage
Any text starting with “is it this…” or “that…” can be taken to set up an either/or logic that frames the piece in a questionable way. That is actually the whole point of my contribution today. I am not saying that we are going to end up with only two possible answers to the question of what writing actually is if you want to categorize it in some way. Still, I want to explore the question because it is really on my mind these days. How can it be that some people write in their journals every day, they even fill many pages, but they fiercefully state that they cannot write? They would never even try to write a book, even though they talk about how important writing is to them.
Is it the “frame” in their minds that allows them to write certain texts but not others?
This took me to my personal question about all this. It is closely related to all I write about writing as a profession and as a passion. How do you see your own writing? For me, the answer does not start with the product, it starts with the production process. And there I run into trouble already. Any writing for me is like meditation. That is because I only write when I really want to say something and if that is the case, the words flow naturally. There is no conscious struggle and no rational analysis about it — it is just writing from the heart.
Still, the head is involved too, right?
When I talked about art today with someone, he mentioned that artists create beauty. That is true, of course, but all beauty is in the eyes of the spectator. So, again, if beauty is a sign of people doing things from the heart, it goes back to the production process. In many cases, I am not writing because I want something to be beautiful. Actually, I hardly ever do that. The primary aim for me when writing about anything is twofold: 1) I want to say what I say in the piece, 2) I want this to be understood by the people reading. I am not saying they should agree, disagree, praise, or apply what I am writing. But the aspect of sharing and being read is crucial.
Then, here comes the artistic side, I think that people will read it if the text flows like texts need to flow. This only happens if it comes from deep down inside. What I mean by flow is that there is some kind of rhythm, style, and dynamic to the content. All this together forms a nice text. But this text usually has nothing to do with poetry or prose in a literary sense. Still, it is art to produce it, at least for me. Otherwise, I would not write it, no matter what. But I wonder how often I myself have read texts for the content only, even though it was created as art. The beauty might be a side effect for me but not for the author.
When thinking about all this, I had to grab an Arab American novel today. That is because I was so much into this literature at a certain point in my career, and poetry and the beauty of writing are so inherently tied to the “Arab World.” This is where poetry is still really celebrated as part of culture, I feel, and most poetry, in turn, is connected to spirituality, particularly to the Q’ran. So, I chose Shakir’s book to check what she wrote about writing. And what I found was a passage that I obviously enjoyed or at least found very remarkable back when I read the book for the first ime because it has all these pencil underlinings and notes to it.
“Still, their reading served to remind me that meaning grows out of choices — what to foreground and what to give short shrift — decisions dictated by what one brings to the table to begin with.” Shakir is describing her experience as a Fulbright Scholar in Bahrein here. And the reason why this passage jumped at me is not only because the “choices” you make when approaching a text shape its meaning, they might largely determine whether you read it at all. I am only talking about the “frame” in your mind, right. I am saying that, if some text has the label “scholarship” on it, for example, you might not read it, literally never even get close to it. If it ended up on your table as just a book without any particular label on it and you might not find one on the cover either, you might read it and learn that it actually teaches you a lot.
You might even find it beautiful and consider it art.
Shakir’s book is such a good example because she is a scholar who wrote this personal reflection in an essay style about her experiences in university. So, the topic is scholarly but the format is not, neither is the label “memoir.” Still, it might be read by some just as literature without any interest in academic topics or literary studies theory or whatever. They might just read it because they love reading memoirs. In other words: If books are art, then people can read it as such.
Where is the intellectual aspect here?
I know, I do struggle a lot with the supposed dualism between head and heart, between research and art, if you want so. For me, it is just not clear where the lines are. Back when I read this and many other books by Arab Americans, I was working on my Ph.D. and put whatever I got out of it in an academic text. But did I read this text as a piece of art just because I am a literary studies scholar (at least I was, back then)? Has the study of literature ever been an artistic endeavor for me?
I really do not think so.
For me, it is always the thinking behind everything that is provided to me in some “artistic” format — be it a text or a painting or any other piece of artistic representation. If I see the heart in it that the creator of the piece put into it, it fulfills the artistic criterion for me. But that is never as important as the intellect behind it, I think. I know, I am getting myself into trouble with this argumentation but there simply is no art for me in some “content creator” or “Instagram” influencer who just posts stuff from other books. You might refer to this stuff, yes, but I need to see and feel that you are thinking for yourself — that you can think on paper.
If you cannot do that, you are not a writer.
With Shakir’s writing in this book, there are several outstanding things to mention. First, it was published posthumously and she wrote it while she had cancer already. Second, and that speaks to the difference between academic writing and writing as art — maybe — it was her first and last autobiographical book. As she states in her last chapter “Why I Write:”
“Whatever’s on your mind, forget it. I don’t have time.” (Shakir 163)
Shakir does admit in the book that writing a memoir was a struggle. And maybe this is the thing that answers my question above. The more you give from your own life and your heart to a text when you write it, it increases the artistic component, I guess. Still, other people might not perceive of what you have written as art at all. So, it all goes back to the frame of mind you have at the outset and to the individual choices you make, as Shakir states. That might give an indication as to how to answer my categorization problem but it does not answer my own struggle.
What is writing to me?
1) What is literature to you — art or …. what?
2) Would you ever write a memoir? When?
3) Do you think that scholars are artists? Why/not?