Posted in Publishing, Traditional Publishing, Writing, Writing books

Writer: Know Thyself!

I was perusing my bookshelf this morning (in truth I was looking for a couple of books with the right spine width to wedge under a door my husband was re-installing – but I digress), when I happened upon one of my favourite old books. Over the years I’ve culled my book collection mercilessly, but there are a few that still remain on my shelf. Written by literary agent John Boswell, this one has remained one book that I do re-read from time to time, just to keep me grounded as a writer.

the awful truthIt is titled The Awful Truth About Publishing: Why they always reject your manuscript – and what you can do about it. In spite of its age (it was published in 1986 by Warner Books), and the concomitant fact that it was published long before the advent of the eBook era and the avalanche of self-publishing, it remains one of the best reads to help a writer with her head in the clouds to keep her feet on the ground – which is the only place to be if any real success is to follow.

As I cracked the cover (hard cover at that) I opened the book at Chapter 4: “The Awful Truth About Yourself.” And it does seem to me in these days when the “cult of the amateur” shrouds just about every facet of artistic endeavour (movie-making, music production and, yes, you guessed it, writing) it might be worthwhile for aspiring and other writers to do a bit of navel-gazing. Are we always aware of the truth about ourselves? Based on some of the drivel I’ve read recently, coupled with the book-marketing noise on the Web, it seems that many “writers” are, indeed, blind to some truths about themselves. And I put myself in that category from time to time.

Boswell offers this: “Writing, for the gifted few, is an art, and the chances of reaching this level are about as good as they are of becoming a prima ballerina or a major league second baseman” (The awful truth about publishing, p. 41). I love to be reminded that writing is indeed one of the arts, a factoid that seems to be forgotten by those among us who harp on ‘authorpreueurship’. While I’m all for the notion of self-help even in writing, let’s be clear that if you’re writing a book with the clear objective of making money, then this isn’t art.  It’s content creation and it’s okay. But it isn’t art. Some of my own work – or at least work in progress – seems to bend in that direction, while other work is simply seeing if I can create a piece of art that will entertain and perhaps even provoke.

He then goes on to make a statement that, had he been able to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future of publishing as we know it today he would have realized is even more profound. “Fortunately,” he writes, “…writing is also a craft and one which can indeed be learned by almost anyone. But…it is still not something that can be learned overnight, or a skill that pops into your head, fully honed once you ’get around’ to putting your publishable thoughts on paper…” (p. 41). And here is where it gets really muddy these days.

Boswell poses a question that I’ve often asked my own students – and use to ask myself. Do you want to be an “author” or do you want to write? It’s much the same question as do you want to write, or simply to “have written”? And these days we might also ask: do you want to be a writer or a content creator? One is not fundamentally better than the other, but they are different. They have different objectives, processes and audiences. In my view it’s really only a matter of knowing yourself. I’m trying.

[I’ve written about ‘content creators ‘ here  https://backstorywriting.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/are-you-a-writer-or-a-content-creator/ ]

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Posted in Ideas generation, Writing

Books I wish I had written

Man Reading Book and Sitting on Bookshelf in LibraryWriters are usually avid readers. I suppose that it is expected of us, and possibly even required – although I’m certain that many of the classics were written by authors who did not read widely since there was so little to read (this is a theme I’ll get back to in a later post). I’ve given some thought before to the books that shape us as writers, but I’m still left wondering if others might be a little like me. Sometimes, when I come to the end of a book, I have a deep feeling that I wish I had written this book. It occurs to me that an examination of those books might provide insight into what we ought to be writing about – rather than simply always writing about what we think we should be writing about (or worse, only what sells).

I wish I had written…

Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline. This book affected me even beyond my deep feeling that I wish I had written it. An important examination of an industry that affects all of us in one way or another, this book is one that needed to be written, and needs to be read. This feeling of a book that needs to be written, coupled with my interest in the subject matter were the factors that perhaps conspired to make me wish I had written it. The author, Elizabeth Cline is an American journalist whose commitment to the investigation of the North American penchant for disposable fashion resulted in a story that had my head spinning – although much of it did not come as a surprise – and I avoid disposable fashion like the plague, given my penchant for quality.

i wish i had written 1I wish I had written…

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster by Dana Thomas. As I closed the cover of this book I had a very distinct feeling that it was one I should have written! A social history of the luxury goods industry, the book is also well-researched, lucidly written, informative and entertaining. The fact that it focuses on a topic that has been of interest to me since I started researching the marketing tactics of luxury goods manufacturers in my day job (don’t ask!) might also make it the kind of book that I would have liked to have written.

I wish I had written…

The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping and Why Clothes Matter by Linda Grant (who is also a novelist). This book had me at the following statement on page 10:

“I consider it to be absolutely normal to care deeply about what we wear, and detest the puritan moralists who affect to despise fashion or those who love it. Who shrilly proclaim that only vain, foolish Barbie dolls, their brains addled by consumerism, would wear anything but sensible clothes made to last. As if appearances don’t matter when, most of the time, they are all we have to go on. Or sometimes all that is left in the ruins of life.”

