Can Writing Be Taught?

By | on August 5, 2009 | 72 Comments

DH: I read a novel recently that had some scenes set in a creative writing class. I remember laughing at a joke where one of the students writes a story where “rigor mortis has set in” in the first person. Almost no student in this fictional class had real talent and those few who did were subject to the jealousy of everyone else. Even the instructor was struggling to get recognition for his unpublished novel as he had to endure watching some of his students move on to professional recognition while he remained a promising failure. Later in the novel, the lead character goes to a writing workshop in Iowa. Apparently, one reason that Iowa works as a teaching venue is the isolating geography. You are sequestered in a class or workshop with a group of extremely talented peers. Maybe that’s a little like being thrown into a fish tank with a bunch of fellow piranhas and being told that you have to feed off each other. Or maybe I’m exaggerating the competitiveness and aspiring writers excel at helping each other. Which is it?

So I wonder about the aptness of writing classes and workshops…both for the beginner and the more advanced writer. For the beginner is the best that can happen is that their writing is purged of obvious errors?

For the accomplished writer, I wonder if work-shopping a first novel or a novel that doesn’t have a publisher yet is an excellent idea? And what’s the best way for a writer to teach themselves something?

JE: First of all, I almost peed my pants at the first-person reference to rigor-mortis setting in–that’s funny! I’ve taught some workshops, but enrolled in very few. I did do one workshop with Carol Glickfeld at Field’s End, and I sat in on a Stegner workshop at Stanford many years ago as a guest. I always hear about the competitiveness of these programs, but I’ve never experienced it firsthand. The only writer I’m competitive with is myself. Workshops are like anything else in life, you get out what you put into a thing. One observation I’ve made about workshops I’ve been involved with is that they tend to encourage spare, “safe” writing– safe, because the sparer and leaner the work, the fewer glaring mistakes for peers to pick up on. Because of this, I’d describe a lot of the writing I’ve experienced in workshops as rather direct and unadorned, and often austere, and dare I say, Carver-esque. I do believe feedback is good, but only when the artist knows specifically what he (she’s) trying to accomplish. The feedback should help achieve those objectives. So I guess I feel like a workshop is not a great place to learn, but a great resource for a writer who already knows what they are doing, and looking for ways to sharpen focus, etc. I don’t think a bunch of other writers who are groping around themselves trying to get a handle on craft, are apt to provide that service. I mean would you take a carpentry workshop from a bunch of people who didn’t know exactly how to frame a house? Great editors, and in some cases great readers, can provide that feedback, though. Good editorial guidance, and a fresh set of reliable eyes, is the gold standard as far as I’m concerned. And in my experience, most professional editors provide excellent feedback, albeit wildly dynamic, which, again underlines the importance of the writer knowing exactly what he’s trying to accomplish. The key is sticking to your guns, persuading readers and editors to help you write the book/ you/ want. With “West of Here” I had lengthy phone conversations with five different editors who were interested in acquiring the book, and every single one of them offered great suggestions (and they were /very /different in some cases). I noted everybody’s feedback furiously during our conversations,and will consider closely during my rewrites, even though I’m only “working” with one of those editors. I’m talking about great feedback from some of the very best editors in the business, all of whom were willing to listen to my objectives, and offer me suggestions on how to make the book I want to write better. Hell yeah, I’ll take that! But I’m not going to listen to just anybody.

As far as the best way for a writer to teach themselves something, in terms of craft, that’s easy: repetition, practice, commitment. As far as teaching themselves something as people, I’d say the best way to learn is by throwing yourself at life every day, getting outside of your comfort zone, and always always always being aware of the details, conditions, and human dynamics you find yourself in.

JR: I’ve never done a writing class or workshop, and have had almost no feedback, of great significance on a book I’ve written,, sure, some encouraging comments, and some guidance (mostly cheerleading), albeit small, but worthwhile just the same. When I say significant, I mean seismic and something that will really change the way (for the better) of what I’m working on. It’s probably more accurate to say that a writer learns from what he’s written, you know the old Carnegie Hall joke. A difference maker has got to be an editor, someone who has read the whole book, and not just an excerpt and can guide the writer down a path towards greatness. But there is a moment when I’m writing a book where I know it works, where I feel that tingling in my chest, those rush of nerves, sort of like when you know you’ve fallen in love, and of course when you read it out loud and it works, it sounds good, and you don’t stumble or stop what you’re reading. One day I woke up and realized I had something to say, and the best way to say it, or so I thought, was to write a novel. But if you don’t have an editor then I guess you just have to trust yourself, and be committed. I get one line rejections, “I didn’t like the execution” or, when an editor read a passage where the main character talks about writing bad books, and filling the world with them, how the world doesn’t need another bad writer, and that he should stick to selling bibles, this editor said, “Jason, you don’t really feel that way do you?” I guess there is no good writing, just good rewriting. I’m not the first writer to say that.

