“All writers who write about writing are not writers. They go on seminar, conference, and lecture circuits. They pose as adjunct faculty at small community colleges, teaching their writing insights. But they wouldn't be lecturing and writing about writing if they were actually writing anything worth publishing. They'd be writing, you know, BOOKS: Novels, short stories, essays, poetry, biography, memoir, and history, all of which would be displayed proudly in every bookstore window, their shiny covers full of light and color. These writers would be PUBLISHED by one of the big houses in New York City. They would be guests on NPR's Fresh Air, featured in the New York Review of Books, and everyone would be talking about them. But they aren't. Because they aren't PUBLISHED. And to make things worse, they hawk their how-to books and seminars shamelessly. They just want to make a buck off you and me. They really don't care about helping other writers. So why should I listen to what they have to say?”
This snippy little voice inside me chant-ranted this myth in my ear for over twenty-five years. I never spoke these ideas aloud. They weren't part of my conscious attitude toward other writers. But like a small dog yapping at my heels, this mantra of negativity urged me forward in my desperation to become a writer worthy of being published. Blindly I wrote for years, rarely happy with the results. Meanwhile I was so jealous of ANYONE who claimed to be a writer, who seemed to know something about writing, and who had a book to show for it. And I doubted I would ever be a writer. I was all those things I hated and more: writing and unpublished, but not writing self help books or teaching, either. I was thoroughly lost in a self-hating negativity jungle of jealousy (SHNJJ), complete with other naysayers, monkeys and ninjas. And―oh, yeah―small dogs. And I never admitted it to anyone until now.
As a writer you may have also ranted, criticizing other, seemingly more seasoned, writers. We can all be jealous from time to time. That's okay. Let off some steam. But if that rant takes over your life as it did mine, it is ripe for closer examination. I discovered that when I wrote down the words in my SHNJJ myth, the ideas fell apart. After years of struggle, I am no longer writing in the jungle. I now focus on the process of writing, and I am much happier.
How is it a myth? you may ask. When you unpack it, you get a series of claims, most of which are obviously false. First is “All writers who write about writing aren't writers.” This assumption is self-contradictory. If you agree that writers are people who write, then the statement “writers who write about writing aren't writing” has to be false. Because writers write. A basic tenure of rhetorical argument is that “A” and “Not A” cannot be true at the same time. If writers are writing, they cannot be not writing.
Next is “All writers who write about writing aren't publishable.” Who are these writers being referred to here? This statement is obviously false. I can name several writers off the top of my head who are popular, published and prolific writers (the Three Ps) and who write about writing.
Two other assertions are hidden in the myth. One is “writers who teach cannot write.” The other is “writers who teach are not published.” These statements are clearly false. Here's a starter list for famous writers who have achieved the Three Ps AND teach or give writer advice regularly:
Stephen King, who has published 55 novels according to Wikipedia, not counting his hundreds of short stories, wrote a phenomenal book on writing which is part memoir. He also gives writer advice regularly when he speaks in public.
John Gardner wrote “Grendel” as well as other novels, stories, poems, and biography. He also wrote two books on writing (“The Art of Fiction” and “On Becoming a Novelist”) and several essays on writing. He even taught writing at Southern Illinois University and Binghamton University for many years.
Annie Dillard has published poetry, essays, prose, literary criticism, novels, and memoir. She won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction AND taught for 21 years in the English department of Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut.
I could list more names, but I have already proven to myself that the claim that “all writers who write and teach about writing can't write” is untrue. From deep inside my negativity jungle, I could pick on an individual, follow her around with a notebook like Harriet the Spy, and try to prove she wasn't writing wonderful stuff on the sly, but it would not matter. I have already proven that it is possible to be a terrific writer and also write and teach about writing. If I did prove one writing teacher didn't write magnificent works during the finite period of time that I happened to be paying attention, I would not be able to prove she wasn't also writing a Pulitzer-prize-winning book once I looked the other way.