This paragraph encapsulated for me the conundrum of my life as a professor and writer – and someone who has always enjoyed the fun of dressing. On a university campus, dressing fashionably is viewed in much the way Linda Grant describes. She nailed it. Oh how I would have loved to have written this book for my colleagues to read!

So, these books all do seem to have things in common. But what strikes me most is the fact that they are all non-fiction. I hope my inner writer is listening. I’ve been focusing my future writing on fiction – which I love to produce – and yet the books I wish I had written are all research-based, narrative non-fiction.

A few years ago during one of my many searches for an agent (two searches were successful; neither of them sold my manuscripts), one of them snottily said the following to me: “If I had a dime for every bona fide non-fiction writer who wanted to write fiction, I’d be rich.” Then she refused to represent any fiction I might produce. I guess I should have been happy to have been referred to as a bona fide non-fiction writer, which I suppose I am.

So I think I’m going to consider this analysis of my own reading interests. Don’t get me wrong, though, I love to read fiction. I just wonder how much of it I should be writing.

Posted in Memoir, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing

A writer’s early roots: What we read & what we write

A young Daphne DuMaurier (Source; Wikipedia)
A young Daphne DuMaurier
(Source; Wikipedia)

This morning I had a very odd experience.  I had the privilege of peering in to the mind of a 16-year-old girl – or should I say a 16-year-old writer.  And the most peculiar thing of all is that it was me.

A bit of backstory: when I was in high school (lo these many years ago) I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist – but I also had a very practical side and that practical side won out in the university program selection process.  I had my very best marks in biology, chemistry and analytical trigonometry in my senior year, and you can guess what I studied in university.  And to tell you the truth, that health science degree and the Master of Science have stood me in good stead in my career evolution from health communication, to health & business writer, to creative non-fiction writer, and now into fiction.

But in high school, my English marks weren’t far behind my math and science.  In fact, when given the opportunity in my junior year to complete what was then referred to as a “distinction” project” I didn’t choose to do it in science, rather I chose English.  To be more specific I chose the short story.  This morning I took three magazine boxes off the highest shelf in my office to begin the laborious process of digitalizing all of my publications to rid myself of the glut of paper that threatens to overtake most writers from time to time.  What do you suppose was the first document that I pulled out?  Much to my surprise, it was my Grade 11 “distinction project.”

The framework for the project was aspects of the short story (very apropos since lately I’ve been thinking that I really ought to read some Alice Munro given that she won the Nobel prize for literature recently based on a career writing short stories – and I’ve never read a single sentence she’s written).  The project, painstakingly typed on an old typewriter (with only one or two whited-out typos) was an analysis of the components of the short story.  For each of the traditional components – character, setting, plot etc. – I had written a short story that supposedly showcasing each.  One story’s character took center stage; in the next one setting was the most important part etc.   But it was the themes of each of the stories that told the story of that 15-year-old writer.

The theme that came through again and again, regardless of the actual characters or plot of the story was this: Know who you are, and be true to yourself.

First-edition cover of Rebecca (Source: Wikipedia)
First-edition cover of Rebecca
(Source: Wikipedia)

When I think back through my day-job career, and my writing by moonlight, I think that I have truly tried to do this – but I didn’t realize that it was so deeply embedded in my psyche.  This was kind of a light bulb moment, because I just finished re-reading what I have long considered to be my very favorite novel: Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier.

I first read the book when I was in high school, right around the time that I wrote those short stories.  I had seen the various iterations of the movies based on it in the interim, but it was eye-opening for me to read this book so many decades later to try to see what it was that captivated me and to figure out if the book had, in fact, had any influence on my writing.

This time around, I found myself impatient with the narrator.  A twenty-something woman of the 1930’s, the unnamed protagonist met and married a much older, and much more worldly man who took her back to England to his estate, Manderley.  Haunted by the ghost of his first wife, the young woman concocts in her mind all manner of scenarios, most of which have absolutely no basis in reality – indeed, the reality is much more sinister.  I kept wanting her to get over it, to move on, to ask the question to clear up the uncertainties.  I don’t remember being so impatient with her at the time.  So, I do think I’ve evolved as a woman.  But what about as a writer?

Grace Note Cover PaperbackWritten in 1938, Rebecca was not an historical novel, the genre I found myself drawn to both as a reader and as a writer in the last few decades.  However, I read it near the beginning of the 1970’s, so for me, as a young woman, it was historical indeed, and I remember always thinking about it that way.  Daphne DuMaurier did not need to create the world of the 1930’s: she lived in it.  But for me, the detail was now of historical significance, and I do believe that this influenced my choice of genres.

I enjoyed the book the second time around and hope that some of my own work will stand the test of time as did this ne.  Perhaps in the future some young woman will pick up Grace Note and think about the strength of the Lysanor, the heroine, and recognize that she, too, spent her life trying to be true to herself.