some thoughts on the art of writing, because there’s a lot of garbage out there

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Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer…Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page. –Zadie Smith

I’m going to say something that’s a bit controversial: there’s a deluge of terrible writing on the internet. What I love about the online space and the advent of digital technology–the democratization of voices and the ease in which unknown greats can rise above the din and find shelter with a receptive audience–has also given way to the sense that everyone who has a piece of virtual real estate can call themselves a writer and live this carefully curated “writer’s life,” replete with a gleaming laptop, unsullied notebooks, and a weathered coffee mug. I never quite understood this notion of a romanticized writer’s life because when I attempted such a life it was rife with financial anxiety and the paralyzing fear that I wasn’t any good–I always thought I was second-rate. While there are so many resources devoted to the art of making one a better writer by refining some of the technical aspects of the craft, for me the art of writing is simple: you’re either an artisan of language or you’re not.

There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character tries to explain his enormous gift:

Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.

Writers can dissect the process of how they architect and develop characters, scene and story, but ask them how they’re able to create music with a strange combination of words and they go mute. How do you explain that you’re able to see the world and translate it in a way that moves people? That there’s beauty in the arrangement of words, how a writer’s able to describe an object or emotion that puts someone else’s heart on pause. Writers are downright surgical about how and what they write, and every one of them will tell you that they write from a compulsive place, from a desire to tell a particular story. They don’t write because they want to, it’s because they have to. And while a writer can study craft and technique, at the end of the day you either can play or you can’t.

Last year I was in a slump. I witnessed mediocrity get rewarded with microfame and book deals. I watched brilliantly-crafted novels go unnoticed in favor of poor fiction with its grating, overwritten prose and characters void of complexity. I read a lot of lists and scrolled through what seemed like a labyrinth of quizzes, wondering, does anyone feel anything? Are we simply a character in a sitcom? Are we reduced to a top-ten list that’s meant to define the whole of us? Are we happy with this? Are we content with art that is compressed, regurgitated and made to go “viral” with a string of keywords and a nonsensical image? (I harbor a desire to torch anyone who doesn’t use this word sardonically). I read scores of blogs written by people who care only to publish a book because it would bolster their “brand,” as opposed to having a fervent desire to create art, to tell a story that will leave its indelible mark.

Basically, I read a lot of shit on the internet. A towering inferno of it.

And yes, mediocrity has always existed and has always been rewarded (I would argue not as handsomely). And yes, life is cruel and unfair. And yes, great writing will always, inevitably, find its place in the world. But it’s hard, as someone who writes tough, dark books and reads them as passionately as I write them, to know that this democratization has also opened the floodgates of shit, and it’s upon the reader to sift through the rubble to find what’s meaningful. To see that which is good. Also, I wonder whether we’ve been exposed to so much shit that what we think is good is no longer? I don’t know how to answer any of this–I just wonder.

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Illustration Credit: John Alcorn, via

Last year I purchased and read a lot of books. Many of which were remarkable. Many of which were shit. I’d nearly given up hope (call it end-of-year dramatics, and I acknowledge my proclivity toward it) and then I started the year off reading a succession of good fucking books that made me feel the way books should–they gave me hope.

Likeable characters bore the fuck out of me. If I want a shiny, happy life I only need to scroll through popular Instagram feeds rather than spend 300 pages cuddled up next to it. I read to get uncomfortable, to learn, to gain perspective and be transformed in some way. And reading has made me a better writer, not simply for the techniques learned from authors I admire, but for how good books drive me to go deeper with my scalpel until there’s nowhere else to go. If given the chance to write from the perspective of a nice girl who gets her heart broken and perseveres or from one of a sociopath, know that I would choose the latter. I’m fascinated by people who harbor a degree of darkness, characters who are flawed and complex. These are people who have been through war and are still dressing their wounds. I sometimes like novels that are unresolved or bleak because sometimes this is life, and the reading of this gives one wisdom, makes them see the world differently.

After I read Sonya Hartnett’s What the Birds See, I joked to a friend that I should move to Australia because they would be receptive to the kinds of books I want to write. I’m fascinated by children, how they’re untouched and innocent, and I’m even more fascinated when I see them interact with adults, because adults always find ways to ruin the worlds children have built, brick by brick, intentional or unintentional. There is no Santa Claus, that overheard argument, the parents who fall out of love as quickly as they took up lovemaking like cross stitch–Hartnett writes about the vulnerability and breakability of children. I set down her book and nodded my head and said, these are the kind of books I always seek to write: dark, elegant, fragile and visceral.

