Be Kind to Writers

Alegria’s poignant, passionate comment on my David Foster Wallace memorial post reawakens some questions about our interpersonal connections and responsibilities as writers, both to other writers and to our audience (who are often the same people). As her experience suggests, artists require tremendous ego-strength to endure public hostility or incomprehension of the offerings they bring forth, with pain, from their intimate depths. On the other hand, that self-preservation instinct easily devolves into a frantic scramble for significance at the expense of others, or a type of writing that repels with its aggressive brilliance and drives away the community that the writer needs. I have been guilty of both.

No stranger to the Hobbesian jungle of academia, the award-winning poet Gabriel Gudding posted on his blog some months ago, under the heading “A Rationale for Writing Poetry with a Kind Mind”, this welcome proposal to reunite the aesthetic and the moral. It followed a debate on his blog about whether the Bollingen Prize committee should have denied Ezra Pound this prestigious award because of his pro-Nazi radio broadcasts. Gudding rejects the “high Modernist” ideology that a poem can be judged objectively, as a pure aesthetic object, apart from the moral positions of both the writer and the reader, and how they are implicated in systems of oppression. Postmodernists are often called cynics and relativists, but Gudding finds that insight into power relations can actually lead writers in a more humane direction:

If the aesthetic is closely federated with the ethical, the practice of verbal and cognitive skills necessarily entails the practice and modeling of dialogic emotional skills such as forthrightnesss, forgiveness, renunciation and lovingkindness. Conceiving the aesthetic as inseparable from ethical questions is especially important for anyone who considers herself a practitioner of “poetry” writing, a genre culturally perceived as all too often marked, since the Modernist moment, by a clear fetish of isolative emotionalism, reactive “expression” of affect, monologic narcissism and aesthetic preciosity, over civically responsive and ethical concerns.

This genre is in fact so fraught with symbolic violence, with its social economies relying so heavily on disincentives toward the development a warm vibration, that you kinda havetah wonder if poets in particular shouldn’t richly buy into an overt and activist devotion to lovingkindness as a means of proactively countermanding the profound brutality of this genre.

No reason that poets should continue to see themselves as exempt from normative socioemotional economies. Our imaginative, cognitive, and linguistic skills must be founded in an overt and almost activist devotion to the good. It’s an old fashioned and conflicted term, but by “the good” one might mean those actions and attitudes that shape and support the cultivation of goodwill at both civic and interpersonal levels. In fact, I straight up tell my students that to write exceptionally well, to think creatively and perspicuously, it is necessary to have a mind that is rooted in the good and characterized by kindness and tenderness. You don’t need to be a jerk to write well — tho I can see how folks might think so, given that “being a jerk” is an effective tactic for consecration….

On the other hand I think it’s probably true that certain writing communities have throughout the history of letters helped in the restructuring of reactive, harmful, automatic (that is to say knee-jerk) cognitive and socio-emotional habits. I would in fact go so far as to argue that the tactical modeling of positive affect styles has been a principle function of certain writing circles throughout the last three centuries (I think immediately of certain positive affect styles modeled by NY School folk, e.g., jubilation, rejoicing, attentiveness, renunciation [of authoritarianism both aesthetic and political in particular]). By forwarding subaltern positive affect styles, these circles have probably time and again exercised the power to re-calibrate an imaginary and reformulate an affective milieu. Because the ideologic binds to us principally through affect and emotion, becoming aware of the functionality of affect in one’s life, and actively cultivating helpful affect states, could be considered a social responsibility, if not a civic duty.

And though it is not a principle reason for doing so, the active cultivation of a loving mindstate will almost certainly improve one’s own writing. My thinking in this is in accord with Emerson’s who writes in “Friendship” that “Our intellectual and active powers increase with our affection.” Emerson saw in 1841 what social scientists have recently begun studying with hard data: cognition and emotion cannot be separated; an open, vibrant mind is predicated on an open, vibrant heart. It is a fact that no longer can be pedagogically ignored: people learn better and write better within environments that are positive, humorous, and filled with genuine warmth.

Following Emerson, such a mind, a kind mind, is more likely to be sharp and easily concentrated. It is, further, more likely to be flexible, light, ductile, malleable, plastic, and creative. The virtues are inherently dialogic, in the Freierian sense, and a mind that actively practices the virtues will inevitably become invested with confidence, courage, straightforwardness, honesty, wonder, determination, discipline, concentration, forgiveness, patience, tolerance, renunciation, sympathetic joy, compassion, lovingkindness, generosity, and equanimity. Such a mind is willing to take the risks necessary to effectively write and think and act in the face of adversity. Such a mind is to better able to retain the capacity to be surprised. Such a mind is better able to remain responsive to the variety of worlds, both textual and actual, that it will encounter. This is the perfect mind to cultivate in the transtemporal worldwide writing seminar and the transhistorical literary commune we sometimes call humanity.

Gudding’s first collection, A Defense of Poetry, is a work of mad genius, combining satire, invective, childish babble, and surreal imagery to puncture the vanity of violent ideologies. It also contains a lot of farting, and I approve of that. Buy it now.

20 comments on “Be Kind to Writers

  1. Alegria Imperial says:

    Dear Jendi,
    I’m fumbling for words. I know you’ve been taking on causes for the hopelessly dying and the totally derided. But to break out, unleashing in words what I would imagine you leading a rally for kindness to writers who are imprisoned by both steel and invisible bars with my comment on death of writers, aritsts as the banner, is beyond my dreams. I am greatly humbled. Indeed, perhaps if writers, artists lay bare the source and process of their truths incessantly, then maybe, understanding or knowing first would happen, and then, kindness in the end. But meanwhile, they keep on posing this riddle, baffling the world:


    from flints flung off
    cliffs where crags snag
    fledglings came my seed,
    buried, until as sapling
    i spiraled off ground. air
    feeds me but it turns

    poison when i exhale, cracks
    when as blossom i break,
    feigning petulance. i am crowned
    when i abscond words.

    i bear fruit when my
    flesh oozes. my dreams
    drip when birds hang where i gaze
    on a promise; moons that sprout on my limbs i count as wings
    resisting winds.

    my yearnings
    wear out the sun, singe my heart
    a thousand times. but always
    at dawn i bud.

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