Aug 182010

In regard to various and sundry culture critiques animadverted within the NC garden walls (this little Eden, refuge from the bad world), it might be helpful to enunciate a positive credo.

A person writes because, through writing, he comes to know himself and the world better. A person may write for money or fame or to achieve social position by posing as a writer, but these are secondary and, to some extent, inauthentic motives that often result in inauthentic and second-rate writing. Inauthentic motives result in second-rate writing because they interpose someone else’s point of view between the writer and the work. The writer writes to an audience conceived loosely as a market. He writes to formula instead of form—and don’t be fooled: there are some very slick and intelligent-seeming formulas out there. Many people who want to be writers do not know themselves well enough to be able to sort out their motives. Again, don’t kid yourselves: most of what gets published is second-rate recyclable literature at best. (Why this would come as a surprise, or even be noteworthy to anyone in his right mind I have no idea.) If you write to know yourself and the world better, as a means of becoming a better version of yourself in your writing, then certain questions need to be answered in the writing. Who are you? What does it mean to be a person? How can a person relate to other persons? What is real and how do you know the thing you think is real is real? What do you want? How do you differentiate, evade, quell, and dismiss all the false demands of fad, formula, packaging, expectation, received opinion, ideology, and commerce to achieve your own unique answers? How do you translate the answers into words on the page? And, perhaps most importantly, how can you make this fun? If you use your writing as a mode of inquiry, if your plots are dramatic collisions between self and other or between self and the real (always with the preceding questions in mind), and if you are brutally honest with yourself and your characters, then you have a shot at writing well.


  65 Responses to “What I Think: A Credo”

  1. Thanks — and we need to keep reminding ourselves of this advice.

    I will desist with these posts. I entered publishing with a faint sense of what went on behind the scenes, what people making decisions were thinking, thus the past month or so have tried to see what I can learn. The news is not good and neither are the discussions.

    A case might be made that anyone who wants to reach the world should not give in to its terms and conditions but rather find ways to negotiate these to build a readership and a career — and perhaps have a footing from which to develop. That has been the argument I’ve been entertaining. I’m not sure it can be done, however, or at any rate that I can do it, or, more importantly, that I want to.

    Which takes me back to your credo.

    I have a more pressing concern now. The Manx animus has been pushed off the active front page. Does it keep running or whatever it is doing, or does it stop and rest and won’t start running again until the post is made active? How will we know?

    • Not meant to make you desist but to remind NC that the sorry state of the world (and, um, when has it not been in a sorry state?) is not necessarily reflected in the state of your soul, which is free. It’s always helpful to be aware of the world’s “term and conditions” so as to better avoid them.

  2. Thanks Douglas. It’s good to remind myself of these important precepts and it’s good to hear your voice from afar.

  3. I think writing to know ourselves better is be even more difficult that writing to know the world better. Writing has the ability to align our actual self and our ideal self, a concept at once both terrifying and exciting. The questions you have outlined in this credo have reminded me of what can (and needs) to be accomplished by writing. Instead of running from the difficulties (and marvels) of self-inquiry and knowledge, it’s time to get back in the chair and familiarize myself with some “brutal honesty.” Thanks for putting some things into focus, DG. Thank you for these questions.

  4. I only have a moment before I run out the door, but this post reminds me of the movie Inception. Mostly because I saw it last week and it is the first movie in a long time that kept me thinking and I’m still hoping to logically discern a certain ‘truth’ in the film. (Yes, I used the word truth). The writer and director Christopher Nolan was asked if he had been through psychoanalysis and he answered that writing was that for him (he spent ten years researching and writing the film). This statement and this blog post makes me feel somewhat normal in the writing world. I always felt semi-narcissistic since my writing has always been about trying to understnad myself and myself in the world, even when I tried my hand at fiction. Off now!

  5. Thank you for this, Douglas. I’m going to post it on the wall across from my desk.

    • I admire your courage, Kim. If that were in front of me while I was writing, it would guarantee total paralysis. I aspire to a state where I’m writing “in the moment,” without thinking about the result, and I’m afraid that having such lofty ideals in my head would result in an effect opposite to the one I’m hoping for.