I followed Harnett’s novel with My Brilliant Friend–the first in a tetralogy of Neopolitan novels about a lifelong friendship–and consumed it so voraciously that I immediately ordered the second two books. Next up is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women–more tales about eccentric, beguiling and flawed, yet beautiful, women (notice a pattern?).

Terrible writing will always frustrate me, but I’m trying to train myself to sift through and discover the voices that seek to shout above the din of listicles and storytelling that solely serves as a traffic-driving authenticity device. But this is often my flaw–I’ll fixate on the shit at the expense of what’s really good and pure.

Work in progress, people. Work in progress.

313 thoughts on “some thoughts on the art of writing, because there’s a lot of garbage out there

  1. You are right – writing can not be taught. There are aspects of it that can be taught, but you can’t teach a person how to tell a story. Self-publishing (and blogging!) has made everyone think they are a writer – even yours truly. Funnily enough, all my favourite books I’ve read recently were published prior to the onslaught of social media and the sudden popularity of self-publishing, which I think says a lot about the quality of writing in recent times – at least that which is being printed traditionally and sold in bookstores. I think writers are writing what they think others want to read, and publishers are printing what they think will make money, regardless of the quality.

    I finished writing a short novel recently that had an ending that I knew people would hate. My mum actually called me up in tears when she’d finished reading and asked my why I would do that to my character? He was such a good person and deserved better. I agreed with her and said I hated myself for doing what I did, but that’s the way life goes sometimes – you can’t read every book and have the happy ending you want. And I think that’s the problem with lots of books at the moment, people are afraid of writing what people will hate and not giving the book what it deserves. In that case, why bother writing it at all?

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  2. You make some excellent points about the abundance of absolute garbage out there – – and that’s something that I see across the board in various forms of media, from journalism to the movie and TV industries – – and how some truly pathetic stuff gets the rewards, gets the recognition.

    However, you seem to be saying that the ability to write well is determined from birth, and lasts your whole lifetime – – you either can write, or you can’t. I strongly disagree with this. Sometimes people are naturally talented, and their pursuit of choice requires less effort or training on their part than it would for most people. However, some people – – including famous people who gained great recognition eventually – – didn’t have such an easy time; it took years of practice and study to sharpen their skills sufficiently.

    It reminds me of how children are often better at using and understanding technology than their parents. I don’t necessarily think it’s about natural talent – – at least not entirely – – I think it’s largely because they have been exposed to these things from a very young age, and things come more naturally to them because of their early exposure and frequent use of technology. And even people who are considered naturally talented find themselves sometimes churning out lousy material. I don’t believe things are so cut and dry, and I believe people seriously underestimate their own abilities.

    I’ve had people read my work and say that they could never do that themselves. Guess what? I often have moments when I’m looking at a blank or half-filled page, thinking, “Oh, God…how the devil am I going to do this?!” I have that same feeling sometimes of not being capable of writing…but, despite my periods of panic and doubt, I ultimately recover and am able to write after all. If I let those feelings of inability and inadequacy stop me, I wouldn’t be able to write, either!

    One more thing…the label of “writer” has indeed been a tricky issue for me, and my response has been not to label myself or worry about the labels so much, and instead focus on – – and state – – what I do. I’m less strict with other people – – l’ll still consider someone an actor, singer, writer, etc. even if they’re bad at it. I just consider them a LOUSY singer, writer, or actor.

    One more thought: I don’t believe exclusivity is the solution; I’m not interested in only or primarily people with enough income or the right connections or bloodlines, a la Hollywood, getting a voice and getting exposure. There are plenty of recognized people who either put out lousy material, or are awful people, but still get acceptance and rewards because they’re part of the club, one of the boys. I’m the type who’s not overly impressed by things like that – – like famous brands for clothing. I’m not going to pay out the nose just because it has the name “Prada” or “Louboutin” on it. I’m about judging things on their own merit. In fact, if someone pays an obscene, unreasonable amount for something, that just gives me a negative impression of that person, rather than impressing me.

    If your writing or clothing is good, then it’s good, and the fact that you’re a 7th-grader from nowhere in particular and wrote it sprawled on your bed with a laptop doesn’t make you any less of a writer; if your writing is bad, I don’t care how many awards you get, and how you get to hobnob with the elite in New York or Los Angeles. You’re not as good a writer as that 7th-grader who’s busy getting scolded for not turning her homework in on time.

    In some ways, increased exclusivity would actually protect lousy writers who have the right connections or income bracket. In my opinion, the solution isn’t excluding writers; the solution is discernment of their works. People need to be able to sift through the glut of material out there, and be able to appraise it. Keep in mind, even people who are very talented at writing or other pursuits overall can still have moments when they do a downright abysmal job – – and vice versa; even people whose efforts are normally God-awful can somehow manage to produce random gems.

