I Know Nothing of Your Work

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook, CONTEC Conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, Frankfurt Buchmesse


An artist is one who does not live on the timeline that connects the events that take place around us.

That’s Brian O’Leary. Know him?

Rather, the artist sees the actors, events, and collisions all at once, from a vantage point that few others share.

Brian O'Leary
Brian O’Leary

O’Leary is one of the most committed thinkers we have working in publishing today. A consultant to industry players and organizations, he’s a former Time production director; an adjunct professor in NYU’s publishing MS program; a Harvard man.

Living on the observation deck makes for tough sledding.

He knows what he’s talking about. O’Leary likes to capture this article or that, frequently as a physical clipping, muse on it for days or weeks or months, then finally sift it out of the pile and wrap a few observations around it in a blog post at his consultancy site, Magellan Media.

The artist can see and question what everyone else takes as given.

The lines I’m quoting here are from one of those pieces: his essay Admirable and Unnoticed: Today can last another million years. It’s the latest in his long-running series of takes on everything from unpaid internships and other forms of piracy to crowd-funding, journalism, branding, and reader-focused strategies. Those topics are just from this month’s O’Leary posts.

But how do you find ways to talk about the unseen?

Well, we know the answer to that one, don’t we? You become a writer. So you can talk about the unseen. Report on those things you perceive and question, those things “everyone else takes as given.”

That’s what O’Leary is on about here. In this case, his “clipping” is a tweet from March. A colleague tweeted during one of O’Leary’s conference presentations, I never know where the authorial voice & its unique value fits in @brianoleary’s utilitarian/network model of publishing. The question was, in short, how does O’Leary see the author’s place and role in publishing?

What O’Leary ends up asking about that authorial voice is this:

How do you buy legitimacy among people who have no idea what you’re writing, describing, or illustrating?

In short, we have a friend in O’Leary. For all his career’s focus on those “utilitarian” aspects of publishing in its digital disarray, he, too, listens for the writer:

In great art, we look to the artist—to (that) “authorial voice”—to lead us somewhere else, somewhere felt, likely not seen. That’s simultaneously important, and uncomfortable. There are no easy answers.

There’s a surprise embedded in what O’Leary is doing here, a surprise for us who are writers, who @amwriting. I am writing, you am writing, we am writing.

Have you noticed what we don’t talk about, especially in our online lives?—what we’re writing. The things we see that others may not, as O’Leary has it.

We talk about being writers. We talk about working as writers. When in doubt (and when are we not in doubt?) we talk about how hard it is being writers. Nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen, damn it.

But something is changing in how we handle creative work together. I’m not sure the heyday of Montmartre could occur today, at least our general concept of it—artists gathering, a cafe society of robust debate about the merit (or otherwise) of this passage or that, in their own works, their friends’ works.

It’s rare for a writer to ask nowadays, “Have you read my book?”

Maybe I’ve picked up on this more easily than some because my first serious artistic home was in the theater. Actors, you know, we do ask. “Have you seen the show? Then when are you coming? Want me to put up a ticket for you at the box office? How about tonight? Will you come back afterward and tell me what you thought?”

By comparison, writers don’t ask. And as we traipse around this beleaguered business together, it can seem almost as funny as the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen produces Marshall McLuhan to tell off a pedant: You know nothing of my work.

Needless to say, there are plenty of times when this unofficial writerly don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy of ours is a godsend. We all know the people we pray won’t put us on the spot. I mean what if we answered honestly? Actually, dear, I just threw your latest piece of crap across the room last night. Utter and unmitigated rubbish. What in God’s name were you thinking?

Maybe that’s why no one asks. Sometimes, I’m sure it is. One might rather not know.

But what about when it’s something else?

What if the accelerating speed with which many entrepreneurial authors are trying to turn out new work—and the relative salability of quick-turn, serial books—has begun to render the kind of “authorial voice” O’Leary is talking about…mute? At least muted. And yes, sometimes moot.

What if the work is being commoditized to such a degree that it’s not thought worth discussing?

I remember once interviewing a gifted and successful film soundtrack composer. You would know his work instantly if I mentioned one of the films he has scored. For many years and in many cinemas, his gorgeous music has led you to feel a spectacular array of emotions. As we talked, I asked him about one of his passages I love in particular, a profound re-casting of a theme that opens the film, it turns the final scene into an electrifying heartbreaker. He looked at me and said, “Oh, Christ, Porter, that was fourteen films ago. I can’t even remember what I was doing in that one.”

Here at Writer Unboxed—where never is heard an ill-chosen word—we do hear from our colleagues, of course, when they have a new book coming out. I’m talking about those five-question interviews, from Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton.

And, hey, that might be enough, thank you very much. I’m not saying to send me your new book, thanks. I’m full up on reading material for about the next 600 years, grazie, send Campari instead.

What I am saying is, isn’t it interesting that we don’t talk more about it? About our stories, about our intentions with them, about our narrative purpose(s).

O’Leary’s article shouldn’t get away without us thinking about this, even if just briefly.

Because he perceives and appreciates a distinction, not just in the authorial voice but also in the authorial eye.

The struggle to understand context, derive meaning, fulfill purpose and write it all down before the light gets too dim…it’s a re-imagination of what we are and who we might be.

Wouldn’t hurt to have him call up and say this every morning, would it?—a handy reminder to get cracking with the re-imagining?

We’re always going on about plot structure and character tricks and the rejection! the rejection! But maybe it’s about how we see the world. What we see that others don’t. Or, yes, what we hallucinate while imagining ourselves to be socially secure.

This came to me earlier this week when one of our author-colleagues asked me about a need to re-platform one of her books, which I have read and like. And I found myself saying, in essence, “Well, let’s start by asking ourselves, what is your book about?”

O’Leary is really standing so close to us here:

It’s something we should all give one another, even if we first look to artists to lead the way.

Looking to artists, to writers, “to lead the way.” Wait a minute. That’s us. And what if those artists, those writers—the anything but royal we—have forgotten that some of the best provocations in publishing are our own?

What if everybody is so heads-down trying to outsmart the algorithms—an effort that would have entertained McLuhan—that we know nothing of our work?

