How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?

… Two. One to change it, and the other to offer a well-reasoned critique as to how it could have been done better.

Writers are a strange bunch. On the one hand we’re often self-critical, worrisome, uncertain and as apt to cross out a line as to write one.

On the other, we can be very dogmatic about what is right or wrong about any given piece of prose – especially when it’s written by someone working in the same area or genre as ourselves.

I guess I’m writing this in a state of apprehension, because I’ve sent out copies of my latest book to a group of beta-readers (a phrase I found on a Lulu forum) and soon I’ll be getting the feedback. All but one of them writes extensively themselves, and the one who doesn’t keeps a very active and entertaining blog, so is used to putting virtual pen to paper albeit in a different form.

I have mingled with writers a little – after all, I did a degree in Creative Arts, including creative writing, and I’ve been to a few writers’ workshops elsewhere – and my impression is that we can be quite cagey. My sense is that unlike the general impression of writers as larger-than-life Hemingway-esque characters, who grab life in a bear-hug and don’t let go, many of us are quiet, inward-looking folk who use words to explain how we’re feeling. Writing is, after all, a solitary experience for the most part. I’m still haunted by Isaac Asimov’s description of himself sitting in a small room facing a blank wall for most of 40 years – including weekends – while he produced his 400+ books … And I think, is that how I envisage myself? Well, I don’t sit facing a wall. But I am in a small room facing a screen …

Also, we veer between confidence in our belief in what we’re doing, and fear that it’s not up to snuff and other people are doing it much, much better, so why would anyone listen to little ole us … ?

When you’re with a bunch of writers a kind of friendly distance can settle around the table … people assessing and weighing up others. Gore Vidal nailed it, I suppose, with that famous line of his: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” That edge of competition I suspect is there in all of us who are competing for readers.

Which is not to say that writers can’t be enormously generous, too. The Lulu forums – and other writing websites – are full of people generously giving advice and energy – and even free reading-time! – to other writers. There are some folk who are just gregarious, I guess, and want to be part of a group that does well … the illustrious founder of this site is just such a person!

So pardon me while I dip in and out of these two modes: self-imposed solitary confinement, complete with deep-circled eyes and a snappy dismissal of books I dislike; and open-hearted, friendly, concerned and interested fellow traveler down the writing path, willing to critique and offer a helping hand where possible …

Don’t try to work out which one I’ll be at any given time, because I’m damned if I know.

Keith Dixon

Altered Life

3 Comments

Filed under Articles, Blogroll, Books & Authors Carnival, Essays, The Book's Den Newsletter, The Writing Life

3 responses to “How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?

  1. Hi Keith,
    I always enjoy your blog entries, there are food for thought. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us.

    http://clarylopez.com

  2. joefelso

    You are absolutely right. This schizophrenia in writers is one of the toughest elements of living a writing life— its solitary and self-absorbed effort to enter into conversations with readers is an odd mixture of introversion and extroversion. Writers aren’t always so good with other writers, and it isn’t just jealousy. After coming out of their caves to talk, they are often just eager to get back to writing themselves.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  3. Kara Woolven

    How true! In the journey through my dreams that allow me to visit many divine parallel worlds that normally, editors reject I can hold my vision.

    Writing makes the passage to other realms easy but, trying to convince others that other lands exist has made me alien to them. Most people think I’m mad. I would argue, ‘I’m simply a creative seer.’

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