This is what I know. Not much. But this. That writing is an absolutely individual endeavor. A writer can write in any way he wants, but he has to know, whatever he writes, his work reveals himself. Who he is. Why he is. If he wants acceptance by the largest possible audience, or by his wife alone, it will be there on the page. If it is not, well, then maybe he shouldn’t write.

Writers hear voices. If there is just a single voice in my head, I may write down what he’s saying for a time if it interests me, but usually I can’t write for very long unless there is a conversation. If there is a conversation, I can write as long as it takes, or until I am exhausted. And when I’m tired, and I quit, I can pick it up again later because, in reading what I have written down before, I can hear the voices again.

Not being a genius by nature, I am dependent on the voices I hear. Thankfully, all I need is a little time to concentrate and I hear them loud and clear. Better than that, I may hear them at almost any time that I’m not distracted by ‘matters of consequence.’ The Little Prince warned me about those, and the result has been, of course, that I neglect too many matters of consequence for my own good. The rent has to be paid, and on time. But art is not about dollars and cents, though it is about a common sense. Great artists might work to pay the rent, but the work is in spite of, not because of the consequences. Caravaggio knew that. So did Melville.

The matter then becomes finding a subject that matters to me. Being a soft product of the 20th century, I can’t write about anything that doesn’t matter to me. That is a given. Writing is very narcissistic. Trivial matters, or matters of life and death, are all the same. Life is often fashioned from the dust we make. And I understand that this reveals a lot about me personally, but that fact is usually not important. I don’t mind people knowing my predilections and peccadillos. But ignoring them in what I write would be frustrating if not impossible. As Mr. William said, ‘the truth will out.’ My job then is to take note.

Understanding that others who read my work may not appreciate the way I write, or my attitude, is of no consequence. None. That is an absolute. But that is a learned response after many years of trying to shape what I wrote to meet someone else’s wants. I did not do that very well. It was not satisfying. It was not fun. In fact, it was painful. Perhaps that is why so many writers say writing is painful. They may not be writing about the things they should. The best of writers, from Jane Austen to W.B. Yeats, loved doing it. And they did it for themselves.

That is not to say that I’m not trying to be readable. The opposite is true. I seek that excellent conversation that is possible with the minds of others. I want to be read by as many as possible and I’m greatly gratified by a mutual understanding of something that matters to me. But it is my work that I want to be understood. I’m much confused by the idea that I should write to please others. The hypocrisy of that has driven better writers than I to drink.

I am an atrocious speller. This began early on, when I was a child, and reveals just one of my many faults, but I have to deal with it the best I can. I love words and I don’t want them misspelled. It’s a mental handicap, and especially when mixed with a level of dyslexia (whatever that is), I know this can be off-putting to say the least. But I work at it. However, it is the idea in a given work that is the first thing–not a single word or a sentence, though the idea is often buried in there, somewhere. My spelling, or syntax, is most important to me as it bears on that idea.

Syntax is an issue apart. I certainly make mistakes in my usages, but I also employ syntax to alter the meaning of the words or to change the direction of the movement in the work. This I learned from The Bible, and Chaucer, and Mark Twain, and Herman Melville, and in a few other good places. Syntax is a tool. Not using it beyond the norm is boring to me. Using it badly may be worse, but it is a risk worth taking.

It is important to me not to conflate my faults with what I believe I do well. My faults are not my guide, any more than following the wrong star would be. I work at my faults so that I might do better. But those who are obsessed with the faults—I have never found an exception to this—always miss the point of what I am saying, no matter my attempts to fix the work for them. And I get great pleasure reading a piece years later where I have played with something well and it worked and still works.

Writing is the most rewarding thing I do. It is the most satisfying. It is the most fun.

I don’t do it for money, quite obviously, but it is true that I once tried. That was the accepted norm of my age, as if prostitution was the only proper use for sex. Mark Twain said, “Write without pay until someone offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.” He also said an author who wrote without prospect of pay was a fool. But being a natural fool, the effort of will required to stop was not in me and rather than give up the pleasure of writing I found my way to what I do now.

