In The Season Of Giving: Unwrap The Truth For Your Creative Loved Ones


A Token Of Your Esteem: Honesty

The greatest gift you can give to a creative friend or relative sometimes is a compassionate, thoughtful, patient negative response.

Not negative in terms of how you say it or any intention of being hurtful. Exactly the opposite: negative in the sense of an authentic, truthful reaction in a world much too fond of happy talk and glib compliments.

Let me give you a few details of how this point has come up.

In this article, When ‘There Are No Words,’ I Can’t Even, I wrote about my concern that our natural tendency to adopt and communicate in our culture’s “pop-speak,” as I’ve started calling it, could eventually lead professional writers to lose touch with some of the language’s greatest depth and potential.

As a point of clarification: Slang has been and always will be with us, yes. And in many cases, slang, contemporary expression is precisely what a writer wants to use. What was under discussion in this case was the fact that professional writers under the same bombardment as everyone else of media-driven yak — yada-yada-yada — may be prone to do less with language than might have been the case in less “noisy” times.

On a fast tweet, OMG may work beautifully, but it shortchanges a reader when it comes time to engage in literature — of any genre, by the way, not just literary work.

The story is at Writer Unboxed (WU), a highly regarded and well-trafficked site with which I’m a regular contributor. While I think WU has material that’s helpful for authors at any stage of development, the site probably is most useful to authors who are either moving work through our content-glutted market already or about to — both traditionally and self-published.

Writer Unboxed is largely craft-oriented, but in the wider sense: you read observations not only about writing but also about the developing craft of author-marketing, business resources, and a good bit about what I’d call the “Who Are We?” questions — as in who are writers today? What do writers of books, authors, mean in a culture gone screen-happy?

My role at Writer Unboxed is to provide a monthly piece that gets at one or more of the difficult-to-discuss issues that writers and the publishing industry are facing today, particularly those that can be controversial. “Provocations in Publishing,” we call this series because it tends to involve the kind of topics that could provoke reactions from a doorknob. “Hot-button issues,” as the cliché-mongers love to say.

One reason to take these dicey issues head-on as we do in these columns — and in the commentary that the Writer Unboxed community is rightly well-known for — is that strong feelings can make it hard to get a clear reading of what’s in front of us. The publishing industry as a whole, and the authors working in and around it, have been through a wrenching several years of digital disruption. In nearly every sector of the business, you can find moments when someone held out for a tradition being trampled by technology’s tools, times when resistance looked preferable to change. Drama, even melodrama, has been the mode for a long time. Everybody’s tired.

What Is ‘Not Supportive’?

So it wasn’t entirely a surprise the other day when one commenter at Writer Unboxed wrote that she “couldn’t believe” what I’d written — and she added that she “couldn’t believe” that Writer Unboxed would publish it. I’d written:

Someone rightly challenged a line in a new novel the other day, a book in which the protagonist announced that she’d “pinched herself to see if she was awake.” If you have to write such sitcom rubbish as people pinching themselves to see if they’re awake — something no one does, by the way — why are you writing? If that’s the best you can do, what business do you have doing it?

As unpleasant a note as that may be, it’s one I can stand by. We have way too much such run-of-the-mill cheap comedic expression all around us. An evening of network television is like two weeks in a shopping mall: commercialized jargon is the patois. As professional writers, we need to become aware of our own use of this kind of material and be sure it’s what we want — not something we’re slipping into without thinking.

To dismiss the easier part of this reader’s distress, Writer Unboxed isn’t in the business of censoring its contributors, who include the agent and author Donald Maass, authors Lisa Cron, John Barbara O’Neal, John Vorhaus, Keith Cronin, Erika Robuck, Heather Webb, Brunonia Barry, Meg Rosoff, and others. I’d venture to say that none of us would write for a site that needed to control or curtail what its contributors wrote. Co-founders (and authors) Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton didn’t set up Writer Unboxed to control what its professionals write there.

