6 Misconceptions About Writing – No. 6

This is the sixth and the last in the series of essays by Rebecca McClanahan about the vocation of writing.

Ms McClanahan is an author, educator, and public speaker specializing in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.

Rebecca McClanahan

Misconception # 6: Writers are smarter, more sensitive, and more creative
than other people.

Ms McClanahan says: “Hm. This is a tricky one. Since, for the moment at least, I am the writer and you are the reader, I would very much like for you to believe this. But I have to admit that it just isn’t so—in my case, or in the case of most of the writers I’ve
“Let’s start with the intelligence issue. When you judge intelligence solely by
academic criteria, writers don’t always fare well. Most writers, so research
studies show, were B , not A students; my educational experience bears this
out. Maybe this is because writers tend to be more interested in questions than
in answers. Granted, it takes a keen mind to ask interesting questions, but this
doesn’t mean that writers are necessarily more brainy or intellectual than other
people. Perhaps they are simply more curious, less afraid of venturing into
unknown areas, and more willing, as Proust said, to ‘become stupid before the
“As for the claim that writers are more sensitive than the rest of us, while it’s
true that some writers are sensitive people, the same can be said for nonwriters. Sensitivity is a human trait, not necessarily a writerly one, and it manifests itself in any number of ways that have nothing to do with writing.
“Perhaps the only area is which writers are more sensitive than other people is in
the area of language. Just as musicians are sensitive to sound, painters to colour
and sculptors to form, writers are sensitive to words.
“When people tell me they’re just not creative enough to write, I usually
answer, ‘There is no such thing as a creative person. There is only the created
act.’ This is not my original idea; it comes from Rollo May’s The Courage to
Create. ‘Creativity,’ May writes, ‘is basically the process of making, or bringing
into being.’ As such, ‘creativity can be seen only in the act.’
“This theory may get your hackles up. You might argue that this just isn’t so,
that creative people do indeed exist. You might cite your nephew, who, in your
opinion, is one of the most creative people on the planet. ‘Okay,’ I’d say, ‘I’ll go
along with that. But first tell me how you know he’s creative. What evidence do
you have?’ For without evidence of something made, something brought into
being, there can be no creation. Even the God of Genesis wasn’t creative until
he created the heavens and the earth. Your nephew, or mine, isn’t creative
simply because he daydreams a lot, likes weird movies, or has fluorescent
tricolored hair. Unless, of course, his hair is a created act, a work of art.
“Those of us who aspire to art—writers, painters, sculptors, designers—like to
think of ourselves as creative individuals. The truth is, we are creative only
because we create. Even if our creation never comes into the public eye, even if
it never reaches completion in terms of what the world considers complete,
nevertheless it is the process of its making that makes us creative. And only
that process.
“How does one become creative? One creates. What freedom exists in that
thought, what possibility! Yet, as our parents warned us as they handed over the
car keys, along with freedom comes responsibility. If creativity resides only
within the process of making, we must toss aside the excuse that we aren’t
creative enough; we’ll have to find a new excuse not to create. But if, on the
other hand, we’re still basking in the haloed memory of some grandfather or
teacher telling us how creative we are, we must ask ourselves what we’re
waiting for. The playing field’s been levelled; we’re all chosen for the team.”

As I listen to Ms McClanahan’s arguments, it seems to me that what she says is correct. But I think there is one characteristic that distinguishes ‘creative people’ generally, and that it imagination. The thing which is created is, if it is on any interest, will tend to be different that other things that already exist, and it is imagination which accounts for that difference. What is it that accounts for imagination in a person? Is it ‘lateral thinking’, or the product of the right hemisphere, or is it a rebellious nature, or just frivolousness? Or is it some of all of that?

Winning the Booker in the ‘Woke’ Climate

Anita Singh had an article in the Daily Telegraph on 30 November 2020 under the title “I wouldn’t win the Booker in ‘woke’ climate says Banville”.