JC: Twice this week I either heard or read an author say that the best education for writing is reading (Nick Laird on NPR and A.S. Byatt somewhere I can’t recall, if you must know). I don’t think I would agree or disagree as much as say that’s only half the picture. We are all readers and at least occasional writers so we can see the value of cutting a wide swath through great books, classic or contemporary. The more different and effective variations you experience of characterization, plotting, or whatever aspect of writing you want, the greater the reservoir of knowledge you will have on how to construct that key scene, or reflect that key emotion. The broader that initial education, the more options you’ll have, and the greater capacity you’ll have to take something you’ve seen and try something new with it.

Then the other shoe drops. Another author who comes to mind is Robert Olen Butler(whose Twitter page is something to behold), he prescribed practice and repetition much in the way you do JE. Butler said that he wrote (forgive my inevitable misquote here) something like a quarter of a million words before he wrote anything good. That’s 2 or 3 novels, a long pile of stories, a bunch of essays and probably some bad poetry. Diligence and practice: You’ve got to hone those chops over pages and pages of work, where you are taking that vast framework
you developed in our reading, and learn to make your story come out like you envision it.

So, once you’ve done all this, can writing be taught? In a sense, I think yes, but the writer does not come to the teacher as a tabula rasa, to be inscribed upon and “educated”, i.e. told how to do it. As above, writing is such an experiential process that, at a formative level, it’s a matter of “try this” and see how it works, focusing the aforementioned practice in Socratic dialogue, where the writer brings his conceptions to the group, mentor, or whomever. The education is in the dance of defending one’s work on the one hand, where one thinks the critique is wrong, and , on the other, recognizing and implementing good advice when he hears it.

We’ve all heard the stories of young writers whose first book was released, and they hardly recognized it. You’d better be able to stand by your guns when it matters, or that book will no longer be the vision you had, but a pasty compromise.

JE: Amen to R.O. Butler. There’s that old saying about how it takes ten years to get good at anything– in Gladwell’s recent book, Outliers (yes, I love his consumable brand of beach blanket pop sociology) he uses the number ten thousand hours as a benchmark. I’m not sure I know any debut novelists whose “debut” is there first book, and in most cases, not even their second. My advice to the overwhelming majority first times novelists: first, finish the fucker, even if you sense it’s not working on any number of levels– you’ve got to get into the habit of seeing things through, or you run the risk of being a serial starter, or worse one of those people that has “a novel in them” who spends more time talking about it, than laying bricks. Second, bury the fucker when it’s finished, forget it ever existed, and start another novel. Chances are you’ll be burying that one, too.

I think a natural part of the process of learning, in art as in sport, is emulation. This comes pretty early in the game. As a little leaguer I fashioned my swing after Steve Garvey. The stories I was writing when I was seventeen were little more than Vonnegut knock-offs. Doc Thompson used to type classic works (whole novels) from Fitzgerald and other writers verbatim as an exercise. But what happens when the people you’re emulating are your actual teachers in a classroom environment? It seems like this might happen in some programs, and the result might be that a lot of the writers coming out of that program sound a lot alike. I think eventually, if left to our own devices, we stop emulating and strike upon our own unique voices and approaches. Then again, I remember reading an interview with Jonathan Lethem in which he said he still emulates, that sometimes when approaching a scene, he’ll say to himself: I’m gonna’ handle this like Delillo, or I’m gonna’ handle this scene like Roth would handle it. I always thought that sounded a little self-conscious. My goal is to forget anybody is writing the story at all, to let the story come to life, let the story use the writer as the instrument, instead of vice versa. One of the problems I have with all these beautiful sentence writers that are coming out of writing programs is that the glare of their shiny sentences sometimes seems to blind them to the mechanics of story. When I read Jack London, I forget he’s there. That’s what floats my boat. To use a rock n’ roll analogy, at the heart of most great bands is a kickass rhythm section. Sure, it’s sexier to be a front man or a lead guitarist, but I’m here to tell you that Charlie Watts pushing that beat almost invisibly in the background, and Bill Wyman walking that dog, has every bit as much to do with the Stones great sound as Mick Jagger with all his pouty swagger, or the litany of lead guitarists from Brian Jones to Mick Taylor to Ronny Wood. If I ever teach another writing class, it might be called: how to be invisible.

