My Problem with Fiction, and How I Tried to Resolve It

I’ve been somewhat bothered by the fact that I don’t read much fiction. For someone who has a degree in creative writing, this is a bit troubling. My degree is in nonfiction creative writing, but still, you would think that I read a novel a week or more.

Not really. Not too long after my MFA, I went through a burnout phase. During my 3 years at Columbia, I wrote a lot of stories and essays. They were all a type of literary writing. I spent countless hours editing them and then sent them off to various literary journals. The responses took months and were abysmal. I think I only published 1 or 2 of that whole lot.

Meanwhile, I was feeling pressures for employment. I applied for dozens of teaching positions, but nothing came of it except, by some small miracle, a two-year teaching job in Egypt. But that job wasn’t taking me anywhere careerwise, and the pay wasn’t much either.

At some point, I stopped reading fiction because I felt it wasn’t getting me anywhere. While I love story, it didn’t help me get a better job, or bring in money, and holing myself up somewhere to read was isolating from family duties.

During this time I focused more on tech and on books that would add value to my career than on fiction or even narrative nonfiction.

Years passed like this. I guess I found that I could do without fiction. Movies fill the escapism void, and travel excursions.

Last month I kind of fell into a bad habit. After work and general busyness, I’d feel exhausted in the evening. Too tired to do anything, and ready to relax and be entertained, I’d watch spy shows (like MI-5), or cop shows (like Rookie Blue), or even South/North Korean espionage melodramas with subtitles (like Iris).

The problem is that rather than going to sleep when tired, the shows would keep me up for another hour or two at night. Then I’d be exhausted in the morning. The need for some passive, mindless entertainment at around 10 pm lasted until midnight. By mid week I was exhausted and sometimes grumpy. I knew I needed to change.

My daughter recommended that instead of television, I choose a favorite book to read. It should be a book I like, with a story that is a treat to read, one that I might look forward to and prefer to television. I knew she was right.

My bookshelf. It's a mix of fiction and nonfiction (but mostly nonfiction).

The next few nights, rather than watching television, I pulled out a copy of Dispensation, an anthology of short stories with Mormon themes that Shannon gave me for Christmas. I read Brady Udall’s “Buckeye the Elder” and remembered how I used to love fiction. Then I read Brian Evanstan’s “Care of the Estate.” And before I knew it, I was hooked. I started reading more and more short stories in the anthology, and then expanded to The Atlantic to read stories in their fiction edition. I downloaded Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander from Audible and listened to nearly all of it while working on my basement. I downloaded Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and listened to that in every spare moment. I realized how much I liked fiction. Why had I been avoiding it for so long?

And then I got to thinking about writing short stories myself. I’m creative, I can make up a story on the spot for my kids. Why not try my hand at fiction? Maybe I had a hidden talent I could surface.

I began brainstorming a plot. But this story, being fiction, had to follow one rule. According to an essay by Bret Johnson in The Atlantic, you shouldn’t write what you know (see “Don’t Write What You Know”). It’s the biggest mistake rookies make. Why shouldn’t you write what you know? Because if you do, writing becomes an act of explanation rather than exploration. In contrast, if you get inside someone’s head, and imagine or explore what they would think, feel, say, and do, then you’re operating in another mode: discovery. And in that mode, your prose comes alive.

I was totally convinced by this argument. In fact, I started to think that perhaps I had gotten the nonfiction/fiction dichotomy wrong all these years. Rather than pursuing nonfiction, I should have pursued fiction. I should have been exploring the minds of my characters, specifically minds unlike my own.

With this idea, I began to conceptualize a story, to lay down the basic plot. I would write about a repressed housewife who takes a “vacation” while her husband tends to the kids at home. Instead of vacationing, the woman applies for a job at a temp agency and ends up, unbeknownst to her husband, filling her husband’s job during his leave of absence. The manager likes her work so much he decides to let the husband go and hires the woman full time. This sets the man into jealousy and rage with his wife and employer and … then I’m not sure what happens.

Excited about the possibility of writing this story, I shared it with my wife over some cake at a posh dessert shop – “The Chocolate” in Orem. The Chocolate is a house with a lot of different rooms, painted in green and black and decorated with mirrors and flowers and trendy artwork. We sat on zebra cloth chairs. I tried to explain the plot to my wife, how it would proceed, and how it would eventually end.

