As much as the art of writing has changed over generations, so has the perception of the writer. Let us crank up the Dolorian again to travel back and look at how the common people viewed writers over the ages and how writers viewed themselves. Could the persona of “writer” have changed that much from the dawn of time?
Speaking strictly in cavemen terms, writers were pretty progressive. They used symbolic language to communicate stories that we have read millions of years later. Such brilliant narratives as: I found mammoth, I made spear, I kill mammoth, and I eat mammoth. From the invention of fire to the first use of clubs, cavemen scholars documented their primeval progress on cave walls. Even before words existed, man possessed an innate need to tell stories, which we surely have not outgrown today.
Once language, written and spoken, was formalized, writers of stories became better well-known. They were the wise men of their day, scholars and preachers and philosophers. These were storytellers who could actually read and write. Playwrights such as Socrates, philosophers such as Plato, scientists too: all these were celebritites because of their skill at the written word.
And yet in the recent past, writers have been viewed not as elite people but lowlife bums too lazy to get jobs. They sit at home collecting unemployment checks while writing about their drug addict lives. We can see the writer crouched over a rusty typewriter, tripping on Benzedrine, chain-smoking, and naked.
The Beatniks of the fifties inspired this attitude towards writers. They were poor people trying to connect with a mystic way of life through drugs. Rather than tell legends, they wrote about their own lives. But they were also glamorized as enlightened and hedonistic. Living life to the fullest. Though sometimes pretentious and overly “ironic” by today’s standards.
While some writers are scene as wild like these, others are seen as recluses.
Think of Salinger or Pynchon. While some are poor, others are rich.
There once was a time when writing was the past time of wealthy aristocrats. Famously, in 1818, Lord Byron challenged his visitors at Lake Geneva to write a gruesome story. Each took turns trying to scare the wits out of the others. One such story that came of this was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Some writers speak as nobles, others for the common man. During the Industrial Revolution, portraits of the common man came into vogue. People saw working conditions from a working class man’s perspective. We saw inside of factories, the evils of corporations run wild with greed, and the daily strife of living in poverty.
Then there are the Romantics, writing expressively about their emotions, about their torments and loves and loss and horrors. Then come the realists who take scientific views and incorporate them into stories. They are intellectuals writing factually about things that will make them look smarter if the right professors read the books.
The war-torn writers write about how battles scarred them, about their emotions being drained. About the absence of a meaning to life. About horror and blood and brutal, pointless violence. These men we viewed as lost souls, writing as emotional release. Penning those feelings that were pent up for years after wars.
We have seen writers in a variety of ways for so long: as highly influential literati, as common men spinning common tales, as the Lost Generation, and as hipsters telling stories ironically.
Today, these perceptions have all meshed so that there is no one perception of “writer.” The only true thing tying us together is our burn to write, our need to tell stories. We cannot clearly define ourselves any longer. We are novelists, vocalists, bloggers, and poets. We are idealists, realists, poor, young, old, wealthy, calm, and angry.
There are no literary periods anymore. All we have to offer are words, trying to describe our own human condition. Perhaps the public sees us in a myriad ways.
But in truth, we are only humans struggling to articulate our own inability to articulate our struggles.