Writer’s Desk: Write Past the Moment

Writing for the moment.

It’s almost impossible not to write in the moment. Even if you’re writing about 17th century mink trappers, unless you cut yourself off from the news completely—or use a version of that sensory deprivation chamber Jonathan Franzen likes to use—the present day is going to creep in.

But while immediacy and relevance have their place, they can’t be allowed to take over your writing completely.

Lauren Oyler has a few smart thoughts about what happens in jittery, politically panicked times like these, when art is so often trapped in the here and now:

Art is infinitely adaptable; it accommodates activism naturally. When used to describe specific works today, however, “necessary” constrains more than it celebrates. If we can access only the essential, we may start to crave the extraneous…

When applied to bad art with good politics, “necessary” allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult. When applied to good art with good, or even ambivalent, politics, it renders aesthetic achievement irrelevant. Not only is that depressing, it also nullifies the political argument in favor of art in the first place: Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?

All our work is ultimately temporary; data corrupts, ink fades, paper crumbles. We don’t need to write for posterity.

But looking past the present helps sharpen that focus on the work itself. Worry about being true and hitting the right note, not being “necessary.”

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