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.

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