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 Until such time, going into your office and spending hours of unpublished, unacknowledged work is a very different proposition and, in my experience, seen in a very different light, that is: not as work at all.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.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!