Anita Singh is the Arts and Entertainment Editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Anita Singh

In the article, Ms Singh writes: “John Banville, winner of the 2005 Booker Prize, has suggested that he wold not be given it now because he is a straight, white male, and he likened the ‘woke movement’ to a religious cult.

“The Irish author, whose winning novel The Sea told the story of a retired art historian who returns to the village where he spent a childhood holiday, was asked in an interview for the winter edition of the Hay Festival if it would be possible for someone like him to win the prize at a time of ‘woke suspicion of white, straight men’.

“He replied, ‘I would not like to be starting out now. It’s very difficult. I despise this woke movement. Why were they asleep for so long? The same injustices were going on. It’s become a religious cult. You see people kneeling in the street, holding up their fists. That’s not going to do anything for black people.’

Banville also writes crime novels under a pen name, Benjamin Black, but he said he was appalled by the increasingly graphic nature of violence in other writers’ crime books. ‘I don’t want to go back to the Agatha Christie thing where somebody gets shot but there’s no blood, but the glory in slaughter – I’m speechless,’ he said.

“Last year, the Booker prize was split between two women, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. This year’s winner, Shuggie Bain, was written by Douglas Stuart, a white Scot, about his childhood in Eighties Glasgow, where he grew up with his alcoholic mother.

“The author, now resident in New York, told the Telegraph after his win: ‘People sometimes want to know if I’m a Scottish writer or an American writer, or a working class writer or a gay writer, but the truth is I’m all of those things and hopefully a few other things, too.’

“When Banville took the prize, he said in his speech. ‘It’s nice to see a work of art winning the Booker Prize.’ John Sutherland, the chairman of the judges, called it ‘a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected.'”

I’m not convinced that the woke movement has such a great effect on the Booker, but I think Banville has a point when he suggests that the movement is more focused in achieving attention rather than change.

6 Misconceptions about Writing – No. 5

Rebecca Mclanahan wrote an enlightening essay on writing of which this is the fifth of six instalments.

I think this is probably the best of the six instalments, and it resonates a lot with me.

Rebecca McClanahan

Misconception # 5: Writers publish their work and get famous or rich or
When people ask me what I do for a living, I try to change the subject. If they
persist, I tell them that I teach writing, judge writing contests, edit manuscripts,
and give lectures and readings. These are not lies; I do all these things. They
are, in fact, what I do for a living—that is, to pay the rent and health insurance.
What I do for a life is write, and that’s the part that’s hard to explain. I feel the
way Louis Armstrong must have felt when he was asked to define jazz. “If you
have to ask,” he answered, “nothing I say’s gonna help.”
One of the problems with admitting that you’re a writer is that people
invariably want to know what you write. Or maybe they don’t want to know, but
at least they ask. It doesn’t work to answer “words.” Sometimes, if we’re lucky
and if we keep putting words on the page, poems or stories or novels or essays
eventually emerge, but we don’t really write them. What we write is one word,
then the next, and the next. Seen this way, writing is a very democratic pursuit.
It’s like the old line about how the president puts on his pants: one leg at a time,
just like you, just like me. Seen this way, a Nobel laureate writes the same way
a first grader does: one word at a time.
But as I said earlier, this answer doesn’t go over well at cocktail parties. So
you mumble something like “poems,” hoping to put an end to it.
“Oh really,” they say. “What kind?”

