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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007 10:40 am
You could always take up philately
Posted by: Keir Graff

From Cary Tennis’ “Since You Asked“ column on 

Q: I don’t feel like writing. Does that mean I’m not a writer?

A: Yes.

Cary Tennis’ answer to this self-described “young, talented writer” is far more thoughtful than mine, but given the number of books being published every year — and the number of authors desperate but unable to make their ways into print — I don’t really see the point of hand-holding someone who’s unable to get off his butt (or, rather, given the nature of writing, onto his butt) and do the job.

I had saved a draft of this post yesterday, along with a clever jab about writing as a therapeutic means to boost one’s self esteem — when along comes this morning’s column. It’s “frustrated writers week” at “Since You Asked“:

Q: …reading the writer who didn’t want to write compelled me to write. However, unlike that writer, I have no problems writing. I’m terrified of publishing…any suggestions?

A: Keep a diary.

Once again, Tennis’ answer is much, much more thoughtful and kind than mine. But still.

The act of writing is, of course, inextricably tied up in the writer’s self-esteem. But it’s almost as if some people feel the world owes them a career as writers — or at least that the world owes it to them to smother their insecurities with kindness, to prop them up in the chair and to force the novel out of them.

I’m sure I’m being short-sighted and that some indispensible novel was gotten in exactly this way (although the mental image is starting to kind of gross me out), but that’s not art, that’s therapy. And while I’m sure the creation of many great works have been therapeutic to their authors, if you’re not fortunate enough to have the will to finish or publish your work — or to have a patron willing to rub your shoulders and feed you hot soup — then you must ponder the invention of my least-favorite verb, journaling.

(The questioner, by the way, confesses that he/she would “be very surprised…if more than 100 people ever bought the book” before speculating that he/she is perhaps “terrified of success”. And I’m terrified of asteroid strikes.)

This probably sounds like an odd diatribe for someone who both loves reading and writes books. Do I want a better career as a writer? Of course. I’m also a pragmatist. There are too many books and too few readers* to support all but the fortunate few as full-time writers. Even the cry that “it must be said” is often inaccurate — probably someone, somewhere has said it better than you. And, I freely admit, me.

So why write? Because you have to. Because you can’t imagine not doing it. If you think you’d enjoy having other people read your work, send it out and cross your fingers. Discussing the breathtaking modesty of my own first publishing deal with a friend, I shrugged and said that it was nice to get the book into print, but it’s not like I wouldn’t have written it anyway. And it’s not as if I won’t write more books even if I’m never published again.

Writing books was once the province of gentlefolk with both money and leisure enough that the idea of “needing” to write was incomprehensible. I’m glad as anyone that it’s more democratic now, but sheesh. Writers write.

And if you can’t or don’t want to write, what on earth is wrong with reading?


*According to some oft-cited statistics, 81% of Americans believe they have a book in them and 80% of American families did not buy or read a book last year.



One Response to “You could always take up philately”
  1. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » I Would Have Guessed “Ice-Cream Taster” Says:

    [...] But as someone who loves to write, I can see why other people want to do it, too. (And the cocktail-party cred is tremendous.) But the cynic in me (I call him “Ranulph”) must note that, as previously footnoted, most Americans believe they could write a book despite the fact that they rarely read books — which is probably part of the reason why the pay is so bad. Hopefully the British score better on that one. [...]

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