  6. This is the most interesting post I’ve read here since I began following NC.
    I do think that, at its best, writing is a discovery process. Although it’s true that, through writing, a person can come to know himself and the world better, and that this result can keep him writing once he has begun, it is not necessarily his initial motivation. I think a person writes (or paints, sculpts, designs a building, composes music, etc.) out of a desire to make something. My late husband, Tip Dorsel (a graphic, architectural, and product designer), talked to me about this many times. He believed that art is created because the artist desires something that doesn’t exist in the world, compelling him to realize his vision by making it himself. At least, he said this was his own motivation, and I think he was right about that. He always told me to write the stories I wanted to read. (And, when I was managing editor of The Berkshire Review, he said to me, “If you really have to run a literary magazine, why don’t you start one of your own.” The result of that advice is upstreet.)
    Of course, none of this negates the idea that the resulting artwork can be independently evaluated according to standards of beauty, quality or authenticity.

    • If you’re of a mind, I would like to see you weigh in on some practical issues we need to consider when we submit to journals, based on your experience and what you have seen elsewhere.

      Two examples:

      One mistake I’ve made is write long stories. I suspect it is very, very difficult to get a long story published anywhere, unless one has a large reputation. Stories should probably not be longer than 5-6k words. I regret this however — I like the form and short work forces a different esthetic.

      You said something that intrigued me. You told me you hold work you might consider until the end of the reading period, when, for some reason, some of the best work comes in. I suspect this is a practice elsewhere, and it explains why many journals take so long to respond, 6 months and longer.

      I still see journals who say they don’t want simultaneous submissions. . . .

      • Gary, this seems sufficiently off-topic for me to answer you directly, by e-mail, unless you think enough other NC junkies care about these issues. I can really only speak about upstreet, anyway.

        • Are others interested? Weigh in?

          Maybe in a post later? I’m just curious what’s on the other side — anything I’d want to know before submitting. I’m not even sure what I’m asking for. More and more, communication with the journals is a form letter — or a form email from a submission manager. There is no feedback.

          The huge number of submissions everywhere, I know, is an issue.

          The blurbs in Writer’s Market and on the web aren’t much help — they all say the same thing about caring about literature, and I’m sure some mean it.

          Of course we should study the magazines themselves.

          • I’d sure like to know what’s on the other side.

          • I’m not really sure what you’re asking, Gary. As far as length is concerned, the limits are in the guidelines. upstreet’s maximum length for a fiction or nonfiection piece is 5,000 words. If you want to send out a longer story, One Story magazine considers stories of 3,000-8,000 words, and publishes one in each issue.

            I don’t know why journals won’t consider simultaneous submissions. upstreet does, and wants to know when a submitted piece has been sent elsewhere. There is no advantage to a writer to hide the fact that an upstreet submission is simultaneous–just the opposite, in fact. If the editors really like something a lot, we don’t want to take the chance that some other journal is going to snap it up. If we think we have a lot of time to make up our minds, we will take all the time we can. Don’t forget, upstreet is choosing 10-12 stories out of 1,500 submitted, and doing it within a 6-month reading period. That’s just the fiction; there’s also cnf and poetry.

            If those numbers seem big to you, imagine how many submissions journals such as Ploughshares, Tin House, McSweeney’s, or The Paris Review must receive.

            I’m going to stop here for the moment, lest I feel that I’m monopolizing the space. I’ll continue in another post if you’re still interested.

          • This seems like a separate but also worthwhile topic. Vivian, maybe we could set up a post and have you and maybe Robin Oliveira and Rich (now that he’s an editor at upstreet–although his experience will have been slim at this point) answer questions and expand on your experiences as an editor. What’s it take to get a story published? From the editor’s point of view. Of course, I’ve edited Best Canadian Stories for years–I could be in on this. I might be able to entice some other people.

            What do you think?

  7. Very well said. Enjoyed your words. Would like to know what you think of mine if you have a moment.

    All the best,

  8. Thanks for this insightful post, Douglas. I agree with you in principle but have a practical concern. Can one both explore the world and self through writing and make a living from it? And if one cannot do both, is it better to be a wage slave in order to (in one’s free time) pursue these aesthetic concerns? Or is it better to make some compromises with the “marketplace” in order to make a living, if one is able? And how does one draw the line?

    • Court, Nice to see you here. To be brutally honest (my new meme), it’s neither practical nor prudent to be a writer. The idea of making a living from it is ludicrous. It’s healthier to stop thinking of writing as a job and understand it as an art, a mysterious and necessary human process. It would be healthier for everyone if we decoupled writing from the idea of making a living which, in turn, would decouple writers from that unholy, invidious and corrupt c(v)ulture industry. Does anyone expect to make a living from praying? In practical terms, writers who want to be writers write and cobble together a living however they can.

