On Writing — the Dilettante Edition, not to be confused with the book by that other guy.

I love writing.
I love telling stories, I love words, I love challenging myself to do better.
I love the way that stories can connect with people, whether they are true or not.
I love creating that giant question mark over peoples’ heads, where they’re asking Is this real?

I love the way that you can manipulate words, using subtleties and nuances to plant seeds in the minds of your readers, and then spend a hundred pages watering those seeds until they grow and bear fruit.

I love metaphor, as in, I metaphor lunch, she had the salad, I had Italian wedding soup and garlic bread.

I love the actual writing bit, and I do it. A lot. On average, I write about 2000 words a day — averaged out. Sometimes I write nothing, other days I’ve been known to pound out 10,000 words (and not just the same one over and over again).

I love writing in different voices, different styles, different genres — people sometimes find this strange, and there are those who can’t believe Jessica B. Bell and I are the same person. Wouldn’t I just blow their fucking minds if I revealed my third, and true, identity, and pointed those folks to my other blog (which is growing dusty, I confess — perhaps I should pay it a visit).

So this is, in part, my love letter to writing — I’d love for you to share what you love about writing, as well, but first, let me get to the second part of this, and that is, my insecurity and cowardice.

I’d love to be a writer – a real, paid, working writer. After all, with my output and imagination, you’d think that this could be a reality.

But I’m afraid.

People sometimes say things like “You should go after (Insert whatever you want here) as if your life depended on it.” As if that’s just something you can just do. Just quit your job, fuck the mortgage and bills and write as if your life depended on it.

Well, that’s great if you’ve got some sort of safety net (and don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge those that do — good for you). But what about those of us whose life would be ruined if they missed two paychecks in a row?

And then there’s the guilt. Does anyone else feel ashamed of being a writer? As if it’s something to be embarrassed about?

Has this thought ever crossed your mind: “I couldn’t possibly be a writer, I need to be a productive member of society.” (or some variation thereof).

So this isn’t one of those “What’s Stopping You?” inspirational, motivational speeches, darlings. You should know by now that I don’t give those.

This is just me talking, opening the floor to conversation. Does anyone else feel defeated? Does anyone else wonder if this is the best it’s ever going to get — that this is your audience? Does anyone else feel unappreciated and wants to admit that but are afraid that you, too, will be called pretentious or ungrateful like your favourite dilettante has been called from time to time?

Does anyone want to stand up now and call me pretentious or ungrateful, or suggest that I might have more readers if I laid off the artifice and just wrote plainly?

Speak now or forever hold your pee, as they say.

Does anyone have any good advice on how to cope with these feelings, or how to succeed at life through the power of (insert philosophy here)? Are there any agents reading this right now that want to hire me on to write about anything from broken relationships to pseudo-lycanthropy?

Talk to me — let’s chat. Seriously, how often do I do this — opening the floor for actual discussion?

Say something. Let me know you’re out there, world.

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46 responses to “On Writing — the Dilettante Edition, not to be confused with the book by that other guy.

  1. Can’t say I ever felt guilt or shame at being a writer. I know many people that try to make me feel that way. So I guess that’s some odd expectation for this career path. There are those who look at artists as worthless dregs of society for some reason.

    As far as the safety net goes, there is the other scenario. If a person has nothing to really lose or is in a situation that can only be changed through an upheaval then it pays to go for the dream. I was bouncing from one temp job to another and that didn’t look like it was going to change beyond me snagging a $10/hour job that could disappear at any moment. Didn’t seem with the stress that it was doing to me, so I went for the dream job. Figured I could at least say that I made the attempt.

    • Part of it is my own laziness & ignorance, as well — I fully admit it. I’d rather spend all day writing than set aside some time to market myself or to get an agent to do that for me.
      What you said in the first paragraph is what I was talking about re: guilt/shame — people telling you that you can’t pursue something arty — what if you fail? What’s your backup plan, etc…. makes you want to ask them what THEIR back up plan is for when their job becomes redundant.

      • Something I’ve done with marketing is that after the first push with submitting to sites, I do some in the morning and a few tweets throughout the day. It takes less time than people seem to think when you’re not doing the big pushes and you can’t do those every day.