I wish that more people wrote. The world would be a better place and I would have more to read. I read a lot. But most of what I read I scan because the author is often employing words poorly or by-the-numbers. Strunk and White and the rules of usage in their Elements of Style are not the only villains in that, but they were key players in my time. I know too well that pedestrian verbiage-to-order was promulgated by most English teachers—not all. I had a few I loved dearly. But most teachers are obsessed by the rules and don’t have time for content. And that is, by extension, the world they lived in.

I can’t think of a single great writer who went to college. Perhaps there is one I haven’t read yet, but the pattern is that college is there now to drive all art away and guard the procrustean goal lines. All those creative writing classes and what do we get? Just a lot of people cut to fit the corporate mold who write free verse on the weekends to express themselves. We get unhappy vignettes about the corporate soul and the futility of life, and manuals of sexual behavior that are, thankfully, illiterate. Times have changed since the days when Mark Twain had a thousand paying markets to choose from.

I am reminded that Oxford and Cambridge once had a few good writers, Graves, and Lewis, Tolkien, but that is another era, pre-war, now over two generations ago. That alchemy is long gone. I recall that Thoreau dropped out of Harvard because he wouldn’t conform. That was a time of high standards broken by those who could. Nothing of the sort exists today. Today we have the internet, and low standards broken by any who can.

The great publishers are all gone, their names are now absorbed and diminished by corporate conglomeration. The great magazines are all gone as well, and the few good ones left on the internet are dependent on political causes in order to survive. Nothing of the broad-mind spirit of the old Atlantic or Harper’s remains. And the popular magazines that introduced the public to a full range of printed rhetoric, such as The Saturday Evening Post, are too long gone, as are the ‘pulps’ that gave us so much of the modern idiom.

There is no such breeding ground today of new talent, nurtured by the likes of William Dean Howells, Richard Watson Gilder, George Horace Lorimer, Harold Ross, or John W. Campbell. The flexible and fungible standards of the internet won’t do. And the internet only pays the monetizers, and those sites run by the corporate few for the benefit of the fewest, that want writers happy just to have their names in print.

That is not to say that writing for a paycheck is wrong. If what you do is the construction of information with words, to be passed on to others, that’s fine. It is a challenge and a craft as fine as brick laying. It might even be good journalism. But it’s not often an art. Those few who manage to use a little art in their paid work today are the exceptions. I am sure that some prostitutes still raise their skill to the level of art. Any human endeavor can be transformed that way. Hell, Michelangelo worked for the Medici! But when he did, he worked on his own terms.

If more writers worked outside the numbers, they might discover their own minds, instead of parroting the dogma of others—they might find true insight into the mysteries of life. They might not earn a paycheck from doing that, but the reading would be more enlightening, and the writing would be more joyful. There is always more wood that needs sawing and a ditch that need digging, or filling. The pay for digging ditches is better and more reliable, granted. But that effort in itself would likely give them some understanding of the values they pursue as well as the ones they have lost. If what they do can be replicated by a bot, there isn’t much point to sweating it out, is there? Certainly, there is no hope for a paycheck when the bot slave is doing it for pennies.

AI is the new paradigm for cheap words. All the words in all the works of all the great authors are now accessible, usable, adaptable, and disposable. Any author is now working against a tide of such cheap goods, as much as any craftsmen in textiles, or wood, or ceramics. This cannot be stopped. It should not be stopped, lest that power to control the output make pikers of the Medici. It is up to the artist or writer to create what the bot cannot do: the original. And the original is only in the mind of the individual.

Those who recon, as Mr. William said, that ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,’ that now believe that all the world is a simulation, and all the men and women merely bots, must have to deal with we few, we happy few, who know the joy of writing out of our own spirit. Bots are joyless. They can have simulated sex but never love. And simulated love is not love at all. Love and joy are beyond simulation.

How do you know, says the skeptic? I answer, how do you even know to ask? Your benumbed spirit may be capable of pretense, but even it must understand the first principle of economics: you get what you pay for. Joy is found in what you have done and reflects your mind. Love is what you can offer to another. You have known this since you were a baby. Look back.

It is no loss if an age of joyless writing is behind us. The boon of writing for love has always been before us.