Writers on Writers, And It’s Not What You Think

Nor would you want it to be. Writers tend to be lumpy. Two of them together? Yeeeech.

Cherie Priest (who, for the record, does not appear to be inappropriately lumpy) notes an inherent wariness about meeting writers:

I tend to get along poorly with other writers until I know them well enough to know that they are not the sort of writers who piss me off. This may sound unfair and I’m sure that it is, but I automatically assume that other writers are assholes and that I don’t want to meet them. The safest way to introduce me to other writers is to pretend that I’m a cat, being introduced to another cat in close quarters. Stand back. Get the water hose ready in case of emergency. Do not expect the introduction to go very well, and furthermore, be delighted if the encounter ends without blood loss.

I find this amusing (aside from the fact it’s amusingly written) because my experience is the opposite; by and large I find I get along just fine with other writers. But I also readily admit that I’ve spent almost no substantial time in the presence of writers who were not either already professional writers, or writing in a manner that subsumes individual neuroses underneath a need to get something in on a deadline (i.e., college newspaper stuff). Prior to selling a novel, none of the people I would deem as good friends were aspiring authors, and most of the people I know on a day-to-day basis aren’t writers either. I’ve never been a workshopper or writer’s circle type, so I never regularly crossed paths with other aspiring authors while I was one myself. The closest I came to any of this was the single fiction writing class I took when I was a freshman at the U of C, which served largely to establish that I’m not a "writing class" sort of person. Once I left college, I knew plenty of writers, but they were all journalists, which means (by and large) that they approach writing as a job, with daily performance expectations — i.e., deadlines and what have you.

In short, for the vast majority of my working life I’ve been isolated from the type of "writer" who sees writing as a holy calling, and have instead been exposed to the type of writer who sees it as their job, either as a journalist or as a working writer who relies on pay copy to pay the rent. These people — regardless of the type or style of writing they may engage in — tend to be fairly practical people when it comes to the "art" of writing; they talk shop the way mechanics talk shop, not the way theologians do (or are imagined to, anyway). Allowing for the general variation of human personalities (which is to say, some people are just assholes no matter what they do for living), I have to say that on average I’ve liked the working writers I’ve met. Even if we don’t share exactly the same worldview, we have a commonality of practical experience that gives us something to work with, at least until we all decide we’re bored with talking about writing and go off from there.

I don’t think I’ve met a working writer who does vomit on endlessly about the holy mission of writing and how it is an expression of their soul and so on, possibly because that sort of thing eventually takes a back seat to paying the electric bill, and possibly because if a writer is doing the "show don’t tell" thing like they’re supposed to do in the first place, they don’t need to blather on about it; it’s there in the writing, or should be. I don’t know what I would do if someone was blathering on to me about the holy mission of writing, actually. I guess to amuse myself I’d picture them in their underwear, covered in blood-sucking leeches, turning powder blue as they slowly deoxygenate. Yes, yes. That is an image which will do quite nicely.

I think it also helps to meet the right writers, frankly. At my first science fiction convention, I knew not a damn person, so Patrick Nielsen Hayden basically appointed Cory Doctorow as my "con buddy" and Cory did me a mitzvah by introducing me to a bunch of swell folks who also happened to be writers, many of whom have since become good friends. These writers are simply good people — they’re happy for their friends’ success, they’re generous in their friendship, and they tend also to be amusing as hell. Good role models for any budding writer. Next time you see me, have me introduce you to some of them. You’ll like them. Or there’s something wrong with you. Yeah, sorry about that.

15 Comments on “Writers on Writers, And It’s Not What You Think”

  1. At least in the case of Tibetan Buddhists, who I guess you could call atheologians, we do in fact talk shop a lot. It’s great fun, and also very useful. I get the impression that lots of functional Christians talk shop too, so I don’t think it’s just us Buddhists. Admittedly, the shop is a bit different than what’s involved with writing, but it’s still shop talk.

  2. Can’t speak to the writer side of it but I’m an artist and most of the artists I know spend more time doing the mechanic/business side of talking than epistemology – even when the conversation is in a bar.

    hope you’re all feeling better – even the cats!

  3. I would *love* to. We shall see — I will do my very best. Upon reflection, and some gentle smacking down from a few of my real life (hey, what are we, chopped liver?) friends, I realized that part of my problem was that yes — I’ve been meeting the wrong kinds of writers.