The crippling idea in the SHNJJ myth that “Good writers are always published” has a long history of proving itself not to be true. How many years did Thomas Wolfe spend writing and not being published (aka, not being a “good” writer) before someone hooked him up with the great editor Max Perkins? The result was “Look Homeward Angel.” And how about John Kennedy Toole, whose mother published his manuscript for “A Confederacy of Dunces” after he died? That book went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Another couple of assumptions in my SHNJJ myth are, first, “Ifa writer is a great writer, she will be acknowledged by the powers that be and be picked up by a respectable press.” Next is, “The press will handle all of the business end of things so that the writer doesn't need to hawk her wares like a street paddler.” I have learned that even if your book is published by a large house, if you are not a million dollar seller already like Stephen King, you will be hawking your book. Even King has to go to book signings as part of a book contract. The great poet, novelist, activist, and entrepreneur, Margaret Atwood, has developed a remote writing pen, the LongPen, to aid herself and other great writers who can't make it to book signings to sign their books remotely. Every writer has to hawk her wares to sell books.
When writers publish our books and essays on writing to social media, or through self publishing or small writing organizations and associations, we help keep our names in front of the reading public. This effort often means that when, with luck, our epic hits the shelves at the local bookstore (or the virtual Amazon.com elist), we will probably have a ready-made audience because of our e-verse efforts. This isn't cowardly or duplicitous, as I wanted to think to justify my not doing it myself for years. It isn't “small” and “mean.” It is smart business. And it is work. Hard work. This practical nature of writers does not negate our ability to hone our craft and create our art.
Since leaving the SHNJJ and the other naysayers, monkeys, ninjas, and small dogs behind, I can focus more on the writing process itself rather than on its results. Focusing on my writing process helps me relax about my own writing and be less jealous of others. When I was writing, I began to feel like a “real” writer. Once I rid myself of hate for a fictitious person pretending to be a writer, I stopped hating myself for the same reason.
Why did I have to go through all that to get to where I am now? I don't have a ready answer, but I think it has something to do with unintended consequences and a very sensitive young writer: me.
My mother was a teacher, writer and devoted reader. She instilled in me and my siblings a love of great writing. My mother supplemented our school reading with her favorite authors. Some of these became my own favorites: Dr. Seuss, A. A. Milne, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Dickens. As I got older, I moved onto Jane Austen, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen Donaldson. In school, we studied Theodore Dreiser, Henry Adams, John Steinbeck, and Mark Twain. I remember a life-changing class on Emily Dickinson in college. I found most 19th-century poetry impenetrable, but by the end of the semester, Mrs. Graham had converted me to a Dickinson-phile through her insights and clearly articulated understanding of what appears to be simple lines of verse. I now knew what great writing looked like, but how to do it? In studying these great writers, I understood that only certain writers get to be great and the only writing worth doing had to meet an ill-defined level of perfection.
About the same time, my mother wrote a wonderful manuscript for a children's book and got some interest from publishers. When they wanted to make changes, she didn't pursue it. Years later she told me that she was “not a writer, but a reader.” Her experience underlined for me that writing worth publishing was something above the norm, hard to reach, and not every one who tried for it made it. If my mother wasn't published, then few others should be. Experiences later on fed this idea. When I told people I was a writer, their first question often was, “Where would I have seen your work?” If I admitted that I was writing novels, I heard the more generous “Where can I buy your book?” I was pleased that they wanted to support me by buying my book, but crestfallen that I have a shiny book to give them. It seemed that I was not a real writer after all.
One thing I missed in the writing and literature classes was the understanding that learning how to write is an art in itself. It was not until I was mid-process on a novel with several other novels drafted, and an active member of a critique group, that I began to see where I was: in the middle of a journey and on my way through a learning experience that I couldn't get in any class on writing or in a critique group. Classes teach craft. Critique groups give you different feedback based on the individuals present, including style and mechanics. They cannot teach you how to write―how you write. Craft, mechanics and style are very important. The how-to's for these elements of good writing are everywhere. The art of writing is harder to know.
