Were I starting anew …

borrowed this from the Kenyon Review website - a young writer writing

Following up the previous post.The answer is: I would find a different way to express my creative urges, I would not choose to be a novelist. There are, thankfully, abundant ways to express creativity, even numerous and different ways to do it as one inclined toward language and story-telling. Making movies comes to mind first. But there is something afoot these days called “creative non-fiction” that I find intriguing. I think it is similar to what we used to call investigative journalism, but taken to a higher and more creative level.

I am thinking of much of the journalistic work Hemingway did as a young man, before he began getting his novels published, and even then he continued writing what today would be called creative non-fiction.

If I were like this young woman (left) or the young student I had dinner with last week, I would consider putting my creative literary impulses  to work in that direction.

Look at what’s being done with creative non-fiction in the best of the print magazines out there — NYRB, New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, are the four I read regularly, but there are others.

I think there will always be work for genre novelists, and if I ever read genre novels, were I at all interested in genre novels, I would probably try to write them. But I am not capable of it, so it would be a failure and a waste of time. If one thinks one can be the next Jonathan Franzen, nothing is going to stop you from trying. But it is good to keep in mind the astonishing amount of luck involved in a Franzen-like phenomenon, and to understand that for every Franzen, there are ten thousand novelists (many better writers and story-tellers) who will never sell a book at all, or maybe languish on a midlist for a while before being dumped.

I think good film-making is a deeply creative craft. That is another avenue for creative literary expression I would consider. But I would need to be both the writer and the director to sustain the kind of creative control I am used to as a novelist. I am not talking genre blockbusters here, but more like Sundance work.

I believe that the revolution brought on by digital eReaders is going to so dilute creative writing that it will disappear from public life, probably with a round of laughter. (Note that Amazon’s Kindle is being hacked by profiteers who are uploading fake or stolen work because it’s easy money — as Mark Knopfler so aptly put it: money for nothing, chicks for free. This is not a world I understand or choose to be a part of it. So if I were young and starting out, I would look elsewhere.

That was the point of the previous post.

I’ll close with a contrasting photo to the young writer above — here is the old writer.

an old writer writing



14 replies »

  1. as you (and many others, i guess) have noticed by now, my inclination isn’t exactly to tell stories – it’s to communicate images, an emotion or a state of mind. in the past i thought i’d be a musician in another life, because music is my biggest passion, other than literature/writing.

  2. Yes, you have an eclectic talent, Nicole. But these two posts are directed more toward practical problems or issues. There is, unfortunately, a stark separation between being and doing. That is, pursuing one’s creative passions privately is and always has been as available as one wants it to be. It is when the private is taken public that these problems arise, and if one has no public intentions, then all this is irrelevant.

    My best friend is a professional musician, founding member of the group Checkfield. He is now an old musician in the same sense that I am an old writer. He no longer performs — hasn’t for at least six or seven years. He has reached the same place as a musician that I have as a novelist. In other words, radical change in the “music industry” drove him away from it. It just wasn’t worth the trouble to perform and record. Lots of work and expense with a diminishing return (most music is now downloaded for free or a token cost, so for the musician it just isn’t worth the cost and effort). He still plays, he still composes, but it’s for himself, and sometimes he sends me some new work, sort of the same way writers exchange work they probably won’t ever see in print.

    I like your approach to art and creativity, but you probably aren’t going to make a professional living from it. Most artists aren’t. My two posts are about considering ways to pursue one’s creative impulses AND make a living doing it — as opposed to pumping gas or mopping floors or driving a taxi.

    I think your journalistic work is sort of like this.

  3. My head is sort of cowebs at the moment – but let’s say, even as a journalist who actually had some passion for the profession, I had to give up. I was a good feature writer and art reviewer (esp. when it came to artist interviews), but there’s simply no room in the industry in my town for me to make enough of a living.

    As for my creative writing – I came from a different place, I suppose. I don’t think I chose to write in English – it chose me. Being a literary writer in English, in/from Hong Kong, has always been a hopeless task. This writer friend of mine from HK, who used to be some kind of a mentor to me in the past, is now the chair of MFA in creative writing (low-res) at Vermont, a visiting writer at Iowa and other places, was short-listed for the Asian version of the Booker prize, etc. etc. Which is to say, as accomplished as any HK writer in English could be, at this point in time. Still, she doesn’t think she’d make a living out of her creative work – mostly novels, and she’s got several of them published in HK and US.

    So, no, the question of making a living out of one’s art isn’t something I’ve ever considered. That said, I’m sure it’d be the same even if I was an American who was born and raised and published in US.

    • I have an old friend teaching in the Vermont MFA program: Doug Glover. We were at Iowa together.

      I think most writers want an audience, knowing that “making a living at it” is about as likely as becoming a porpoise and having a swim. More than suggesting making a living or not, this is about the frustration inherent to the pursuit of an audience.