      • You can make a living from praying, as it were, by engaging in activities auxiliary to praying, as in a minister or a priest. So I guess the way to make a living as a writer is to engage in activities auxiliary to writing, as in a teacher of writing?

        I like to think of writing as art. I thought of it as art for a long time. But then when the clock ticks over a few more times, I have to get up from my writing desk and go to a dayjob. I would like to bridge the gap of that disconnect.

  9. “There is no static equilibrium between man and his environment, between inner and outer reality…Every generation has to find its own solution to the same problem: how to bridge the gap between inner and outer reality by re-establishing the dynamic equilibrium that governs their relationships.”

    -Siegfried Gidion, architecture historian

    • Thanks for this, Cheryl. Interesting how architects are so familiar with the difference between the inner and the outer while the rest of us find that hard to see.

      • Hence why I can’t stop writing about architecture.

        I can only imagine what it would be like to have an idea, put it on paper and then have it be a functioning building with people inside. They are creating the interior and exterior–that has to be insightful.

  10. Re. Court’s question and Doug’s response.

    I answered Court from my point of view on my page, where he asked this of me. I won’t copy that here, since anyone interested enough can go there and read it.

    Actually, I am responding to what Doug wrote to Court.

    It seems to me that Doug is making an imbalanced comparison, or at least a false attribution. (Doug and I both have our graduate degrees in philosophy, so we can bullshit like this willy nilly.)

    Yes, it is definitely neither practical nor prudent to be a novel writer if one expects to make a living from it, although not making a living from it, in spite of the dismal odds, is as much a matter of good and bad luck as anything else. Most writers have jobs.

    But I think this does not present the direct implication that the novel writer does not want or hope to sell his novel and see it widely distributed. That it does not happen (often enough) does not mean the desire for it is not there, or that the desire for it is not a factor in the creation.

    I do not believe that you, Doug, did not make every valiant effort to see each of your novels in print and as widely distributed to an audience as you are lucky enough to get.

    Novel-writing is, for me, an art form because of how I practice it, and this has nothing to do with what happens to it after I finish. The striving for perfection is the core of art. But that does not preclude having one’s art printed and distributed … or one’s paintings hung in a gallery and sold … or one’s symphony burned onto a CD and sold.

    Writers write because for unknowable reasons they burn with that compulsion. They are going to do it because they cannot not do it. But this has nothing to do with wanting to see their writing in print and distributed to as an audience as they can get.

    As I wrote in my elsewhere place, I would write in glorious self-indlugence if I knew upfront no one was ever going to read a word of it. In that sense, I write for the audience I hope to have; I want that audience to see what I saw, to feel what I felt, to understand what I understand, and all the rest of that.

    I would rather do this in person in a cafe.

    • 🙂 See this is what happens. A person says something and then people come online and say, no, you didn’t really mean exactly what you said. The context of my remarks was an attempt to liberate my blog from log-rolling culture critiques about how awful the state of writing and publishing is today in America, etc. etc. etc. I was talking about what it might take to be a superlative writer and how finding some way to separate yourself from that sort of critical conversation might be spiritually useful. And then Court enters the scene with his, quite legitimate in their own right, concerns about making a living from writing. But that just begs the question. I say a writer might be better off not thinking about making a living from writing, and Court says, but, well, anyway, how do I make a living from writing. And I still say that asking your writing to make a living for you is the wrong question. The category mistake is not mine but Court’s. I am not talking about practical matters. I’m talking about what happens when you sit at the keyboard and write.

      • As for me, I am saying that when I sit at the keyboard to write a novel (as opposed to other kinds of writing I do), it is a consequential factor that I desire an audience, the bigger the better, to read this novel, and I feel that universal reader looking over my shoulder all the way. I am saying that knowing, or hoping, there will be an audience drives me to be better. I would not write novels if I knew without a doubt they would never be printed or find an audience outside myself. I would write other things in other ways.

        My novels have been published for the last 30 years, and, in round figures, I have earned a total of $125,000 for the lot of it. Math is not my subject, but I think that’s an average of $4100 a year, or about what my wife currently earns gross from her job every week and a half.

