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Romancing the Career: ‘Writing Is So Hard’

Image – iStockphoto: Anya Berkut
Diversity in DC

Next week, as you may know, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs [1] holds its sprawling annual convention.

It’s known as AWP. As every eagle-eyed Unboxed Writer will notice, it should have been AWAWP. I like the sound of that. A-wawp. A wet fish landing on a hot dock. But they didn’t ask me, did they? Well, of course they didn’t.

AWP will be seated this year, 8 through 11 February, in Trumpian Washington. Our nation’s extraordinarily stressed capital. We must not hold this against the AWP organizers, who are based at George Mason in Fairfax: Major conferences are booked years in advance to capture the convention-center and hotel-room space they need. In fact, next year, a happier locale for AWP—Tampa, the Tropic of Porter. Our dolphins are standing by. And better yet, our politicians are not.

The AWP conference is a movable feast of diversity, last May for example rejecting Charlotte and all similarly inclined locations for future consideration because of its anti-LGBTQ “bathroom laws.” Next week, on Thursday the 9th [2], alone, there are sessions on:

Those are before noon on the 9th. You see, never is heard an exclusionary word at AWP. And this is good.

No, the main qualm that some of us feel here in the competition-soaked commercial world of publishing has to do with that halls of ivy business. While many of us have spent a lot of time in the Academy, of course, we know that students of creative writing on our campuses are rarely fully prepared for the business they expect to storm upon graduation. Many instructors aren’t equipped to teach them, either, finding most of their contracts at their own university presses, where beautiful production and meager sales are the norm, marketing is all but unknown.

Precious few of these students may have been told, even today, how much scarcer traditional publishing contracts have become, let alone that US self-publishers in 2015 produced 625,327 titles with ISBNs [3]. Those indie books without ISBNs take the number of self-published books—before the trade even gets out of bed—well above 1 million titles per year.

There are sessions at AWP, mind you, that get at a bit of this. Our good colleague Paula Munier is on a business-of-publishing panel with some other good folks, also on the 9th. But get this title: “Agents and Editors and Publishers, Oh My! [Are we tired of that Oz formulation yet? Yes, we are.] Demystifying the Business Side of Writing and Publishing.” Now, think about that. Students of writing in college (hotly pursued by MFA programs at AWP) need a 75-minute session on business demystification at a conference?

So what are they teaching the kids back on the collegiate ranch?

Well, I’ll tell you what they’re teaching, and that’s where you come in. My provocation for you today has to do with the very first thing you hear when you click on this year’s AWP conference overview [4] and a video begins playing whether you’d like it to or not. (Remind me to propose the “Writers who’d rather not find auto-running videos on conference sites” session for next year.)

It’s the voice of author Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children. And he is saying to these big children of our campuses: “Writing is so hard.”

Then Go Do Something Else
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

You may not like me for this today, but I’m very tired of the writing community’s love of the “writing is so hard” trope.  Here in our big pink month of romance, I propose that we all get down on one or the other knee (your choice) and vow never again to say “writing is so hard.”

Shall we just look out of our Marriott windows during AWP in the direction of Capitol Hill? There lies hard. Take a peek at the Justice Department. Hard. I’ll even hand it to the Whiter House: Really hard, and whatever you may think about what’s going on in there, the people inside that mansion are aging themselves in dog years. They’re doing it to the rest of us, too.

Writing is not hard. Or go do something else.

Hell, in this AWP video—these are clips of comments made by writing luminaries on AWP stages in the past—Perrotta even goes on to tell us that “ideas are so scarce for me.” Really? It’s so much more useful to hear Amy Tan, moments later, talking of how she was a successful business writer, which took some pressure off her fiction work. She’s putting together strengths, not whining that “writing is so hard.”

I apologize for what I realize is a fairly limp excuse for a valentine here, but every person—student or otherwise—who approaches the writing and publishing market today is facing a glut. That Wall of Content, as I call it. Both the trade and our self-publishing sector have inundated the market without generating new readership for it, new customers. This marketplace is fearsome even for those who find writing to be freakishly easy.

And when authors hunker together to kvetch about “writing is so hard,” they’re romancing the career in a profoundly counter-productive way. They’re sending messages into their own and others’ consciousnesses that help no one. And, they’re probably admitting that they have no business in our show business.

If you’re a genuine writer, it probably should not be that hard. As in most professions, a certain level of aptitude is not too much to expect of those coming in the door.

So here’s where I’d like your input. Do you find that “writing is so hard”? No, I mean really. Where does this poor-us belly-aching come from? Do we need to start an “Alternative Careers!” section of Writer Unboxed?

If you’ll be at AWP, I’ll be on a panel sponsored by CLMP, Current Trends in Literary Publishing [5], at 1:30 p.m. Thursday 9 February in Room 202A, Level Two, at the Washington Convention Center. And my great colleague Jane Friedman and I will have a booth at the AWP Bookfair for The Hot Sheet [6], our biweekly industry subscription newsletter for traditional and self-publishing authors. Come by No 868 and tell us h0w hard writing is, won’t you? 

About Porter Anderson [7]

@Porter_Anderson [8] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [9], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [10] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [11]