This passage is an excerpt from William Hazlitt’s essay “My First Acquaintance With Poets,” which was published in The Liberal in 1823. There are two things that stick out about the passage: the phrases “loitered my life away” and “writing on what pleased me best.” The careful choice of language might suggest the writer is a sort of professional idler, a vagabond who may or may not, after all the books and pictures, the plays and parties, finally settle in to write a poem or an essay entitled “My First Acquaintance With Poets.”
If you’re a freelance content provider, you’re either rolling your eyes at the phrase “writing on what pleased me most,” or cleaning the computer screen after laughing up a mouthful of coffee, as those 300 product descriptions you eked out last month for that wholesale dollies company still haunt you at night.
If your writing career has taken you to a place where you can write what pleases you most, and you’re wandering through the markets in Thailand in search of ideas for a new novel, reading a book at an outdoor cafe on Bourbon St., waiting in line at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, or swimming with the sea turtles in the Turks and Caicos, well, you’ve earned the right to be a professional idler.
Since the days of ink quills and parchment, writers have been told to write what they know, and it’s safe to say that writing what one knows is generally the same thing as writing on what pleases one the most. Following this train of thought, for example, technology writers would seldom step on the toes of travel writers, and sports writers would refuse to trespass on the niche of food writers, unless of course they’re writing about what to bring to a tailgate party. However, a writer doesn’t need to be particularly knowledgeable or passionate about a subject in order to write about it well, to convince the reader of his or her authority, or to entertain with a punchy and memorable style. Contrary to popular belief, style, if it is done well, can trump substance.
The above passage from William Hazlitt’s essay is not about the writer as a professional idler or a romantic slacker, but as an advocate of literary freedom. It’s about the freedom to trespass on literary genres and get away with it. It’s about the freedom to deconstruct niches and reassemble them with different parts -freedom to take risks, freedom to loiter in other disciplines (art, theater, etc.) and then bring what has been learned, seen, or felt, and synthesize it into a sharp and cohesive piece of writing. Expert writers understand this concept; they do not allow the subject matter to dictate their writing. Expert writers dictate, and the subject matters listens.
Damon H is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.