Now you’ve done it. What are you supposed to answer? Long poems? Short?
Serious? Free verse? Poems about wilted lettuce, dying dogs, rivers? “Very bad
poems,” I might answer right now, thinking of the draft I’m currently struggling
The conversation can go anywhere from here, but usually it moves in one of
these directions:
“My wife (or daughter or son or second cousin) writes poems too. It’s a great
hobby, don’t you think?”
“Doesn’t anyone believe in rhyme anymore?”
“I have this great idea for a poem. All I have to do is write it.”
Or my personal favourite, “Would I know your work?” Another Louis Armstrong
question: If they have to ask, nothing you say’s gonna help. At this point in the
conversation, it’s probably best just to shake your head No and try once again to
change the subject. At this point, it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve
published five well-reviewed books, one recipe in your church newsletter, or
nothing at all. Though the questioner probably means well and is only trying to
make polite gestures, it’s hard after one of these conversations not to feel
devalued. A man at a dinner party once suggested that, since no one really
reads the kind of things I write, maybe I should write a novel instead. I didn’t tell
him that I had done just that—that in fact I’d written three and that I’d had a
great time writing them and one of them was pretty good if I do say so myself,
though the other two, well…
I didn’t tell him, because what he seemed to be saying wasn’t that I should
write a novel, but that I should publish the kind of novel that lots of people would
read, a book that would make oodles of money and/or make me famous. The
man was a nice guy, probably a good husband and father, maybe even someone
with a passion for painting or gardening or woodworking or sculpting, who
pursued his passion privately, intensely, the way I pursue writing.

Even so, I felt it best not to tell him about the novels. When we stand outside
a process, when we’re on the outside looking in, it’s impossible to imagine what
goes on inside. The man was on the outside looking in, and, corny as this might
sound, my memory of writing the unpublished novels was just too precious to
share with him. Only I knew what those years had meant to me. What if he
brushed those years aside as if they were so much lint? I wanted to keep the
memory of each writing day inside me, the way I keep each unpublished essay
and poem, even the most flawed, warm and safe within its folder or box. To
those standing outside the process, only writing that gets published and makes
the writer famous and/or rich, matters. To writers living within the process, every
word matters, even if no eyes but our own ever read those words.

Backlash: the Penguin Random House – Simon & Schuster Merger

The Los Angeles Times had an article by Chad W. Post on December 4th which puts this mega merger of two big publishing houses in perspective.

The Publishing Perspectives website runs this bio of Mr Post: “Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The BelieverPublishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.”

Chad Post
Chad W. Post

Excerpts from his article are as follows:

“Consolidation in the book industry is never popular, but at a time when diversity — of employees authors, books, and opinions — is being scrutinised in every corner, it feels especially ill-timed. There is also the prospect of an incoming administration less friendly to monopolies. A bald attempt to dominate a precarious business, the imminent merger might capture the attention of the antitrust division of the Department of Justice. It should.

“It should also worry the fragile ecosystem of small independent publishers — like me — who are vying for the same shelf space in bookstores but have none of the resources of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. And ultimately, it should worry any reader hoping to discover voices or opinions they haven’t heard before.

“Bertelsmann knows this all too well; that’s why it guaranteed the seller, ViacomCBS, a termination fee in case of government intervention. PRH Chief Executive Markus Dohle’s statements have downplayed the power that will now be concentrated in a single entity — arguments that even in a post-fact world should raise everyone’s suspicions about his motivations.

“Dohle told Publishers Weekly that PRH’s market share is about 14.2% and Simon’s 4.2% of the market if you include self-publishing. This gives every title equal weight, regardless of sales. Here is context Dohle would have us omit: In 2019, PRH had 215 books on PW’s hardcover bestseller list and 93 on its paperback list. That accounts for 39.7% and 27.8% of the bestsellers respectively. Add in S&S titles, and you’ve got just under half of 2019’s bestselling hardcovers and more than a third of paperbacks. That’s a more realistic indicator of true ‘market share.’

“Going toward motive, Bertelsmann points to the dominance of Amazon (a company that could probably buy all of PRHS&S and launch it to the moon without touching cash reserves) as the impetus behind supersizing. A bigger company can negotiate better terms with the megalith, hold the line against its profit-busting discounts. This logic, wedded to the capitalist myth of the survival of the fittest at all costs, conveniently ignores the fragility of publishing. PRHS&S won’t slow Amazon’s roll for a heartbeat, but it will help more PRHS&S titles become bestsellers. So we know who benefits. Who loses?