And that’s where I’ll hand it to the mighty Writer Unboxed commenters. Is it possible that the transitions in the book business are so consuming that digital has disrupted even authors’ own most essential mission, the primacy of that “authorial voice”? Will Montmartre stay empty?

iStockphoto: MPavlovic
iStockphoto: MPavlovic

About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson, BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in publishing. Anderson is The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook in London, a sister site focused on developments in digital publishing. He is also a featured writer with Thought Catalog in New York, writing on publishing and on #MusicForWriters in association with Q2 Music. In 2015, Anderson has programmed the IDPF Digital Book Conference that opened BookExpo America (BEA) and is programming the First Word event at the Novelists Inc. (NINC) conference later in the year. And he is working with the Frankfurt Book Fair on special programming for its new Business Club suite of events and facilities, now in its second year, 13-16 October, in the 2015 Buchmesse. More on his consultancy, which includes Library Journal's and BiblioBoard's SELF-e among its clients in 2015: PorterAndersonMedia.com | Google+


  1. says

    Good lord, Porter, what are you on? You seem to stir around things the rest of us only dimly perceive. You’re an agitator, that’s what you are, an agitator.

    PS: Keep it up.

    • says

      Alex, I’m convinced that one of these fine mornings I’m going to publish my WU piece and your comment will have gotten there first. :)

      You’re always both quick to the mark and unfailingly supportive. Know that it’s appreciated. Even by an agitator like me. :)

      Provocations, Alex, we eat them for lunch in this biz these days.

      Cheers, sir.

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  2. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Oh you love asking the tough questions, thanks for that.
    1. Talking about deeper meanings smells of the academy right now, and the academic does not sell well (generally).
    2. Talking about deeper meanings makes a written work more personal, less of a product, and thus also personalizes the rejections/responses as well. So is the suppression of meaningfulness simply a means of ego protection for all of us delicate writers?
    I think a similar discussion occurred in the comments to Carla’s recent post which shifted the answer to why you write from prosaic levels to meaningful heights (see http://writerunboxed.com/2013/07/23/whats-on-your-why-list/)
    And by the way do you REALLY think the earlier cafe artist’s societies talked about deeper meaning? Or did they just gossip about each other and world events and then turn that gossip into deeper meaning in their writing? Just saying . . . human is human.

    • says

      Hey, Jeanne,

      Terrific comeback, as ever, thanks for it.

      Absolutely right about Montmartre, to take your last point first — that’s why I added “at least our general conception of it.” Much of this, I’m sure is legend, and considering all the things those guys have been said to have drunk and otherwise imbibed, I can’t think that the Hellenic virtues are all they were carrying on about, either, lol.

      To your first point, I wish it weren’t the case that things-academic weren’t selling well at this point, but with a couple of caveats. The Academy comes and goes. And I’m sure that there will be times when it will have a resurgence of some type of popularity. The second caveat being that (more sadly, in my opinion than its current disfavor) the Academy often deserves to be on the outs and not selling well. It can be its own worst enemy. In a few ways, I think that’s, in part, the problem at the moment, way too generally stated but this isn’t the forum to wade into that one. :)

      Then to your excellent second point, “is the suppression of meaningfulness simply a means of ego protection for all of us delicate writers?” — yeah, I think you very well may be onto the real issue here. We are very human, as you say. And the business of writing is, at least, a productive, positive place we can go to get some refuge from the personal exposure of talking about meaning in our work.

      Good insights, Ms. Kisacky. Thoughtful stuff. Many thanks for bringing it to the table on a summery Saturday like this.

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  3. says

    I love these posts. You and Donald Maass often peel back some painful layers of hard-won thick skin to get to the heart of things. The meaning underneath our driving need to put words on a page, or simply just to be.

    To answer your question—yes. As I prepare to launch my debut and wade through the muck of draft one in a follow up novel, I’m finding meaning, authenticity, slips through my fingers like fine silk. So I put on kid gloves and clutch at its edges! The “digital disruption”, the demand for NOW NOW NOW blots out the fine voices a writer strains to hear, and I do my best to beat them back and focus on these questions: What is the point of this passage, this book? Why does it MATTER? How do I illustrate this eternal question and make it relevant again? How do I make readers FEEL? My compelling need for answers to these questions keep me up at night and frozen in front of the computer for hours.

    Writers and artists as leaders in thought, inspiration, revolution! A perfect, true notion. It always was and I hope always will be. You said it–we have the ability to perceive and convey the zeitgeist, the evolution of the human spirit. A wonderful gift–and as we like to grumble about how hard that can be– a curse.

    At any rate, wonderful, thoughtful post. I’m just sitting down to write this morning and this was a fantastic way to start the day. You just ripped open my psyche.

    • says

      Gosh, Heather,

      You’ve rather made my day here, too, and maybe “ripped open my psyche” as you went by — what a ravishing phrase. Thank you for that.

      Yes, Don Maass and I are, I believe, kindred spirits caught in different parts of the web that connects us. I haven’t always felt this way. We haven’t always seen things eye-to-eye, although I think we’ve always enjoyed each other. (I can say with certainty that I’ve enjoyed him.) There was a turning point for me, right here in our WU comments, when once he pointed out to me the great backlist of books by the late Nevil Shute (now beautifully reissued on Kindle) and I picked up the book he most enthusiastically recommended…and realized I had a deeper, richer soul on my hands than I’d thought. Since then, I’ve been able to hear much more of what Don says to us and appreciate it, particularly as the industry swirls around his feet and tries to carry him off with its market tides as badly as it does me. I just quoted him in Writing on the Ether, in fact, here: http://ow.ly/nkfp8

      Like I say, different parts of the web that connects us. In fact (I can’t resist) different spots on the same shore. Don Maass and I are both On the Beach, Mr. Shute. It’s just too easy (or tempting) to forget that sometimes.

      I really feel for you as you talk about the struggle to see through the “NOW NOW NOW” messages slamming into you as you try to think your way through a sentence, Heather. It’s maddening, isn’t it?

      I’m running out of patience (discerning readers will know this) with the “teaching” voices, too, the ones that try to rev us up into our undeniable entrepreneurial future without leaving time and space– mental space, damn it — for the real work. The writing. The authorial voice Brian O’Leary is listening for. Which we owe O’Leary and our readers.

      All the way back to Montmartre (even if it was, as Jeanne is rightly pointing out, a gab-fest, really), there were such workaday influences bedeviling our artists then. I’m sure they felt as put-upon as we do. Those sissies knew nothing about distractions, lol. And today, AS those artists, we have to find the courage and the cleverness, the sheer out-smart-them-ness at times, to defeat those distractions long enough to say something important.

      To say something important.

      To say something important.

      That was what we started out to do, wasn’t it?

      I love this line from The Bad Infinity by Mac Wellman: “I was in my right mind once. It seems so long ago.”

      Get it back, Heather. Out-smart the damned market. Maybe we can still say something important. Digitally speaking. :)

      Thank you again.

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  4. says

    At the risk of being a pain in the ass, the folks at Montmartre talked about their work face to face with each other. (To the extent that they talked about their work, rather than who was sleeping with whom, the quality of the wine, etc.) They didn’t talk about it in 140 characters to 1000 people they never met. And if you read their letters, you see that they spend plenty of time agonizing over the realities of the publishing business.

