The Unselfish Writer

Selfishness

A while back, I came across a comment that posed the question of selfishness as it applies to writing and writers. It was a bit of a two-parter that morphed around the subject. The first part of the question asked whether or not an unselfish writer should give away his or her work for free. The second part wanted an answer to the bigger question of “what is a selfish reason to write?”

I think there was more to these questions than met the eye when I first read them. The comments were posed as a challenge more than an observation. Still, they were interesting enough. How does selfishness and writing come together? How does selfishness, or lack of it, play into chasing word art?

A few readers may need to don the crash helmet for what follows. It’s purely an opinion piece, so don’t get too worked up over it. Geezer-writers get to stretch their mouth muscles from time to time.

The first part of the question, whether or not a writer should be paid, is pretty simplistic and obvious. I’ve written a number of posts about this topic. Since I’ve been writing all my life, I also have pretty strong feelings about it. If you’re a worthy writer, you should be paid for your work, period. The only exception is when you choose to offer your work for free, for some personal reason that makes sense to you. There’s an entire section on this blog, along with several individual articles, that speak to the need for writers to be compensated for their work. It’s a no-brainer.

But getting paid for your words is a tough business. Few writers ever achieve that goal. As I’ve mentioned many times, some of the best writers I’ve known never made it in a financial sense. They were great word artists but they never had the chance to make their work pay. This is one of the reasons that I’m such a strong proponent of self-publishing, to level the playing field for writers who would otherwise sit it out on the sidelines for reasons that have nothing to do with their talent.

Pay as You Exit

Should you be paid for your work? You bet, so long as your work is worth the money. In the end, your readers should be allowed to make that decision, not publishers or alleged “publishing companies” that populate the Internet. It’s all between you and the reader. The only way to know if you can make writing work for you is to get your words out there and hear what readers have to say about it. Readers vote with their money, which is just the way it should be. Publishers have lost their importance through their own greed and immoderate behavior. Get your words out there, and do it on your own terms.

The second part of the question is a little strange. I’ve never been asked the question in the past but it’s worth a thought. What is a selfish reason to write?

I don’t find much selfishness among my fellow writers. However, they mostly write books, novels or nonfiction. A few of my writer-friends are journalists. I do see a good deal of selfishness among bloggers, though. I find lots of attention-seeking behavior out there.

Now, to some extent, attention-seeking behavior is inherent in anyone who writes seriously or as a career. We want to be noticed, one way or another. We may write for ourselves, at first, but we publish to be read. At some level, that’s attention-seeking. I doubt that any seasoned writer would argue against this relationship.

attention seeking

But it goes beyond that acceptable level with so many blogs. There are endless posts directed at only one purpose – driving readers to the blog. There are so many words that have this sole purpose that it’s a day’s work to just get through them to the true nuggets of good writing. This kind of behavior is so obvious and transparent that virtually all readers recognize it when they see it. It operates at a level of commercials on TV, except that every so often you run across a really funny, entertaining TV commercial. Not so often with most blogs.

This kind of writing is selfish. It is not intended to convey valuable information, entertain, enlighten, share or contribute to others. It is designed to point back at the writer and do nothing more. It’s a way of putting notches on a virtual blog-belt that says, “Hey, look at me! I now have 34,534 followers!” Well, if you’re into quantity as a writing goal, it surely serves some purpose. It just doesn’t work for me.

If the blog is commercial in nature, I get the point. However, if it’s intended to be a personal blog, and the whole point is to drive readers to the blog, it shows up in the posts and in the writing style. This kind of writer is not trying to share. He or she is trying to collect. In my view, that’s selfish.

So, are writers selfish? The good ones, those who work it out as a living, the journalists, the worthy novelists, and even the occasional strong blog writer are not selfish. They are sharing something of who they are, what they think, how they are feeling, what they’ve learned along the way. They are not selfish. They are writers, even if they remain undiscovered for a lifetime.

Asking if writers are selfish is like asking if a writer is any good at what he or she does with their art. The best writers move well beyond their selfishness and find reasons to create words that are genuine and tangible, meaningful in some way to their readers. Those who cannot get to this point simply don’t make it in the business. There’s too much competition from good, genuine writers for the purely selfish to survive the cut.

Writer-selfishness has nothing to do with money, with getting that advance and royalty check. It has everything to do with sharing that part of yourself that may touch your readers.

Anything else is selfish.

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The Weirdness of Writers

Old Man

I’m an old geezer so I can say whatever’s on my mind, right? Isn’t that how it works? Since I’m a writer, I can even make it all up.