“Authors, for one. The Authors Guild strongly condemned the deal in a statement, claiming ‘there would be fewer competing bidders for their manuscripts, which would inevitably drive down advances offered…. The history of publishing consolidation has also taught us that authors are further hurt by such mergers due to editorial layoffs, canceling of contracts, a reduction in diversity among authors and ideas, a more conservative approach to risk-taking, and fewer imprints under which an author may publish.’

“These concerns dovetail with another major trend in the book industry, an increasingly heavy reliance on two cash cows: bestsellers and backlist titles. This two-pronged approach favors giant companies that can acquire prestige imprints — thus securing the catalogs of Hemingway et al. — and pay enormous advances for ex-presidents and the like. As the critic Ron Charles stated in a fiery article, “In the future that Bertelsmann celebrates, we can all read anything we want so long as it’s a bestseller by John Grisham.”

“This is the possibility that sends shivers down the spines of most of us involved in this semiquixotic business. Diversity of opinion, experience, literary style and audience is at the heart of the book world, especially independent booksellers and librarians.

“And that’s what concerns me most, personally. I’m the founder of Open Letter Books, a small publisher of translated work. I’m also an editorial consultant at Dalkey Archive Press, which for nearly 40 years has supported innovative authors — many of them jettisoned by big publishers because of middling sales. Dalkey merged with Deep Vellum, a nonprofit press based in Dallas with a commitment to publishing literature from around the world. That should be the merger everyone’s talking about, a joining of forces to better take on the task of publishing new and (commercially) challenging work.

“Contrary to the traditional understanding of antitrust law, this lack of competition doesn’t inflate consumer prices; it decreases labour costs. In other words, it disadvantages writers. Nowadays, the Big Four might not even make an offer for those big literary debuts. These are not guaranteed hits, after all, and it’s much harder to drum up buzz by having a bunch of editors bidding against one another at auction. Which they often aren’t, because they all work for the same four houses. (Penguin Random House imprints are allowed to bid against one another but only to a point.)

“That’s where publishers like me figure into it. We may not be big shots — unless we’re being lumped into statistics to help Dohle make a point. But we have our function as small gears underpinning Consolidated Publishing. Here’s the modern career trajectory for a literary author in any language: get a few pieces into literary magazines, make a deal with a small independent press, sell a more than respectable number of copies, get snatched up by one of the Big Six-sorry-Five-sorry-Four.

“For the conglomerates, the most financially prudent way to acquire authors who aren’t sure things is to treat independent publishers as farm clubs that identify and develop talent ripe for exploitation. Let the presses with the thinnest profit margins take the risks, seek out the undiscovered — the books readers didn’t know they wanted, the authors who change the way we talk about writing — and then, once they’ve proved these books can take off, just poach the authors. Simple. A winning formula.

“Although everyone in books knows this dance inside and out, here are just a handful of examples of authors whom a small press took a chance on, only to lose them later to a big press: Roberto BolañoNell ZinkValeria Luiselli, Laird Hunt and Alejandro Zambra. And if big publishers can’t buy them, they just clone them. After Elena Ferrante, make Italian authors a thing, like you did with Nordic crime after ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’

“There are two potential conclusions to draw from his data set: 1) the most powerful companies know which books to bet on or 2) the most monied companies determine what is read. Call me cynical, but I’m inclined toward the second.

“Here’s my darkest vision of this merger: The first post-COVID-19 gathering of the Winter Institute, the only formal convention bringing together publishers and booksellers (now that BookExpo might be permanently retired), will be dominated by PRHS&S. They will have special dinners, busing booksellers to fancy venues every night to explain why it has the most important (meaning sellable) books over shrimp scampi. Meanwhile, the true laborers of the book industry — those who hustle and work the angles, who take the greatest risks and reap the paltriest rewards — will barely get any bookseller facetime at all.