    I think plenty of us talk about our writing in meaningful ways one on one to people we actually known, whether face to face, on the phone or by e-mail.

    • says

      Not a pain in the ass at all, Pamela. A terrific point.

      Face to face. IMAGINE THAT. (And the wine and the bed-hopping…you have to do that in person, too. Imagine THAT.)

      I love this line of yours: “They didn’t talk about it in 140 characters to 1000 people they never met.” What creatures of the Ether we’ve become. So many of us have. And yes, business weighed heavily in their letters (and complaints, lol), too. All true.

      I hope you’re right that plenty of us are talking about our work in meaningful ways at some level, on some spectrum of the experience, in some venue. I hope you’re right. We need this to be right.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  5. says

    Very interesting post. I wonder if part of the reluctance to talk about our work in this way is due to fear of having a ‘pretentious author’ tag hung around our necks.

    • says

      A totally good point, Jeff.

      There’s precious little tolerance these days for the “pretentious author.”

      One of the factors that’s so striking in the work of entrepreneurial writers (I was saying this recently in an Amazon roundtable) is access — the readers expect access to “their” authors. Those authors work very close to their audience and are available, conversant with the crowd, “serving the community” like priests in a parish.

      The supposed “pretension” of distance once accepted in a writer doesn’t go down well today. Don’t even try “artistic distance,” they don’t want to hear “artistic” and they don’t respect “distance.”

      I’m none too happy about this. For many artists, the distance — Brian O’Leary is getting at this — was never about pretension but simply about being able to think clearly.

      But so it goes and is going and has already gone.

      You are correct, sir.

      And thanks for being here to say this.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  6. says

    Part of the problem may be that many writers are simply not talkers. Or that they don’t want to talk about their writing (at least not while they’re in the middle of it), because they don’t find I helpful to their craft. I know I can be that way, and I imagine many others feel similarly. And here’s how one of the Montmartre folks felt about it: “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day. … I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.” (Hemingway, in his 1954 Nobel speech.)

    • says

      Excellent point you’re getting at, Patrick, and thanks for it.

      In fact, I’ve come to terms with something within the past couple of years about my own work and it is that — on the more superficial level of day to day Web interaction — speaking of it is counter-productive. Until you’re ready to put a finished piece into someone’s hand, going on about it can make you look like an idiot. This, I think, runs close to what Hemingway was talking about and was so right with.

      He also referred to deeper exploration and conversation and interaction on the work, too, as I have understood those comments, and it’s on those points that I’m less convinced.

      At several points in my career, I’ve covered a lot of professional dance — ballet and modern dance — and those artists were incredibly hard-put to speak in interviews, to talk about their work. It was fascinating to see them struggle with this because their “language” is movement, not the words we use. There are some exceptions — the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones being an eloquent one — who do have a “bilingual” ability to talk to the rest of us from that point of movement. Most of his colleagues are movement-speakers only.

      In our case, because we, as writers, are in the same language, whether in written or oral formats, we may be inhibited — this is my guess — more by insecurity about our work (especially in progress, as you say) than by some natural bent to keeping quiet about it. Gassing around about the work is never the best idea. But I think, at times, that it could be more helpful than we may expect to find a little serious discourse while in-process. About what we’re doing.

      And yet, I love your bringing the Hemingway comments to the table. Hugely apt as an angle to the conversation.

      Is it in spite of, or because of, the “lonely life” that the question even arises, that a Hemingway even addresses it?

      Thanks again, Patrick,

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

      • says

        Porter, thanks for the reply – this was my first comment on the site, and the level of community engagement here is positively overwhelming! (In the best possible way of course – the comments are impressive in their breadth and the commenters so mutually supportive! Seems like a wonderful place.)
        I think you’re right that some of the reluctance to talk in-process has to do with insecurity. I’m sure we could find elements of personality contributing too, and the type of writing.
        I’m just starting to emerge from my shell as a writer of fiction. In the past, my experience with “social” writing was in journalism (I have fond memories of late-night back-and-forths with copyeditors) and academics (where discussion preceded writing, revolving around the formulation of ideas and gathering of evidence). Both were communal.
        Fiction strikes me as different, and although I know that some writers like to discuss their stories as they go, I think there’s something to be said for the perfectly intact world of the writer, where he or she creates according to a singular logic.
        Who was it who said: write with the door closed, revise with it open?

  7. says

    Do I have to be the one to say it? Well, then, I will. Size matters. Pam (above) is right. The Inklings may have discussed their work, held readings, debated style, etc. But it was in person, and there were a few dozen of them. The Writer Unboxed Facebook group has 4,000 members. Not a good forum for such specific discussion. However, I have read and critiqued the manuscripts of four WU members in the past year, with two more on deck. And I’ve been read by about the same number. And in smaller venues (including one sub-group of around 60 WU members) we discuss the work. Sometimes very specifically.

    Since Heather brought up Don Maass, I can’t find the passage at the moment, but in the comments of a recent WU post, he said something along the lines of: “One of the greatest things we can do for each other as artists and colleagues is to read and critique one another.” I agree. I learn so much about my own work and process from discussing it with others, whether it’s my work or theirs.

    It is an interesting topic. And I understand the frustration of those who haven’t found their Inklings. But, as you said, “I’m not saying to send me your new book, thanks.” Full up here, too. It has to do with relationship building. That can seem daunting to newbies in the immensity of the grid.

    Excellent food for thought, Porter. Have we lost something, because of this new age of online “writerhood”? Perhaps yes, but there are also benefits. I’m reading and critiquing, and being read and critiqued by, folks from all over the realm. Great colleagues I would have never met. And since I don’t live in Oxford, England, I suppose I perceive it as a bigger benefit than some. Brilliant discussion! Cheerio, mate!

    • says

      Hey, Vaughn,

      Thanks, as ever, for your thoughtful input.

      No intention here of dissing the online experience, least of all the WU online experience. Absolutely not in the picture.

      I do think Pam has good points to make, as I’ve commented back to her, as do you.

      On the other hand, I’m not sure we can assign these questions entirely to a place called online-vs.-offline.

      I’m not sure that our appreciation for the nuances of seriously engaging work aren’t changing. You see this, even in the great halls of high-level awards for powerful literary fiction … the longlist, the shortlist, the big award, the adulation …. so little of it seems to be conveyed with much elucidation of what the vaunted work is about. How many times, for example, with all of Hilary Mantel’s richly deserved prizes, have you heard them announced or discussed in tandem with any real sense for what she’s writing about? What her work was about? What she was talking and is talking and will be talking about?

      Where’s the “about?” Where is the “why I felt like putting 12 years of my life into this book” stuff?