        I hate the backup plan conversation. It seems to include ‘would that make you happy?’ when you give an alternative. They don’t appreciate the response of ‘No it wouldn’t, but I’m sure my soul will be crushed enough to not care at that point’.

  2. I very rarely mention my writing to people I know IRL. I’m afraid of their reactions, honestly. My brother knows I write (obviously since he also writes on my blog), and my mother knows, but other than that, I don’t advertise it and have even take steps to separate anything blog related from my personal FB page.

    I don’t have any dreams of being paid to write. I feel like I can write adequately enough, but there are SO many more people much more talented than I am (like you) who are struggling to make it as a writer that I don’t see the point in even trying. So I’ll keep blogging as a fun hobby, and leave it at that.

    • There are definitely things I do that are hobbies. I dabble in all sorts of things, often just to see if I can do something. But writing is, for me, something I want to do full-time. I want to be able to write without looking over my shoulder to make sure the boss isn’t coming.

      • Well, in this trooper’s humble opinion, you definitely have the talent for it. Now it’s just a matter of finding someone to take a leap of faith on you. I LOVE your writing and have no doubt you’ll get picked up if you keep trying.

      • Now I have the phrase: TK421 Why aren’t you at your post stuck in my head.
        Thanks, TD. I’ll keep writing ’em if you’ll keep reading ’em. I’m going to write whether I get picked up or not. I can’t not write.

  3. I’m 45. I’ve walked away from my day job. You like blood. I’m hemorrhaging money. For most of my adult life, I’ve paid my own way. Taken care of myself. Made more money than my spouse.

    To date, I’ve paid every cent I’ve made selling books to my publicist. I haven’t even paid for the books I’ve sold myself. No matter how many glowing reviews my book receives, they don’t convince people to click ‘purchase.’

    Routinely, I am advised to pay x-thousand dollars to rework my book to be appealing. I am asked to pay y-thousand dollars to promote my book and give it away for free. I’m told I’ll have to write up to ten of these things (with all the associated costs) before I’ll ever make a dime.

    Does that mean I feel unappreciated?

    No.

    Mostly, I’m just terrified. Books compete with every other form of entertainment for a person’s time, and people have more forms of entertainment to choose from than they’ve ever had. A thousand times a day, I question my sanity. With reading on the decline. With hoards of people willing to take advantage of my desire to invest in my success. With my dwindling resources. I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to amass enough of a readership to pay my husband back for everything he’s done to support me and my dream. In my darkest nightmares, he leaves me with my broken characters and a two dollar bill.

    You’re not alone, Dear.

    • The two-dollar bill was a nice touch!
      Sigh.
      You’re absolutely right, though — I think society as a whole takes writers for granted — no writers, no films (even if they ARE formulaic).
      Whenever I hear someone raving about a TV show they like, I remind them that someone WROTE that. It started with a written story.
      Well, I hope we both find what we’re looking for. I, like you, don’t even want to be famous – I just want to be able to do what I love (and dammit, what I’m GOOD AT) and get paid enough to live on.

  4. I can’t fault you one bit for not wanting to forego a guaranteed paycheque to pursue writing full time. God, just look at Andra, who has marketed the shit out of her book and, as she states above, still hasn’t even broken even financially. It’s the scary reality of the situation. I think we all see an E.L. James, making millions with that 50 Shades drivel, and think, shit – if she can sell that many books… There’s no rhyme or reason as to why her shit took off the way it did and yet talented writers are struggling to get a few hundred people to read their words. A head scratcher, indeed.

    • There’s a fine line between maintaining your artistic integrity and being stubborn.
      The problem is, we all want validation — I need to know that my writing is good enough.
      (and I do, I do….)
      As for Andra, I respect the shit out of her — we’ve talked about how people have tried to get her to change things about her book — not because it wasn’t good enough, but because they claimed it wasn’t MARKETABLE enough. She stood by her guns, and I applaud her. Fuck marketable. What marketable really means is that it’s easily digestible and for widespread public consumption. I don’t want to be remembered for writing the next Twilight. I’d love to be remembered for writing the next cult classic than for being easily palatable.

