Some Current Illusions: Then and Now


A while ago, some years ago now, I was hunting for a copy of Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, and stumbled on another book, Vera Brittain’s 1947 On Becoming a Writer. Vera Brittain was in her day a very famous pacifist thinker and writer who drew on her experiences and thoughts about the Second World War. She is still known and talked about today, although whether she is much remembered outside of academic circles or them who listen religiously to ABC Radio National I can’t say.

I read her book, and found it full of interesting points and notes. One chapter in particular stood out to me, which was all about ‘current illusions’ that beset people who want to become writers. They struck me because the same fallacies beset people now, or almost the same, give or take. There are a few that seem to have fallen away, and a few that have modernised, but they are to a greater or lesser extent still salient things to be aware of. It strikes me as interesting to revisit Vera’s current illusions now, and consider whether they are still bugbears in the mind of the would-be novelist, especially in the context of the new wave of ebooks where it’s not entirely clear that the traditional role of a publisher (roughly put to edit, improve, proof, package, market, print, ship and sell the book) is still quite as essential as it once was.

The text in bold is taken directly from Chapter V of Vera Brittain’s 1947 book, On Becoming a Writer. The plain text is my discussion of the point. I’ll start with the first fallacy and work from there.

Writing is easy because its materials are readily accessible.

This illusion is married to a little to the idea that writing is easy because we have all been taught how to do it in school, we are all literate and thus it is a thing that anyone can do. Vera Brittian argues that this illusion leads more people astray that any other, that the notion that a writer has no need to rely on paints or easel, a stage or floodlights, means that somehow the task of writing is a simpler and more easily achieved one, than say oils or acting.

I think, however, the way this particular illusion is described is itself a little misleading–that perhaps it would be better to say that the illusion is that writing is the most readily achievable of the various creative crafts because its materials are the most readily accessible. That reads a little like a tautology, but what I mean is that a person may not necessarily think that the craft of writing is easy, but that the process of writing, being a thing that does not require a lot of money, is a good creative choice in the absence of already being wealthy.

Certainly, this strikes me as being largely as true today as it once was, although there are perhaps two key differences. Writing does require at least some layout now because agents and publishers expect you submit legibly printed work produced on a word processors. That requires you to have a computer of some sort or another, and computers remain expensive. I know many many who are still scraping by with an increasingly aged computational machine and it is a bit naive to think that everyone can afford a shiny new laptop every few years. The other thing that strikes me is that we do not all emerge from high school as literate individuals, and a lot of us know it. I’ve lectured at a major university, and I know talking to students that many of them feel that they never did learn to write to a professional level. I can’t tell if that is an impediment though–the problem is that people who are really unskilled at a thing lack the skill needed to even judge themselves to be unskilled.

At any rate, I do suspect that most people would still see writing as something that doesn’t require the same investment in materials as the visual arts, and doesn’t require the same investment in lessons and schools as do the performing arts. This misses the point that the investment needed of the writing is endless long hours alone bleeding through the fingertips at a keyboard or pad of paper. So perhaps this fallacy is still a trap for the unwary?

Because writing is easy, it can be done without any special training or preparation, in odd minutes of the day.

This seems more a problem of the modern day than Vera Brittian’s chiefmost illusion, above. In a world where distraction is constant and time is increasingly precious, disrupted and layered with multiple and parallel mental tasks that must be performed, it is a trap to think that writing can be done in any sort of piecemeal way. Even those writers who have confessed to writing their early works in snatches and odd moments (Connie Willis comes to mind) make it clear that this is not by any measure their preferred way to do things. As Vera Brittian pointed out: most people would never imagine that they could become “successful violinists or eminent sculptors in rag-tags and bob-tails of time”, yet many (and I count myself among them) will think it somehow possible to become proficient and skilled writers by only ever writing around the edges of a busy schedule.

I am extremely guilty of this. I will tend to do daily writing only at the very end of everything else. Of course, like everyone, I need to eat and pay for a place to live be it rent or mortgage, but trying to write by bits and scraps is not any sort of long-term realistic plan. It’ll drive you mad before it leads you to good work.

Time must be sacrificed to learn to write. It is like any other craft. It requires practise and lots of it. Ray Bradbury famously (and possibly apocryphally–the phrase does not actually appear in Zen and the Art of Writing) said that every writer must produce a million words of crap before a good one. There’s a lot of truth in that, and it’s hard to write a million words of crap in a few snatched minutes per day.

The belief that books and articles can only be written when the author is ‘in the mood’.

This is a particularly dangerous trap for anyone who wants to make a profession out of writing. It is perpetuated by so many films, in which the famous author is struck by inspiration and turns out page after page of timeless prose in an orgy of work, yet at all other times seems to exist in a state of gentlemanly (or gentlewomanly) leisure. Given that such scenes are written by professional writers, one can only imagine that they are either delusional or cynical–I suspect the latter–they know what the general public thinks the life of a writer to be, and it is a trope that can be played on for drama.