      I’m right with you on critiquing and supporting each other. Don’t think anything of my piece here has the slightest bearing on the fine WU community at Facebook or otherwise, nor on critique groups or beta readers, etc., sorry if there seemed to be any reference to all that — none was intended and wasn’t even in my mind. I’m afraid that at times you’re so keenly committed to that work that you take all you hear as having something to do with it. This has nothing to do with that, not from my standpoint, at least, absolutely no disrespect for a thing you guys are enjoying together in the community, not for a minute.

      My concern is more about us as people of letters, period, inclusive or exclusive of online or offline transitions and writing-community interactions.

      If we all just walk away from the communities and the online-offline question, if (with nothing but respect for it — we’ll come back and do it) we walk away from the mutual-critique work and such…who are we now?

      Are we people who think about what we meant to say in our work?

      About what was important?

      About what we felt readers needed to hear?

      Pull out the process, in other words. Lay down your mighty communal sword you’ve tempered so beautifully and generously for everybody.

      Just be the writer for a moment. Helmet off, stand down. Free-floating and with no likes or responses or followings to think about.

      Who are you then? And would we recognize your work?

      That’s what I’m asking.

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

      • says

        Excellent points, and more food for thought, Porter. Sorry about waving my community sword. Old habit. One quick note in that regard: I think I’ve come to better recognize *my own* authorial voice due to that communal aspect I so often flail. I’m thinking that’s a good thing. How can I expect anyone else to if I don’t. Put another way, I think I better understand what I have to say by listening to what others are hearing in my words. And I better recognize what I’m hoping they’re hearing and perhaps aren’t.

        Thanks for getting me thinking today. And for the permission to take off my helmet (some days that darn thing gets hot).

        • says

          That’s why Dior gave up those silly helmets in the last show. Hot, hot, hot.

          Don’t apologize, Vaughn, your work with the community is fantastic, it’s just also incredibly demanding and — like any of these things we have to dive into so fully — easily becomes hard to escape. I’m especially glad if you find that work can lead you to a better understanding of your own (i.e. non-communal) voice. And that’s perfectly valid, as a concept. The exposure to community can show and tell you many, many things and options and considerations that might never have been native to you — you can come to recognize in others things that might have worried you about yourself, to pick and choose new elements that you’ve needed and wanted, and to, in a sense (a little close to the actor training here) “rebuild” yourself with the benefit of the wider purview that community has given you.

          The important thing is just to be sure that at one time or another, you do get out of the helmet. I’ve worked with career diplomats, for example, who kind of went right on out of this world into the field and never came back. (“Going troppo,” the Australians call this, a phrase that comes to me frequently in the summers of Tampa.)

          And I’m a minister’s son. (Doesn’t that just trump all else?) So the dangers of “Service to the Community” are never more than a few inches from my mind. Long line of missionaries on my father’s side. Had no idea who they were. They were just “servants of You Know Who Almighty.” Bless their hearts.

          Sounds to me like you’re doing it well.

          I heard (or re-heard, I think I’d known this) a nice delineation of intro- and extroversion the other day. Extroverts, this description went, draw energy from being around others. Introverts draw energy from solitude. I think that’s right. And my introversion should never mean anything about what may be your extrovert way of coming to the same place of self-direction.

          As long as we get to that place. Many are just cruising right past the old “what was it I became a writer to say?” spot and hangin’ with the sales-rankin’ kiddos all day and all night. We love and respect them. We may not want to be them.

          God bless us, every one.
          On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  8. says

    Its hard. So hard. The writing. The buzz. The bizz. The fizz of the champagne when a rejection letter says “its good” but they “don’t need it.” But cheers and hear hear and all rise, drink some Campari because I am going to talk more about my writing. No joke. Yes those pesky “transitions in the book business” WERE “so consuming that digital … disrupted even (my) own most essential mission, the primacy of that ‘authorial voice'” such that, with too much social media, I didn’t know what I was writing in my novel or why. What and why? When people asked, I was stumped. I didn’t have an answer. No elevator speech, no fancy sentence summary of “what is your book about?” I tried. Spent hours formulating that elevator speech. But I felt nothing. Nothing. Even when I had over 100,000 words written, I was ClueLESS. No wonder I was blocked (I’m calling it that because, dang it, if I want to be lazy or go to the beach or the Stones’ 50 year celebration concert then I’m gonna do those things and then say I didn’t write for a month because I was blocked. Its a perk). But I broke lose, I found my why, my characters’ motivations, my voice. I began to open up the dialogue. I felt free. Well, maybe not free, but its a start anyway. Even my characters feel restless; THEY want to blog, tweet or Facebook their latest woes or baby pictures. They, like me, want this to be fun. Is that going too far? I hope not because I can’t stop them now…. we are leaving Venice (the scene of my novel) and going to Montmartre. The Writers Unboxed Facebook forum is calling us. Thanks for a wonderful post.

    • says

      Whoa, Diana,

      By the Montmartrean power vested in me, I absolve you of that “Its” and give you full license to pull it off, and more. :)

      What a fabulous little write, you honor mine, thank you.

      I best love “Even my characters feel restless; THEY want to blog, tweet or Facebook their latest woes or baby pictures. They, like me, want this to be fun. Is that going too far? I hope not because I can’t stop them now…. we are leaving Venice (the scene of my novel) and going to Montmartre.”

      Don’t get too far from Venice without extra Campari — it’s over in Milano.

      Look, as I’ve tried to say to Vaughn, our Great Knight of the Community, the interactions of the WU raza were nowhere meant to be slighted in any way, shape, or form here. All good. Go forth in good faith with my blessing.

      It’s not about the WU community.

      No, I’m a lot closer to your characters and their restlessness. I want you communing with them. They are your community and the reason you found them in your psyche (Heather says I’ve ripped open hers) — that reason is what I wonder about…and I wonder do others who “know something of your work,” to paraphrase MM), know the reason you found those characters in your psyche, and what was it you needed them to do about that reason? And about your psyche?

      Get good with that authorial voice because if you can actually hear it, I think you may be picking up some sound that many other writers can’t hear in themselves. Venice is echo-y, so good for that.

      Keep listening. And thanks again,

      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

  9. says

    I suppose that should be “It is hard” unless I could fake some sort of poetic artistic license? That is why I need Montmartre and its editors.

  10. says

    Hi Porter,
    Interesting as always. Ah, the eternal battle for the artist’s soul: to be true to oneself and produce from the heart or to pander to the commercial so to…. well, eat and have shelter.

    Perhaps I am not a deep enough thinker or do not suffer sufficiently for my art, but knowing the essence of one’s work, even for the commercially minded, seems to me be the most basic foundation of that work. If the writer’s purpose is simply to entertain, then I think he/she knows that from the start. If one is writing, even for the commercial market, with a deeper purpose or message in mind, then I think one knows that as well.

