Jul 16, 2013

The World Needs Writers

The world needs writers.

This simple, powerful message changed my heart at Summer Fishtrap.

No one ever says the words---and the absence of those words echoes loudly---like a teacher who never says, "good job," or a parent who never says, "I love you."

I've heard plenty of people preach the opposite:

"The world has enough writers."

"The last thing we need is some two-bit hack thinking he can pick up a pen and be as good as the rest of us."

"You're not a writer.  You're a content-provider.  The rest of us are in sales."

"You're going to have to toughen up if you want to compete in this publishing market."

"Don't pay attention to reviews. Focus on units sold.  Readers don't matter, just downloads." 

I'm sure you could add to this list of mandates, this list of things we are told we have to do to get in (or stay in) "the publishing game."  Everyone talks about money and market, the right price for ebooks, the deals made and not made, which authors are getting into (and not getting into) Barnes and Noble.  And truly, yes, we all need to make our way in the world, but there are easier ways to put a meal on the table than being a writer---or a content-provider---or whatever the hell we're calling it today.

Last year at Fishtrap, I revised a novel based on suggestions compiled from an assortment of editors at various big publishing houses. My agent asked me to address all concerns before she sent the manuscript out again and I was willing to give it a go.  It's publishing, right? You do the dance. You toughen up. You take out this bit for one editor.  You drop a few minor characters for another.  You explain actions so they are rational decisions rather than quirky impulse.  You take away the side kick's point of view. You take away another character, another quirky scene.  Streamlining---simplifying---narrowing---boiling the book down to the simplest common denominator.

At the end of the process, I read back through the manuscript feeling gutted. If writing were medicine, I'd killed my patient.

I didn't send it.  Probably my agent would have seen how terrible it was, but I was even more afraid she'd sell it.  My name would be there on the cover and I'd be so ashamed of what I'd done to this friendly, happy manuscript.

I tried to shake the feeling of doom.

Probably it was me. My mother had been part of our immediate family for six years, and over that last year, she'd been dying of cancer. (At the time, ever hopeful, we called it living with cancer.) Anyway, I was caring for her, so yeah, I thought probably it was me.

Still, I couldn't do it.  I was already losing my mom.  I couldn't lose my writing voice too.

So what did I do?  I bolted in the opposite direction.  I wrote something literary and heart-rending---something powerful enough to turn my quirky manuscript into a back-from-the-dead Frankenstein's monster---something no one wanted to read, but something I desperately needed to write---probably the manuscript that saved my life.

Sometimes art is messy.

I didn't realize how far into my mind I'd retreated until I saw the worried looks of friends.  And then, yes, I set it aside.

Probably it was just me.  Just the grief talking. Simple, uncomplicated grief.  Minimize it.  Play it down.  Shove it down.

Skip forward several months.

Mom died while I held her hand.

Skip forward.


Talk to a friend.

Talk to another friend.

She looked into my eyes, considered carefully before clearing her throat.  "You know, you really should entertain the possibility that things aren't working out with your agent."

I laughed.  Maybe too much.  Maybe too long.  Maybe too nervously.

I decided to send my agent something else---something that hadn't been hacked and resurrected---something good in its simplicity.

My agent said she loved it.

And then she showed me how to take it apart and turn it into something more marketable.

I said no. Not this time. Not again. I asked for my freedom.

And there I was at Fishtrap, agentless, open-hearted, prone to tears, off-balance, and giddy with possibilities.

I kept hearing the same message from different people.  The world needs writers.  We need people who will speak honestly about their lives and their experiences, people who make us think and tell us hard-won truths.  We need truth in all forms.  We need essays and letters. We need poetry and music. We need stories that open up to bigger questions and realities.

During an afternoon panel discussion, Scott Russell Sanders told us, "We need writing that serves the greater understanding and not just the writer's career.  We need writers who understand that personal stories are always enmeshed in larger stories.  Those larger stories, what Rachel Carson called the great realities, matter most."

In discussing the label, "nature writing," Sanders suggested that work severed from the environment be labeled, "Urban Dysfunctional Literature."  Everything else would just be writing.

A previous panel discussion opened to the possibility of a grand idea:  the embracing of regional literature and regional writers.  Rather than looking for the biggest possible audience, why not look for the most engaged audience?

In her keynote address, Cheryl Strayed told us, "Find that hot burning core of you and give yourself up to it."  She told us to write our deepest story and then go deeper.  Don't just talk about death. Explore how to live with loss.  "Begin with what's true. End with what's truer."

