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Essay: The writer's curse

Donny Syofyan

The Jakarta Post

Victoria  /  Mon, October 9, 2017  /  08:59 am
Essay: The writer's curse

An author is cursed to be solitary. An author lives a solitary life because of his or her need for strong privacy and individualism. (Shutterstock/*)

I was a little surprised when a prolific Indonesian writer, Tere Liye, announced a few weeks ago that he had requested the country’s two major publishing houses, Gramedia Pustaka Utama and Republika, to stop reprinting his novels to protest the high taxes he has to pay. This protest is basically owing to a higher tax imposed by the Indonesian government to authors compared to other professionals.

Despite the controversy surrounding his decision to cut ties with the publishers, Tere’s concern should not be simply seen as opposing the tax treatment injustice for authors and the ignorance of the current administration about the subject.

Deep in the writing jungle, his protest justifies what I consider “the curse” that most writers must accept, like it or not. It is called a “curse” not because of the black magic an author has, but rather because it is a necessity that befriends many novelists, columnists or poets, leaving them no choice but to face it.

An author is cursed to be solitary. An author lives a solitary life because of his or her need for strong privacy and individualism. It is not to say that good writers must go to a solitary place where the environment is quiet, or that they need to distance themselves from society. Absolutely not. Becoming solitary signifies the author’s dire need for personal space and time when it comes to writing. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”

Since writing is an independent act, intense alone time is a matter of routine for many authors. Things get complicated as long hours of writing alone are not compatible with better public recognition and appreciation. That is why many authors often find themselves frustrated in the face of poor immediate 
results in the form of financial gain. Tere’s choice to halt reprinting of his books to protest high tax is another face of an author’s vexation with poor public recognition, which is the government.

It is often time for an author to withdraw him or herself into a solitary way of making creativity. Anne Rice once said that she brings a small recorder with her in case an idea for a book or character enters her mind at a time she is not near a keyboard.

Before the invention of the PC, Margaret Mitchell wrote her creative sparks for the epic Gone With The Wind 
characters and settings on scraps of paper and even napkins. AA Navis, a noted author from West Sumatra, always took a piece of paper everywhere, even to the toilet, in order to pursue expensive ideas.

Writing is also cursed to be the highest intellectual activity, which means you need to have a survival mode and strong energy to be a committed author. Compared to other intellectual activities — reading and discussion — writing is the most difficult one.

Reading makes us understand, discussion gets our understanding deeper and writing sharpens what we discuss. Those who read a lot but do not write are like a warehouse, keeping valuable things that are not used by others. On the contrary, writing after intense reading and active discussion is pretty much the same as a manufacturer, producing things beneficial to society, which is the reader.

Representing the hardest intellectual activity, writing is not a piece of cake. This is particularly true as good writing will greatly contribute to improving the country’s literacy. In March 2016, a study conducted by Central 
Connecticut State University (CCSU) entitled “World’s Most Literate Nations” placed Indonesia as the 60th most literate nation out of 61 nations on the list, above only Botswana, and below fellow ASEAN member Thailand.

If writing was easy, this nation’s literacy rate may not be as low as the survey suggested. If it was easy, Facebook pages would be filled with light but interesting and quality writing, not bad words. Writing an op-ed article, for instance, helps a writer to reach millions of people, sway hearts, change minds and perhaps even remold public policy. In the process, the author may also acquire recognition for him/herself and his/her institution.

Low literacy, to a serious degree, has a detrimental effect on writing books. In Indonesia, writing textbooks is not a profit-making business. Publishers and bookstores earn a lot of money, while authors rarely break even.

It is not surprising that many potential authors are reluctant to write and tend to pin the blame on publishers for taking an unfair percentage of the book sales. On the contrary, publishers tend to blame the poor reading culture of the society which, in turn, bodes ill for the marketing of books.

On the one side, Tere’s case has something to do with justice and royalty for the author. However, on the other side, this is the tip of the iceberg that represents the weak intellectual tradition for most of our society.


The writer, a lecturer in literary studies at Andalas University, is pursuing a Ph.D at Deakin University, Australia.

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