      • My point was, if even Andra, with the amazing marketing she has done for her book, can’t make headway on sales, it certainly casts doubt on how/if someone, regardless of talent level, could make a living at it.

        I know the cool /artsy / ballsy thing to say is, “Helena, go for it. Be true to yourself and your art. Quit your day job. Do this thing!” But the realist in me says, DON’T RISK YOUR HOME/LIFE/FINANCIAL SITUATION to do this, even though your heart tells you to. The risk is too great.

  5. There are just a couple of people I follow on WordPress whose writing is really rich and imaginative and you’re one of those, so some of your fears might not be grounded in reality. You’re a natural story teller.

    Personally, I’ve done the “productive member of society” stint, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t very productive. Writing has the capacity to be more productive and to influence more people. Besides, robots can do most of what I used to do in a laboratory. How many robots can write good stories?

    Most of my struggles with in writing are far more primitive that yours. I write too much dialog, or too little; I oscillate wildly from humor to horror and back again; I write 10,000 words only to read back through it to discover it’s the most boring shit I’ve ever read. You don’t seem to have those problems. People will buy what you write because it’s imaginative and you hold your audience. You just need to put a price tag on it!

  6. I keep writing as a hobby, which is why my novel is going nowhere. I know there’s a reader for every book, but I don’t hold any delusions about suddenly becoming a smash hit. It’s just not gonna happen, so I enjoy the blogging and the relationships and further writing-practice/fun it brings, and just toodle on in my own way.

    I have a somewhat entertaining but simple-simple job to bring in the pennies while I just do what I enjoy. It’s enough for now.

  7. Writing is therapy, and a hobby and a love/hate relationship for me. I would love to do it for a living but if I did would it begin to feel like a job and rob me of my comfort and peace. You should do this for a living. Stories just flow like rivers from your mind and they are all amazing from what I can see.

  8. This post just unloaded a machine gun clip. So many truths.

    I’m not ashamed or fearful to admit I’m a writer, but I am cautious offline, because for the most part I have mainly encountered absolute shit reactions from people when they hear the words “I’m a writer.” – The most ridiculous reaction being the demand for instant proof, followed by “Oh you’re NOT published? Why don’t you just do it?” I mean how often does one meet a doctor, lawyer, teacher etc. and ask “So what is your success rate in your chosen field, and if not alot, then what do you plan to do about achieving it as quickly as tomorrow?”

    I could rant about this all day, but when I do that people tend to throw rotten tomatoes at me. Your post has definitely got my mind churning. It might just result in a post of my own.

    P.S. We should start our own Defeatist Writers Unite club.

    • I’m a horrible procrastinator and control freak when it comes to selling my writing. I’d rather self-publish than wait for some publisher to decide whether they can sell my book or not. However, that poses its own challenges, as I hate marketing myself. (I know, I know, I’m ridiculous)

  9. What do I think, what do I think… Well. I find you inspirational and talented, for a start, and I have a theory that talent will out (I just awarded you a Very Inspirational Blogger Award actually and needed to get round to telling you – details be here: http://ow.ly/zi61n)… I know the world is saturated with greatness but it’s still possible to ‘break out’… Little though we like to hear it, sometimes it taketh time and patience, which I have little of, so I sympathise there… But all we can do is output output and work at it and good things will come… Not to sound trite, I know you’re no Pollyanna, but you’re Doing this thing. You’ve obviously come far already and gone much further than many others. And you have a knack at jollying up feverish support and acclamation. At some point the world will sit up and take notice…

    • Not here, they won’t. I’ve been hiding on WordPress, trying to gain a following here (and I have, I have…) but it’s like finding wonderful needles like yourself in a haystack of disinterested people. There’s way more hay than there are needles. (The same is true everywhere, sure, but the more haystacks I hit, the more needles, right? Has this metaphor run its course yet? I’m getting itchy.)

  10. I never said a word about me writing anything until last year, and now it’s generally all I talk about. Remarkably, I’ve had very little pushback about it, but then, I work at a magazine publisher, and everyone knows how challenging it can be. I just keep plugging away, at life and writing. Its the only way I stay moderately sane!

  11. Oh well fuck, now we’re all honest and shit. Are you sure it’s not better to just nurture dreams? There’s nothing wrong with that. You asked for it, so here’s my take. Your writing is much better than your dilettante persona. That’s all I have to say about that.