This is the weirdness of being a writer. Here are the details:

We live in our heads. That’s right. Forget the world outside. If it’s worth the experience, it lives in here, upstairs. OK, there’s also some intrigue out there. Lots of inspiration from the real world. But, it all needs to get sucked up, rolled around, re-worked in our heads. That’s where we find the action. Doesn’t everyone?

We think in images but cannot draw. Just like you, we see pictures in our heads. We probably can’t express them in a better way than words. A few of us are multi-talented and can do more. These are the true artists. For the rest of us hack writers, making those pictures come alive in words is where it’s at. Descriptions count, a lot. The more vivid, the better.

We like word sounds. Words make sounds. Sounds make pictures, pictures make words. Get it? We like to describe sounds, often in vibrant detail. Check out your favorite writer. See all the sounds he or she describes? Sounds have character. Sounds set moods. Sounds are everywhere. How could any worthy writer ignore sounds? People, too. We call them “characters.”

We’re not that fond of reality. Sure, the world is good. But the attic is better. No cumbersome reality upstairs. Time doesn’t matter. We can do whatever we want up there and nobody can touch us. We create worlds, destroy them, rebuild them, morph them all over the place. That’s our reality. How could the outside world ever compete with that? If you don’t like it, just re-write it.

Nothing is static. Make it once, overhaul it, throw it away, resurrect it, revise it, revamp it and do it all over again and again. Everything changes when you write. Without change, writing is just work, just another four-letter word. Mountains breathe, rocks walk, creatures come and go. It’s a fast-moving landscape up there. Never boring.

quiet

We need quiet. Well, sometimes we need music. The point is that we aren’t too fond of excessive stimulation from others. We need space. We need solitude. We thrive on that special peace that offers the challenge of working alone. Move the quiet times to the front of the line. It’s best to not mess with us when we’re writing.

We are all romantics. We want the world our way, even if we end up destroying it. We thrive on the feelings and moods behind our words. We tend to be very passionate about the people and things in our heads. So, we romance our heads, our unconscious, our moods and feelings. Isn’t this romantic?

English: True Love Couple

We have very understanding mates. If we’re living with another, that person must be very special. Who could even consider living with a writer and still maintain a “normal” life? The weirdness of a writer naturally spills over into the reality of living. Anyone who lives with this strangeness deserves the Lifetime Award of Extreme Tolerance and Understanding. Otherwise, that mate must be another writer and all hell is on the horizon.

We are obsessive. We just can’t stop writing. Period.

Virginia Woolf’s Last Letter to Her Husband

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles B...

In March 1941, Virginia Woolf wrote this letter to her husband, Leonard. It would be the last letter to her beloved. On the 28th of the month, she committed suicide.

Woolf suffered from severe depression, an ailment that plagued her previously over the years. She would be unable to recover from this setback, and she knew it in her heart. Woolf had worked through too many difficulties in her life and admitted to her husband that her will to continue was gone. A terrifically sad end to an enormous talent.

Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walked into the River Ouse, which ran near her home. Her body was not discovered until the following month.

Here is Virginia Woolf’s last letter to Leonard. Heart-wrenching doesn’t even begin to describe her words. It is one of the most moving, painful letters ever written.

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

V.

From a Mule to His Rider

Grey Mule.To claim willfulness and intelligence is to waste words. To offer reasons or excuses is useless, barren.

Neither will do.

To assume I am slow and steady is to misread me. That is what leads to the surprises you seem to find so discomforting. Slow is the walk when you lead me somewhere of your liking with nothing more than assumptions and commands,  no matter how pleasingly uttered. Steady is nothing more than my practice in patience because we do not always communicate perfectly.

I am always waiting.

That is my nature.

What is yours?

Stubbornness is your word for an unrealized single purpose and toothy goal. My want is nothing more than to be. You may view my resistance as a weapon. I see it as a plea.

I will be your partner but never your property. Watch my movements, my glances, my quiet moments in the pasture. Be still, listen, watchful. This is how you will come to know my soul. Do this and we can be friends.

Let me breathe, seek out my own purpose, grow in wisdom and experience, be old and gracious.

Do this and we can be friends for all my years.

Respect my journey and I will take you anywhere on yours.

Soul Letters: Jourdon Anderson

Jourdon AndersonWriters are renown for their ability to construct moving, passionate letters. It’s a natural byproduct of the craft, usually garnered after decades of toil and trials. However, they are not alone when it comes to creating a unique style of missive, the soul letter, that faithfully holds its creator up to a mirror.

Soul letters speak to more than the recipient, touch upon more than the topic at hand. They provide us with a personal, faithful glimpse of the writer. These letters hold nothing back, regardless of the writer’s intent. They lay it all bare for us to ponder, each sentence in a white hot light. Although they will never be considered great literary endeavors, they are superb unto themselves. They are written from the heart and lay bare the soul. They are honest.