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  3. I think most people are more “in love” with the writer lifestyle and the allure around it.When in the end writers are “common” people who happen to write about things that common people relate with,some have a spark,that’s all.

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  4. Thank you! I loved every word. I believe the world of “self publishing” has made it way to easy for people to put trash out there. I know a girl that took the route of self publishing and now thinks she is hot stuff because she sold 12 books. Those 12 books were bought by relatives. I read some of these books, excerpts anyway, and the grammar alone made me want to scream. Her sentence structure was simplistic to say the least.

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  5. Reading to get uncomfortable and gain wisdom… I have never thought of books like that…
    I’ll take your word on it and try that the next time I come to choose a book at the bookstore.
    Thanks a lot! Awesome post 🙂

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  6. So much truth in what you say. I write & publish to my blog, not overly well or as articulate as you but because I enjoy the process and the discipline of sitting and writing and trying to engage. Surely there is space for someone like me too in this literary world, we can’t all be great or even good but we can try (as long as it comes from a place of genuine kindness).

    Really like your book suggestions too. I will certainly look them up.

    Great post btw 😄

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  7. I write but I’m not a writer. I picked it up again because I had to. I used to be clever and serious and import but now I write. I write with crayons.

    I thought of the many brilliant musicians I know. Some of them are my now grown children. We have frequent conversations about how so few of them can make a living with their music yet they continue. One group, in their thirties now, I have know since they were in college. Brilliant artists musically and lyrically. They are rare people. They have remained faithful to their art but have also figured out ways to feed themselves. They play with symphonies which is most high brow. They play festivals and shows from time to time but a large part of their income is weddings. While they get $5-6K now for a wedding it was not always so. I remember giving them $300 for a four hour thing at my winery. I guess my point is that being good or even remarkable will not guarantee anything. I am so new to this blogging thing that it’s a bit comical. But I was thinking that if some mediocre blog or author or artist was garnering attention and money then they were doing something right. My friends want to play so whatever it takes is what they do. Weddings and trade shows and other things that seem cheezy and below them to promote their work. That seperates them from the tens of thousands of other brillant musicians who have been taking home that same $100 a night for years.

    An artist has to eat just like a janitor. Sometimes it may be the same person. My guess is that there are some menial tasks that must be done in this field similarly to the music business. Cause in the end it is not the public’s fault if they don’t know your work. They don’t owe the artist anything. The artist may have what they need but how would they know? It may be that it will take doing some of the cheezy stuff too attract the thousands so the artist can find the hundreds they are looking for.

    Anyway, that’s what I was thinking. I’m not a writer but I will write. I write with crayons. Be Groovy. Well to be truthful right now it’s a Samsung.

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  8. Very thought provoking post. But if writing is only for those who write to your standards, more than ninety percent will have to make an exit! May be not a very good prospect. As someone said only after watching an insane, you use all your might to preserve sanity in you. It is true of all other human activities as well. Scores of people play tennis but only a handful to the standards you are referring to!

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  9. I have experienced a similar reaction while sitting in a darkened movie theater as the upcoming trailers roll, pondering, “How in the world could this film possibly get made? Not to mention the enormous amount of money spent in doing so.” Sorry to inform you Felicia something you have already discovered. The general population or “GP” as I dub them for short, likes mediocrity. As for the top ten lists? I am rendered speechless as they continue to headline fine publications and websites the world over.

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  10. As a blogger, I read a lot of online-only material, and I write some as well. Both clearly help each other improve. I wholeheartedly agree that there is much true crap out there. The bar is so low for entry that it might well be argued there is none. There’s also some wonderful work, and it’s a chore sorting the one from the other. I like to think of myself as somewhere between the depths and the heights, I enjoy it, some folks like reading at least some of it, and I stay far away from writing fiction. Fiction writing to me is like a box with keys and wires. No clue! Also no particular drive. Thanks for your interesting post – Greg

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  11. Good post, I understand your frustration, and once in a while I share it. I like dark elegant books as well, but in moderation. sometimes I just want a cozy mystery. I think it depends on why you read. You read to challenge yourself, grow, learn, and analyze an art form that you love. Some read solely for entertainment, or to find other people like them to reinforce their own beliefs and decisions. Then, there is all the plain crap out there. Like you said, some just want to expand their brand. We are loosing a little something when we don’t take the time to read, for a challenge, read for edification…

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  12. Looking back on my life, I know that I have always been a writer. This is not a choice. The words swirl in my head, form while I sleep, choke out rational thoughts. Worlds are built. Characters conceived. Lives lived. There is pain. Pain that I can only make real to you because it is real to me.