    No one makes money writing anymore. There are breakout stories, but it’s as much about luck as it is talent. Timing is everything. As for feeling underappreciated, and the sense of audience, I don’t think blogging is close to the right audience for someone with your talents. This is a place about quick disposable mentionables with the occasional unmentionable thrown in there, about calculating what it takes to get Freshly Fucked or whatever, about what ails you, about the inadvertent but surprisingly okay use of coconut piss in your coffee instead of milk. It’s about fellowship and relationship, and it’s about good things too, but it’s a community built on our packaged versions of ourselves – that’s what blogging is in my opinion. And that’s a good thing. It’s a place where we can voice who we are, in whatever form. But it’s not a place to voice what we can imagine. That’s not what people are here to read.

    I think you’re better off going at the literary journals and other publications that appreciate new voices and that have built-in audiences who want to hear what people can imagine. I think you would fit in well there.

    As for guilt about writing, that’s ass. This is a great, ancient profession without which we would still be gibbering apes fondling ourselves eighteen hours a day. Although I have to admit, I’ve had a few drink-ups that were pretty much exactly like that…

    And about laying off the artifice… I’d vote for the opposite direction, frankly, but I’m more curious about what other voices overtake you than anything else. I always figure that you have to embrace your inner madness to stop the splitting and ringing between your ears, and give people something that they’ve never seen before. Is that too much to ask, really?

    Anyway, you raise good questions. But you are good at your craft, so your answers are on their way to you no matter what you do. All I can say is that I have been absent from the halls of this place (and terribly missing my favorite friends – I have the best WordPress friends imaginable) and the only person I’ve felt compelled to comment on is you. That’s not a compliment. It’s a statistic. And by the virtue of clever math, I hope shortly to drift off into some proper dreamland where you make it big and I get to cheer you on. That would make me glad. It really would.

    • Your particular brand of honest cynicism fits so well with mine that they should probably run off together and form a new society — however, I fear there would be much bloodshed as the first edict they would likely enact would be the execution of all banal idiocy everywhere.
      Perhaps they could just put up a big wall and not let any of it in?
      Anyway, I always love hearing from you, I really do. You have a way of putting things in perspective. It’s only 7:30 in the morning, and I’ve already done an internet search for literary journals and bookmarked it, paying special attention to Submission Guidelines.
      As for the dilettante — Helena’s an experiment, really, and as you know, not the only writing I do. It really is experimental writing, and when people criticize it or don’t get it, my reaction is that they can’t think outside the box of traditional prose, or THE RULES. I want to know just how far you can bend the rules, I want to know what happens when you break the rules, tear them up, throw them on the ground and set them on fire. Can you break the fourth wall so far that you are sitting in the audience with your reader, commenting on your own writing? How tangental can you get and still come back to the main point, with your reader still tagging along and enjoying the ride? How linguistically clever can you get — that is, how far into your cheek can you put your tongue before it pops out the other side?
      I think about all these things when I’m writing the Helena stuff — and it’s mad fun. I would be bored to tears if I could only write one style, one voice, one genre. I can drop the persona (I mean, isn’t it obvious I’m speaking to you as myself right now?) and still be interesting. Helena’s just a costume I sometimes like to dress up in — but it’s not Helena that people love — I thought that at first because hey, self-esteem issues, but I know now that it’s the writing, and it’s me behind the writing.
      But anyway, what you said about blogging is completely where I find my head at — I don’t really want to be a blogger. If anything blogging is exhausting me — I am, at heart, an anti-social person (and a wee bit of a misanthropist) and so I’ve no desire to sit around the water cooler discussing last night’s episode of whatever, or name a bunch of shows or movies or cars and say “how swell” but never really say a thing (if you recognize that sentiment, good for you — if not, I’m cribbing Clarisse’s dialogue from Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. That book, and that character, have had a profound effect on my outlook on life).
      I want to be a writer. I want to have projects and goals — anyone can start a blog or write on Facebook etc….
      Thanks for encouraging me and pointing me in other directions, Trent.