As I was explaining the plot, I realized how shallow and simple it sounded. I heard my own voice and thought, this sounds dumb. I would need to put a lot more thought and development into the story. I only had the bare bones of a few of the actions, and creating a real story would require much more work. Real work. More research, more brainstorming, and lots of writing and rewriting and more writing. I estimated that to write one decent short story, I would need to dedicate at least 40 hours to the task, maybe more.

My wife explained that I’d need to show rather than tell. But her generally quiet reaction slowed my eagerness, and I began to think through this idea for fiction. After spending 40+ hours on a short story, what would I do with it? Send it to a small literary journal, where it would be added to their slush pile and reviewed quarterly? Would it end up in an online literary e-zine read by a handful of wannabe writers, published by some spare-time hack on his Blogspot website?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that writing fiction would be a lot of work. I’d need to research the characters, the psychology, the environment. I’d need to write and rewrite and rewrite. And all for what? For the chance of publishing in some obscure literary journal?

There wouldn’t be any immediate reward, no immediate comments. No praise. No career advancement. No speaking invitations. No advertising perks. The work would reside in a place few would read, and yield little results.

Worst of all, I realized how simple and undeveloped my story sounded. This effort? Not really worth it. There was no twist, no cleverness in the story. It would either be predictable or manipulative.

With that, I decided to put the brakes on fiction reading. If I were to pour my soul into something, it should be nonfiction, the personal essay, my favorite format. I know what it takes to write a good personal essay. It requires research, and brainstorming, and a lot of writing and rewriting and sometimes throwing it all away to start over. Somehow it never occurred to me that writing fiction followed a similar process.

More than anything, I was befuddled about what to make of the advice — don’t write what you know. In nonfiction, if you don’t know the topic you’re writing about, your essay is going to stink. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll shift to writing a naval-gazing memoir — the sure sign of death. Without intellectual substance, the essay devolves into an over-dramatized retelling of your life.

Yet strangely, this exploratory mode that Bret Johnston describes is exactly the thing I like about personal essays. You don’t start out knowing everything. The very purpose is to explore a topic, to essay an idea and see where it takes you, or to find out what something truly is. It’s the same mode that fiction writers slip into when imagining a character, but with nonfiction, you’re navigating a world of ideas. You’re following a conceptual path to see where ideas intersect and cross. You’re looking at an idea from all perspectives, trying to find a way through.

Bret explains,

In early versions of some stories, my impulse was to try to record how certain events in my life had played out, but by the third draft, I was prohibitively bored. I knew how, in real life, the stories ended, and I had a pretty firm idea of what they “meant,” so the story could not surprise me, or prorivde an opportunity for wonder. I was writing to explain, not to discover.

He then switches from explaining to exploring, and it liberates his writing. It makes the writing process adventurous and interesting to both himself and readers.

Although Bret’s advice seems geared toward fiction, nonfiction essays actually follow exactly the same philosophy. If you’re writing what you already know, there’s no natural drive forward. The nonfiction essayist is just as much interested in charting unexplored territory as fiction writers. For example, when I started this essay, I had no idea how it would play out, where I would end, and how I would resolve my problem with fiction. Only as I come near the end do I realize that this principle — don’t write what you know — runs just as seamless through nonfiction as fiction. Both aim to explore the unknown. This gives me hope that the great divide I’ve constructed in my mind between the two genres is really much thinner than I had previously imagined.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for The 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

40 thoughts on “My Problem with Fiction, and How I Tried to Resolve It

  1. John Tait

    The way I write fiction isn’t to think about characters and events, but to take a premise and explore it. It isn’t particularly different from the way I write non-fiction.

    The longest thing I’ve completed is a story called “Frankenrabbits”, and I essentially just explored the concept of rabbit-human hybrids from all angles while running the main character into the ground. (If science-fiction is about ideas, what interests me are *bad* ideas, which is why I find sci-fi and horror interlinked.)

    I’m taking an identical approach with a medical thriller I’m writing at the moment, with a *massive* what-if premise in the middle. This one is in the third-person, so it’s almost a piece of reporting.

    1. Tom Johnson

      John, I liked the point you expressed here:

      The way I write fiction isn’t to think about characters and events, but to take a premise and explore it.

      This is helpful is bridging the similarities between the two genres. Your narrative does sound interesting, especially when I think about it in the light of exploring a premise. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Eileen

    Tom,

    Your insights are always fascinating. So maybe Technical Writing is Creative Writing after all! As a Technical Writer, maybe I haven’t let down my English major colleagues after all!

    Eileen

  3. Tammy

    Interesting post as always. My tendency in college was to write poetry (my fiction sounded like poetry too). I have tried fiction off and on, but I’m generally not as successful with it as with nonfiction.

    But I do still love to read both fiction and narrative nonfiction, stealing the time when it doesn’t take away from my family (it is possible to read while washing dishes if you’re careful!). Both types of writing help me develop as a writer too.

    I hope you won’t give up on fiction entirely. Remember – getting inside a character’s head might not be all the different from crafting a persona to represent a part of your audience.

    Tammy

    1. Tom Johnson

      Tammy, I like your comparison between getting inside a character’s head and developing personas.

      getting inside a character’s head might not be all the different from crafting a persona to represent a part of your audience.

      This makes it seem like fiction reading and writing is a warm-up for persona development! Cool. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  4. Nina

    I’ve taken a part-time job teaching composition at the local community college (this is in addition to my tech-writing “day job”). This summer, I taught a class on writing about literature and found myself studying fiction and poetry for the first time in years. It was wonderful, and my students had trouble believing I was a “dry, boring” technical writer because they saw me as such a “literary nerd” (the quoted words are theirs).

    Funny, because I was a big poetry nut in college, and I read big, thick 19th-century novels all the time for fun, yet I rarely read fiction these days. Part of it is, I think, that (1) I have so little time, and (2) I want to read something that is worth my while. The kind of fiction that I like tends to be the more challenging, time-consuming literary fiction, and I just don’t enjoy digesting that kind of stuff in 10- and 15-minute snatches of time. And, in general, if I read more mainstream, less challenging stuff, I feel like I’ve wasted what little time I have.

    I do crave the creative process in everything I do. I’ve always seen tech writing as an adventure in both learning and creativity, which is why I’ve stuck with it for so long.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Nina, it’s great that you’re teaching composition at a local community college. About 5 years ago, I did the same except that it was just writing, and it was at ITT-Tech so we didn’t really bring in literature. It seems like teaching English like this would be a nice balance to technical writing. I know there are comparisons between technical writing and creative writing, but not as many as I would like. There seems to be no substitute for good literature.

  5. Jill

    I didn’t read fiction for many years; thought it was a waste of time. But then in my thirties I started having trouble sleeping–I suspect job stress was the culprit. My MIL left us a bag of books from garage sales; I dug it out of the closet one night and started reading the mindless mysteries and they helped me sleep. Now I read a lot of all sorts of fiction and non-fiction, too. Since then I’ve started writing some of my own stuff, mostly poetry. For fun. Just because. Some is published in local literary mags. Not every minute of my time generates money; I’m losing the need to commoditize everything. I don’t feel the need to quit my day job. My creative pursuits are a way of coping with life. Someday your kids will be thrilled to read your story, poem, whatever. I think you should write it, but over time. Slowly. Let it accumulate your thoughts and experiences.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Jil, thanks for sharing your story. I think I too read fiction as a way to help me sleep. Hopefully it will grow to be much more than this, but reading does take a lot of time. I will probably try writing some fiction. As long as I keep it fun, it can’t be any less draining than the myriad of other activities I do that aren’t monetized.

  6. Craig

    Great post, as usual. You’re spoiling us. I tracked down that article you mentioned from The Atlantic. I have saved it to read later this evening. Your tale of being exhausted and grumpy by mid-week hits a bit close to home. Going to work on fixing that.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Craig, I didn’t realize the article was online. I put a link to it in the post. When you figure out a fix to the mid-week exhaustion, please let me know. :)

  7. Esa

    Tom – This post really struck me, probably because it mirrors my personal experience in many ways. What got me reading fiction again was buying a Kindle a couple years ago. In an ideal world, I’d only read big, thick novels from the library, with well-worn pages and cellophane dust covers, and I’d read for hours at a time, not in 5- or 10-minute increments on the train during my daily commute. I didn’t read books for a long time because “the conditions weren’t right,” but I finally realized that those conditions weren’t going to change, so I had to adapt.

    As I started reading again, I found myself dredging up the long-buried dream of writing the next great mystery series. I even started working out plots and characters, but then asked, “Why? Will anyone ever read this?” Probably not, but I did get something from the *process*. Exercising my brain with a different type of writing than I do every day helped me look at my day-job writing with a fresh eye. And it’s been valuable to be able to do that again, after so many years of plugging away as a tech and business writer.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking reflections.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Esa, thanks for sharing your insights. You have almost convinced me to buy a Kindle. I see your point about reading in short increments rather than lengthier durations.

      Also, you make a great point about using creative writing as an alternative to the technical and business writing that we do for money during the day. That alternate activity is highly worthwhile. I know my blog has filled that space. It leverages a completely different muscle, it seems.

  8. Harry

    Yep, familiar story – I stopped reading fiction to learn about career stuff. Now I’m back to fiction to help my career move forward; I read a lot of screenplays these days since I want to get better at visual storytelling in my technical videos.

    Speaking of which, I just finished a tutorial series on Outlook Best Practices that uses a fiction narrative because the article (from the Outlook product team) is so dry and hard to get through I wanted a way to show people how Outlook was designed to be used, in a way that’s hopefully easy and enjoyable to watch:
    http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/outlook-help/outlook-best-practices-how-harry-got-organized-RZ102724842.aspx

    I think it’s important to keep a balance of fiction and non-fiction; non-fiction conveys information, fiction conveys truth! :-)

    1. Tom Johnson

      Harry, I can really see how narrative plays a strong role in your work. I love the stuff you’re doing at Microsoft. It’s both innovative and creative. I haven’t watched the course you linked to you, but I plan to, since getting organized is a huge challenge for me.

      I like your last point about nonfiction conveying information and fiction conveying truth. That’s a nice way of putting it. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Cheryl

    Completely relate to avoiding fiction because it isn’t bringing in money or advancing my career, and detracts from family duties as a leisure activity. I hadn’t thought about why I stopped reading fiction but that insight really hits home.

    1. John Tait

      NaNoWriMo is a fantastic project but it’s not for me. I can write 500 words a day, tops. Often less. They’re good words through.

      I really enjoy tying the mosaic together, adding foreshadowing material, and slicing all redundancy out of it.

      I admire prolific authors who can produce more (especially the derided pulp writers Guy N Smith and Shaun Hutson.)

      1. Robert Levy

        I did Nanowrimo once, back in 2007. I really liked the process. You’re allowed to do all sorts of background work before you get to writing on the first day.

        So, in my case, I tried to work out most of the details beforehand. (Here’s a post about the prep work I did, on a blog I set up to track my progress: http://web.mac.com/gistak/Defenders/The_Defenders/Entries/2007/10/17_Preparation.html

        The whole point is NOT to worry about the quality of the words. You just crank out them out. It’s liberating to stop editing all the time and just put your thoughts on paper as they come, accepting that it won’t be great.

        What’s shocking to me is how much good stuff there is in mine. I recently reread part of it, and mixed in with the junk was some surprisingly amusing stuff.

      2. robert levy

        Incidentally, according to their FAQ page, nablopomo started off as sort of jokey response to nanowrimo. It’s funny that you knew the offshoot, but not the original.

  10. pattyblount

    Tom,

    Writing fiction comes easiest when you’re READING fiction.

    When I leave the tech writing day job at night, I go home and write young adult novels. My last book, SEND, a story about a former cyberbully trying to deal with the suicide he caused, got me an agent and the attention of one editor (so far, she says hopefully).

    After spending nine or ten hours battling crashing software and trying to make sense out of requirements and bug reports so I can document use cases, I frequently arrive home only to find my creative energy tapped out.

    That’s when I read.

    I don’t watch much TV anymore. When I do, prefer to escape from reality, to submerse myself in the fake stuff like the various Housewives, Jersey Shore, etc. So, I read.

    That re-energizes me and reminds me I want to write fiction because I HAVE TO find out what happens to the characters in my head. The premise you outlined here? I want to know more about this couple. Who are they? Why do they keep secrets from each other? Why is he jealous instead of happy? Is it because his father always said he’d never amount to anything?

    For me, it’s all about the characters.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Patty, thanks for your comment. I know you read a ton, and that you have another blog that deals more with fiction. It’s great to hear that you have so much writing enthusiasm and success. I hope your novel finds a publisher. I also like your point at the end about writing as a means of finding out what happens to the characters.

  11. Karen Tiede

    How did you get a picture of my bookshelf? (Surely that’s only your new stuff…)

    >Rather than pursuing nonfiction, I should have pursued fiction.

    “Should have” is a useless thought. You did what you did, and you have the life you have now, and that’s where you are. No guarantee that pursuing fiction would have given you the freedom to even entertain these thoughts today.

    >spending 40+ hours on a short story, what would I do with it?

    I recall reading one of the famous SciFi authors (a genre I don’t read) say, in an interview, that his life changed when he realized he could earn infinitely more, per word, for a novel than a short story. Furthermore, they took about the same amount of effort.

    >I decided to put the brakes on fiction reading.

    It’s not clear from your paragraph why not knowing what to do with your own recent first effort in WRITING fiction would stop you from READING fiction.

    From here, exaggerating a bit, it seems like you’re telling your own-toddler-self that because she didn’t succeed in crossing the living room on her first two-legged attempt, she should abandon all hopes of an Olympic medal in ice skating. You probably would never treat a student’s first efforts the way you’re treating your own re-entry.

    >Not really worth it. There was no twist, no cleverness in the story. It would either be predictable or manipulative.

    Hum…. If I follow this logic, I should never drive someplace new because I can tell from the map that I won’t see anything interesting along the way. I thought the whole point of creating characters was that they usually take over and tell you their own story? If you’re writing what you don’t know, then you can’t know how the story will end.

    Even from here: what will the woman find when she sits at her husband’s desk? Is he having an affair, looking at porn, writing fiction of his own? Maybe he knits on conference calls.

    Go again. Don’t quit before the miracle happens.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Karen, thanks for your comment. I appreciate your analysis and questions. You’re right that I’ve somewhat given up before even starting! I do have some ambitions to write a nonfiction book (I started a long thread about findability). Maybe I’ll try to put that energy into some kind of fiction. Do you know of examples that blend fiction and nonfiction? Could I somehow spin my series about findability into a fiction?

  12. Kelly Schrank

    Tom, what happened to reading fiction because it is fun? ;)

    I, too, fell into that trap. I was reading nonfiction stuff to help me navigate life and my career, but I never relaxed. I have started reading biographies and fiction again because I should sometimes be allowed to relax and have fun! So should you!

    1. Tom Johnson

      I totally agree. I’m not sure where I got the idea that reading is work and not mere fun. Maybe it’s an idea one picks up in college. My wife is a big reader, and she’s frequently telling me the same thing — I should read for the pure enjoyment of reading. She’s managed to convey that to our oldest daughter, and our oldest daughter reads voraciously. There was a book my daughter passed up the other week, though. She felt The Hobbit was boring, so she didn’t read it. I should do the same for other books.

      BTW, I’m reading Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist right now. It’s so far a great book.

      1. Karen Tiede

        Books get 30 pages. If a book hasn’t made its case within the first 30, it goes back where it came from.

        In more recent years, as my eyes get worse, a book designer will also get charged with the foul. Renato Stanisic is the greatest book designer I’ve found; noticed him when I finished the second book in one pass without a break.

        Wish I’d kept track of designers longer–just started noticing this year. Far too many publishers will give cover design credit but not book designer credit. Called Allison Weiner (A Life in Stitches) out in an Amazon review for a great design–maybe it will get a message back to the publishers. Probably too late to make much of a different (in the life cycle of printed books).

        Half the time you can’t enjoy a book, it’s bad design as much as bad writing.

      2. Peter Grainge

        Tom
        I’m replying to point you made in the first sentence, that you are bothered that you don’t read much fiction, rather than how you go about writing fiction.
        Earlier this year I bought my wife a Kindle. She has always been an avid reader and wanted one for a long holiday to save carrying lots of books. Shortly afterwards I decided to get one for myself. I am not an avid reader as I seem to start a book and then get distracted. However, I decided to get the Kindle because I thought it would be convenient.
        Here’s the odd thing. I found myself reading more and would finish a book in a fraction of the time I would take over a hard copy book. Talking to others about this I have found that many Kindle users find themselves reading more than before.
        There’s no logic that I can see but it is a common experience.

        1. Nina

          Peter, I think you’ve convinced me to get a Kindle. I’ve been on the fence for about a year now, but I’m thinking a Kindle would provide a way for me to bring sorely-missed fiction back into my life.

          1. Peter Grainge

            My sister-in-law is a hospital consultant and often has to stay overnight. Now she can pop the Kindle in a bag so she always has something to read, when time permits. Recommend the M Edge case as it zips up.

  13. Shirley K

    Hey Cindy. Just remember when you are looking around for the amazon kindle, that the legit ones have a copyright protection on the name. So if you see a special offer and you see no copyright or the copyright does not match the name on that product BEWARE!

    All the information you need on the amazon kindle can be found at:

    http://www.my-kindle.net.com

    Good Luck and like I said…be carefull where you buy from! =)

  14. Raj

    Tom, my biggest worry now is that I am unable to read novels, short stories, poetry, and literary reviews, because of my work on weekdays and the “feeling” of tiredness on weekends. For me, that is the greatest disappointment in my life. I remember myself reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” a day before my post-graduate semester exams. I still remember my roommate’s remarks on seeing me reading a novel on that day – this is too much!

    I wanted to write reviews like John Updike, but realized pretty early that it was a huge ask. I still carry that dream.

    I could not think of a life without books and library memberships. Nowadays, I spend more time reading blurbs than novels or short stories. I keep half a dozen books at my bedside, but I am frustrated with the fact that I am unable to read fiction like it was 10 years back.

  15. Peter

    I think fictional books are great to calm down and relax and excape a little bit from the daily routine. I tried to read nonfiction stuff but i came to the conclusion that it´s not made for me. And i love the fact that i am still able to read fiction like i was back in my college-days.

  16. Mark Laughlin

    I like the plot of the husband watching the kids while the wife takes his job. That could be made into a really good film. Maybe you’re over thinking the fiction writing thing – just write some stories for fun and then figure out what to do with them later.

    I know what you mean about giving up on fiction – the same thing happened to me. I used to read a lot of novels, but in the past few years, I’ve been like, “Wait, how is this going to help me get a better job?” I’m more about tech and nonfiction these days myself, but if writing some fiction is enjoyable for you, go for it!

  17. Robert Nagle

    Hello, there, I also am a technical writer and fiction writer and I took a hiatus from writing and even from reading. So I understand a lot of what you’re describing.

    I think it was Paul Eluard who said that the novel’s raison d’etre was to express what could only be expressed in the novel. The problem is that the story or novel isn’t as cultural relevant as it used to be — the audience is smaller for one thing. So you need to figure out what kinds of stories are not mentioned in TV, videos, or games.

    By the way, don’t talk too much about what you write. You spoil it for yourself and others.

    The big problem with writing is visibility, but look, you run a fairly well traveled blog. The blog format is flexible — and not just for practical things as you have used it for. I’d probably buy or download your novel just because I know you as a blogger (and frankly, your series about information design from last year was brilliant).

    One final thing. I run a small ebook publishing firm devoted to publishing and republishing the fiction of Jack Matthews (never heard of him? Well, you’re not alone!). He recently published an ebook, A worker’s writebook which is a free download until Sept 15. Sorry to sound like a spammer, but really the book covers some of the things you describe. And for the next week at least it’s free.

    Jack Matthews comments in the first chapter

    The sad fact is, most intelligent young highly verbal types who study writing or take creative writing courses do not become successful writers. Most do not even become unsuccessful writers. Only a very small percentage perseveres in this cruel enterprise which takes egos hostage and seldom returns them unharmed. Many writers, especially in their early attempts, encode their deepest secrets in their short stories.

    Well, supposing you are one of this sort, how will you feel when your encoded secrets are rejected? You may feel they haven’t been decoded properly, and you may not be entirely wrong. Still, the injury has happened – one of many reasons that only a very small percentage will prove to have the courage, industry, inspiration, ability and stubbornness to last, and have their encoded secrets accepted and made public, if not necessarily understood.

    In short, the great majority will fail, fall by the wayside, turn to other things, and, with courage and luck, find happiness doing those other things – perhaps pausing now and then when they are old and ripe with other sorts of accomplishment to wonder if they might not have made it had they persisted a bit longer. No one can answer such a hypothetical question, of course; but let’s suppose the answer is no. Let us accept the fact that most people, even if possessed of high intelligence, great industry, rugged (though sensitive) egos, and understanding spouses will not, in the nature of things, succeed as writers. Dismal prospect, you will note. Yes, and an unpopular one.

    As far as writing what you know/don’t know, I guess that boils down to which topic is more interesting personally and metaphysically. Exploring a new kind of experience through writing can be a source of unexpected joy.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Robert, thanks for your comment and for the quote from Jack Matthews. It’s motivating. I found your note, “I run a small ebook publishing firm devoted to publishing and republishing the fiction of Jack Matthews…” intriguing. What is about Matthews that you like so much? I confess I have never heard of him. Is there a particular work that stands out as his best (which you recommend)?

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