Jourdon Anderson was born in 1825, in Tennessee. By the age of 8, he was sold into slavery to General Paulding Anderson in the same State. Anderson’s son, Patrick, “inherited” Jourdon after the General’s death. Patrick and Jourdon had been playmates when they were children. Now, he was Patrick’s chattel.

During his servitude, Jourdon married and eventually became the father of 11 children. In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, Jourdon and his family were freed by Union soldiers who had camped on the Anderson plantation. Jourdon packed up his family and moved to Ohio where he found work and was able to support himself financially. He lived there until 1907, when he died at the age of 81.

A few months after the end of the War, Jourdon received a letter from his former “owner” pleading with him to come back to the plantation. In response, Jourdon wrote this amazing reply, filled with satire and poignancy at the same time. It is a revealing look at a man who never lost his dignity or sense of humor, regardless of the hardships he faced throughout his life.

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

Publisher Trips On Own Ego, Saved By Le Guinn

Cover of "The Left Hand of Darkness"

Ursula Le Guin has long been an icon in the science fiction/fantasy genre. Her name and her work are immediately recognizable and universally praised. Well, almost universally.

Her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, was much more than a bestseller. In 1970, it won the prestigious Hugo Award. A year earlier, in 1969, it was selected for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. It quickly became a classic and has remained so.

Le Guin went on to create a stunning collection of captivating literature, strong on themes that promoted meaningful, memorable female characters. She was a prolific writer, also creating poetry and essays that offered her unique style and voice. Le Guin gave birth to futuristic and fantasy worlds that are unparalleled in the genre.

However, like all writers, she suffered rejection early in her career. In Le Guin’s case, the publisher didn’t just miss the target but shot itself right in the creditability piehole and pocketbook.

Here is a classic example of a publisher stumbling over ego. True to the style of her life, Le Guin never allowed the name of the editor or publishing house to be identified when this rejection letter was finally released. It was written to her literary agent. She was certainly more generous and prescient than the author of this letter.

So, the next time you receive a rejection letter, just consider the source and motive. Publishers have a very long history of wrong-headed decisions.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Dear Miss Kidd, 

Ursula K. Le Guin writes extremely well, but I’m sorry to have to say that on the basis of that one highly distinguishing quality alone I cannot make you an offer for the novel. The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material. My thanks nonetheless for having thought of us. The manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness returned herewith. Yours sincerely,

The Editor
21 June, 1968

Why Don’t Blogs Die?

Blog of the day once again

Not everything dies. Most things do, I guess. I suppose even a rock dies, although it might take some time. But, it seems to me that blogs never die. They go on forever, suspended in the timeless clutches of the infinite Internet. This troubles me, a bit. It just doesn’t seem natural, not in accordance with the ordained order of the universe.

It’s creepy.

Since I’ve been a writer my entire life, I’m naturally drawn to the blogs of other writers or blogs that discuss their work. For whatever reason, I was surfing with one thought in mind: Why are so many writers considered eccentric? A strange search, yes, but not so uncommon. It was something that caught my interest for the moment. I’ve been accused of eccentricity, often by my literary agent as well as family luminaries.

While drifting around the Internet, I stumbled across a post entitled, Are All Good Writers Eccentric? The title was enough to get me reading. However, what I read took me off in an entirely different direction. I was left wondering why blog posts don’t have a shelf-life, a discreet period of time after which they die and are forever forgotten. Where is the self-destruct button, just in case? Some posts, some blogs, just shouldn’t go on forever, despite our wonderful, powerful technology. They should succumb to the more natural course.

This post didn’t answer my original question about eccentric writers. Rather, it gave me yet another reason to really be sure about what I publish, in any form.

Here is the post, which is short. I’ve left it unedited:

I think that all real writers are eccentrics and loners even when they have familys. Not all bloggers are writers some fill there pages with pictures of there friends and family or places they have been. Some are clever with the graphics that melt out hearts to look at and make us want to go back to look again. I would like to combine graphic art and my poetry but at the moment this will have to do. But waiting in the wings is some one i know who does magical graphics who as told me when i am ready i can download some of her magic onto my pages and how proud i would be to do that hopefully in the near future. Thanks mary. To work together with some one like Mary to add the beauty that she creates to my pages of poetry would make for a magical site i would be proud of. 

To be a writer you need a good imagination you just have to look at jk Rowlings, pages full of exciting things nothing dull, always some thing new and exciting, C.S Lewis and Narnia another wonderful example of a great imagination with a spiritual lift to it. Catharine Cookson my favourite author of adult stories writes from real life, earthy deeply involved stories of life in the north of england.

So, you tell me. Are good writers eccentric?