9 Myths — or Not — about Writers

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Over at Facebook, David Jones posted a link to this entertaining squib at “Authors Publish”: “14 Myths about Writers.” Well, since we know blog readers LOVE lists (hence, the endless popularity, among blogmasters, of listicles), let’s see if we can come up with our own list of writerly mythoids. Hmmm…

1. We all love cats.

tabbycatNot so much. Some of us do love cats. Some of us are responsible for those cute Facebook memes of cats dancing across computer keyboards.

Some of us don’t. Some of us are allergic to cats. Some of us construct barriers along our walls to repel the cat-lady neighbor’s collection of feral cats.

2. Writers are starving artists who live in their garrets and survive on wine and cheese.

Meal, balanced

Meal, balanced

If only. Actually, most writers have a day job, unless they’re independently wealthy or they have a working spouse.

Often those jobs entail an element of writing or publishing. One of the best writers of literary fiction I’ve ever met was a Silicon Valley tech writer. Not starving.

One of my former graduate students who is also an exceptionally talented literary writer has a day job as a public relations executive at a vast regional water conservation and supply project. Also not starving.

In my own salad days, I was a journalist; served as editor for two regional magazines and published more junk than I can count in local, regional, and national newspapers and magazines. Then I became a college professor and administrator, an endeavor that supported me more than adequately, left some time for writing, and provided for my retirement.

3. You can earn enough as a writer to quit your day job and take up idyllic residence in a grass shack on the beach along the Sea of Cortez.

Nope. Few people who try to make a living publishing books — whether through traditional publishing or through the various self-publishing avenues — earn enough to put food on the camp table, to say nothing of a roof over their heads. Some people do pretty well. But they’re the exceptions, not the rule. Most authors earn less than minimum wage at their craft: “below the poverty line,” as PW puts it.

4. Writers are artists, not office workers. They don’t care whether they earn anything, because (like teachers!) they find writing “fulfilling.”

Alas, you can’t eat fulfillment. So, no. As fun as it is to walk into a store and see half-a-dozen instances of your by-line in print, baby needs shoes and mama’s gotta eat.

Yes, I find writing fun and satisfying. And just now I’m writing primarily as a hobby. That’s because I don’t have to earn a living: a successful editorial business, Social Security, and required minimum drawdowns from savings support me. If I had to make a real living with a day job, darned right I’d expect to earn a living wage!

5. To become a successful creative writer, you should get an MFA.

Will an MFA make you a better writer? Only if you enjoy wasting your money. This is a high-risk way to invest in a career. Some graduates of MFA programs do build good writing careers. Others spend years teaching adjunct — a dead-end job that often pays less than minimum wage, or going into trades or professions that have nothing to do with writing.

An MFA is helpful if you want to become a literary writer (as in high lit’rachure) or if you understand that one of its main benefits is the access to influential people in publishing and the arts. If you want to write nonfiction — the type that is not billed as “literary journalism” — or genre fiction, then you would do as well or better to just start writing. It might help you to land a full-time academic job…or probably won’t, since those are in scarce supply, and people with MFAs are anything but.

6. Anybody can learn to write.

Mixed.

Yeah. Anybody can learn to write their name. But real writing?

Writing is a form of thinking. If you don’t think logically, you don’t write clearly or engagingly. You would be surprised how many people don’t think logically. It’s not taught well in public schools, nor is it a habit fostered in the national media.

Most people who can string together a logical argument, however, can also write, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction. This applies to people who are not native speakers and to many (possibly all) dyslexics. You don’t have to have the grammar and spelling down pat (that’s what editors are for) to be able to write an engaging story, article, or book. But you do need to know how to build a coherent discussion, how to tell a story, and how to figure out what will appeal to your specific kind of reader.

7. You must have special talent to write a best-seller.

Have you read a best-seller lately? Apparently some of the Great No-Talents of the Western World turn that stuff out.

No. All you have to do is be able to write a simple sentence and string together a series of coherent thoughts in a reasonably understandable way.

8. Writers write when Inspiration strikes them.

writers-block-museNo. Writers are inspired by the vision of their byline on a paycheck. You do not write because you are inspired. You write because you write. That’s what you do for a job.

9. You don’t have to read all that __(fill in the blank)__ to write it.

Please. First, why would you write a __(fill in the blank)__ at all if you don’t like reading the stuff? And second, what makes you imagine that you can write a __(sci-fi novel, detective novel, inspirational book, magazine article, whatEVER)__ if you don’t even know what one looks like?

This is one of the things that most amazes me about the scribbling game. People think they don’t have to read to be writers! You’ll teach a course or do a workshop in magazine writing, and the room will fill up with people who never read magazine articles! You’ll teach the short story and find people in the group who maybe have read one or two short stories — back in high school. You’ll take on an editorial project by some would-be novelist and discover the author has never read a novel in that genre.

If you’re a carpenter or a dishwasher repairman or a jet engineer or whatever else you can dream up, you have to know your trade to do your trade. So it is with writing and publishing: to produce successful work, you have to know what successful work looks like. You need to read and read and read and then read some more.

If you don’t like reading detective novels, don’t try to write one…

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