        Most writers know that lightning will knock them stone dead on a sunny day before they make a good living from writing novels.

        But that is something different from writing novels with the hope they will see print and find an audience. To do that, I think it’s a good idea to consider that audience.

        What one’s audience might be is another question. I have one in mind for my work, and it’s really not all that big to start with. Maybe that’s why I have averaged $4100 a year for 30 years.

        Anyway. To Court. You are not going to make a living from your income as a writer. You might as well face that and figure out what you can stand to do that pays the essential bills. But that is not the same thing as writing with the intention of having your work bought and distributed as widely as you are lucky enough to get.

        I suppose one can make a living as a writer: come up with a wildly controversial blog and put ads on it.

  11. Getting published and reaching an audience are strong incentives and can lead to better writing. Making money gives one more time to write. But at some point we have to come to terms with the current environment, which is what I’ve been trying to do. Read the whole Moody post and the others.

    Given the economy, our culture, the changes in the publishing houses, and the extraordinary number of people writing now, the game has changed.

    I can only speak from scant experience and what I’ve read. I’m going to be off here and will exaggerate — but how much? If you are starting out now and want to break in and reach a sizable audience and have a career:

    1. You will have to write to a niche market — chick lit, for example, was big for a while, but I think has faded. But the competition is steep here as well, and odds are you’ll be cut off from many literary reviewers and readers if you make it here.

    2. Else you have to pick a subject matter that publishers think will sell, most likely is trendy and sensational, maybe written for a younger crowd.

    3. It doesn’t hurt to be attractive and have public appeal. (For 2 and 3, Chabon, for example.)

    4. You will need connections. Your best chance is going to one of a handful of MFA programs, maybe getting known on a literary scene.

    Not only do you have to get an agent, you have to find a way to get past junior agents and assistants to the agent who has some clout. And more than ever, these guys are looking at bottom lines.

    5. Your work will have to be direct, strongly plotted, and not too demanding. No fooling around. You will also probably be limited as to the depth of your allusions, the sophistication of your language, the ideas you might want to cover.

    Do 1-5, and the odds are still very slim.

    In all cases, if your first book doesn’t sell, that’s it.

    What disturbs me is that I’ve seen little independents with similar criteria.

    I’ve criticized Franzen, but I value his goals. He is trying to reach and evaluate our culture the way Dickens once did. And it’s a culture that’s getting harder to reach. And it has meant making changes in the way he wrote in terms of language, experiment, and plot — see his manifesto on my “Not Agreeable” post.

    I just wish he were a better writer.

    I also wonder how far he’d get if he started now.

    But publishers large and small have a real problem: it’s devilishly hard to promote and sell a book now.

    My whole purpose in looking at trends was to see what changes I might make if I started another novel. What I concluded was that there was too much I couldn’t do, but, more importantly, didn’t want to do. I have to find another reason for writing, another context other than publishing.

    My hope is that all of this will change. The whole culture has been overheated the last decades, and maybe it will stop and reflect. And publishing houses still have to publish books and lots of people are writing now — something good has to come out of this.

    There are exceptions.

    Years ago, I was talking to my doctor at Kaiser, born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and found out he wrote, too — he had just had a story published in the South Dakota Review, of which he was proud. He was also working on a novel. His name is Khaled Hosseini and the book was The Kite Runner. Last I heard, and this was years ago, 4 million copies had been published worldwide. He said the book clubs picked it up and propelled the sales.

    Needless to say, he’s not my doctor anymore.

    I really liked Khaled. His humility and humanity are genuine, and they show in his novel. But the book disappointmented me — plot yes, but a melodramatic one, and the writing was rather simple.

    None of this would have happened, of course, if it weren’t for 9/11 (his book came out soon after).

    • I don’t know what the book was like, but I enjoyed the movie. I’m wondering what kind of doctor he was if he stopped being one as soon as he was affluent enough to quit. I suppose that means I like to believe that certain categories of professional workers (doctors, teachers, etc.) do what they do because they love it and are committed to it. I’m probably wrong about that, in addition to everything else I’m wrong about.

      • Being a professional isn’t easy nowadays either, for similar reasons. He was a wonderful doctor — but had to work for a large, bureaucratic institution and commute some 40 miles a day. I’ve heard others complain about paperwork, shifts in clientele, institutional pressures, etc. The private practice, community, accessible doctor is a thing of the past. He never talked about any complaints, though, and wouldn’t.