The notion that a writer must wait for inspiration to strike must lead at least some people to a situation where they are waiting for a thing that will not happen. It’s not quite right to say that writers operate in absence of the right mood, rather most professional writers develop ways and means to bring on the right mood. Some are able to turn out amazing and wonderful prose while locked in a battle against their own Id, in a state of pain and turmoil–but I think most people would rather not spend their chosen professional life in a state of pain and turmoil. This means that it is necessary to get to know yourself and get to know how to bring on the writing mood when and where necessary, even if you have had a bad day, an argument at work or if an hour earlier you received a parking fine. If you want this to be your job then none of these things matter.

The flip-side of this that some would-be writers believe (often strongly) that there is an absolute anti-writing mood in which nothing can be done: the state of writer’s block. This plays a little into the Neil Gaiman opinion that “dentists don’t get dentist’s block, and cellists don’t get cellists block, yet writers are allowed to get writer’s block”. Perhaps that’s a simplification, there probably are dentists who have sabotaged their own career by convincing themselves that they are unable to go to work. Certainly, other creative fields have their share of stage-fright, hesitation and self-sabotage. The specific problem for writers is that ‘writers block’ is such an accepted part of the general perception of writerly life, that any stumble, a lack of ideas, simple tiredness, confusion over where a plot should go, internal conflict over a character, a theme or a narrative–any of these thinks can and will be taken to be a case of writers block.

They are not. They are a part of the writing experience. Constant creative focus is not possible for anyone, and any attempt to do so will become exhausting. A writer will have off days like anyone else when every word written feels like a pulled tooth, but those words must still be written. A writer can get stuck in a story–sometimes whole ranks of chapters have to be cut and moved to a ‘salvaged’ file in order to extricate a hopelessly confounded plot. The key is in the knowing what is causing your inability to go on. Are you truly utterly spent? Is every last word squeezed out of you? Or are you simply stuck, tired, worn out or distracted and unconsciously looking for a good excuse to be lazy for a while?

If you need some time off, then it’s sensible to do so, but don’t convince yourself that there is anything mystical, inexplicable or special about the situation. It’s a holiday and everyone needs holidays. Even dentists and cellists.

The ‘artistic temperament,’ and its external expression in terms of peculiar manners, eccentric clothes, and literary ‘haunts’, are part of the essential make-up of a writer.

Vera Brittain notes that this illusion tends to be worst in people who live away from cities and other places where other writers are. The process of learning how to write is long and hard, and it can be easy to grow into a mistaken belief that the reason you are not selling work is because you are by virtue of unfortunate geography barred from the writer’s lifestyle: sipping lattes in cafes, discussing Hemingway in erudite circles, that sort of thing. More perversely, people can engage in activities that feel writerly, and then feel that they have done their writing for the day, the week or the month. Workshopping can fall into this category unfortunately. For some people workshopping can be wonderfully helpful, but for others it becomes an excuse to never actually write anything.

Anyone who has been to a writer’s festival or convention tends to be disabused of this idea quite quickly. Most writers are nothing like the archetype. Often they do not even wear berets or turtlenecks. Frequently they are professional earnest people you wouldn’t pick out of a crowd.

There is nothing that makes a writer a writer except for reading good books and writing and re-writing.

The illusion though, seems to be tied into something very primal in the human psyche, and no-one should feel embarrassed that they once thought that going to live in New York or Edinburgh might make a writer of them when all else had (apparently) failed. It’s a common fallacy to think that imitating the general habits and appearance of a thing imparts some of that thing’s aspects. This is the heart of sympathetic magic. If you want to hunt like a bear, wear a bear skin. If you want to be fertile, then hold an annual festival that involves eggs and rabbits.

Vera Brittian goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton, and here I’ll only sub-quote a small part of the full Chestertonian wit: “There are many real tragedies of the artistic temperament, tragedies of vanity, of violence, of fear. But the great tragedy of the artistic temperament is that it cannot produce any art.”

The conviction of many authors that each one’s extreme sensitiveness and the pain it causes is peculiar to himself.

Human nature has not changed in fifty odd years it turns out. I suppose it would have been surprising to find it had. As a cliché this one is pretty well entrenched: the self-pitying, sensitive soul who believes that his or her pain and suffering are so profound and so vast that the experience must be unique in all of human history. These sorts of caricatures appear in Dickens, but I don’t know if I’ve met many of them personally once past teenagehood.