In fact, our reader graciously made it clear in later notes that she, too, has no interest in censored or controlled messages. Instead, her real concern was in seeing “posts  that support writers, even — especially — the ones who make mistakes. Or the ones who may have amazing stories to tell but haven’t had the benefit of a higher education.”

In our exchange, which I appreciated, I emphasized that my comments were directed to professional writers, not the young or untrained — and that we all make mistakes. All of us, of course.

But what stood out for me as a deeper point of interest was this line from her messages to me:

I thought WU was a place those writers could come to be inspired, to learn more about the craft of writing, and to feel embraced by the writing community.

And that’s where I think she had put her finger on what needs examination: Is it wrong to tell a professional writer that a certain kind of work just isn’t what’s needed — and that he or she can do better in an industry that needs our best? Can’t that be the embrace of the community? No, shouldn’t that be the embrace of the community?

In saying that a professional who is satisfied just to spout cliché has no business in this business of genuinely purposeful, engaged writing, had I been less than supportive of writers, as this commenter challenged? What do you think? Our comments section is ready for you.

As I wrote back to her, I don’t think that a writer-supportive site like Writer Unboxed can do any less than ask every single writing reader to ask her or himself if she or he is in the right place: is this digitally crowded profession really what you need to pursue? Is writing what you should do?

Older, more experienced stage actors are known to grill their young-leading men and women: “Isn’t there another career you could love? Are you sure that you can’t be happy doing anything other than acting?”

You can get a chuck on the chin at any one of hundreds of writing communities. The general tone of legions of blog sites, in fact, makes the assumption that everybody should be writing. Upbeat talk reigns in these “inspi-vational” sites, as I call them. They read like bad infomercials. Get back to that keyboard and write your heart out, the aspirants are told.

In one of the best WU essays of recent weeks, Lisa Cron, the author, story consultant, television producer and teacher, has written of how:

We live in a society that…loves to tell us we can do anything if we just set our mind to it. Learning that this is not true – that we do have limited resources – is very hard.

I think this is important to say to people who may be misled by the digital ease of publishing into thinking that they should be writing.

It’s really not for everyone. Why should it be? There’s no shame in that. We need to say this more frequently, a lot more frequently.

Another contributor, the publicist Sharon Bially, has made an important point at WU about the near-cult of entitlement you can find in an era when everyone can publish, writing:

Along with the sense that anything’s possible has come – for lack of a better term – a sense of entitlement. With the perceived level playing field the digital age has created, the notion that having written and published a book, any book, means we’re eligible to be considered by any and all gatekeepers to widespread recognition, from Oprah to the The New York Times.

What eager newcomers need, in fact, is an understanding of what they’re up against.

Writers and would-be writers in the US are facing a minimum 28 million active titles already out there with ISBNs on them, according to Bowker. Untold additional titles are in the mix without ISBNs on them. And an incalculable load of new content is being introduced continually — with nothing going out of print, not anymore, thanks to ebooks.

That is a formidable wall of competition.

It’s so formidable that it’s ethically wrong, in my opinion, not to talk about this — ethically wrong to blithely tell anybody who thinks that she or he wants to write to just go right ahead, without telling them what they’re walking into. The industry has changed. Little is easier, just more accessible. We have no way to gauge that the readership is growing as quickly as the army of writers is. Think about that.

My position is that both individually and collectively, people who write need to hear genuine, earnest reaction, even when it’s not pleasant. “Supportive” may be in the ear of the beholder. A carefully, kindly spelled-out response — “You know, your stuff is just so full of shopping-mall talk that it’s not interesting” — could be an important thing for a well-intentioned writer to hear. It might be supportive.

We’re blitzed by so much easy pop-speak today that I think we need to remember that our language is better than the new buzz-line of this week or next.

We need fewer writers, not more. And if you’re a person who would have written “we need less writers, not more,” then you’re the first one I’d like to consider stepping aside.

Real writers take responsibility for the language.

What do you think?