DH: Even most people who listen to classical music don’t realize that Beethoven’s First Symphony and First Piano Concerto are not the first ones he composed but the second. The ones called “the Second” were really written first. You can tell this by experience in listening to them. The ones officially called “First” are tighter, more focused and energized. Then his publisher stepped back and published the earlier efforts which were called “the Second”. Also in deference to the J’s points about working and revising, Beethoven revised the coda of his 5th Symphony several hundred times. That part of the work takes about a minute to play.

I like JE’s artist’s cloak of invisibility. It bothers me about some contemporary fiction that the writer is calling attention to themselves, calling attention to their skill. Successful writing focuses the attention on the story. This is true even if the writing is “interior”. I recently reviewed a Mary Gaitskill essay about her lost cat. Talking about the cat gave MG a bridge to a discussion about how she was approaching issues. But the essay focused on what gripped her, not herself. So even though this kind of writing is very self-referential, her ego was not imposed on the reader.

The poetry of Frederick Seidel, which I recently discovered, the string quartets of Shostakovich, which took me a long time to love, are all about those artists. If you went into Starbucks feeling that intense, they would have to arrest you. So be invisible….but you can scream your head off and be invisible if the art counts for more than your screams.

Old Viennese saying from the world of music: Quality is luxury and luxury is quality. Quality doesn’t scream. It’s understated. Admire most what is well-made. So what side am I on? Both.

JC: Is this the topic of the week in the book world? I’ve read about 4-5 more interviews that at least touch on this subject since we started talking about it. First there was the New Yorker article a couple of weeks ago. I’ve just read a Martin Amis interview where
he is asked about it. It’s worth noting part of his response as a teacher of writing:

I don’t believe there’s any undiscovered talent around. With the volume of publication now, there’s no Mute in Glorious Milton on this planet. Anyone who’s any good will get published. You can’t create talent. Talent is originality. I don’t mean innovation, I mean having an individual voice that hasn’t been heard before. Of course, we’ve all got our individual voice, but it’s a sort of resonant one. By clearing away all the second hand stuff — the cliches, the dead sentences — I think you can make people a lot more alert, and if talent is there, it will emerge quicker if the surface is very strictly attended to.

. . .which I think fits in very nicely with several statements above. If you’ve got something to say, then you don’t want to write like Amis, or Delillo, but rather like someone else, no matter how instructive those other authors are in recognizing your voice. What’s the pleasure of replicating someone else’s work, even stylistically? Paraphrasing JE from some distant conversation, the good is in the work itself. And the work is all about the practice. Joe Meno , whose new book The Great Perhaps is pretty awesome, just said something about this in an interview over at Identity Theory:

In order to write one good story, you’re going to probably write ten badones. You have to actually in this weird way enjoy or accept that that’s the process. You should approach each story as a kind of experiment, and you try it, and if it works it works, if it doesn’t, you move on to the next thing. Writing is like every artistic endeavor in that it’s entirely about practice. If you can’t enjoy being in front of the computer for a couple of hours and writing something and throwing it out, you’re probably not going to enjoy being a writer. That’s all I do every day. The least interesting thing to me about writing is that it’s immortal or that it’s bound in a hardcover book. That’s less interesting to me than the part where you’re building the story. The most fun for me is the actual writing.

I guess this is always the subject at hand for all of us.


JR: You’re all right, if you have something interesting to say, then sayit, and if you can write, then write it. But you have to be good at it,and that takes practice, a lot of practice. It’s a solitary act, writing, you can’t play with your child, and write at the same time, you can try, but it doesn’t really work. I think it you find your voice, and then you can say whatever you want. Read it aloud, and it sounds good to you, then you’ll know it. But the world of book publishing is one way, are there people out there who want to read good writing? Of course. But will good writing pay the bills…at these publishers? People tell me nonlinear narratives are a tough sell, yeah, tough for them, some of the greatest books ever written are done that way. Everyone says today’s novel has to have an engine, a where are we going feeling. JC, you’re right, if you’re good, people will find you. JE always talks about the act of writing, and it’s different for everyone. For me, I think about it all the time, take inspiration from different things, but my writing has to be read out loud, and then if it’s good…I’ll know. But then the trouble is…finding someone who agrees. But that’s a conversation for another day, or maybe we’ve had that conversation…As James Frey told me…oh, wait, I told you that already.

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72 Responses to “Can Writing Be Taught?”

  1. August 5, 2009

    Jarred Reply

    fuckin' hell guys, great fucking post. I can't put enough expletives in that last sentence to express my joy in reading this. Cheers and thanks. J-

  2. August 5, 2009

    Jarred Reply

    fuckin' hell guys, great fucking post. I can't put enough expletives in that last sentence to express my joy in reading this.

    Cheers and thanks. J-

  3. August 5, 2009

    Debauchasaurus Ben Reply

    The only writing workshops I did in college were poetry, and really I think that those are absolutely excellent. It was stated well, that beginning writers can't give the most concise (or even accurate) advice. Because of that, only the professor commented in the intro workshop — she opened it up to classmate comments in the advanced workshop. The nature of the workshops was the same as that Iowa piranha pool idea. Everyone turned in 1 poem, the prof ordered them from best to worst, then went down the list and explained why. True, she was brutal, but that desire to improve and write cleanly (which TREMENDOUSLY applies to prose) was very compelling.

  4. August 5, 2009

    Debauchasaurus Ben Reply

    The only writing workshops I did in college were poetry, and really I think that those are absolutely excellent. It was stated well, that beginning writers can't give the most concise (or even accurate) advice. Because of that, only the professor commented in the intro workshop — she opened it up to classmate comments in the advanced workshop.

    The nature of the workshops was the same as that Iowa piranha pool idea. Everyone turned in 1 poem, the prof ordered them from best to worst, then went down the list and explained why. True, she was brutal, but that desire to improve and write cleanly (which TREMENDOUSLY applies to prose) was very compelling.

  5. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .ouch! the teacher rated them "best to worst?" . . . how subjective is that? . . . and jarred, glad you got something out of this rambling conversation of ours!

  6. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .ouch! the teacher rated them "best to worst?" . . . how subjective is that?

    . . . and jarred, glad you got something out of this rambling conversation of ours!

  7. August 5, 2009

    Debauchasaurus Ben Reply

    Actually, this poetry professor was a completely amazing gray-haired 60 year old battle-axe of a woman. She was VERY objective, and would always thoroughly explain her poetic disembowelings.

  8. August 5, 2009

    Debauchasaurus Ben Reply

    Actually, this poetry professor was a completely amazing gray-haired 60 year old battle-axe of a woman. She was VERY objective, and would always thoroughly explain her poetic disembowelings.

  9. August 5, 2009

    JoeW Reply

    Well, I'm a 52-year-old whose first novel will be published in the spring, so I can attest to the fact that lots and LOTS of practice can help you improve! (I've written many nonfiction books, but those are a different animal, I think.)Anyway, I've never taken a writing class or been in a workshop. I have a couple of extremely talented readers and an agent I trust, and that's it.On the other hand, I work as a writing mentor for students in the local high school. I believe I help them become better writers, but what I think I mostly do is tell them to take risks, to set themselves free, and to understand that their love of creative writing has value.

  10. August 5, 2009

    JoeW Reply

    Well, I'm a 52-year-old whose first novel will be published in the spring, so I can attest to the fact that lots and LOTS of practice can help you improve! (I've written many nonfiction books, but those are a different animal, I think.)

    Anyway, I've never taken a writing class or been in a workshop. I have a couple of extremely talented readers and an agent I trust, and that's it.

    On the other hand, I work as a writing mentor for students in the local high school. I believe I help them become better writers, but what I think I mostly do is tell them to take risks, to set themselves free, and to understand that their love of creative writing has value.

  11. August 5, 2009

    Ale Reply

    Writing can be taught. One learns how to express and everything about grammar mistakes,the construction of sentences,the use of prepositions and all that. Everyone can always improve his writing. Both interest and dedication are enough to get through. However,there is very little to help when you are not gifted. That's one of the most impressive features of creation. Excellent post! Thanks for sharing!

  12. August 5, 2009

    Ale Reply

    Writing can be taught. One learns how to express and everything about grammar mistakes,the construction of sentences,the use of prepositions and all that. Everyone can always improve his writing. Both interest and dedication are enough to get through. However,there is very little to help when you are not gifted. That's one of the most impressive features of creation.
    Excellent post!
    Thanks for sharing!

  13. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    so, joe, this:"tell them to take risks, to set themselves free, to understand that their love of creative writing has value." . . . is great advice . . . when writers ask my advice, i tell them to work obsessively for years and years, and if it feels like work, they're probably not cut out for it . . .also, i always remind them about not quitting their day job, and to be grateful they can write at all . . .

  14. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    so, joe, this:

    "tell them to take risks, to set themselves free, to understand that their love of creative writing has value."

    . . . is great advice . . . when writers ask my advice, i tell them to work obsessively for years and years, and if it feels like work, they're probably not cut out for it . . .also, i always remind them about not quitting their day job, and to be grateful they can write at all . . .

  15. August 5, 2009

    Suzanne Reply

    I believe this is the best essay /conversation I've read on this topic. It is very tempting when my writing is not going well to consider that a MFA would solve all my problems and lead quickly to published stardom…or at least being published. It's also reassurring to hear that while that feedback would be useful, the bottom line is reading, writing, and a whole lot more of both. Thank you for the obvious thought and time that went into this post. Great work!

  16. August 5, 2009

    Suzanne Reply

    I believe this is the best essay /conversation I've read on this topic. It is very tempting when my writing is not going well to consider that a MFA would solve all my problems and lead quickly to published stardom…or at least being published. It's also reassurring to hear that while that feedback would be useful, the bottom line is reading, writing, and a whole lot more of both.

    Thank you for the obvious thought and time that went into this post. Great work!

  17. August 5, 2009

    Tobias Reply

    Talk of burying a novel makes me wonder: how do you know when it's time to do that and move on? (I realize that this is probably not quantifiable, but thought it was worth asking regardless.)

  18. August 5, 2009

    Tobias Reply

    Talk of burying a novel makes me wonder: how do you know when it's time to do that and move on? (I realize that this is probably not quantifiable, but thought it was worth asking regardless.)

  19. August 5, 2009

    JC Reply

    I don't know, Tobias, but something tells me that if you are wondering whether to bury it, you probably already know what to do.

  20. August 5, 2009

    JC Reply

    I don't know, Tobias, but something tells me that if you are wondering whether to bury it, you probably already know what to do.

  21. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    . .. when in doubt, bury it! . . . i'm here to tell you that the act is cathartic!

  22. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    . .. when in doubt, bury it! . . . i'm here to tell you that the act is cathartic!

  23. August 5, 2009

    JoeW Reply

    Thanks, Jonathan…love this post.The other great evolution I've seen over the years is that the Net has brought my students together with others who share their enthusiasm. They stumble in to see me after school and say things like, "I didn't sleep too much last night–I was sharing a story at two A.M. with my writer friends online."When I was a teenager, I didn't have that kind of support. Writing was entirely solitary. The support my students get from others their age is great to see.

  24. August 5, 2009

    JoeW Reply

    Thanks, Jonathan…love this post.

    The other great evolution I've seen over the years is that the Net has brought my students together with others who share their enthusiasm. They stumble in to see me after school and say things like, "I didn't sleep too much last night–I was sharing a story at two A.M. with my writer friends online."

    When I was a teenager, I didn't have that kind of support. Writing was entirely solitary. The support my students get from others their age is great to see.

  25. August 5, 2009

    Jason Rice Reply

    Tobias, when to bury a book? I've buried six, they rest alone in the garden. I knew I was done with it when I'd rather vomit on my shoes than look at the book. -jr

  26. August 5, 2009

    Jason Rice Reply

    Tobias, when to bury a book? I've buried six, they rest alone in the garden. I knew I was done with it when I'd rather vomit on my shoes than look at the book. -jr

  27. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    joe, i'll be honest, until lulu was published, i had no support whatsoever . . . my writing and reading life was insular . . . it wasn't until i started meeting other writers and readers in droves (mostly online) that i had any kind of support system . . . in some ways, i think insularity is important to a young writer in terms of the development of voice– it is a better environment than group-think for breeding true originality . . . music history in particular is rife with self-taught visionaries– er, satchmo, anyone?

  28. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    joe, i'll be honest, until lulu was published, i had no support whatsoever . . . my writing and reading life was insular . . . it wasn't until i started meeting other writers and readers in droves (mostly online) that i had any kind of support system . . . in some ways, i think insularity is important to a young writer in terms of the development of voice– it is a better environment than group-think for breeding true originality . . . music history in particular is rife with self-taught visionaries– er, satchmo, anyone?

  29. August 5, 2009

    Tobias Reply

    Ayuh. I've already buried one myself, and my feelings towards this one are significantly different — it's difficult to tell whether this theoretical burying is a necessary action or something that's ultimately me working against myself. I appreciate the input…

  30. August 5, 2009

    Tobias Reply

    Ayuh. I've already buried one myself, and my feelings towards this one are significantly different — it's difficult to tell whether this theoretical burying is a necessary action or something that's ultimately me working against myself. I appreciate the input…

  31. August 5, 2009

    Jason Rice Reply

    Every writer I've ever talked to says the same thing…"are you done with the book? Okay, good, write another one." The best medicine is to write…

  32. August 5, 2009

    Jason Rice Reply

    Every writer I've ever talked to says the same thing…"are you done with the book? Okay, good, write another one." The best medicine is to write…

  33. August 5, 2009

    DH Reply

    I relate to what Joe said about getting support. This blog started when I said to JR: "Let's do a blog." JR came up with the name. When it came time to do my first interview I said to JR: "I've never done this. I don't know if I can." But JR said: "You can do it." …and I just believed him. So it helps to have someone in your corner…though you have to want it yourself.