        I miss him — he seemed to know what he was doing and had a wonderful, respectful manner. I also miss talking to him.

        While I thought the book was weak, I am quite happy for him and his success. And I’m happy that so many people wanted to read it, and did. Diane Lefer told me that guys in an LA prison were passing it around. His message came from humanity and conscience, and the novel wasn’t a cheap play at sensationalism.

      • Actually, I don’t know if he’s stopped practicing or not. He’s just not at my Kaiser anymore. But he had to have taken a lot of time off — a massive book tour, the movie, another novel. We weren’t close and I have no contact now.

        Before Kite Runner was published, he said he’d wake up at 5:00 and write before he headed down the peninsula some 40 miles to go to work. I stand in awe here.

    • It occurs to me “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” is one of the recent books (that I’ve read) that fits your #s 1-5. Is that the sort of thing you’re talking about?

    • Gary, I really don’t have anything to say to this. Coming to terms with the current scene is not in the least an interesting activity to my mind. That’s, in part, the point of my little credo. That coming to terms with the current scene could somehow help you write a better novel seems like a specious piece of reasoning. Triangulating scenes, audiences, markets as a compositional tool seems like a disastrous strategy. You should write for yourself and hope (not expect) someone else might like it. Just ask yourself: Which is more authentic and likely to provide personal satisfaction? 1) You write a book you like and hope someone else likes it? Or, 2) You write a book to what you think are other people’s expectations (taste, aesthetic judgment) and hope they like it?

      • I think this is why I’m having trouble answering you, Gary. It isn’t unusual for prospective submitters to ask what upstreet is “looking for” in a submission. What the question boils down to is “Tell me what I have to do to get a story/ essay/ poem accepted.” If you were a litmag editor, how would you answer that question?

        I’ve prepared a brochure, which I make available at AWP and similar bookfairs and other events, which contains statements from all three genre editors, in addition to the submission guidelines. I think all of the editors would tell you that they had a hard time writing those statements.

        The other side of that coin comes when a piece isn’t taken, and the submitter wants to know why. This happens fairly seldom, but every once in a while we get a very insistent person who doesn’t understand why we can’t give individual critiques.

        • Vivian,

          The sheer numbers of submissions involved should sober us all and make writers adjust their expectations. It’s good to hear these again. They probably also have consequences worth considering.

          Given the situation of readers processing tons of manuscripts, do we really have to catch their attention in that first paragraph with something that knocks their socks off? (But I resist this like the plague.)

          Length is a simple mechanical matter, but I suspect we’d better pay attention. It’s a mistake I’ve made if I want to be published in journals — most of my stories are 8 to 12k. Most journals I’ve seen would rather have many stories around 4 to 5, and almost never go longer.

          I’ve often felt I’m wasting my time with a lot of journals. Our sensibilities just don’t match. But you can’t answer for anyone but yourself and Upstreet. The real answer, as so many editors say, is to study the magazine and judge for yourself, although this can be hit or miss.

          Look forward to your post! I’m sure editors have their own list of laments.

          • We do indeed! Chief among my laments is submitters who don’t follow the guidelines. Poets are the worst offenders; I’ve complained to the Poetry Editor that poets can’t read.

            Yes, the beginning is important. I was asked to read contest entries, and rate them Yes, No, or Maybe. Of the 25 stories I took, I only read three or four all the way to the end. In most cases, I didn’t get past the third page.

      • Doug — and others,

        I’ve been trying to get up gumption to get back into a project. The first step is to run around like a turkey with its head cut off. I’m about bled out, and again, ultimately you’re right. In my case, the only thing that makes sense is not to make publishing a goal, but set writing into some other context.

        What got me started some months ago is this comment from an agent who liked my writing:

        I have one overarching question for you to consider. What is your goal? If you want to be a writer, why would you try to start with a book that very few people will read? You make it HARDER to sell a second novel, because the sales numbers of the first one will be weak. You know that now. Why proceed with that knowledge? Why don’t you write something that WILL sell enough copies that you could get the second book to sell? I encourage you to be realistic about the universe of readers. What do you care about most? Money? Reputation? Satisfying readers? Being able to sell 5 books over the next 20 years? Because the answers to those questions should drive your choices. If you want to sell a second book, “forcing” a first “small” book makes it MORE difficult to sell the second. Something to bear in mind. I’m not telling you what to do, but I’m pointing out to you that one of the first thing editors look at when considering a new client is how many copies their last book sold.