    I have never believed the creative types who say something like, “I don’t know what it means. It just came to me and there it is.” They know. In their heart-of-hearts, they know. They just don’t want to talk about it, which is, I believe, one of your and O’Leary’s points. For the artist to reveal so much would mean showing his/her own true essence for all to see, warts and all. Now that, my friend, is suffering for one’s art, at least in my opinion.

    And as another commenter suggested, nobody likes a philosophy wonk in today’s give-it-a-lick-and-a-promise world. Any fate is better than being seen as one of THOSE people. After all, it might hurt sales!

    • says

      Well, as you do so frequently, Linda, you’re getting right to it with this line:

      “Nobody likes a philosophy wonk in today’s give-it-a-lick-and-a-promise world. Any fate is better than being seen as one of THOSE people. After all, it might hurt sales!”

      Yep. I do think that’s one of the deepest problems we’re facing right now, independent of whether a writer wants to reveal all about his or her impulses. I think this is very close to what worries me. So big are the market issues of the day, so loud the calls to sell, sell, sell, manage your pricing, orchestrate your series, serve that big readership…that the “essence of one’s work,” as you deftly put it, is left somewhere on a nearby shelf and all but forgotten.

      Strange days. And thanks for being here, suffering, lol with the rest of us.

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

      • Linda Pennell says

        Strange days, indeed. I am always delighted to see your name in the blog byline because I know that you will have something truly thought provoking and worthwhile for us. Keep fighting the good fight!

  11. says

    Very provocative post, Porter. Thank you. You buried the lead though:
    Will Montmartre stay empty?

    I think it comes down to the public/ private issue. I neither need nor want to discuss my work in an auditorium. Been there. Done that. (All those theatre talk backs, heaven help us.) I want to discuss my writing with a few – very few – trusted individuals.

    It’s way too important, too personal, too risky, to be crowd sourced in any way, shape or form.

    Process, I’ll discuss. Teaching. Revising strategies. The need for most books to be 50 – 100 pages shorter – where are the editors? You get my drift.

    But the true, tender, beating heart of the matter? I hold it close because it is precious. And I have seen plays destroyed in the development process – with too much feedback and too many opinions.

    On the other hand, I think it would be a blast to pour a Campari and talk to you. In person.

    Some day.

    • says


      Aren’t theater talk-backs the WORST? I’ve seen playwrights all but quit their careers in those things.

      Totally agree. “a few — very few — trusted individuals.”

      Whatever went on in the pretty mythic cafes of Montmartre, when it was of real value, I’m sure happened between two and maybe three people. Not in an auditorium, of course. This is why cafe tables are small, mais oui. :)

      So at one of the very tiniest tables — but best-positioned for a good view — we must have that Campari some time and speak of “the beating heart of the matter.” As you say, it’s not to be broadcast and it’s certainly not to be mauled by audience feedback

      Merci for the good input, as ever.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  12. says

    My book deal has unleashed me. I didn’t know how much I had to say until the right medium gave me a voice. I don’t talk a lot about the layered meanings and themes in my books, I will let them speak for themselves. I wrote four books in the last 13 months not because I’m rushing, but because I can’t keep up with all that is tumbling out of me. I’ve noticed I’ve become more silent in other aspects of my life, but also more content.

    I think the digital age has un-muted authors, that’s why the avalanche of stories.

    There is a marketing component we all must hurdle if we ever want to be read–that’s unavoidable.

    And the conversation can’t begin until we’ve been read. So I think the struggle writers are having isn’t with knowing their work, it’s with being known.

    Great article, thank you.

    • says

      You go, Jennifer,

      Those times of tumbling, when it all arrives ready to go, are among the loveliest. Fly with that and let nothing get in its way, nothing.

      Step away from this blog and get back to it. Your time is now.

      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

  13. says

    Timely, Porter. Book #3 is being critiqued and edited as we speak. My daughter picked up my manuscript and I nearly ripped it out of her hands: “I’m still working on it.” Our egos are fragile, whether the criticism – or assumed criticism – comes from a stranger or someone we love.

    The theater analogy is familiar to me, as you know, but is only appropriate to a point. Yes, I’ve coaxed and prodded and begged people to come to one of my shows, offered comps, even promised drinks afterwards. But unless it’s a one-woman show, there are other people on that stage and behind the scenes. We are asking people to experience our work, but only as part of the larger experience of the stage production. They can rave about the show and not like certain elements. They can love a performance but quibble about the actor’s ability to maintain a Scottish accent for two hours (a critique I gave a friend once).

    Our writing is ours and ours alone, with our name on it (generally speaking). The reader is unaware of our collaborators – editors, cover designers, printers, formatters – unless they muck it up so much that it’s noticeable. They are witnesses to us: our words, our voice, only ours. And honestly, by reading us they earn the right to critique us.

    My trepidation right now is that my latest has turned out a little differently than I expected. In it I take a very strong position about something that is controversial, at least in certain quarters. I’ve become an advocate for a group of people who have been ignored, not an unusual position for me. But now I realize that taking that position may annoy and possibly offend some readers.

    That means I have a decision to make: change the book so there is no controversy, or prepare for possibly passionate responses from both sides. I have a strong suspicion that there are writers who would do the former, in an effort to appeal to the wider audience and not offend anyone.

    I’m taking the latter position, though I have no illusions about changing the status quo. I prefer to think that I’m just asking a question, one that hasn’t been asked out loud. If nothing else, the ensuing conversations should be interesting.

    As for Montmartre…I fear the Algonquin Round Table is a better fit for my personality…


    • says

      Yes, well, Viki,

      The Algonquin has gone through a few changes in management, lol, and ’twas not you I was talking about in my theatrical aria. There ARE, as you do well know, actors who don’t even know there are others on stage with them, nor can they see a prop boy in the darkness of the wings, and nor will they ever understand that those costumes weren’t mended overnight by magic. They’re the ones I’m talking about, and there are more of them than any of us like to admit while involved in the work. Once you’re farther from it, it becomes easier to remember those egos. And to know why the best you could hope to get out in the dressing room afterward was, “Well, darling, I never would have thought of doing it that way.”

      You’re right that the writing life creates a more solitary vulnerability. No lighting designers to blame and no director-with-a-concept to throw under the bus.

      Your concept of taking the hard line on something in the latest book is right only if it’s really what you mean to say with your writing, not because it’s thought brave and good to invite controversy. You’ll know because you’ll know.

      All I’m saying is how good that you think of it. And I wish more did. That’s the very question I think a lot of authors are skipping by these days on the way to the self-publishing platform du jour.

