The 4 Responsibilities of Writers…Maybe

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Phillip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, recently wrote an essay on the responsibilities of writers (the essay appears in his new collection Daemon Voices). Four of these key responsibilities were summed up and illustrated by Nathan Gelgud, and after reading them, well, I’m not so sure I agree. Here’s the list:

  1. Make money.
  2. Protect language.
  3. Have tact.
  4. Service the story.

On the surface these seem more or less reasonable, but when Pullman expands on each point I start to take some issue.

Make Money: Pullman states that we [writers] have the responsibility of “doing it as well and as profitably as we can.”

Yes and no. Of course writers should be compensated for their work–because it is work. It’s a little shocking how often writers, who spend many lonely hours creating even the shortest pieces, are expected to give their work away for nothing. And now there’s a whole slew of indie writers who routinely give away their first novels free, hoping to hook readers with cliffhanger endings and sell them the next installment in the series. These authors are selfishly making it harder for the rest of us to earn a living by devaluing all our work in the eyes of readers. But successful authors like Pullman are speaking from a rather lofty position when they announce that writers have a “responsibility” to be as profitable as possible. Easy to say for a lucky few.

Profit also shouldn’t be a writer’s main priority: that should be the writing. Making money is good and necessary (yes, those of us in the arts have as much right to earn a comfortable living as anyone else), but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the art.

Protect Language: At first this one sounds okay–until you delve into it a little more. Pullman states that those of us who use language professionally “are responsible for looking after it.” Looking after it how? Protecting it from what? Should we fight the inevitable changes that all languages undergo? Should my characters speak in stilted dialogue so that the language isn’t sullied by the more relaxed slang that most people use in casual conversation? And what language should we be preserving, exactly? Language as presented in textbooks? The language of the majority that’s spoken right now, or the language spoken twenty years ago? Fifty? A hundred? I agree–some “innovations” in language are beyond annoying (using “gift” as a verb springs immediately to mind), but language is a living, breathing, evolving thing. It’s preserved by being used, no matter how or by whom. The only truly protected language is a dead one. Maybe Pullman wants us all to write in Latin.

Have Tact: On this responsibility, Pullman explains, “We who tell stories should be modest about the job, and not assume that just because the reader is interested in the story, they’re interested in who’s telling it. A storyteller should be invisible…”

As an introvert I would love to be invisible. But since when have writers not named Anonymous ever been invisible? We’re expected to provide pictures and bios, to give interviews, go to events, interact with readers. I won’t even get started on social media. From what I’ve experienced, readers want us to share, not just about our books, but about ourselves. Still, anyone not interested can feel free to tell me to shut up. I will happily oblige.

Service the Story: I thought this would be the one responsibility I fully agreed with–until I read Pullman’s description. He says that as a “good servant,” he has to keep regular hours, stay sober, and stay in good health. Not what I was expecting. It’s great if doing these things helps Pullman write the best possible story he can, but that doesn’t work for everyone–and why should it? Those in poor health can still write, and even write brilliantly. I’m not suggesting anyone crack open a bottle of Merlot before hitting the keyboard, but writing under the (slight) influence can stimulate creativity. Service the story your own way.

Responsibility is a heavy word, and I think Phillip Pullman may have taken it too lightly. Writing is difficult enough without feeling obligated to burden oneself with someone else’s ideas of what’s necessary. What writers are responsible for is to write, to get their words out, and to do it whatever way works for them. As someone wise once said: do you, boo. Do you.

What do you think? Do you agree with Phillip Pullman? Share in the comments…

You can see the original article with Pullman’s quotes here.

Literary Cafés

Thanks to a few well-known tipplers (coughHemingwaycough), writers have something of a reputation for indulging. Though that may be more stereotype than reality, over the years certain bars and cafés have become linked with the literary crowd who’ve gone there to eat, drink, socialize, and occasionally write. Inspired by a recent LitHub article featuring 35 Literary Cafés. I thought I’d share a couple of them here, as well as adding some the list missed.

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Café Tortoni, favourite of Jorge Luís Borges and Alfonsina Storni, whose wax figures permanently share a table there.
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Antico Caffé Greco in Rome has served Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Hans Christian Andersen, and Nikolai Gogol, among others.
00 elephant house
The Elephant House in Edinburgh makes the somewhat dubious claim of being the place where J.K. Rowling started Harry Potter. Whether true or not, it’s become popular with fans.

Although not as well-known as the others on the list, here are some local-ish spots this Toronto writer thinks are worth a mention:

00 park hyatt
The Park Hyatt Roof Lounge (currently closed for renovation) has been frequented by many writers, artists and celebrities over the years, including Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen.
00 sneaky dee
Sneaky Dee’s is a Toronto institution that has attracted droves of indie types–including writers–over the years. Bryan Lee O’Malley used it as a setting in Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
winnies-bar-restaurant-salle-a-manger
Winnie’s Bar (1455 Crescent St, Montreal) was a favourite of Mordecai Richler. They specialize in alcoholic coffee (my kind of place).