      • I know what you mean. I’m a horrible introvert. I don’t really like blogging, but as much as that is true, I dearly love many of the people I have met here and they are my friends. I stay for them, not the blogging, but I am not a blogger. Just a story teller/writer. I never know which.

        Best wishes with the lit journals. I might suggest you try some of the Canadian ones first, since you’re local.

  12. As far as I’m concerned, writers are “productive members of society” by proxy. I pretty much need to end my day reading a book to de -stress, so in the long run writers are helping my productivity.

    I enjoy writing, but there’s no way I’d give up my regular job to try to make a go of it. I like my house, and eating is good too.

    • Yeah, writing for money is a dream — like picking up a guitar and thinking you’ll become a rock star.
      But I’ll keep writing, keep trying to find more readers, and grow my following.

      • That sounds like a good plan. Right now I’m just happy there exists a platform where others can see what I’ve written, which was impossible just a few years ago.

  13. To get my own ego out of the way: I would NEVER want to be paid to write. Because none can tell me what to do, the word “MUST” does not exist in my vocabulary, and no matter how much money and shinies you offer me I will never write on something I don’t support or am not familiar with/does not excite me in the slightest/I abhor, just to cash in. I’d rather be a plumber.
    As for you yourself, I still think you should write whatever you want, courting audience aside, relationship making aside,blogging aside. Nothing is guaranteed anyways, what sells the book is enamored fanatics (or heaps of money you invest in marketing that you never return, but the sales counter keeps going up and giving the “juicy” higher numbers.)You can cash in on the fandom, sure and its nothing to be ashamed about, if that was your plan all along – to get millions of stupid people to wank on the poster of your blunt character played by some newK-stew.
    I agree with Trent here about the literary journals and stuff. When you hang with one same people, wether you want it or not, you start writing to entertain them and please them and you become literary correct, and as far as I see, that’s not what you want. You want to explode and create a big bang, or leave a stain the people will never be able to wash off.
    I guess you need to move a step further in manifesting your dream, and do what would make you happy. If you wanna read your books on a stage while the listeners are swaying, crying and laughing – make it happen. Even if you used 5000 million euros for it, or asked a few ppl you know, bla bla – it wouldn’t be it, just a scary clown waiting under your bed to pull your feet.

  14. I would love to live out the fantasy of making a livelihood off my fiction. But it is a fantasy. I appreciate Andra’s honest appraisal. Perhaps the question for her would be, now that you know, would you still have published? I believe she would say yes because of that intrinsic desire to communicate, to tell a story that must be told. I am like you in that quitting a steady paycheck to pursue a dream scares the shit out of me. So I am not doing it. Instead I’m waiting for retirement, for a time when I have a comfortable fixed income which I might supplement with publications (or might not, but I’ll still be writing which is what counts). In the meantime, I write when I can and bitch the rest of the time 😉 I recommend that you keep your day job for the sake of being able to pay bills, and then write what you want when you want. You don’t have to be a blogger in the sense of writing book reviews or movie reviews or discourses on what you ate last night. You can keep writing stories and you can write them in the characters of Helena, and Jessica, and Penny, and whoever the hell else you come up with. You can self-publish and put as little effort into marketing as you want. You don’t have to hike the Appalachian Trail (not even the one in Argentina) to promote your book. You don’t have to be Helena at full throttle. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. First and foremost, please yourself. The rest of us will follow.

  15. Playing a little game of catch-up with my favorite Dilettante.

    I’ve felt some shame with tacking the “writer” designation on to me. I’m not paid for it — not that it would make a difference, because, fuck, we write because we have passion for it — and people don’t seem to appreciate it.

    What do you do?, they ask.

    I write, I say.

    The conversation seems to stop then and there. Maybe they are intimidated and maybe they don’t give a shit. They know we read, because if we don’t read there is no way we should be allowed to write. Perhaps they, the rest, think we are wanna be hacks, that we aren’t even hacks, we are sub-hack, and it’s nonsense because we bust our ass. We’re some of the folk who took their schooling seriously, whether it was in a formal setting or we searched for it ourselves.

    And we put our selves through a grinder. Maybe not to find ideas, but use what we have in front of us and look at it, write about it from different angles.

    Oh, I could go on. Keep up the fantastic work.

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