Response to the Words, Writers Should …

Do you disagree that writers should read a lot, that it’s good to spend time with one’s writing alone without oversharing, that writing students should meet their deadlines, and that it’s good to write with the reader’s enjoyment in mind?

Well it is good we don’t need to agree with each other, because I don’t agree. Mainly, it boils down to the concept of need to or should. I guess I don’t really see need to or should really be relevant to me as a writer. Who is another writer to tell me how I should or need write? And conversely who am I to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do. I’ll read (or not read) their writing.

On the surface what you are saying here (aside from need to/should) sounds reasonable, but they are not things I agree with.


Kerry Fox as Janet Frame in “Angel at My Table.” The last scene of the movie is to me the scene of the writer at work. But then, so is someone with a laptop in a room full of other people typing.

Writers do not need to read a lot. If it were at all true that they did, then the widely read would often be great writers. (and the under-read poor writers; and how in the hell could Cicero or Lucretius be good writers at all considering the scant number of book in existence at the time?) I have experienced that the the widely read are almost always insufferable unless they just love books and read a lot of trash. For some reason I love talking to someone with a super sweet tooth as a reader. Consumers of junk for some reason are infectious when talking about lit. Personally I read a lot but also feel under read at all times.

Writing can be done in an iterative, constantly sharing confessional loop just as it can be done completely alone. This is one of the things I found fascinating about Tao Lin, and I find fascinating about my daughter’s generation. My daughter writes constantly. She is a fantastic writer. Her writing always includes feedback; she is always writing to an audience. I have been learning a lot about how to create a writing practice that includes this type of feedback. In my day job, where I am a writer, the good writing is done in short bursts that is constantly feed through a feedback loop. Like you, I read about the writer in their garrett, and when I went to school the model of production as a writer was one where the writer alone sat with their thoughts and wrote. When I started writing I read in the introduction to Ursula K. LeGuin’s collection the Winds Four Quarters that she wrote 40 stories before she published her first one, and so I spent the first five years of my writing doing just that; writing stories trying to get that number of 40 stories. My first book took 8 years to write and I did nearly all of that alone. (Like most writers I wrote manuscripts that will never see the light of day.) One book took 13 years to write and before it was ready to send out I didn’t show it to anyone. I like working alone. For me it is how I work; but I can see that is not the only way to work.

Writers never meet their deadlines. I agree that finishing something is vital. However it is a paradox. I was very unhappy with the work I produced in graduate school because I had deadline. I turned the crap in because I was a student, but I don’t know if that was necessarily the best way of approaching being a writer. Before and after graduate school, almost none of my my writing was produced to a deadline. My day job work is produced to a deadline (and I do what I can but I would only say that it is a good enough).

Who is “the reader?” If you are really concerned about the reader then you need their feedback, and thus you need to write in public and overshare. Going off to be alone and spend 10 years to write a book is a crapshoot. You lack the feedback of these readers you are talking about. (I don’t think the way writing workshops are structured is at all helpful, but I did find organizing them the way they are structure in Writing Without Teachers worked well.) I have a friend who wrote a book in a made up language and it took her 15 years to write it. I have seen her read it. I have heard the sounds that are in this book. I didn’t enjoy it. The only person I think who may have liked the book is her publisher. I don’t personally know anyone who has read Finnegans Wake, either, although the translation is a bestseller in China. I admire the writerly insanity of these efforts, but increasingly I am thinking it may be a mistake to take a decade to write a book. I’ve been working on a book since 2003 and have been deeply concerned with the reader’s enjoyment, and now I am revising the book after I finished the 8th draft with fuck all attention to the reader. I have to live with these pages for longer than the United States conducted the longest war in US history. When I am done who knows if anyone will publish it? That book I spent 13 years writing came out, people enjoyed it, and now it is as if the book never really existed.

There is the feedback loop of the author and her audience, but I think the even more vital feedback loop is between the author and her work. There is that beautiful moment at the end of Angel at my Table where Kerry Fox as Janet Frame writes a sentence and and reads it to herself in her writing trailer in her sister’s driveway. And Janet Frame reads her sentence to herself and she is pleased. Her eyes light up and then she goes out to look at the sky. That is all there is as far as I am concerned. I am sitting in this room typing back to you and just ran out of coffee and need to make some more and I am enjoying typing these words and feel engaged with the act of trying to say what I mean. I have no idea really if you will hear me. I hope you do. But that’s it. That is all I have or my friend had when she spent years writing a book in her made up language. She loves her book. She talented. And yeah, there is nothing that can validate that Janet Frame, or my friend, or me isn’t identical to Ted Kaczynski writing his manifesto. It is the same thing.

Some writers write alone; some writers write in public. Some read a lot. Some don’t. Some write every day. The Seattle writer Rebecca Brown says the advice to write every day is bullshit. So I guess some writers don’t write every day. I do. And I have said to student writers, you must write every day. I guess I don’t agree with myself.

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