Off to see the wizard

It’s wonderful to see the diversity of good folk involved in the profession of writing, editing, publishing and scriptwriting. I am impressed by the dedication and passion of individuals who publish, teach, speak, blog, run workshops, assess, praise and damn – and their enthusiasm for writing and writers, both established and emerging.

What strikes me is the fine line between amateur and professional when it comes to the industry of writing and how much that razor’s edge is defined by the estimation and judgement of the mainstream publishing industry.

I was lucky enough to have a ticket to ‘In conversation with Nick Cave’ at the Arts Centre in April, 2008. Nick talked about the business of writing as his work – how these days he goes into his office and works at the creative art of writing. I thought I understood what he was getting at, attempting to demystify the process and illumine the hard-work aspect, but remember thinking – that’s all very well once your work has been published or received acknowledgement as valid and worthy. Until such time, going into your office and spending hours of unpublished, unacknowledged work is a very different proposition and, in my experience, seen in a very different light, that is: not as work at all. Nick also attempted to debunk the idea of the Muse and at the same time declared his own Muse to be a real bitch, so I guess it’s not all clear for him either.

It is apparently necessary to have enormous passion and dedication if you want to succeed as a writer. A thick skin is required to believe in the integrity of your project and to sell it to those who can help you realise it in a published form, but at the same time it must remain thin enough to accept constructive criticism. A thick skin is required to hold firm to an artistic vision in the face of resistance and mainstream conformity, and yet the skin must remain pliable and permeable to the objective eye of valued colleagues and editors. The work itself must be held as both sacred and transformable.

On top of the artistic and aesthetic demands of good writing is the economic rationalisation of the arts and the peccadilloes of the reading public – and those in the biz would, perhaps, like us to think the two are the same thing. As publishing companies have become multi-national giants, their power has grown and flexibility diminished. A ‘mainstream’ of non-literary writing and a general culture of instant gratification has meant that publishing companies are no longer willing to work too hard with an author to bring a work to ‘publishable standard’ or take a chance on ‘non-commercial’ projects. The author is now expected to be an excellent typist, speller, grammarian and editor with an eye for layout and design, as well as a great storyteller. These things were not always synonymous.

It is possible, hearing the many demands and expectations attached to publishing a work, to be dismayed and thereby disheartened about the idea of ever ‘getting there’ without having to compromise the artistic integrity of writing for art’s sake.

Tennessee Williams, whose work was handed over for public scrutiny and assessment in the most naked way – meeting the needs of the theatre company which has to perform the thing and the audience which must be seduced by it – wrote in his biography: ‘What is it like being a writer? I would say it is like being free. I know that some writers aren’t free, they are professionally employed, which is quite a different thing.’

So the artist must write and the publishing juggernaut must jugger and somehow the professional writer finds a way to negotiate this narrow path – or perhaps, once you’re on it, it’s more like the golden road that led Dorothy to Oz and ultimately, home?

I don’t know, but I really want to find out.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

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  1. Don’t forget Clare, that once Dorothy arrived home she realised she never should have left because she had exactly what she’d been searching for right under her nose 🙂

    1. Dear Benjamin

      I have just completed two years at RMIT Professional writing & editing and one of the greatest hurdles was managing feedback – emotionally and artistically. Finding trusted mentors and creating writers groups to workshop with has been a highlight of doing the course and I know my work is much better for the rigorous scrutiny it received from some formidable women (and a few marvellous men) over there in Building 94. Online information is a fantastic resource – but leaves a person so alone …

    1. It is better to have written and remained unread than never to have written at all … hmm: tell it to Emily Dickinson!

      But it’s a nice thought, Trish.

      Though Hamlet was a rather confused sort of a fellow …

  2. It’s partly about being clear as to why you want to write, isn’t it? That’s why the discourse of some of the ‘how-to’ books and writing centres, which simply assumes that there is this unproblematic category called ‘writer’ (usually defined by commercial publication) to which everyone aspires. Not only does it set up an expectation that getting a book published will magically transform your life and solve all your problems (it won’t!) but it elides a more important discussion as to the purpose of the whole endeavour. Some people, for instance, write primarily as a commercial transaction. There’s nothing wrong with that (everyone has to work) but obviously the way such a person judges the success or failure of their activities is going to be very different from someone who writes because, say, they want to explore a particular aesthetic theory or they want to communicate a particular set of ideas.
    That’s why I don’t think the opposition is between ‘thick skin’ and ‘thin skin’. It’s more about being clear as to what you’re trying to achieve and thus whose advice is likely to be most useful.

    PS There’s something very zen about recaptcha. Right now, it’s asking me to type ‘airports’ (as in airport novels) and ‘critics’. It’s like it knows more about the post than I do!

  3. Oh Jeff! To be clear as to why I write … I’ve pondered this, but no cigar. Well, no elegant Cuban job accessorised with gold — more the old ‘Bank’ roll-your-owns with a different reason every third cigarette. But every writer writes to be read, don’t they?

    I agree that it’s about what advice is most likely to be useful for your intended outcome … nevertheless, I am only slowly becoming emotionally mature enough to discern what advice is likely to be most useful, and it takes both trust of the source, and practice. Maybe the thick/thin skin debate depends on how much your creative self-esteem can be impacted by what others think of your words.

    And being published does create confidence — for the writer and for others in the industry who view the work and the writer in a different light.

    Or am I just wearing my Emerald City glasses?

    And it is difficult, in my experience, to keep faith in spending time writing that could otherwise be spent earning money, hoping that the two might one day get hitched and live happily ever after.

    My recaptcha words are loll because … perhaps this thing is all-knowing and wise!

    1. I’ve always found it helpful to ask whether the person providing feedback is actually the kind of reader for whom the project is aimed at. It’s really tempting to show your stories to partners or family members or, in fact, more or less anyone who shows the slightest interest in reading them, without asking yourself whether this person actually reads short stories at all, let alone whether or not they read the kinds of stories you’re trying to produce.
      It sounds really obvious but it’s a point that one can easily lose sight of in a workshopping session. Sure, in that context, you presume the attendees do know something about books. But do they have any interest in the kind of stuff you’re trying to write? If you’re writing romance fiction, why do you care what someone who despises the genre thinks?
      Worth bearing in mind, since well-meaning advice from someone who doesn’t have the slighest sympathy for your project can be very disorienting.

      1. Indeed – no fear of that with the fantastic lecturers and high calibre of fellow-student I experience/d at RMIT PWE. (Unlike my darling mother who refers to one of my manuscripts as ‘that thing with all the swearing in it’ haha. But aren’t there ‘rules’ that apply to all writing, whoever the audience? Rules that ‘good’ writers and editors ‘know’ – are either taught or know instinctively. Rules that may be obeyed, bent, or broken – but all writing falls in their context (can you say that??) – even if it’s just as a reference point for what it’s not. Yes?

        And the best workshopping in the world can’t make something to fit a ‘market’ which seems to be the most powerful publishing influence …

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