        Which is what got me thinking. He was a new agent at a good agency and we talked over the phone a long time. I liked him, and he wasn’t an idiot. I am curious how he’s faring with the projects he has taken on — I emailed, but never heard back.

        I’ve heard this advice before, though. I was just giving it a shot. As to subject matter, I don’t know. I got a lot of response at least to my first novel — I write a good cover letter. The second novel was set in Silicon Valley and set during the boom bust. I got almost no response at all, and my best guess is it was a subject was something they decided they couldn’t sell. How good the book is is a moot point. No one asked to see it. (I’m happy with it, though, and glad I wrote it.)

        All this, of course, is something I’ll have to figure out myself.

        I’m not sure what gumption is, btw.

        • Take your eyes off that particular prize, Gary. Do it for yourself, and let the chips fall. I almost never send anything out, myself, and I’ve just about dismissed the idea that I’ll ever get a story published anywhere, let alone a book. (I cannot even imagine writing anything of novel length.) Behavior is maintained by its consequences, and I am trying to get to the place where writing is intrinsically rewarding.

          I do have a mentor, however, who believes that just doing it is of value, and who wants me to keep him posted on what I’m doing. He says that his goal as a teacher is that his students will still be writing 20 years from now, no matter what they’re writing, or how good it is. He is an inspiring teacher, and I’m lucky to have him as a friend.

          I’m also fortunate that my need to make something is satisfied by upstreet.

          • Vivian,

            The post about your late huband got me thinking, and now you have said it again here, about the need to make something. I have been writing about architecture for three years and while immersed in that atmosphere I truly started seeing this desire to construct. (I’m no longer working for a firm) I’m still working on this piece about my late boss and recently wrote this: “It is man’s nature to construct, the process that brings nothing into something.” Your posts reminded me of this line, and I wanted to share since not many writers have had access to architects, and I have learned a great deal about writing and the writing process from architects.

  12. Court,

    I don’t know it and probably should. It could be a wonderful book. Junot Diaz — I’ve read and taught his stories and have much respect. There are plenty of great writers who address topical issues directly, engagingly, and well. I would never argue against this or put down or push any single esthetic. There is also a growing interest in Latino writers — about time! I should put a plug in here: a friend of mine, Robert Shapard, edited Sudden Fiction Latino, which has just come out.

    Michael Chabon might be a model — and I respect him as well, though don’t think he’s done much for the form and am not clear why he’s one of our leading lights now. He went to X MFA program (Davis? I’ve forgotten), his mentor there, Y, put him in direct contact with hot agent Z (I used to know these names as well). He wrote a trendy, popular book, Mysteries of Pittsburgh (haven’t read), apparently is good looking and was a media darling, then later wrote Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which won a Pulitzer? How? And I got bored, for what my taste is worth. I wanted something wilder), but I liked Yiddish Policeman’s Union. He has quite frankly embraced genre, but not in any facile way. Chabon himself has said he had to first establish a popular reputation to write the things he wants. Again, I respect him — but why is he a leading literary light?

    There will still be good books coming out of the system worth reading. I think my real point is that trying to hit the market — especially finding material that will fit it — and play the system is such a long shot that it isn’t worth it for me to do so.

    And I suspect I’m right — any writer who wants to publish will be constrained if he or she wants to explore and push the form.

    Which still brings me back to Doug’s credo.

    • Jonathon Lethem also strikes me as one who might be along the lines of what you’re talking about. Another genre-bender who also more or less does your #s 1-5. Some of his stuff is pretty good; some of it very much not so.

      Even if you tried to play the system, you still a good great chunk of good luck, so in the end, I don’t know how much your odds of success would be raised. There are also the questions of personal satisfaction which Douglas raised above.

      I had a creative writing teacher once who said it was very easy to write a bestseller. Just follow the formula. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate – a good deal of luck would still be required, even then. Also, he never told us what the formula was. 🙂

      • Re Court’s last paragraph. I don’t think this is the case. I once, in utter frustration, a long time ago, said something like this to my agent, that maybe I should just write genre formula fiction, sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and at least make a living.

