Wednesday, July 08, 2015


Most people’s concept of writing and publishing as separate functions, let alone in relationship, is completely wrong.    One is a product and one is a business that capitalizes on that product.  Both are dominated by academic patterns:  assignments, deadlines, grades, top-down, society-stamped.  At websites catering to writers, one sees announcements for retreats, courses, workshops.  They are NOT marketing to readers, but only marketing to authors, all those people out there who are convinced that they could write famous books if they only had time, if they only had a protected place, if they just knew the few tips and secrets of the famous.  It’s the same status-infused bait as a grad school catalogue.  Big names, pretentious categories.

They’re all wrong.  All any author needs is the drive to write.  That will only get the writing done, not the funding.  But it doesn’t cost anything to write.  You can write in your head while you shower or wait for traffic lights or pretend to listen to conversation.  Just do it.  You find the tricks by exploring the paths.

There is a step just ahead of that, which is living.  If you’re not living, you can’t write.  I don’t mean living in a bohemian way nor putting oneself in danger with deprivation or violence. What living IS is connecting neurons, not just in your head but throughout your body -- toes, liver, and roots of hair -- because neurons connecting is what records living and it is those records that are the bed of writing.  Not the frissons of world travel, not the gasps of admirers, but alert sensitivity to curves of furniture, the meaningful ear wags of pets, first sips of coffee in the morning, the sounds of the bed at night -- even alone. Bristles of the toothbrush.  Squeaks of the doorknobs, each distinctive.

That’s ninety percent at LEAST of writing, that thickness of neuron connections.  No amount of money or time counts unless they are there.  They don’t take time or money -- just attention.  Maybe reflection.  Always reading, reading, reading.  Maybe out loud.

You don’t need a retreat to write, nor an ever-so-special leatherbound notebook.  Make marks with what stylus you have, what keyboards will respond, which pixels or papers will record.  Writer’s block is a myth, an excuse.  Failure to use what’s there is the problem, thinking one must have a goose quill or a fabulous cyber tablet.  Those things are habits; habits are created by doing it.  Do it until the instruments become transparent and what the neurons form a transparent interface to the words -- if words are what you’re using rather than images or chords, all with deep suggestive traces.

Neither do you need a teacher unless you need the kind of Zen master who whacks you with his stick to keep you alert.  Read, ponder, read it again.  Now rewrite.

Where’s your passion?  Pay attention to your body.  The third branch of the autonomic nervous system is called “enteric.”  That means it goes to your gut.  The cells there respond to the same chemicals as the brain.  Awareness of your gut-triggers is the same as a window to the brain.  What makes you pant?  When does your diaphragm jerk?

Pile up a LOT of writing.  Throw it away.  Pile up more.  If someone else reads it, watch what their gut is doing to their face.  Are they clenching or relaxing?  Are they getting excited or calmly smiling?  Can you see anger rising?  Empathy.

If there is a publisher somewhere who wants to publish, that’s fine but irrelevant.  Publishers used to look for quality.  These days they look for marketability which is not at all the same thing.  The trick to sales is NOT quality, but rather one of two things:  seizing the moment -- or costly promotion which claims that this writing seizes the moment, whether or not that’s true.  Most people will not know the difference.  They never look at the thing itself -- only to the sign pointing to the thing and, if it’s mis-labeled, they can’t tell.  Why else would we have so many people claiming to be intriguingly wicked or indigenous without ever being detected or detected only when someone paints a new sign that makes the claim.

“The moment” is an aggregate of brief events intersecting. Sometimes the forces of fate will push people into some kind of group ready to respond to certain writing.  Apocalyptic, romantic, visionary, raging, explanatory -- obvious in hindsight but not at the time.  Did Gandhi or Jesus or David Bowie know they were the epitome of their point in time?

The consistent money is not in publishing.  Publishing is a business arrangement that CAN make a lot of money if it somehow hits that “moment.”  Publishers have first cut at any profits.  But the bigger profit is in selling convictions to the writers -- that they need someone else to validate them.  Agents are only a subcategory of publishers.  If things go wrong and the moment explodes, publishers and agents will claim they never knew that clever author -- but what can anyone expect from a person whose occupation is “fiction?”

The “moment” of a society cannot be reached without some kind of access which these days is not necessarily the capital-demanding industrial machinery of producing books, storing, shipping, remaindering.  Now blogs work.  Video works.  Pod casts work.  But briefly.  I just read an article about posts of nude genitalia in which the point is not porn but to see how long the post will stay up before the provider takes it down.  It’s a game of tag between two eternal moral positions: that everything natural is wonderful and that society’s morality must be maintained.

The opposite is the creation of a world that becomes obsessive and finally oppressive because it has been so over-marketed.  For authors this is deadly.  No one now cares about the words, the concepts, the characters -- they are even bored with the writer.  They know more about everything in this constructed world than the very person who constructed it.  The thing takes on the dimensions of a juggernaut, flattening any kind of real response.  There need not even be any writing at the core -- it’s all gossip, fanfiction, casting possibilities, sequels and prequels.

Back to writing.  The sounds of words in sequence as though the marks of the alphabet (which one) were heard out loud -- don’t you hear them?  Names being called.  The lyrics of whistled tunes though no one can sing and whistle at the same time.

Other people will butt in.  They’ll claim you make them feel bad or they’ll claim that their pain is worse than your pain or that they have the perfect cure for regret or that they intend to come over and fuck you before supper.  It’s confusing.  Just ignore them.  They interfere with your enteric radar.

Ignore everything I’ve said here.  It’s all fancy-dancing that means nothing.  It will not get you invited to be on humanities panels or submit grant applications.  The busy middle-aged women who manage the culture will put your name on a list so long it looks like every voter in the state and the men will pretend to slip away to privileged hearths where they can smoke cigars, but in fact they will only snooze in their Barcaloungers.  The dream balloon over their head shows nothing, nothing at all.


Anonymous said...

Some houses, notably Farrar, Straus and Giroux, go to great lengths to publish distinguished literature, and their imprimatur pretty well assures a reader of a serious publication. Other houses try to find a few commercially successful titles to subsidize other titles that have merit but not much marketability. One of the heartening things at present is that electronic self-publishing is in sharp decline. It reached a third of all publishing a few years ago, prompted by Amazon, but it has declined ever since, and print titles are regaining lost ground. Much of the reason is that there is no adequate way for a buyer of electronic books to sort out what is worth reading. The imprimaturs of traditional houses are proving to have unexpected value in the selection process.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Richard, you realize that you're the prince preaching to the peasants. You've been enormously lucky and had many friends. You've worked hard and achieved a lot. But you have NOT been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who are mostly broken up now anyway. They exist only as an "imprint" of Macmillan. The prestige to which you cling is historical.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

I have often wished that your beautifully wrought biography of Bob Scriver and his work, which I read over time as you published it here, were to have a better venue than the Canadian academic press that did produce it. It is a good press, and I am grateful that they picked up your book, but I would have liked to see it proudly presented by a major American academic press that focused on art, a press that would have paid you homage.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

You are incredibly naive, Richard. I can't tell you the long story about the fate of "Bronze Inside and Out" in so public a venue as this blog, but maybe some day in person. Thanks for the compliments. If it weren't for Brian Dippie, the book would not have been published at all. Dippie is a straight shooter. Not even all Canadians are.

Prairie Mary