Writers unknown, famous, and infamous have always populated cafés and bars all over the world. Comment and tell me which ones you think deserve a mention.

(Note: This is a re-post from 26 February 2018. If you’re looking for something new to read, how about my free short story “Blood Magic”https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/816146 or my novel Love Lies Bleeding, available in paperback and e-book at most online booksellers.)

Weird Habits of Writers

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I recently read an article about 11 weird habits that all writers can relate to, and I’ve got to say they weren’t wrong. Dramatically staring into space while thinking about what my characters will do next? Check. Ending up on security watch lists thanks to my online research? Check. Losing track of time, dates, and reality itself thanks to working from home immersed in a fantasy world of my own creation? Check check.

Reading the list got me thinking about my own odd habits, which I’ve decided to share. After all, as the article pointed out, writers spend a lot of time alone–why not take a moment to bond over our mutual strangeness?

My Weird Habits as a Writer:

Seeking Out Mindless Activities so I Can Think: When my hands are busy but my mind is free to wander, that’s when I come up with some of my best ideas, solve problems with my stories, or mentally write entire passages (my phone is handy–and more likely to be nearby than pen and paper–for getting it all down before I inevitably forget). Mindless activities I recommend: weeding the garden, easy crafts, cleaning the house, ironing…

Telling Myself Stories to Help Me Fall Asleep: I’ve had trouble sleeping my entire life–the one thing that’s almost guaranteed to get me to sleep is telling myself a story in bed. It’s been the same story for a while now, with minor variations. Strangely enough this repetitive storytime actually does help with my writing. Every so often I’ll get an idea for a new character, or notice themes I should explore.

Watching (a lot of) TV: Sometimes it’s background noise that works a lot like any other mindless activity (see above). Sometimes it’s inspiring, giving me ideas to consider. Sometimes it’s instructive, helping me with pacing, or seeing aspects to storytelling that do or don’t work. Sometimes it’s just entertaining, which is also important.

I’ll leave it there, although there are more (so many more). What weird habits do you have as a writer (or in general)? Share your weirdness…

(Note: This is a re-post from 19 February 2018. If you’re looking for something new to read, how about my free short story “Blood Magic”https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/816146 or my novel Love Lies Bleeding, available in paperback and e-book at most online booksellers.)

Reasons to Keep a Writer in Your Home

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I found this on Twitter and I thought I’d share it here too, along with a few additions of my own.

Original Tweet (via @PaperFury):

REASONS TO KEEP A WRITER IN YOUR HOME

• they know weird facts

• they’re low maintenance because all they do is eat and write

• great for midnight chats because they don’t sleep

• if they have to edit they’ll procrastinate by cleaning your whole house

I’ll also add:

  • They almost always come with cats (if you don’t like cats, then you should probably avoid writers in general)
  • Amazing book collection/personal library, which they’ll (most likely) share
  • Will never say no to a cozy night in
  • Lifetime (and then some) supply of pens, paper, and blank notebooks.
  • Always have coffee and/or tea on hand.
  • Will dedicate books to you

Do you know any other reasons to keep a writer nearby? Share in the comments…

Your Inner Critic Is a Liar

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Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

To be a writer is to be in a constant state of worry. Will anyone be interested in my work? Will they like it? What if they don’t like it? The worst is when the worry morphs into criticism and you doubt your own validity as a writer: my book isn’t good, no one will ever read it, I should just quit now. Sometimes it seems as though your inner demons take up as much space in your head as your stories and characters.

I recently read an interesting article on how to mindfully address your inner critic. The author offers some good suggestions, such as waiting the emotions out (they will pass) or agreeing with your inner critic and going forward anyway (for example, you’d say something like: “I should just quit now…and I will go ahead and write another paragraph.”

I often use the agreement technique, only I follow up with “but” instead of “and.” The article says not to use “but” because you’re supposed to be agreeing with the critic, not challenging it. But (see what I did there?) I guess I’m the challenging type because it makes more sense to me, is more reassuring, and, therefore, is more effective. My agreement statement would be more along the lines of : “I should quit now…but what else am I going to do with my life?” Even more challenging is when I go with the ‘agree but don’t care’ method (AKA the stubbornness approach). When I’m in this mood I’ll say something like: “I should just quit now but I like what I’m doing, so who cares what anyone else thinks–I’m going to do it anyway.”

However you deal with your worries or inner critic, the most important thing is to remember that they are liars. Unless you have legit psychic powers (if you do, I have a question about the lottery numbers…), you really don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Just because you don’t see how things could possibly work out doesn’t mean they won’t. Life is funny that way. So go ahead and ignore your inner critic, or tell them off, or sit and have a polite conversation with them–whatever you need to do. As long as you don’t listen to them.

How do you deal with your inner critic? Share in the comments.

And while you’re here, make sure to download my free short story Blood Magic. Myth and magic collide in this story about choices, transformation, and retribution: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/816146