My Imaginary Conversation With a Fellow Writer

I mostly read fiction, but I picked up The Destiny Thief by Richard Russo because I love his work and respect him as a writer, and because of the promise it held under its title: “Essays on Writing, Writers and Life.” His ideas on writing and writers interested me.

I read the book while on my recent Mediterranean cruise, mostly at night before falling asleep or while waiting for my wife to get ready for our shore excursions and fancy dinners, which means that I experienced a lot of interruptions. I found all his essays well-written and engaging, but two of them, Getting Good and What a Frog Thinks: A Defense of Omniscience were of particular value to me as a writer. After my return, I read those two one more time in one sitting, and highlighted passages that I found worth noting. It would be nice to pick up the phone and call Richard Russo, but I don’t know him. So I decided to write this blog instead — a short mental dialogue with the author on equal footing, hopefully to crystalize my impressions and create a record to which I can return every time the need arises.

I enjoyed the fact that Russo conceived his essays as stories, and not, with one exception, as a compilation of advice or doctrines to his disciples — do this, don’t do that — easy to understand and remember, but not always applicable. All his essays have a main character — himself. They are dominated by his presence, and tell us, in his voice, about selected life events, some ordinary and some more bizarre or unusual, always interesting, with warmth and a light touch of humor, addressing thoughts and feelings that lead to the points he wants to make — not conclusions — about life and the art and craft of writing.

The first essay, about getting good at writing, explores the relationship between art and craft, as well as art and commerce. It talks about the digital revolution and the ability of authors to avoid the ‘gatekeepers’ — critics, agents, editors, publishing houses — and go directly to print — electronic print, that is. And he discusses the fact that in addition to desire — or hunger, as the author calls it — one needs to have the necessary tools to do the job, and more importantly, talent, that mysterious and hard to pin down notion that many of us feel endowed with, yet only a few really possess. He talks about the alleged disdain some traditionally published authors display towards the indie ones for having avoided the gatekeepers, and the negative feelings the latter hold against the traditional model for the impossible barriers it raises, especially when they don’t know the imaginary ‘secret handshake.’ There is no value judgment and, as I have already said, no conclusions, although throughout the essay I sense a disappointment with the commercializing of literature and the rush to maximize profits. He doesn’t mention it, and I don’t believe for a second that he thinks it is acceptable to consider literary writing as a business. He talks about Renaissance guilds and compares them to modern unions, in the literary and film realms, and in construction. When it comes to time spent, creative writing should take as much as it takes.

I agree with all of it, and hold literary fiction at the level of art. I believe it requires hunger, determination, skill and luck, and on top of it, talent. But I have these questions.

How does one define success? Is it commercial recognition and acceptance by one’s peers and the other members of the guild, or is it the self-reliance one needs in order to go on in spite of lacking the first two? What if the hunger is so strong that life without writing appears hollow and depressing? What if, like Reiner Maria Rilke once said to a young poet, “confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write…” and you take that thought as the suggestion of a vocation? What if your hunger is not caused by a lack of money, but by love of literature? What if you have a nice home, nearby woods to walk in, a supportive family, a wife who likes what you write (like Russo says, “because she loves you,”), a group of fellow writers to form a workshop and encourage each other, and a quiet office equipped with the handsomest iMac on the market? What if in spite of all this, you’ve knocked at both doors, the traditional and the electronic printing, and found both locked (in the case of electronic printing the self-published novel reaches only a few, and you don’t have the ability or the heart to promote it further)? Then what? Is that the end of the road, and the moment to give up? Is it time to abandon the plan, or, on the contrary, should one take all the time, as if it were infinite?

Below are a few excerpts that I found most relevant.

“Not every craft rises to the level of art, at least not in the traditional sense, but arts and crafts are often linked, and for good reason. Speed is the enemy of both and neither can abide carelessness. Central to both enterprises is a species of optimism, a faith that the task is feasible and worth accomplishing. Both require a plan, as well as the wisdom to abandon that plan should doing so become necessary.”

“Many writers who have been rejected or haven’t prospered with mainstream publishers argue in language reminiscent of the current national debate over income inequality: like America’s poor, they feel the deck is stacked against them.”

“Self-published writers are often treated with some disdain. They get tired of being told that their work must be dreck because it hadn’t found a traditional publisher. And who can blame them for resenting those who conclude without reading their work that they must be talentless hacks because of how they’ve chosen to publish?”

“To be successful at self-publication, you have to understand — and most indie writers, like others, are adamant about this — that writing is a business.”

“Art, offered shoulders to stand on, often as not demurs.”

“Today’s emerging writers have little choice but to promote themselves, and many have gotten good at it, not because they want but because they have to. I can’t help wondering, though, at what cost?”

“In other words, to live and work as if you have all the time in the world, knowing full well that you don’t.”

The second essay I found interesting, What a Frog Thinks: A Defense of Omniscience, deals with a specific topic much discussed in literary circles and workshops — the point of view. It lists them: first person literary, dramatic monologue, closed third person, effaced third person and omniscient. The essay concludes that the omniscient point of view is a beneficial approach and a great tool, for experienced writers, providing them with maximum flexibility.

I like that. I am writing my current novel, The Ultimate Patient, from the omniscient narrator point of view and I am glad that my trust in this approach is shared and confirmed by Richard Russo. Having written the previous three novels in first person, I hesitated a lot before taking this approach, and even addressed my oscillations in a blog over one year ago, A Question of Point of View--When to Break the Rules that are Made to be Broken?

“Omniscience stresses storytelling, not showing,” Richard Russo states. He adds, “Omniscience entails not just the permission to speak but to speak with a kind of authority we know deep down hasn’t really been granted, though we proceed as if it had, as if we actually do know everything we need to about the world, as if we did, in godly fashion, invent the damn thing.” He uses an excerpt about frogs from Cannery Row by John Steinbeck to make the point.

And he concludes, “Sometimes you just need to explain how frogs think.”

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