I suspect in its most extreme form, this fallacy is feed on solitude or feelings of not being like everyone else. Given the inter-connectedness and constant networking of our current social media era, I wonder if this fallacy will become less or more extreme? Social media makes people less isolated, but it does so in a pernicious way in which everyone is struggling to post only the better parts of their life and present the very best of all possible self-images. In the end I’m completely unsure whether Facebook and Twitter make people more or less alone.

In any instance, in a less extreme form, this state of mind afflicts a lot of people–that is, there is often a real and genuine fear of criticism and rejection among new writers. There is no easy cure for this. You must put your work in front of people who may reject it, if you ever want it to be published. Worse than that, if you are published you may be lucky enough to attract reviewers… and reviewers can be viciously unthinking in their criticism. Your first review certainly can feel like an experience of pain peculiar to yourself and unique in the history of humankind.

The only advice that anyone can give here is to try and view yourself in a wider perspective and try to dissociate what you produce from who you are. If someone criticises your writing, try to see that they are not criticising you. If anyone learns how to perform this trick perfectly, could they please let the rest of us know? At best I think most of us just learn how to fake it for a while.

Sponsorship by some well known writer is a short cut to success.

This illusion is genuinely that, yet can be difficult to convince people of. This partly because, sometimes–very rarely–this is not an illusion. The interest and attention Neil Gaiman paid to Susanna Clarke’s early writing undoubtably helped her get published–yet it is very highly probably to say that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell would have been published eventually anyway? The first paragraph screams of good writing, and in the end good writing sells itself. The flip-side is that no amount of praise from a famous friend will sell a bad book.

What will potentially help you more is criticism from that same friend. If you are lucky enough to know a professional writer closely enough for them to volunteer to read your work and provide criticism, then be joyous and take their comments seriously. And note that I wrote volunteer… most writers are extraordinarily busy with writing, family and life. Think about whether you would have the time to read unlimited numbers of unpublished manuscripts each year before you ask this of someone who may feel unhappily obliged to say ‘yes’.

The same is true for introductions to agents or publishers. A lot of authors will be happy to tell you who their agent or agency is–this can often be found online anyway (just Google the name of the writer with “represented by” in quotes) but you shouldn’t take this to be some sort of personal introduction.

And in the end, it still comes back to this: even if you were to descend on an agent or editor with a gold-sealed letter of praise from the most famous writer of your age, it may not help. Agents and publishes are in the business of not losing money on bad books–they will consider a piece of writing on its merits, its likely appeal and its marketability. An endorsement from someone very famous is only a minute part of that mix.

A manuscript by an unknown author will be disregarded unless he is introduced by somebody to whom the publisher dare not be indifferent.

The converse of my comment above, that agents and editors are not in the business of losing money is that they are in the business of making money. No editor and no agent anywhere will care if a manuscript was written by an orang-utan on leaves of dried and beaten banana palm, if it is very extraordinarily good and very extraordinarily sellable.

In Vera Brittian’s time, publishers did employ armies of readers, most of them on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis. Those who were not in-house readers tended to be experts in a particular field, and in the non-fiction industry this approach is still used as far as I’m aware.

However, modern fiction publishers have (in a sense) subcontracted their slush piles to agents, so that there are fewer and fewer big publishing houses that are willing to look at unsolicited (not specifically requested) manuscripts from anyone, published or not, regardless of who might introduce you. Although it is by no means the situation everywhere, today, you will likely have to go to an agent first, so perhaps this ‘illusion’ might even be somewhat closer to the truth now than it used to be. However, that said, the good news is that most agents are on the look out for the next big seller and you don’t need any sort of introduction from anyone else to reach an agent. Reading submissions takes volumes of time and effort, but no agent can afford to miss the next big thing. Agents read everything that crosses their inbox (even if they might only read the first few pages before making a decision) and they take all submissions seriously–at least until proven otherwise.

The trap here is to think that the reason your cherished manuscript has bounced back from publisher after publisher and agent after agent is that somehow you have to know the right people to get published. It’s much more likely that your work isn’t very good and needs work. Somewhat less likely, but still a strong possibility, is that you work is very good, but that you just haven’t found its home yet. We’ve all heard the stories. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by nine regretful publishers. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by over a hundred publishers.

The sales of the book will largely depend on the extent to which the publisher is persuaded to advertise it.

The last two of Vera Brittian’s illusions tend to afflict new writers who have just had a manuscript accepted at a publishing house.

Unfortunately, I suspect that this particular illusion is increasingly an fallacy that is afflicting publishing firms themselves. I’ve worked in marketing in a long-ago and different life, and one of the ironies of the business I noticed is this: Marketing people are trained to market a good or service. Speaking from a view of personal selfishness, the most important good or service for them to market is the service of marketing. A surprising amount of marketing managers’ time and efforts go into convincing everyone else how essential marketing is.