      You don’t have to guise it as “just asking a question,” if it’s what you mean to say. Just tell them you meant to say it. They can read some of the other 32 million books out there if they don’t care for yours. :)

      An actress I worked with for years, Annie Stafford, used to send a first night card to the Difficult Ones that read:

      “A warm hand on your opening!”

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

      • says

        Initially I really was “just asking a question”, but it really blossomed from there. It took one of my beta readers to recognize what I didn’t see myself: I’m now an advocate. I can’t hide behind some fake “oh, I didn’t mean to cause this controversy” bs.

        Now, after four years of research and interviews, I’m unlikely to change my position (as Patty Gillespie used to say in Drama in Western Culture class, “I may be wrong, but I doubt it.”).

        I didn’t set out to write anything I considered to be remotely controversial. As I get older, I choose my battles a little more carefully. But this is not one I’ll shy away from.

        (Changes in management are ok, as long the Algonquin can still make a decent vodka martini.)


  14. says

    Several things to mull over here, but the first thing that came to mind–twinged my mind actually–was a conversation I’ve had repeatedly. A friend says something along the lines of, “I can’t wait to read your book.” And I reply, “Thanks! But you know you don’t have to buy it on my account.”

    Sigh. Why do I do that?

    Anyway, I shall now investigate Mr. O’Leary further. Thanks!

    • says

      Right, Marta.

      Take the money.

      That’s not what it’s about, but it will buy your Campari while you discuss with your readers what it IS about.

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  15. says

    Hey Porter, though salon time and Twitter time seem unlikely allies, I think you can catch more than a mere whiff of the Montmartreian croissant right here at WU. I see real discussions of literary meaning, intent and essence here nearly as often as I see talk of technical matters of character arc and middle acts. I see you and Vaughn already took a pas de deux on that topic, so I won’t belabor it, but we do see some of the ways writers mix their paints here (at the risk of mixing a metier and a metaphor).

    I’ve attended some of the live author chats on Goodreads, and have been taken with some the probing questions readers have for the authors on the core of the work, and how ably some authors respond. I also thought about the wonderful “How to Write Like a Mother#^@%*&” exchange between Cheryl Strayed and Elissa Bassist on Creative Nonfiction a while back: https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/writing-like-a-mofo.

    Besides some bright exchanges of profanity, it’s a lovely discussion of writing weight and meaning (and self-doubt) in the Ether age.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like some scattershot approach to countering your valid points. I admire your considered efforts to ask more of writers, both of their inner and their social selves. That’s why you are the obvious choice to be the majordomo at the WU gathering that was proposed a bit back; you can work the crowd and elicit the right threadings of writerly marrow. I will bring some absinthe to cut that Campari.

  16. says

    Hey, Tom,

    It’s going to look like Christmas when we get that absinthe sitting beside the Campari.

    Good comments, all, and — as I seem to be at pains to reassure All Community People here today, lol — I didn’t mean to say that online community experiences aren’t good. Many are. I’m sure many can, in fact, be truly great. There’s no reason that a Google Hangout with the right people can’t be fully as rich and engaged as something done in person. I probably get more done in DMs on Twitter, in terms of honest exchanges with people, than I do in face-to-face exchanges.

    It’s more the intent, the grounding, the centering up that I worry we tend to be letting drift these days. If so, to our detriment. A mighty force is the concentration on marketing these days, and digital has exacerbated that, not eased it. The more tools the digital dynamic puts into our hands, the more time we tend to spend studying them, talking about them, trying them out, using them…and what were we going to write about? Oh, yeah.

    Chickens and eggs everywhere I turn this week. But this one is easy. I think the “what I mean to say” comes before “how well can I sell myself saying it?”

    And I just think we’re somehow getting to the second question before we’ve given the first idea the place of prominence it needs.

    Sometimes. Not always. Not everybody. Exceptions are everywhere as soon as one states a rule. :)

    On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

    • says

      “But this one is easy. I think the “what I mean to say” comes before “how well can I sell myself saying it?”

      And I just think we’re somehow getting to the second question before we’ve given the first idea the place of prominence it needs.” – PA


      Sadly, I’ve found myself wearing that huckster’s hat too often, though it’s ill-fitting. Porter, thanks for sweetly delivered slap: sometimes the anesthesia of the salesperson’s stupor doesn’t wear off without outside intervention.

  17. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Yes, I know, two comments from me in one day. But your post has set me to doing something that I haven’t been doing enough of lately–thinking. Large scale, not small scale. And that, I think, was your point. Not about social media, not about how people interact(ed) now or then.
    And I want to applaud you for actually kicking me out of the rut of the day to day and making me wonder just exactly what is at the heart of what I write? Why have I spent so many hours on it? What do I hope for it to accomplish? Is any writing truly politically or socially neutral? Or does even the hollow writing of commerciality serve to forward its own crass purpose?
    And then, once I started asking those questions, I realized that the only valuable answers are the ones that have to do with myself, not with the industry, the money, the social clout.
    At the end of the day, I want my writing to have a solid center, not simply function as a lacy veil of words in front of emptiness. Even if you are being a very nice provocateur today, I wanted to let you know that the provocation is working. Bravo.

  18. says

    “I want my writing to have a solid center, not simply function as a lacy veil of words in front of emptiness.”

    Could NOT have said it better, myself, Jeanne.

    Thanks for coming back to add this note about the superb thinking it sounds like you’re doing here. Makes me feel wonderful to know that “the provocation is working,” a little thought on such matters is all I can ask.

    Love your question, too, about whether any writing can be truly neutral politically or socially. — in my experience, no, as log as it’s not created strictly for entertainment purposes. The fluffier it is, the less relative it is to the realities of politics and social constructs, though nothing every fully escapes them.

    You’re asking all the right questions. Brava, yourself!

  19. says

    I believe we don’t talk about our work because it’s difficult to find someone–writer, reader, colleague–who cares enough to tell the truth. Writers, published and unpublished, are thinking of their own work, looking for their own praise. So where’s the time to listen to someone else’s intentions especially when stories are full of ugly truths that people want to stuff in a box and not talk about. They want to trap you in to one specific genre, voice, purpose.

    However, I have found with this new group of writers I had to force them to understand my intentions and purpose with my work. Yes, I want to break the mold, cross over, do what certain publishers say cannot be done. In turn, they began to think more critically about their intentions and narrative purpose, and ask if this was your intention then what about this or that. Instead of making it personal.

    Thank you for posting. I enjoyed the read, the deeper meaning.

    • says

      Thank you, Angela,

      I think this comment adds some more depth to an already rich debate.

      You could not be more right — many times, we are all so caught up in the intricacies of our own creativity and business lives that we actually simply don’t, and maybe even cannot, care about another’s “deeper levels,” if you will.