“Amazon may indeed be a threat to all publishers (and many other industries too). But its greatest threat is not to Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins. It’s to the indie publishers who can’t afford Jeff Bezos’ terms. These two giants, PRHS&S and Amazon — helped along by COVID-19 — could put any number of presses out of business, further reducing the diversity of voices available to readers like you. And that’s exactly what we should stand against in 2021.”

6 Misconceptions about Writing – No.4

Returning to Rebecca McClanahan’s essay, here is No. 4: Writers have something important to say.

Rebecca McClanahan

“There’s that phrase again: Writers have. In our earlier discussion, what writers
have is time; now, what they have is something important to say. This notion is
a doubled-edged sword. The first edge—that writers have something—suggests
that writers already possess something whole and complete in itself, before any
word is written. Since this something (call it an idea, concept, character,
emotion, story, vision) is already fully formed, the writer’s job becomes simply
putting this something into words.
Put into words. This phrase says much about how the writing process is often
perceived. Put into words suggests that language is merely the container, the
holding bin, into which something is placed. If I just had a great story to tell, so
this theory goes, I could tell it. If I could just work out the kinks in this idea, the
hard part would be done; then all I’d have to do is write it.
When we buy into this notion, we rob ourselves of the permission to begin
without knowing exactly where we’re going, we rob the something of its chance
to grow and change, and we rob language of its chance to help shape and
reshape the something. When we buy into this notion, words become powerless.
They hold no sway. They are merely the box into which we place our already
perfectly complete thought, story or vision.

Is it any wonder we despair? Some of us, having decided in advance that our
words will never be able to carry the weight of what we want to say, never write
the first word. And even those who do manage to break through the wall of initial
doubt often get no farther than a first draft. We have failed to capture our
grandfather, the yellow kitchen, the black dog. We haven’t written the poem that
seemed so clear in our mind or the story that appeared in our dream. If only I
could find the right words, we think, as if the dictionary were at fault. Or we
blame ourselves: We are just not up to the task. Someone else would be able to
put into words this vision I have. We may begin to question whether what we
have to say is worth the paper it’s written on.
Which leads us to the other edge of this double-sided sword: Writers have
something important to say. What do we mean by important? Well, it depends on
whom you ask:
Tolstoy, in What is Art?, suggests that in addition to its other qualities, art is a
new idea which is important to mankind. Yikes, I think. That’s one big shoe to
fill. Maybe I shouldn’t even try.
Commercial publishers would have us believe we have something important
to say if someone is willing to buy it.
And some writers believe what they have to say is important simply because
something of import—by which they mean unusual, strange, horrible, or
noteworthy—happens to them. But if this is the case, why do we abandon, often
after only a few pages, a book written by someone who sailed around the world
or broke an Olympic record or murdered her husband or had affairs with three
presidents, yet keep going back to that same little story on our shelf, the one
about an old woman who does nothing more than take a walk to town?

‘Wait a minute,’ you might be saying. ‘I’ve read ‘A Worn Path,’ and you’re
not playing fair. Eudora Welty could write about a shoelace and make it seem
important.’ Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe a great writer can nudge a
seemingly trivial something to the ranks of greatness merely through the force of
her words.
Or maybe, just maybe, the process is a group effort, a three-headed
committee composed of Eudora, a something, and the words. Maybe no one is
totally in charge, maybe they all just sit around the table and listen to one
another. Really listen. The something talks for a while, then language comes in
and mixes things up, then Eudora comes in to smooth out the wrinkles, but while
she’s talking, the something pipes up again, and this goes on all morning and
into the afternoon, but by the time the three of them knock off for the day, a plan
is in motion. And if they keep at it, by the next day (or week, or year), the
business will be accomplished. Perhaps not in the manner any of the three might
have imagined beforehand. Still, the work gets done. And it’s none too shabby,
they agree, walking out the door together, turning off the light. None too shabby
at all.”

Ms McClanahan has captured my feelings about ‘Something to Say’ very well indeed.