  34. August 5, 2009

    DH Reply

    I relate to what Joe said about getting support. This blog started when I said to JR: "Let's do a blog." JR came up with the name. When it came time to do my first interview I said to JR: "I've never done this. I don't know if I can." But JR said: "You can do it." …and I just believed him.

    So it helps to have someone in your corner…though you have to want it yourself.

  35. August 5, 2009

    JoeW Reply

    Jonathan, you make good points. But I do think that with all the time demands and distractions (many more than when I was a teenager), the sense of community helps keep some of these writers going.On the other hand, the most talented and dedicated of my students are just as solitary as I used to be, so some things don't change.

  36. August 5, 2009

    JoeW Reply

    Jonathan, you make good points. But I do think that with all the time demands and distractions (many more than when I was a teenager), the sense of community helps keep some of these writers going.

    On the other hand, the most talented and dedicated of my students are just as solitary as I used to be, so some things don't change.

  37. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . . see, here's the thing, joe: i don;t think any real writer at the end of the day should NEED ANYTHING BUT THE PROCESS OF WRITING ITSELF to keep him going, though i totally relate to the sense of fellowship i feel with these authors and readers . . . to keep going is the whole point, and the only ones who will make it anywhere near the finish are the ones that can survive with NO EXTERNAL VALIDATION WHATSOEVER . . .faulkner once said something to the effect that he was faulkner because he didn't quit . . . the people that ultimately break through are the one's who have no choice but to keep going . . . you gotta' pretty much be willing to starve your family because writers have to be selfish fucks with their time and emotions. . .

  38. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . . see, here's the thing, joe: i don;t think any real writer at the end of the day should NEED ANYTHING BUT THE PROCESS OF WRITING ITSELF to keep him going, though i totally relate to the sense of fellowship i feel with these authors and readers . . . to keep going is the whole point, and the only ones who will make it anywhere near the finish are the ones that can survive with NO EXTERNAL VALIDATION WHATSOEVER . . .faulkner once said something to the effect that he was faulkner because he didn't quit . . . the people that ultimately break through are the one's who have no choice but to keep going . . . you gotta' pretty much be willing to starve your family because writers have to be selfish fucks with their time and emotions. . .

  39. August 5, 2009

    Patrick T. Kilgallon Reply

    I do admit to being insecured enough to seek external validation when it comes to my first book. I always feel motivated to the point of getting up at 5:00 a.m. to drive three hours to a book festival and stand there for eight hours and be looked at as one of the many writers out there. I mean it is a great pleasure when you find a reader willing to part with his or her money and time to read your work that you could almost forgive that person for anything, even if he or she is Pol Pot, and squeezes newborn puppies by the fistful hard enough for them to poop or die of rupture for laughs. It's all because you manage to find another reader who validates the efforts in your favorite job in life.

  40. August 5, 2009

    Patrick T. Kilgallon Reply

    I do admit to being insecured enough to seek external validation when it comes to my first book. I always feel motivated to the point of getting up at 5:00 a.m. to drive three hours to a book festival and stand there for eight hours and be looked at as one of the many writers out there. I mean it is a great pleasure when you find a reader willing to part with his or her money and time to read your work that you could almost forgive that person for anything, even if he or she is Pol Pot, and squeezes newborn puppies by the fistful hard enough for them to poop or die of rupture for laughs. It's all because you manage to find another reader who validates the efforts in your favorite job in life.

  41. August 5, 2009

    Jason Rice Reply

    Starvation works in theory, and we can all sit around and dream of the "remember the days when we had it tough!" Which is why I have a day job. I'm a realist…the "do whatever you have to do to write…" can be done while holding down a job…it just means more discipline on your part.

  42. August 5, 2009

    Jason Rice Reply

    Starvation works in theory, and we can all sit around and dream of the "remember the days when we had it tough!" Which is why I have a day job. I'm a realist…the "do whatever you have to do to write…" can be done while holding down a job…it just means more discipline on your part.

  43. August 5, 2009

    Anonymous Reply

    I don't get what's so funny about a first person account of rigor mortis setting in. Are we gonna bitch about the dead guy's voiceover in Sunset Boulevard next?

  44. August 5, 2009

    Anonymous Reply

    I don't get what's so funny about a first person account of rigor mortis setting in. Are we gonna bitch about the dead guy's voiceover in Sunset Boulevard next?