        She said, you won’t be able to do it. your attempt will stick out and stink like moldy cheese. Because, the successful writers of genre, formulaic fiction are not “writing down” to their audience. They are doing the very damn best they can do. They write directly to an audience that wants exactly what they produce, and they are doing it honestly and at their best ability.

        You cannot fake this. You cannot write “down” to your audience and fool them. Judith Kranz (she was our example of this in those days) is writing the very best novel she could possibly write. She is better at this than you could ever be, because you have no interest in writing of this kind, you don’t read it, you disdain it, and it will always show.

        In other words, if you want to be a successful genre formula writer, you have to actually be a genre formula writer.

        An audience that loves Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is not going to want the Schlitz you offer them. They know the difference.

        Just do whatever you do the best way you can do it. The only success, really, is being the best you can be at what you love.

  13. This is a reply to Doug’s proposal that we make the question of “What does it take to get published–from the editor’s point of view?” the topic of a separate post.

    Good idea. Let’s do it. 🙂

  14. Wow 40 comments and counting! This was fun!

  15. The ‘audience’ or the ‘other’ is a subject also talked about in poetry, but of course there is no ‘large paying my rent audience.’ Some poets like their ‘other’ to be anonymous, some like it to be a he or she, maybe even their lover or child. Whoever this audience is helps the poet in writing in the brutally honest way this blog has talked about. Who would I not lie to? Who can handle my truth? For me, that is a benchmark for storytelling, conveying one’s honest expression to another. But I can imagine once that ‘other’ becomes the ‘large paying my rent audience’ that something is lost in the gut-wrenching honesty of the writer. Now you’re trying to reach thousands of people–you might as well be a politician. Anyway, it is fascinating to read this, and for maybe the first time I am happy this issue has never been a problem for me, as a poet I knew what I was getting in to.

    I’d like to share a link, a blog written by David Gessner, nonfiction nature writer and UNCW professor (my undergrad). The first part is a rant in regards to NY publishing houses, but in the end he speaks to this conversation. But be very afraid of the title of the blog.

    • Cheryl, That is a nice post and does parallel the current discussion. Thanks for adding the link here.

    • Cheryl, one of the things Tip and I often talked about was how the writer or painter can see his work executed in final form without needing to have it put in print by a publisher or shown in a gallery or museum. The architect’s creation, however, must be translated into a form different from what he has put on paper, in order to achieve its full realization: it has to be built. This requires a client, and therein lies the problem: imagine writing a novel or story to someone else’s specs, or even to perform a set of functions delineated by someone else. The masters (Wright, Mies, Corbu, et al) seem to have had the charisma to talk their clients into almost anything, but in most cases the architect is trying to please the client. This is why Tip only saw three of his house designs executed, and two of them were his own residences (one I live in now). He earned a living doing graphic and product design, and retired from that as soon as he was financially able.

  16. I wish I could bring my father onto this site for a few minutes. (He’s alive, just not computer savvy.) He asks me ten times a week what the fuck I’m doing? He keeps asking me what I’m going to do when I graduate. He doesn’t understand this writing thing at all. (I’ve been working on a blog essay for NC on this very topic.) I’ve lived on the practical side of life for almost 20 years, the productive, non-creative side. Trying to switch directions and do this now, at 41, feels like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around in a river. (Terrible simile: a/c carriers very big..very hard to turn around.) Everyone, and just about everything, in my life wants to know what the pay off for this degree is going to be. People ask me all the time, “So, you’re writing a book?” I’m not, I’m not even writing well at this point. So how do I explain this? I’ve struggled with this issue for a long time…how invest in something when there’s no measurable outcome. Think about it: you go get an MBA and you then get a good job. You go to medical school, you become a doctor. You get an MFA and commit yourself to this life, and you earn $4100 a year. (Which, by the way, would be great if I could do it!) Recognizing that I’ll probably never make a dime off this is one of the more sobering aspects of trying to change directions. But the idea of not writing, the idea of going back into the productive world, scares me even more.
    I’m fortunate (sometimes) in being married to a woman who has a career and lets me pursue this, though even that has its limits. Marketplace demands encroach. Maureen’ not Leonard Woolf. There’s a practical side to her giving me time to pursue this: I also double as a stay-at-home dad. But those cocktail party questions really become hard to evade if everyone at the party earns six figures. For me, it’s not the temptation to make money, it’s the amorphous reality of what I’m trying to do. What worries me most, from the bottom of this pile, is looking up at many of you who’ve been doing it for years and hearing these same concerns echoed after succesful careers of actually writing. My stomach tightens when I hear this topic. At times, I feel like I’m pursuing a degree in wood-nymphery. Anyway, I thought I’d throw my student perspective into this. Doug’s essay helped me on a spiritual level. It girds me for the coming war. The thread on NC shows me scenes from the battle. We need both, we delicate souls just starting out. Saying fuck you to the world gets harder and harder the older you get, unless you’ve been saying it your whole life. Maybe I should have just gone to architecture school. But they have to do math, right, Cheryl?