    I was not taught how to be a writer – though it is through careful consideration and study that I have been able to find my voice and style. No, I was born a writer. And regardless of whether or not I ever publish anything, I will one day die a writer.

    I love books that move me. I hate the superficial. The ones that do not develop characters or emotional conflicts. Some titles that I would recommend: Beautiful Children by Charles Bock, Dancing on the Edge by Han Nolan, The Map of True Place by Brunonia Barry and Chump Change by Dan Fante. Enjoy!

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  13. Some good opinions are shared here, but I think it’s a little hostile to label other people’s work crap. Whether your a writer or not, we all have our personal preferences when it comes to reading and writing. We either read it, or leave it. Some of us romanticize, some of us write with blunt and raw emotion. That is what makes the world of writing so diverse and so wonderful. No matter if you’re an established writer or not, keep putting it out there. Sooner or later you’ll appeal to a specific reader who’ll wholeheartedly appreciate your work, it’s all about individual taste. There are no real experts on what people will or won’t like. Nobody ever reviewed a piece of writing with ‘Wow, that was a grammatically beautiful piece of writing’. We all endeavour to seek a review that shouts ‘Oh my God, I love the way she tells a story’, even if the writer finds it hard to string a sentence together. The reason it feels like every Tom, Dick or Harry is writing, is because the population is ever growing and whereas there was a few hundred brilliant writers of the olden days, we have grown that number by thousands and also grown a wealth of readers to follow them. There will always be a market for crap, for as long as somebody enjoys that ever growing genre. Thanks for sharing and happy writing! 🙂

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  14. Tell it like it is! I often feel this way about modern day music. I write myself but my love is in lyrical content along with performance.
    It really makes my skin crawl when I hear these half written songs passing as a work of art on the radio and encourage impressionable children
    to become poor writers and performers, with no dignity in their crafts. Its a vicious cycle. Great Post!

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  15. I like this post…this rings true with me. 🙂 Creating a beautiful sentence is an art. Sometimes, though, people just like to read things they want to hear. That’s when they claim to like it. But the crafting of beautiful prose…that will always be a mystery.

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  16. “Writers don’t want to write…they have to write”. Try as I do to not write, to justify that nothing I ever do will amount to much anyway, the not doing of it causes too much pain. Like being constipated on New Year’s Eve. So I write from some place beyond and just let that energy flow thru me. I am moved sometimes wondering from whence it comes and blessed that I allow that endless energy to flow thru. Keep digging through the shit – it is in their that beauty will be found – bug infested, nose offending, disease ridden beauty.

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  17. About the book in the POV of a sociopath… does sound interesting, but wouldn’t it be better to read one that really was written by a sociopath? “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time” sees to divide people on whether it’s a convincing portrayal of a kind of autism… perhaps a book genuinely written by someone with autism? No intervening interpretation of an author, no room for misapprehension, the real deal!

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  18. I basically agree with your observations (do I dare mention 50 Shades of Grey?).

    However, I wonder about this one: you’re either an artisan of language or you’re not.

    Are you saying that writing cannot be taught? That the time I spent in writers’ centers and workshops was a waste? That the MFA is pointless? Most published new writers these days have an MFA.

    If what you are saying is true, then most of us (myself included) should give up now.

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  19. I’ve been writing short stories since my teens and I love doing it, it’s something I know I need to do. It was something just for me to begin with but I’m planning on taking it a little further but I haven’t due to doubt and people putting my life choices down. But, I’m struggling to pick a story. I have so many rolling around in my head. Do you have any advice? I’d be most appreciative. X

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  20. Preaching to the choir, honey. I can relate to all that you say, and would only add that those feelings you express are multiplied if you also teach writing and literature. Now that I’m retired–far too early, thank you, thanks to several diss-abilities (misspelled purposely)–I truly miss teaching, but not the petty squabbles and administrative bs that assumes that anyone who SPEAKS English can also teach it. Good teachers make teaching look easy; good writers do the same. And those of us who try for perfection in either area, knowing in our hearts that we’ll never achieve it, nevertheless batter our skulls on the empty rocks trying to open them to knowledge and understanding. Not fill them, mind, but just make it possible for them to discover whatever meaning there may be in this dark, twisted wormhole. But, it MUST be easy, since any asshat with a keyboard and enough money can win fame and more fortune. So, why do we write? Perhaps, so that we can read something profound or dark or funny or all three at once? . . . Love your writing btw.

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