  45. August 5, 2009

    Jason Chambers Reply

    Anon, I think it's funny, along the lines of Norman Mailer's first person account of being mummified in Ancient Evenings.

  46. August 5, 2009

    Jason Chambers Reply

    Anon,
    I think it's funny, along the lines of Norman Mailer's first person account of being mummified in Ancient Evenings.

  47. August 5, 2009

    DH Reply

    Ha! So we are finally getting around to "rigor mortis setting in" in first person. I feel that way right now. In Pamuk's wonderful "My Name is Red" a character is done in and thrown down a well. But his corpse still has plenty to say. Also, there is a talking dog in a picture within the novel and a father-in-law who attends a wedding as a cadaver because his consent was required for the nuptials so his family couldn't admit that he was dead. I have attended parties while dead.But writers can do anything they want if they are in control. Making the difficult look easy, the hallmark of classical art, that's what I love. I've found it it Pamuk…and other writers that I love.

  48. August 5, 2009

    DH Reply

    Ha! So we are finally getting around to "rigor mortis setting in" in first person. I feel that way right now. In Pamuk's wonderful "My Name is Red" a character is done in and thrown down a well. But his corpse still has plenty to say. Also, there is a talking dog in a picture within the novel and a father-in-law who attends a wedding as a cadaver because his consent was required for the nuptials so his family couldn't admit that he was dead.

    I have attended parties while dead.
    But writers can do anything they want if they are in control. Making the difficult look easy, the hallmark of classical art, that's what I love. I've found it it Pamuk…and other writers that I love.

  49. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .ah, i see, i read the rigor mortis reference as the writer not knowing what rigor mortis is– that was the idea, no?

  50. August 5, 2009

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .ah, i see, i read the rigor mortis reference as the writer not knowing what rigor mortis is– that was the idea, no?

  51. August 5, 2009

    DH Reply

    I read the rigor mortis joke (from Joshua Henkin) as the student writer not getting what first person is…that you can't be writing…and dead…at the same time!If the writer is in control, then it's art. If the writer doesn't know what the fuck they are doing, then the joke is on them.But even that has to be qualified. If a writer has honed their craft like a samurai, like JE has talked about, then they can do things on instinct that are brilliant and unconventional. Maybe that's part of what JR was talking about when he stressed the importance of originality in art.

  52. August 5, 2009

    DH Reply

    I read the rigor mortis joke (from Joshua Henkin) as the student writer not getting what first person is…that you can't be writing…and dead…at the same time!

    If the writer is in control, then it's art. If the writer doesn't know what the fuck they are doing, then the joke is on them.

    But even that has to be qualified. If a writer has honed their craft like a samurai, like JE has talked about, then they can do things on instinct that are brilliant and unconventional. Maybe that's part of what JR was talking about when he stressed the importance of originality in art.

  53. August 5, 2009

    Jason Chambers Reply

    That's funny, because I thought of the first person rigor mortis concept as a writer trying something that is ballsy and on its face batshit insane, but which, if it can be pulled off, and if they are good enough, can look brilliant. If not, of course, it's a laughable train wreck.

  54. August 5, 2009

    Jason Chambers Reply

    That's funny, because I thought of the first person rigor mortis concept as a writer trying something that is ballsy and on its face batshit insane, but which, if it can be pulled off, and if they are good enough, can look brilliant. If not, of course, it's a laughable train wreck.

  55. August 6, 2009

    Emily St. John Mandel Reply

    I liked this post. I've never taken a writing class or a workshop, and I've always been curious about the idea of teaching creative writing — I assume it can be taught in the same way that music can be taught (i.e., you can impart the technique to your students, but technical ability won't get you that far unless there's a certain amount of talent behind it.) Writing's always been a pretty solitary endeavour for me. I didn't start talking to other writers til I started joining social networking sites in the lead-up to the publication of my first novel. I like being in touch with other writers, and great reviews make my day, but I do subscribe to the idea that the act of writing in and of itself should be sufficient to keep the writer going. I like to think that I'd keep writing novel after novel after novel even if no one wanted to publish them.

  56. August 6, 2009

    Emily St. John Mandel Reply

    I liked this post. I've never taken a writing class or a workshop, and I've always been curious about the idea of teaching creative writing — I assume it can be taught in the same way that music can be taught (i.e., you can impart the technique to your students, but technical ability won't get you that far unless there's a certain amount of talent behind it.)