In the book trade, this has never been the case, and is unlikely to ever be so. This is the only place in this article where I’m quoting Vera Birttian directly, and this is because she summarises an earlier, and now all but unobtainable book, Authors and the Book Trade by Frank Swinnerton. His main points are summarised by by Vera Brittian as:

(1) No amount of advertising sells any book to an extent which justifies the expense involved.

(2) Each book appeals to some particular public, which is not reached by general advertising, but by a carefully thought out psychological approach.

(3) Advertisements are never noticed until the goods they advertise are already familiar. Hence the sale of a successful book may be increased by advertising, but the success has to be achieved first.

(4) What really sells a book is talk–i.e. personal recommendation, discussion, and controversy.

(5) Publishers advertise: (a) to please the author, whose friends see the advertisement; (b) to keep themselves in the public eye by drawing attention to the good books (not the one good book) that they have managed to secure; (c) to induce other authors, new or established, to join their excellent list; (d) to create for themselves the “atmosphere” which talk gives to a popular book; (e) to avoid being forgotten, which will happen if they do not advertise.

Some of these points are less true today than they once were. Some forms of ‘marketing’, like paying to have books on the end-space of shelves or paying to have books face-out, not spine-out (publishers really do pay for this in some of the larger chain stores), give-aways, author signings, appearances, conference attendance, interviews and reviews probably do contribute to book sales. Advertising in newspapers or as banner ads on the internet probably achieve very little. Advertising on radio and television isn’t done so much for books, though for a while when I was living in New Zealand some of the larger publishers had a go at TV advertising. I suspect it probably did increase sales–the books were usually wide-interest non-fiction–but I’ve no idea if the costs were outweighed by the sales. Given that on a recent visit to New Zealand I saw no such advertising I suspect that the practise was unprofitable.

Another form of advertising that is important is the book cover. Again, however, book covers help sales, but probably won’t drive overwhelming success. For that, good writing is needed and word of mouth.

With the publication of his or her first book, the author will leap–or has leapt–to fame and reputation.

Don’t count on it.

Most authors whose books you see on the shelves of your local store have day jobs. Only a very small percentage are full time fiction writers with no other source of income. A somewhat larger percentage of authors get by on books sales, magazine or newspaper freelancing, teaching writing classes and other writing-related work. But the vast majority have to hold onto their day job in order to keep everything together.

This is a good argument for not putting all your eggs in one basket. Make sure you have a day job that you enjoy, or at least find tolerable. If it contributes to your writing, either by giving you ideas, a different perspective or contact with people you would otherwise never meet, then it’s all for the best.

Another way in which this fallacy can lead to problems for a new writer, is the tendency to get so obsessed and wound up with your first novel that you don’t start a second one. The first novel is a psychologically trying, rewarding, frustrating and sometimes harrowing experience. But when it’s finished, editing and done, you need to move along your next work. And the next work probably shouldn’t be a sequel, at least not right away. You need to move sideways after a first novel, if for no other reason then to cleanse yourself of the experience and get some perspective on it. You can return to a sequel later, but some time spent on another writing project may well refresh your ability to write in surprising ways.

It tends also to be the case that reviewers and the reading public are a bit harsher with a second book than a first. It’s the same as the second-album curse, but for writers. The public have expectations now, they are less easily impressed by the quirks of your style and they’ll want more of the same but different and better, and now, unlike your first book, the second book is capable of disappointing people. And it will disappoint some people, and when they tell you, this may be a shock.

Thinking over the current illusions that Vera outlined and discussed, they seem largely if not wholly relevant today, though in particular they are relevant where people are trying to get published by the traditional route. Increasingly, what was once considered a really good way to lose money and have boxes of unsold books in your garage–the dreaded self-publishing–is becoming viable in an ebook form. How does this alter the fallacies discussed? Well, some of them are made worse by it. The notion that writing is easy because anyone can do it is probably much worse now than it once was, because now people are more likely to think that there is nothing stopping them from writing a novel, formatting it, putting it up on Amazon and raking in the Kindle dollars. I think the ebook phenomenon deserves a whole article in itself, and I will return to it. For now, I just want to say that it is definitely aggravating some of the writerly illusions of Vera Brittain. However, that said, other illusions are perhaps being undermined. In a world where would-be writers are no doubt looking more and more askance at the whole notion of publishers, the illusions of needing a secret way into the club, an introduction or the right friends are maybe less haunting than they once were. The reason I say this is because I suspect a lot of writers who feel that the publishing industry is a cabal of elites determined to keep the gates shut, will just go ahead and sell their books as ebooks. Throwing your darling to the lions of public opinion is a very sure and quick way to discover whether you are really an undiscovered, misunderstood genius, or well, maybe your craft needs some more practise.

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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One Comment

  1. I like ‘rag-tags and bob-tails of time’

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