Anyone can be a writer in the sense of putting sentences together that form longer narratives. But not all of these writers are artists. That’s the distinction I make between the work some people are publishing whether the book is self-published or travels the traditional route via a publisher, small or large.
But why is being an artist different and does it matter? Art should cause us to see others, the world, and ourselves differently. When it’s functioning best, it shakes our usual way of thinking/perceiving and connects us to something deeper. Transcends the everyday. If I’m just writing purely autobiographical material that’s barely disguised as fiction and not inventing as well, I’m not opening the door for something new to enter. Instead, I’m reiterating what I already know and passing it off as art—regurgitating.
That isn’t to say that memoir/autobiography can’t be artful. It can. So can novels that have autobiographical elements. But, again, it’s how it’s written—the literary techniques and imagination the writer has at his/her disposal that transforms the raw material into artistic expression.
I realize I’m creating a hierarchy here, but I do think the best writers are priests/priestesses in their own way, offering through the word, through their words, through our universal language, a vision of something else. For me it’s equivalent to viewing our surroundings from a ground floor window versus climbing to the highest level and seeing how much more there is to know about.
James Joyce, especially in Ulysses, has that quality in his fiction. So, too, does Alice Munro in all of her short stories. Thomas Mann is another priest of the written word in The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice, and Doctor Faustus. Of course, there are many more who fit this category, too many to mention here. But you get the idea. Works by such writers don’t lose their power over the years, continuing to illuminate dimensions of the human experience that otherwise wouldn’t be noticed.
A writer who isn’t an artist seems to be stuck with that ground floor view, and there’s nothing wrong with that perspective. A writer who is an artist has much more scope in his/her work. S/he is able to transform his/her material, and that’s where the artistry comes in. Transformation is at the basis of many religions, and I think it’s also the basis of art: transmuting base metal into gold as the alchemists attempted to do. Taking the letters that make up our words and giving them magical powers to shape our thinking and seeing.