  17. I always walk away from these ‘reply’ posts and think of 6 more things to say. I’ll just say one (and note that I spelled simile wrong):

    I do not think getting an MFA equates to ‘being a writer.’ Not even close. For me, VCFA was simply the place where I laid claim to this, where I committed myself practically to pursing a dream which had festered in me for years. It’s also been a terrific place to learn about writing and to be around other writers from all walks of life.

    • I got an MFA from Iowa, same class Doug was in, and I never thought it was anything more than practical, and had nothing positive to do with my actual writing. The MFA is a union card, so in the good chance you aren’t making a living as a writer, you can join the herd of teachers of writing; secondarily, because of its reputation, one meets publishing professionals there; I got my agent while a student at Iowa. That’s pretty much it.

  18. I could still make an argument that anyone who wants to address the culture critically — and this is not fatuous — should make necessary adjustments, somewhat the way Soviet writers found ways to get past their censors. Richard Price’s Lush Life approaches crime genre, but I think it is a great book, powerful in its sensitivity and awareness. And I’ll give Franzen credit again.

    Still, the odds aren’t great.

    And I just don’t want to do it. Doug’s putting up my Frisch essay (thanks Doug, and I’m buckling under all this attention) reminded me of the audience I most have in mind when I write. There are writers who moved me in my reading. In some way, I want to write to them, maybe touch another reader the same way. That Frisch is dead and few read Holocene is beside the point.

    The good news in publishing is that the houses still publish lots of books. This is how they make their money. And they pay editors and others who have to have something to do to earn their keep.

    I suspect it’s also a mistake to think there is some kind of plan or co-ordinated capitalist conspiracy at play here. More likely, no one knows what they’re doing, or are forever in the process of figuring that out.

    Is there a chance your book will get published? The correct answer is you never know until you try. I think anyone who has written a book and has the time and bucks and thick skin should give the system a shot, just not expect anything.

    And of course we have Robin’s example of what still is possible.

  19. Court asked how you pick a superlative writer. Here’s an answer I like, from J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters.

    The story Seymour read to Franny that night, by flashlight, was a favorite of his. To this day Franny swears she remembers Seymour reading it to her.

    Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: “You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for horses in your stead?” Po Lo replied: “A good horse can be picked out by its general build and appearance. But the superlative horse — one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks — is something evanescent and fleeting, elusive as thin air. The talents of my sons lie on a lower plane altogether; they can tell a good horse when they see one, but they cannot tell a superlative horse. I have a friend, however, one Chiu-fang Kao, a hawker of fuel and vegetables, who in things appertaining to horses is nowise my inferior. Pray see him.” Duke Mu did so, and subsequently dispatched him on the quest for a steed. Three months later, he returned with the news that he had found one. “It is now in Shach’iu” he added. “What kind of a horse is it?” asked the Duke. “Oh, it is a dun-colored mare,” was the reply. However, someone being sent to fetch it, the animal turned out to be a coal-black stallion! Much displeased, the Duke sent for Po Lo. “That friend of yours,” he said, “whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?” Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. “Has he really got as far as that?” he cried. “Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.” When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.

  20. That’s a good one. Indicative of writing as an inward journey to some sort of inner excellence. Would that we lived in a society and / or time that valued such things.

  21. Wow-64 comments-ipso facto fascinating post.

    This little bit of latin that I hope I’ve used correctly is really all I know to add.

    No, being brutally honest with myself, that’s not exactly true. My comment however does veer off from the current thread (that there is more than one thread in the post ipso facto interesting post)

    Writing is fun for me. I absolutely do not write to become a better version of myself but I do write to know myself (and my relation to the world) better. And the more honest I am, the more I’m able to call myself on what I’ve written, the better the writing is.

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