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Where is the key?

gr_keysI just came back from The Tuc­son (AZ) Book fes­ti­val, a huge event with some four hun­dred or so writ­ers, illus­tra­tors, and oth­ers con­nect­ed with the book world. Thou­sands of peo­ple were in atten­dance. One often hears these days about the lack of inter­est in read­ing. When you go to one of these large events, you see oth­er­wise, and I, for one, have restored faith in the world of the book. It ener­gizes me.

That said, and sin­cere­ly meant, there is an aspect of these kinds of affairs that always depress­es me. I am often put on the pro­gram to talk about how I write, the process, how I began and the like. Hap­py to do so. But, inevitably, when the time for ques­tions comes, some­one will ask, “What’s the best way to start a nov­el?” Or, “I have writ­ten a book. How can I get it pub­lished?”  “I keep try­ing to write, but I always get stuck. What should I do?”

I have a num­ber of respons­es to this.

  1. Why do so many peo­ple want to write? What is it about pub­lish­ing that seems (in people’s minds) to con­vey some major achievement?
  2. Why do these would-be writ­ers think there is one small thing I, or my fel­low writ­ers, can say which will be like a mag­ic key, some­thing that will sud­den­ly unlock the “mys­tery of writing?”
  3. Why do these folks think of them­selves as writ­ers when, in fact they have writ­ten so very little?

In my view you can only become a writer by

  1. Read­ing a great deal.
  2. Writ­ing a great deal.
  3. Writ­ing for a spe­cif­ic kind of readership.
  4. Know­ing that good writ­ing is hard to achieve.
  5. Being with oth­er seri­ous-mind­ed writ­ers, which is to say, immers­ing one­self in book culture.
  6. Learn­ing about the world of books, not just the books them­selves, but the busi­ness of books, the world and process of publishing.

A fine writer I’ve only recent­ly dis­cov­ered is Gene Wein­garten (a jour­nal­ist). He writes:

“The art of sto­ry­telling is as old as civ­i­liza­tion. There will always be a hunger for it. Learn to do it well, and some­how, you will find a way to make it pay … [but) a real writer is some­one for whom writ­ing is a ter­ri­ble ordeal. That is because he knows deep down, with an awful clar­i­ty, that there are lim­it­less ways to fill a page with words, and that he will nev­er, ever, do it perfectly.”

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