I first encountered writers writing manifestos in a serious and active way when I was doing my MFA at Naropa. During earlier literary studies, I had come across avant-garde artists writing declarative statements of intent – I’m thinking in particular of the Surrealist Manifesto.
At Naropa, writers bring to life the practice of the manifesto in a manner that really seems present and urgent. Anne Waldman in particular encourages the writing of manifestos in her teaching and activism. Her prose collection Vow To Poetry, subtitled Essays, Interviews, & Manifestos, is a manifesto in itself, defining her commitment to poetry, while Fast Speaking Woman is a magnificent declaration of intent in poetry form (see a video clip of Anne fast speaking here). Of it Anne says:
I wanted to assert the sense of my mind, my imagination being able to travel as artist, maker, inventor. To see beyond boundaries.
A manifesto contains passion and drive and purpose, all wrapped up in the efficiency of a list (something I explored in another writing experiment, Lists, Lovely Lists).
Start looking, and you find manifestos in many places:
* This Critic’s Manifesto by Daniel Mendelsohn is as much an exploration-essay, but it amounts to a powerful distillation of the writer’s experiences, commitments, and desires in writing.
* David Shields’s Reality Hunger (subtitled A Manifesto) is a fantastic book-length cry for new forms in writing.
* Matt Haig, a king of lists, has written what amount to be some of the most heartfelt, funny and purposeful manifestos, e.g., How To Be A Writer, Ten Reasons Not To Be A Writer, and Ten Reasons Why It Is Okay To Read YA. Look for others on his site.
* I also came across some poets’ manifestos on Google.
I do admit to finding some writers’ manifestos opaque, dull, or pompous, especially (sorry!) some of those by poets and self-described experimental writers, and particularly (double sorry!) a lot of those by self-described experimental poets. I guess laying out your intent like that can open yourself to excess, abstraction, and cliché. It’s something to be mindful of, and to avoid or maybe to write with awareness of, writing through and out the other side until your writing is tangible and fresh again. But, too, I guess a bit of pomp is fair game when you’re giving free rein to your intent – and writers really should allow themselves this, unhindered, from time to time.
I also find that a manifesto is a useful tool during revision. It can be a super tool for clarifying where you are during your drafting, and I often ask writers I’m working with to write a manifesto – it helps me to understand what they are looking for, but more than that it often helps writers take stock, frequently at a point where they’re drifting or losing focus or getting stuck. Sometimes our intent shifts as a project evolves, and we need to keep tabs on that too.
Writing – and later referring back to and updating – a manifesto can also be a powerful way to restore flagging confidence at moments of doubt, or when you are shirking the task of fully owning your project.
So: for this week’s writing experiment, write yourself a manifesto. It could be a mission statement outlining your long-term intent as a writer, or it could be a five-year plan, or it could be a manifesto for a specific piece of writing, perhaps as part of your revision. It might be specific to a genre you’re working in. It could involve artistic and aesthetic principles as well as commercial goals, and it might (should?) also invite political consequence. Go on, be a revolutionary through your writing. Change the world. Even be pompous – this is one of those occasions where a bit of bombast will do you no harm.
Make that declaration. Set some boundaries, then see beyond them.