    I’ve spent 7 of the last 10 years in academia in the American south, and I nearly went on for a doctorate … before snapping to my senses just in time. I wanted to take genre fiction seriously; I wanted to address it as something valuable, and I was surrounded by people who genuinely believed that if it wasn’t creative nonfiction (read: thinly-veiled autobiography) then it couldn’t possibly be any good. I took a lot of professional abuse for writing ghost stories, and I suppose I’m still a tad resentful about it.

    At any rate, the speculative fiction writers I’ve met thanks to the wonders of the internets have been a mighty breath of fresh air. They’ve made me feel less crazy and isolated, and I feel terribly lucky to have been invited into their digital clubhouse.

  4. Cherie Priest wrote:

    “I took a lot of professional abuse for writing ghost stories, and I suppose I’m still a tad resentful about it.”

    Yeah, no one of any importance ever wrote ghost stories. Who’s ever heard of, say, Henry James or William Faulkner or EM Forester. Hacks, all of them. Not to mention that Shakespeare dude. Hamlet? Crap! And don’t even get me started on Allende.

    Here’s my simple suggestion: Anytime anyone says something along the lines of “Science fiction/fantasy/horror can’t be good literature” to you, just imagine a neon sign over their head that blinks “I Am a Fucking Moron” at regular intervals. Not only is it amusing, it’s also accurate.

    The instructor of that creative writing class said on the first day that he wouldn’t accept any science fiction stories for the class. My revenge on him is to be the only person in that particular class who’s actually published a novel. Ha! I say. That’s what you get, Mr. Snobby McSnob Snob.

  5. Anytime anyone says something along the lines of “Science fiction/fantasy/horror can’t be good literature” to you, just imagine a neon sign over their head that blinks “I Am a Fucking Moron” at regular intervals

    Damn! Where were you with this 10 years ago? My ex-husband (and PhD wannabe) used to tell me that all the time. Now I was only reading the stuff, not writing it, but it should have been enough to send me running for the hills instead of marching down the aisle.

  6. I seem to recall a similiar discussion in Stephen King’s “On Writing”. He seems to have little patience for snobs who turn their noses up at anything that isn’t “Literature”.

  7. Just include a bit of French in whatever you write and I’d consider it “literature.” That is, after all, the only thing all the “great british lit” has in common. Besides maybe being written by women pretending to be men.

  8. I’m not a writer (nor do I play one on TV), but my wife & I did pony up a charity donation for a meet n’ greet with the “Rock Bottom Remainders” when they played the Rock Hall. They were all astonishingly nice to us mere mortals, especially Dave Barry & Frank McCourt.

  9. I too have a distinct preference for spec. fiction writers over other types of writers. Perhaps it’s the impossibility of ever garnering snob cred that makes us spec. fic. writers less obnoxious than our more literary-minded peers. In fact based on my admittedly limited experiences, I would say that a writer’s obnoxiousness is proportional to his/her literary pretensions. Also, a writer’s actual output is inversely proportional to his/her obnoxiousness. When you’re busy churning out 2500 words a day, the romance of a holy mission gets sort of drowned out.

  10. Well, I like spec fic writers too, since at the moment the majority of the writers I know socially at least dabble in it. But I think the operative term here is working writer — i.e., someone for whom writing is their primary job or at least a significant source of income. They tend to be in tune with the practical aspects of the gig.

    Aside from journalists, the first working writer I spent any time with was my friend Pam, who was a screenwriter and novelist, and she was refreshingly grounded. She had an Oscar (for Witness), but she also in the writing trenches on a daily basis, and she pointed out to me that the awards are all very nice, but there’s still the mortgage to consider. Sage advice, coming from an Academy Award winner.

  11. I’m sort of in between. I’m just as likely to like (or dislike) a writer as I am to like or dislike an accountant or veterinarian or computer programmer. I’m not sure if the asshole-to-nonasshole ratio is any larger in writing than in other businesses. I think we tend to be more self-absorbed, but mostly in a benign way, i.e., when we’re not writing, we’re thinking about writing, and most of the time we’re up to our scalps in deadlines (if we’re lucky) and therefore don’t have time or brain cells to, say, remember third cousins’ birthdays.

    Lauren, if you don’t think spec fic writers can be snobs, just listen to some of them talk about romance novels. And the reverse snobbery towards lit fic is just as bad. Every genre, including literary, has both masterpieces and suckfests.

%d bloggers like this: