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The One Less Traveled By

Is the writer’s life one that will always be miserable?

This thought came to me after I happened upon a two-part Ten Rules for Writing Fiction article published by British newspaper The Guardian in 2010. In it established authors from a variety of genres were asked for their top ten tips for successful authorship. Some suggestions are hilarious. Some are daunting, and one in particular I found quite profound.

English novelist and short story writer Zadie Smith, who is one of my favorite authors primarily because she excels in short fiction, was succinct in her advice. Item number ten on her list made me both laugh and cry. It reads, “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”

I think there are two pieces of advice rolled into one here. Telling the truth is a must for writers, regardless of genre. Not facts versus fiction per se, but getting the author’s underlying message across to, and really connecting with the reader, through honest explorations into the human condition; writing is communication above all else. We’ll chat about this more in a future post.

Today, I want to focus on the latter part of Smith’s advice – authors must resign themselves to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied; probably the best bit of writing advice I’ve ever read. It turns out writers, by their very nature, are never satisfied with their work. Writers across generations who’ve reached the pinnacle of literary success were down on themselves when it came to their own creations. Hate to harken back to Hemingway here, but the Papa is known to have said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” And the man won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 for goodness sake!

I rather suspect that this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature award winner, Bob Dylan, has decided to forgo the awards ceremony because he’s embarrassed about the win, rather than snubbing the venerated Scandinavian organization, as claimed by the media. One only has to look at his predecessors to understand how a folk song hero might be a tad embarrassed and/or intimidated by the list he’s about to join. It includes Rudyard Kipling (1907), William Butler Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), William Faulkner (1949), John Steinbeck (1962), and Toni Morrison (1993), and I’m only naming just a few of the English-speaking luminaries!

I suspect that the Jewish kid from Duluth, Minnesota, who wrote ballads for the Hippie generation, is wondering how he ever got selected. I speculate that like most writers, the legend that is Bob Dylan is embarrassed to be compared to such literary greats, because, as Zadie Smith asks, who in the hell is ever satisfied with their work? Every story can be revised just one more time; made just a little bit better. I don’t suppose the publicly acclaimed writers of this day and age are any different than the rest of us. They just muster the courage to publish anyway. So take the plunge! – it might be the beginning of great things to come. Self-publishing only takes a few minutes and a little bit of technical know-how. I shared some experiences in last week’s post.

In the meantime, do you agree with Zadie Smith? Are writers insecure by nature? What have you done to move past your mountain of doubt?

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