Thursday, September 10, 2009

Writers are also readers: A cautionary tale.

The following statement was written about screenplays but is absolutely true of any kind of writing:
It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you're in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you're dealing with someone who can't.

(By the way, here's a simple way to find out if you're a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you're not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)
And this is also true:
I was dying to find something positive to say, and there was nothing. And the truth is, saying something positive about this thing would be the nastiest, meanest and most dishonest thing I could do. Because here's the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you're not a writer. If I can talk you out of being a writer, I've done you a favor, because now you'll be free to pursue your real talent, whatever that may be. And, for the record, everybody has one. The lucky ones figure out what that is. The unlucky ones keep on writing shitty screenplays and asking me to read them.
Read the rest of this great Village Voice piece by writer/director Josh Olson.

20 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

Painful but true.

Bane of Anubis said...

Absotively brilliant. Thanks for sharing.

kellyethan said...

I know someone who couldn't find a home for her book and after a couple of years she refused to write again. Said she wasn't going to waste her time if her book wasn't appreciated...

Wha?

Please, if I didn't write I would be insane or on Prozac ;)

Kelly Ethan
http://www.kellyethan.com

Nalo said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the first statement, but I'm not so sure about the second. When I was younger, I think it would have been very easy to discourage me from attempting to write. As I did then, lots of budding writers will hear any forthright critique as excoriation. That's no reason to offer false praise in a critique, but I find too many instructors use the maxim of "if you're a real writer, I won't be able to stop you from writing" as an excuse to dish out shame. Why try to discourage anyone from being creative? If the _instructor_ is a real writer, I like to think that they'd be able to critique a manuscript honestly without declaring a vendetta on the psyche of its author.

Rebecca Knight said...

I think the second is actually a great perspective. Thank you!

Dee said...

That is refreshingly honest, and I enjoyed the final sentence. It made me laugh out loud.

Yvette Davis said...

*applauds*

Adrienne517 said...

Having done the writers workshop thing for around 25 years, I find the second statement rather cynical. It assumes that a writer can't improve. Anyone who really wants to and makes the effort to find the right help can turn into an outstanding writer. Having worked under Jim Frey, I've seen many people turn into diamonds from the rough.

thelittlefluffycat said...

Yes, critique is not always easy to take - not even good and useful critique, which is what it sounds like he was trying to give. His advice reminds me very much of what I hear people telling those considering self-publishing.

We do so much thinking about WHAT we want to say, it behooves us to think about WHY we want to say it. Why we need to - or don't.

Jaime Theler said...

Love it! If I quit writing my characters would find a way to pop into life in my living room and drive me nuts. In fact, there are some books based on that very premise that I wholeheartedly enjoy.

nicola said...

Writers are also readers... Never a truer word. As writers we are what we read. And, serendipitously, I'll be doing a blog post about that tomorrow over at Sterling Editing.

Teh Awe-Some Sauce said...

I read this article earlier and when I read that part I actually laughed out loud. We've had this same discussion many times in my crit groups when certain members would get overly upset about some members' "direct approach". I always tell those who get upset that the worst thing that someone can tell you is that something in your writing is working when it clearly isn't.

This article also reminds me of a problem that seems to crop up in writing circles, the writer who doesn't read. Writer says "I'm writing a satire." Groups asks, "Oh really? Have you read *insert famous satirical author here*?" Writer replies, "No, I don't really read that much."

Unreal.

Callie James said...

Best article I've read in a while. Thanks for sharing, Colleen.

Dominique said...

Personally, I think that the second made a good point. Sometimes, the best thing one can do for a person is tell them that what they are doing isn't working. That way, they know how to fix it.

One who is dedicated the pursuing his or her writing can take comfort in Shaw's words: "Keep on writing plays my boy, because one day a producer is going to walk into his office and say, 'Anything new from Shaw today? No? Well, we're going to have to start in on the shit then.' And that's where you come in."

I know it sounds harsh, but that's true. If you keep trying, even in the face of the knowledge that you'll never be King/Card/Rowling, then one day some agent will be reading through the slush, looking for something that isn't King/Card/Rowling, and that's where you come in. :D

Lily said...

Yes, very true.

Stephen Duncan said...

As an unpublished writer, I struggle with this. I have an agent with a very reputable agency, published author friends who tell me I can write, both positive and critical feedback at all levels, but still there is a shadow of doubt that somehow has the strongest voice.

I ask myself daily: Am I a writer? I agree, definitely, with the first statement. But the second, I'm not so sure. I guess the question is, what is a writer? Is it being published? A constant need to create with words? Simple desire? I don't know.

Adam Heine said...

"If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you're not a writer."

I was going to disagree with this until I remembered my own life. Many years ago, I had talked myself out of being a writer. But I couldn't stop writing. I designed games, wrote role-playing campaigns, and eventually came back to writing fiction.

I had talked myself out of being a writer, but even then I couldn't stop it. I have to write.

MattDel said...

It's astounding the amount of vitriol that got spewed against him for writing that article. I was reading through some of the comments, and the unifying thing among them was calling him a hack writer who composes crap and gets paid for it.

However, I feel that anyone in any creative profession or really with any amount of true creative talent feels similarly. This is why I always ask people if they're sure they want me to read their work. I don't want to waste their time and mine by giving them feedback they're not going to listen to. It's a disservice to everyone involved.

@Nalo -- I do agree with you about the difference between dishing out shame and giving honest critique. However, it all depends on the instructor. I had one college professor who I think was so afraid of discouraging people that he gave extremely vague criticisms on a short story of mine. And this was a published author!

Kate Barsotti said...

Here's part of the problem as well: even good writers can write poorly. It's a learning curve. One bad piece does not condemn a person or mean "you are not a writer." It could mean that - or it could mean you are a good writer who has not figured it out yet.

Perhaps giving a good critique is as much an art as writing a good piece. I used to hear a one of my poetry professors always (always!) find the gold in the dross in student poetry - he was amazing - he focused on the piece, not the person - and only assessed the text.

Jinx said...

Beautifully stated. Thanks for posting it.