      Freelance journalism is always a crap shoot. But it can be a pretty good gig to get a regular slot with a good magazine or newspaper.

  4. I had a full-time job as a journalist for 3 years. It paid enough and more often than not I got to write about art & culture, but was an incredibly frustrating place (HK edition of a Chinese semi state-run English newspaper). At the end they cut the feature page and there’re this many papers and magazines in this small town. I guess I just lost heart, after a while.

    Doug Glover–of course, I know of him.

  5. Last spring I got to meet a semi-famous writer of creative non-fiction of the sort you’re talking about Don. We had beers and he told me that lots of young folks asked him how to get to be a writer like him (he’s an adventure / travel writer, has a few books, writes for a few famous magazines). He used to tell them, just go out there and work hard. You can do it. Now he doesn’t encourage young’uns anymore, because he no longer thinks it’s realistically possible for any but the talented lucky.

    He’s also a writer-in-residence (e.g., they pay him to pop into a class from time to time) at a university and he knows the writers in the department, several of whom are moderately well-known. As he pointed out, none of them making a living from writing (one recently made a whopping 3k from a well-regarded indie press); they make a living teaching writing. Not hardly the same thing.

    I’ve gone in a very different direction that Nicolette has of late. Seems the older I get, the more interested I am in stories. Not artifice and knock ’em sock ’em language (although I still love the masters – Nabokov and Faulkner especially), just stories. So, that’s what I’m writing now.

    Interestingly, through my associations at the University of Wyoming I’ve recently had chances to get to know a few genuine scholars and intellectuals. You know what they like to read in their spare time, when they’re not perusing various scholarly monographs? Yep – mysteries & adventure. Practically no one but other writers read literary fiction anymore.

    • Maybe if writers couldn’t pretend to teach writing, there would be fewer writers? It’s an odd self-perpetuating cycle: somewhat published writers get an MFA so they can make a living teaching unpublished writers how to publish enough to get an MFA and a teaching gig to teach more unpublished writers how to get on board. Maybe this is why lately the country seems to be flooded with “writers.”

      I knew a few writers when I started out, but I didn’t know a single unpublished writer. Remember (although I can’t remember where I got this statistic) in 1980, when I started at Iowa, there were something like 18 MFA granting programs in America; now there are at least 100. So instead of turning out whatever 18 times 20 is (360?) newly minted and certified creative writers a year, there must be at least 100 times 20+ (a big number). Ninety percent of these will never have any substantial publication, and ninety-nine percent of them will not come close to making a living as writers, so many of them are going to teach to feed themselves and family. We’re going to need more MFA programs to employ all these. The self-perpetuating cycle.

      So what? Good point.

      • and furthermore …

        Until Paul Engle got this idea for the MFA at Iowa, nobody taught writing, not counting some sort of composition course attached to a high school or college English class. There really didn’t exist anything of the kind we call today “literary fiction.” Novelists wrote novels and sometimes short stories. Magazines published short stories, publishers printed novels. With rare exceptions, most of them Europeans, novelists wrote stories with interesting plots, fleshed out characters, and sometimes weaved in a political or moral message.

        Who among my favorite writers — Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, John Fowles, Saul Bellow, Hemingway and Fitzgerald — wrote “literary fiction?” None.

        This is worth considering.

    • That’s why I’m writing crime fiction now. Or Biblical zombie fiction. Basically, whatever I want. In a way it’s still literary, but it’s not self-obsessed and these stories are not dealing with domestic malaise or relationships in the way that’s popular in high-brow literary fiction. Literary fiction is a genre too. The only real difference between “literary” and “genre” fiction is the density of information per sentence.

      What I like about crime fiction is that it supports and expects a dour and bleak outlook, but there’s still room–or I am making room–for beauty.

      Plus the crime writers that I’ve interacted with thus far are more pleasant people. For the most part, they’re working stiffs like me. Some are MFA educated. Some are not. But to a person, they’re all enthusiastic and genuine. At least so far.

      • That’s where I’m at, too. I’m writing what I want. Stories I like. The hope is others like them, too.

        • No, not yet. I don’t know what to say to him. I need to read at least one of his books, I think. And then? If I like it, I’ll send him some fan mail. I’m good at fan mail.

          • He’s a very easy man to get to know, amiable and open. I see that his first novel, Midheaven, is now on Kindle. I was (and am) dismayed when he got all Christian, and we have butted heads about it, but in spite of that, he is not of the proselytizing sort and keeps it largely to himself, except when attacked full frontal by an old friend.

  6. It would make me happy, quite ecstatic, if what I have in my head thought of as “Donko’s half-dozen” actually found themselves in the same place at the same time and could spend a weekend together. This is what I would do if I were rich, bring us all together in some interesting place (Tahiti, maybe), and we would become real.