Just Keep Writing
By Anne Sharp
When I was a teenager and felt discouraged by my competitors in my high school literary circle whose writing seemed so much more mature and sophisticated than mine (they were more Joyce Carol Oates, I was more Mad magazine) my mother would tell me, “Just keep writing! They’ll give it up but you’ll still be doing it.” This was the best advice I’ve ever had. I don’t know what those other people from high school are doing as they’re not my direct competitors anymore, but I’m still writing.
My mother, who had done postgraduate studies in English lit before becoming a parent and school librarian, was delighted that I loved to read and write and did everything she could to encourage me. Unfortunately, she was never really able to enjoy my career as a writer because I just wasn’t her type. She had wanted a literary novelist like Iris Murdoch and my biggest claim to fame is creating the first fan site dedicated to Peter Lorre. But despite not having made it in the commercial sense, I’ve lived a full writing life. I’ve had experience in many aspects of the literary industry, from editing reference books and scholarly journals to indexing books to writing reviews and arts features for local newspapers to seeing actors give staged readings of my plays to having short stories published in little magazines to managing the fiction collection for a medium sized public library. I got my first rejection letter when I was about twelve. The second best advice I ever got was from Larry Kramer: “Almost more than talent you need tenacity, and an infinite capacity for rejection, if you are to succeed.”
There are so many different kinds of writing it’s difficult to offer any sort of advice that applies to them all, but basically there are two parts to what you would call the industry, or the craft, or the practice or profession or avocation or whatever of writing. There is the creation part, where you imagine, plan, write, and shape your pieces. This is where you have the most control, depending on whether you have someone waiting for it at the end with certain expectations, or are doing it with no one’s expectations in mind but your own.The second part is the market, and this is where you have little to no control and where, may we be frank, you can really get hurt, and where you may come to bitterly resent people like my mom and Larry Kramer who’ve encouraged you to risk the many levels of pain that even the most successful writers can and will experience. Even if you keep your writing just to yourself and hide it from others, eventually someone will come across it and read it and judge it, or just as bad, throw it away without reading it.
One of the reasons I created the website that I’ve filled with essays promoting the work of the highly underappreciated actor Peter Lorre was to atone for the actors and other artists I’d hurt through my work as a freelance movie and theater critic. Criticism and competition, fair and unfair, are aspects of the writing life I have a lot of personal experience with. If you poke your head up above the crowd, it’s not unlikely that someone will be waiting for you with a mallet to try to smash you back down, and, surprise, it may be someone very close to you. There are good reasons that people don’t take my mother’s advice to keep writing. Unless you are one of those extremely rare cases of a writer who’s instantly and continuously successful and has an eager audience waiting for your next piece, you need to find the work of writing and the accomplishment of creating a body of work to be rewarding enough in itself in order to go on. And if you do, you should. Besides, writing is good for you.
My stepmother published a workbook for high school students called “Writing Is Thinking,” and this is 100% empirically correct. Writing helps you think and vice versa. I have a close friend with a PhD who’s that rare thing, an academic writer who expresses herself with absolute clarity, and I think a lot of this is due to her experience in competitive high school debating and forensics. The writer I love and admire the most, George Bernard Shaw, as well as starting out like me as an arts journalist, got a lot out of his early experience as a political orator, including enough ideas and opinions to keep him occupied through a very long and active writing life.
What ties together the practice of writing and the market is the ability to express yourself in ways that other people can use. Some people have a knack for seeing a niche and filling it, while others keyboard away like playful monkeys until something randomly comes out that other people want. I’ve done it both ways. Nothing’s more existentially nauseating than to write something knowing that there is just a big indifferent universe out there that’s not waiting for it and doesn’t care if it ever gets written or not. But, especially if you’re anxiety prone like me, writing on a deadline can be torture, or even impossible, because if your higher thought processes say “Sorry, not doing this” and shut down on you, there’s not a lot you can do. With experience and a lot of self-discipline you may be able to override writer’s block and get something on paper, but chances are that it won’t be as good as you or whoever’s waiting for it is going to expect. Horrible, horrible, horrible.
On the other hand, there can be nothing more soul-destroying for a really creative, imaginative person than having to extrude word products according to uniform and predictable specifications. I’ve reread some of my old newspaper reviews, and they’re okay, considering they were done in two hours in the middle of the night. But I don’t necessarily stand behind what I said in them, which is why I’m mortified when I think of the artists whom I was critiquing actually reading those pieces. I like to think that in the extremely unlikely event that Peter Lorre ever read what I’ve written about him, I wouldn’t feel ashamed at all, because I’m absolutely confident in what I have to say. I hope that all of your critics will be able to say the same thing.
(c) Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.