      This is an uncomfortable but important point. I can confess that I’ve found moments when I just didn’t have time for the confessional comment from a reader (not today, in other instances), for the needy-but-silly question from a follower, and I’ve felt terrible guilt for not being able to get back, to be at the beck and call, if you will, of those who read me. But we can’t always be there, can’t always be available to the needs of our peers and colleagues.

      You’ve named something for which I have no answer. But I’m glad you’ve said it. Yes. Sometimes, that’s the problem. I know exactly what you mean by having to “force” your group to look at your intentions in your work.

      How good you include “instead of making it personal.” At the moments we can remember it’s not, not personal, our spirits can soar and we take heart again, our intents unhindered, our hopes still feathered with real possibility.

      Cheers, congratulations on your own progress, and thank you for this fine nuance.

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  20. says


    I could have missed it, but I think that, as writers, the responses and focus here is too much on the mechanics of the work. The critiquing, the quality of it, the reception of the work. Which has more to do, I think, with pride and what we put into the work (privately).

    When I read this post, I thought about what compelled me to write a specific story. What was it? Where was I–mentally, emotionally, physically? Did the writing of it make me ache with some intense need? Did it hurt? How did writing it affect me at this point or that point?

    I never share this. I never share what I saw, what I experienced, what went into the story. Not after and certainly not during. All of that is more or less hidden away in the stories.

    I think most people, but especially writers, restrain themselves. Possibly out of a feeling of necessity. The closest comment to this was Jeanne’s about meaningfulness and how it personalizes everything.

    Then again, I could be missing the boat on this topic, but I based my response entirely around this sentence: “Have you noticed what we don’t talk about, especially in our online lives?—what we’re writing. The things we see that others may not, as O’Leary has it.”

    What we’re writing is so much more than the mechanics, the characters, the voices, the setting or plot. It’s the moments that impacted us, the seemingly insignificant observations, the feelings and intuition that go into the developing of a story, the relationships we carry with us (both the bad and the good). We too often don’t talk about this… with anyone. Sometimes, not even with ourselves.


    • says

      Right, Shad,

      And I think the key is in your last sentence — the idea of keeping serious awareness of our feelings and intuition not only from others but even from ourselves.

      Much more, as you say, than the mechanics.

      Thanks for reading and dropping a note!

      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

  21. says

    Porter, thank you for building a strong post around something I’ve written. While most of my work is shorter, I do find myself reluctant to talk about some ideas before they are cooked. I think that’s a bit of fear, of the sort that you and some readers have touched upon. An idea in formation isn’t very hard to undermine. But a community of supportive writers, like this one, could change my mind on that :)

    • says

      No, we’re in your debt on this one, Brian — you touched with seemingly easy regard on some points that we, even in our stronger communities, clearly are having trouble connecting with right now.

      If anything, I should apologize for taking your own eloquence and bouncing us along to the problems we have executing on that (while, instead, letting the exigencies of the industry! the industry! carry us off on most days, for example).

      The good news is that the kind of solid grounding you gave us in your post is something that can still pull us up short, make us remember things we haven’t let ourselves think about in too long — arrest us for a moment of, “Wait — what WAS it we were doing?” That business of the moment you talk about. You gave us one, gave us a moment. And that, of course, is just the opening we need to stop the digital train for a moment, jump off, and look around. Where are we now? Is it where we meant to go? Is this the destination we had in mind?

      That’s strong stuff, and we’re lucky to have it.

      And as you can tell, the Writer Unboxed community is eclectic, intelligent, and not afraid to sit down with a serious point on the cafe table in front of them.

      So a good day all around, with our main thanks to you for keeping up with some of that long-traveling starlight to get us here. Bought ourselves another million years or two. :)


  22. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says


    You always set me thinking. (That burning rubber smell surrounding your posts is my brain.) And right now I’m thinking that the deeper is always there, sure as death, right under our nose, we just have to acknowledge it. But in acknowledging it, we have to accept it, and social media, like all social life in general, tends to gloss over the uncomfortable parts.

    But a glossy surface is not immune to the far stronger undertow that dwells just beneath it. The repurcussions of the undertow continue to shape and change the sheen of the gloss, and its truth outshines and eclipses, all that is gloss. For in that undertow dwells art, the past, the present, and future…

    There is nothing to fear, not even in the shallow surface of social media, the undertow is always there.


    • says

      Hey, Bernadette!

      As long as “That burning rubber smell surrounding your posts is my brain” and not something to do with my driving, the we’re doing well. ;)

      Personally, I don’t think the problem is with social media, nor even — as we’ve been hammering it out here — with online communities, etc.

      I think it has more to do with sales over substance, with putting our attention much more into the “yeah, but it sold well” end of the business instead of “yeah, but this is what I needed to say” end.

      The undertow, as you call it, by which I assume you refer to a subconscious understanding of our needs in literature, certainly is “always there,” yes. But the digital reality is a powerful one and can make the commercial experience of almost anything seem just as pressing as the emotional actuality.

      I wouldn’t leave the work to the undertow, myself. I think we’re going to have to swim for it.

      Thanks again for your note and for reading!

      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

      • Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

        The sales over substance is nothing new. It’s alway been there. It’s well documented that it’s partly a human defense mechanism from having to deal with the grim reaper. Trying to escape what you don’t think about works for an instantaneous numbness, a relief. Even in the heyday of Montmartre, most of the world didn’t care and wasn’t even aware. It was the repercussions from that time that eventually seeped into the mainstream.

        Of course there have always been exceptions. Shakespeare for instant had a genius knack for blending the sublime and the everyday tendency to gloss over the uncomfortable stuff. Advertising agencies know this, that’s why they’ve experimented with using subliminal stuff, I think it was my psych. prof who showed my class an advertisement for alcohol where the ice cubes had skulls that were so imbedded the human eye couldn’t catch ’em. Which gets me back to my point, the undertow is always there, and in the long run, it’s currents make an impact, it’s just not as instantaneous as the sales over substance. However, sales over substance are soon forgotten, and the works of substance immortalized. Damn, to have it both like Shakespeare. The best of both worlds.

        • Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

          Sales and substance. What a great place to be. And a good editor to cut out apostrophes that I don’t need to use. :)

  23. says

    Not long ago, I would have been thinking that it didn’t matter to me if people discussed my work for the themes involved, looking into the deeper meaning behind the story as long as they enjoyed the story. Recently, though, I had two reviewers (on the same day, even!) mention the theme behind the story, and how they enjoyed the character’s development. I was so – I don’t know… Happy? Relieved? Gratified? that they “got it.” That they understood what I was trying to say because the point of the story is something I strongly believe in. My message was sent out to the masses and at least two people (of my very few reviews!) understood it. And I write in a genre that is all about the entertainment value. So, I think it would be a shame if we (as writers) become so interested in making the next buck (or 30 cents…) that we forget what a powerful tool we have to try to change the world one person at a time.