I am now learning the art of writing. I am learning how to glean wisdom from others and how to incorporate that wisdom into my own process. Instead of thinking something is wrong because what I am doing doesn't match what another writer is doing, I acknowledge that my writing process is unique, as is true for each writer. I acknowledge how important it is to the growth and development of a writer to understand her own process.
Learning about my process made me realize that sometimes I am not ready to hear the words of other writers speaking about the craft. There are times when I am in a place in which any advice, whether pointed directly at me or focused more generally, makes me anxious and I hide. This is my cycle. But when I do come out of my cave I am ready to listen. Ironically, it was while I was listening that I heard the stories writers tell about trying to protect their process and their art, and I gradually saw the fallacies I based my writing career on.
Only I can say what I want or need to be doing to be a writer. Only I can say whether I am successful or not. I do not define success by whether my writing pays my bills or not. Getting paid regularly for writing is a harder job, and I bow to those who do it. It often means working a 9-to-5 job and writing in your spare time. Sometimes you get lucky and find a writing niche which turns out to be a money maker. Some writers find two niches: a money-maker niche and a heart niche and balance both. For myself, I must focus on the heart niche.
The heart niche is all you, all the time, one that you write in because you have to. It's the one you can nestle right into in the morning, afternoon, evening or night and feel at home with. But it is also the one you must fiercely protect. Fight off any demons, monkeys, ninjas, or small yapping dogs that try to change or take away your heart niche. Keep that niche work safe in a lock box while you do whatever else you have to do to survive. Then open that lock box and take out your work when it is safe and quiet (or loud if that's how you work), and when you can feel free to work it the way you feel it. If you look around you, you'll see that you are not alone. There's a bunch of us other heart-niche writers writing and living all around you, keepin' the faith, any which way we can. And there is always the possibility that your heart-niche is also a money-maker niche. Just don't count on it!
Protecting your heart niche is also important in countering naysayers like I used to be (and I can still fall into the SHNJJ―nobody's perfect). Even well-meaning people can crowd your niche. You gotta be tough to be a writer. You have to get used to critics of all kinds. And you have to watch yourself to keep from falling into and staying in that self-hating negativity jungle of jealousy.
Remember: There is no one-size-fits-all for how to write. If you write, you are a writer.
I know so much more now than when I started -- most of it acquired by doing it (“it” being WRITING not getting PUBLISHED) But if it weren't for the advice and feedback of other writers-- some in person, some through their books or essays on writing, some through their blogs–I wouldn't have gotten here. I had to come out of my cave, but it was worth it. These are amazing people and amazing writers. They are so smart about writing–who knows why some don't have a BOOK PUBLISHED, let alone a bestseller. Some are published with small presses or self-published. Some have professional web sites and blogs which they update regularly with canny insights and news about the writing and publishing industry. These people are serious professionals. Some are published through major publishing houses. But most importantly, they are writing every day and sharing the wealth of their knowledge. These folks are working writers. And I'd like to count myself among their ranks as I share this blog with you. Not every writer has something to say to each individual writer, but so many of us are out there sharing our experiences that you stand a good chance of making a connection.
These ideas aren't new. Many others have discovered and shared them in the past. I hope my particular story of escaping the SHNJJ and the analysis of the illogic that held me in there for so long connects with you. I hope it helps you see where you are in your writing life and how you can leave any demons, monkeys, ninjas, or small yapping dogs behind.
Here is a list of some of the writers and writings that have helped me. There are so many more that I can't possibly list them all. My apologies to those left out:
Stephen King, On Writing
Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows)
Becky Black (junkfoodmonkey)
John Vorhaus, Creativity Rules
Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way
Updated from Writer, Heal Thyself: Emerging from the Myth That Those Who Aren't PUBLISHED Can't Write originally published on electricrider.net on 08/11/2011.