    Writing's always been a pretty solitary endeavour for me. I didn't start talking to other writers til I started joining social networking sites in the lead-up to the publication of my first novel. I like being in touch with other writers, and great reviews make my day, but I do subscribe to the idea that the act of writing in and of itself should be sufficient to keep the writer going. I like to think that I'd keep writing novel after novel after novel even if no one wanted to publish them.

  57. March 17, 2010

    Lelah Clarkson Reply

    Hello, like this website alot. I found it on bing will add it to bookmark and come back often again to read and follow. Please continue to do awesome job you do on it.

  58. March 18, 2010

    DH Reply

    Thanks very much, Lelah. It’s nice that we were found on Bing. I never thought of that. Best wishes from all the Guys. I just finished the new David Mitchell novel this evening. I’m so proud of myself when I finish a long novel. It’s was great but I guess that no longer novel is going to be perfect. Hopefully, JC and I will be discussing it after he reads it. And I hear from several people that know him that David Mitchell is a great guy.

    I’ve started Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and am enjoying it a lot so far although it seems something like a YA read…nothing wrong with that. Then it’s on to Julie Orringer. I wonder what you are reading. Let me know if you like.

  59. March 17, 2010

    DH Reply

    Thanks very much, Lelah. It’s nice that we were found on Bing. I never thought of that. Best wishes from all the Guys. I just finished the new David Mitchell novel this evening. I’m so proud of myself when I finish a long novel. It’s was great but I guess that no longer novel is going to be perfect. Hopefully, JC and I will be discussing it after he reads it. And I hear from several people that know him that David Mitchell is a great guy.

    I’ve started Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and am enjoying it a lot so far although it seems something like a YA read…nothing wrong with that. Then it’s on to Julie Orringer. I wonder what you are reading. Let me know if you like.

  60. March 18, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    DH, you gotta’ send me the mitchell galley!

  61. March 17, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    DH, you gotta’ send me the mitchell galley!

  62. March 18, 2010

    DH Reply

    JE, I swear, everybody I talk to says that DM is a prince. I love it when great artists are also nice guys. It doesn’t have to be that way, you know.

    I will take some notes on the Mitchell and then send it to you. JC & I plan a group discussion. Please consider joining us and I hope we disagree on at least some parts.

    This is the first time I have read DM. Gosh, am I impressed! JC has read him before. I guess you have also.

  63. March 17, 2010

    DH Reply

    JE, I swear, everybody I talk to says that DM is a prince. I love it when great artists are also nice guys. It doesn’t have to be that way, you know.

    I will take some notes on the Mitchell and then send it to you. JC & I plan a group discussion. Please consider joining us and I hope we disagree on at least some parts.

    This is the first time I have read DM. Gosh, am I impressed! JC has read him before. I guess you have also.

  64. March 18, 2010

    Jason Chambers Reply

    Hi guys,
    I just finished the Orringer about 5 minutes ago. That’s a hell of a first novel.

    Got the DM in the mail the other day, I’ll move on to it before long. I don’t know what’s next, yet. I need to return True Grit to the library, and I’ve got a couple of Unbridled and Algonquin Press’ forthcoming books to check out .

  65. March 17, 2010

    Jason Chambers Reply

    Hi guys,
    I just finished the Orringer about 5 minutes ago. That’s a hell of a first novel.

    Got the DM in the mail the other day, I’ll move on to it before long. I don’t know what’s next, yet. I need to return True Grit to the library, and I’ve got a couple of Unbridled and Algonquin Press’ forthcoming books to check out .

  66. March 19, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .cloud atlas was actually a major inspiration for “west of here”– i so loved the scope and ambition . . . ghostwritten is also excellent, and black swan green . . .

  67. March 18, 2010

    jonathan evison Reply

    . . .cloud atlas was actually a major inspiration for “west of here”– i so loved the scope and ambition . . . ghostwritten is also excellent, and black swan green . . .

  68. March 26, 2011

    Daniel Karp Reply

    JC – enjoyed this post. Just finished King’s “On Wiriting” and Lamott’s “bird by bird”. I’m drinking from every trough I can find. Thanks for the post.

  69. March 26, 2011

    Daniel Karp Reply

    JC – enjoyed this post. Just finished King’s “On Wiriting” and Lamott’s “bird by bird”. I’m drinking from every trough I can find. Thanks for the post.

  70. March 26, 2011

    Jason Chambers Reply

    Hi Dan, Glad you liked it. Are you writing?

  71. March 26, 2011

    Jason Chambers Reply

    Hi Dan, Glad you liked it. Are you writing?

  72. March 26, 2011

    Daniel Karp Reply

    Reading more.Getting bits on paper. Trying to get into the habit of it, writing everyday, that is.

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