    • says

      Well said, Lara,

      It would be a shame, yes, to let the commercial vitality of the digital dynamic eclipse the importance of the emotional and thematic primacy of the work.

      I’m glad you had the experience so early of having reviewers make note of “what lies beneath,” as we say. This is something to hang on to and remember as you work your way forward, so you don’t lose track of its importance. It’s actually the reason do to all this and a lot of chances to rationalize other motivations will come along with increasing seductive power as digital becomes stronger in our markets.

      Hang on to how you feel now about it.

      And thanks for the great comment and for reading!

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  24. says

    much more intriguing than i hoped, had me sit back up in my chair! ;-)

    that all the attention to serial successes, vs what’s being serialized, is (maybe once again, in terms of creative history) deflecting us from what and why we write or paint or sing –

    what ever it is we, as said above, see “all at once”

    and maybe, once again, my early years in theatre bring more than merely memories to nail literary stage sets to, and probably, why this struck me so true :

    “It’s rare for a writer to ask nowadays, “Have you read my book?”

    Maybe I’ve picked up on this more easily than some because my first serious artistic home was in the theater. Actors, you know, we do ask. ‘Have you seen the show? Then when are you coming? Want me to put up a ticket for you at the box office? How about tonight? Will you come back afterward and tell me what you thought?’

    By comparison, writers don’t ask.” –

    but i have been asking, of myself – and this timely article has made my already-made-up mind of which way to go, rest a bit easier, even if i did have to sit up in my chair a bit in surprise, and relief ;-) thanks so much for the piece ;-)

    • says

      “More than merely memories to nail literary stage sets to.”

      A great thought, Felipe, and thank you for reading — and sitting up in your chair as you did so!

      Clearly you’re on the right track, and good luck with it.
      Best regards from here,

      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

  25. says

    I am going to sound sappy, but I’m not. Your post brought tears to my eyes.
    When my novel came out, I had naively formed answers in my mind to questions I thought people would ask. I imagined talking about things I thought really mattered, the heart of what my book was about and the important questions is raises.
    Only once did this happen in the scores of times I was invited to read or present about my book to groups. Thinking back on it now, I find this small voice wondering if it was my fault. Should I have raised these topics even if other didn’t ask about them? Should I have been braver about opening the tender tissues for examination?
    Thank you for a thought-provoking post. I have a new book coming out next year, and I had once or twice already steeled myself to the idea that people wouldn’t care to delve into and discuss the issues that I have spent the last five years of my life so deeply committed to. Now I must think well and long about how willing I am to open more than the cover of my book to readers.

    • says

      Hi, Mary,

      I love when you question “how willing I am to open more than the cover of my book to readers.”

      I think the answer to that small voice is yes. I think that part of taking responsibility for all this is, indeed, steeling ourselves to say to people and groups that this or that is the core issue of the work for you.

      I don’t think that’s necessarily a matter of assigning yourself to negative experiences, either. It might be that in readings or other appearances, listeners and readers are wanting to talk about these levels of the work but have been as conditioned as we have to step around the “heart” of the matter and focus on the commercial.

      Not to show any disrespect for Oprah, for example, whose efforts in the book space did do some good, of course, I think the attendant hype around her picks — anybody’s picks, anything heavily touted by the media — became, in a sense, about their being chosen, about that profile, that seal off approval, much more than about the works, themselves. There’s a lesson there, really, in the fact that even sky-high publicity, which most of us would love to encounter, can have unintentional deleterious effects.

      The word “product” is just never far from the American discussion, is it?

      To work against this effect, while enjoying what I hope will be many more chances for you to be in touch with readers in such sessions, yes, I’d say go for it. Back your ears — even explain exactly what you’re doing. Say that in past experiences, you’ve realized that we all can fall into the trap of discussing books without discussing their emotional and psychological and even spiritual origins and that rather than cheat them of that dimension of the work, you’d like to just give them a few words about where the work comes from for you and what it means to you — what you’d like to think it might mean to them.

      Somehow, this is about honesty, isn’t it? Without ever having meant NOT to be honest, in the usual sense, we’ve all been encouraged to operate in a near-corporate manner about our work, a setting which perforce must see its output as “product.”

      All we have to do is find the courage to speak up and say, “AND, you know, here’s what this ‘product’ is really about.'”

      Takes guts, and I bet you’ll be fantastic at it. :)

      Thanks for reading and commenting — so honestly.

      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

  26. says

    Porter, thanks for taking the time to affirm and encourage me. I am already feeling jazzed about the prospects of speaking up, and I appreciate your suggestion of how to broach the subject with readers. Sometimes we just need to be given a push in the right direction. Thanks again.

  27. says

    Porter, you’ve stirred the important pot—honesty with ourselves, bravery to present our intent with each other and with society, and on and on. Without these I-beams in our work, the results beg for the “pretentious” label.

    Surrendering to “more, faster, and sales, sales, sales” renders us into craftspeople churning out stuff. Artists, a different breed, have long been defined as “that 2 percent of humanity that dares to see the world as it is, without filters,” and to paraphrase Brian, to see free of the constraint of time. . . and I would add, free of marketing. Artists are the shepherds on the edge of the community who see and report the presence of wolves . . . and acts of kindness, too. The panoply of how we report constitutes the joy of art. Humor, thriller or literary jewel.

    So society needs writers (when they are ready) to eloquently engage readers, critics, publishers and each other in meaning. I hope publishers are reading your posts and these comments. And I hope in time, the online paradigm can develop ways that approach the face-to-face quality of Montmartre.

    Thinking about it, the only place an author’s meaning appears nowadays is in reading guides for book clubs. Sad, but it shows there is a thirst for what we do and for what we offer underneath. We should take heart.

    Thanks so much for the inspiration.

  28. Sevigne says

    “We talk about being writers. We talk about working as writers. When in doubt (and when are we not in doubt?) we talk about how hard it is being writers. Nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen, damn it.” Porter Anderson

    I never talk about this kind of thing. I find it tedious to listen to, when others speak about the work in this way. And, in general, I know from direct experience that to believe self-doubt has self-nature is antithetical to the creative process, which has no doubt. I don’t mean we should all be arrogant and dismiss the felt sense of self doubt as unreal. Or that it doesn’t arise. But it does not have self nature. That’s worth contemplating. Because just below self-doubt is the boundless nature of the creative process.

    In fact, what I said this morning, in response to something a writer friend wrote about being impatient was that “Not knowing is hard. But that’s the nature of the originality.”