In order to do this, we have to be vulnerable and being vulnerable is frightening.  Strayed's advice?  "Always write terrified."

You hear the same refrain, right?  Stories opening up to bigger stories, bigger truths?

In a digital storytelling workshop, Kim Stafford suggested gently asking why we need to tell the stories we're telling.  In answering those questions, we find the bigger story.  The story surrounding our personal narrative is always more important.

Luis Urrea tells us to write what matters and then it will be easier to keep pushing for publication.  "Wear the bastards down," he says.  "It's not a career move.  It's a spiritual triumph."

One publisher shrugged when asked about agents.  "You need one," he answered, "but most writers don't like their agents."

Urrea jumped in enthusiastically, "but having a good agent is like having your own ninja assassin!"

The publisher nodded, reminding Urrea that he hadn't felt the same way about his first agent.  Another writer in attendance had fired five agents, getting a new one each time she'd successfully pitched her own book to an editor.

That was the point when I started feeling---very oddly---better.  

Not coincidentally, that was also the point when I saw my own story inside a larger context of other writers.  And that story opened up to the experience of artists, living in communities of people dependent on each other, living with an understanding of what Rachel Carson called, "the great realities."

Strayed points out that publishing is itself a shallow goal.  "When it happens, some people will read your book and, among those who do read, most will be indifferent."  We have to be more ambitious, "wildly ambitious," she says, "but don't be ambitious about publishing or selling.  Be ambitious about your ideas and your writing."

Sanders reminds us that the literature we need is both tough (asking the tough questions about life) and vulnerable (always telling the truth).

Urrea brings it all together. Instead of telling writers they have to toughen up, he says, "You have to believe enough to endure the rejection."

Being a content-provider will not fill our souls with that kind of passion.

Perhaps in the larger context, we'll be able to see how talent is another of our environmental resources, pulled from the mammalian dreamers and thinkers who populate this suffering planet. If this is the case, what do you think? Are we mining our talent in a disposable way, draining one writer---tossing her away---draining another---or are we using our limited resources in a sustainable, life-affirming way?

The world needs writers.

How will you use your talent?


  1. I've worked in a second hand and outlet bookstore for a long time. Our motto was more or less the marketeer's: We don't need people to read books. We need them to buy books.
    As a writer, especially one wanting to publish that's sad but true. Quality versus sellability (yes, I know that's not a word).
    Good on you for firing your agent and finding your own way through it all. The world needs writers. And they need the writers to be true to themselves above all.
    Because selling books is nice. But knowing they're read, enjoyed, felt and lived is way more important than that. In the end. I think.

  2. Thanks, Linnie. I guess I'm starting to take Cheryl Strayed's advice, because writing this was terrifying.

  3. A powerful journey, Johanna. In undertaking it, in sharing it with us, you gave us a condensed and powerful journey of our own. How could we forget along the way that writers matter? Writing matters. The world needs writers, you say, and in that moment I remember the truth of it. Thank you for this post.

    Take care,

  4. Great article. If there's anything I've learned on my indie publishing journey, it's that all of this is hard, really hard. But I'm in this for the long term. It's good to see that you've not given up and that you're taking that leap of faith. That leap in believing in yourself.

  5. Thank you, Jess. I needed someone to remind me too.

    {The world needs writers. Pass it on.}

  6. Thanks, Ron. It's always good to remind myself that I may have broken my book, but I didn't break the writer. And hey, maybe someday I'll put that story back together. For now, I have other books to write.

  7. Oh there seems to be something in the air. I wrote a post this week that covered the same area, and have read quite a few more.
    Vive la Revolution.
    Thank you for writing this.

  8. This is wonderful, Johanna.

    "don’t be ambitious about publishing or selling. Be ambitious about your ideas and your writing." That should be stapled on the walls of everywhere that has anything to do with literature!

  9. Great post. Stirring stuff. Hope you don't mind but I've stuck some quotes from it on the wall behind my laptop for when the black dog turns up.

    Quick question - who wrote 'Great Expectations'?

    Ok, who was his agent? And who cares??

  10. Thanks for another 'truth" wake up call, Johanna! It seems my writings lacked authenticity. I suppose because of fear. I let go of an attempt at writing my memoir, because it lacked authenticity. Like Cheryl Strayed advised "Always write terrified" I get it and I will.


  11. Just read your post! There does seem to be something in the air. So glad to be writing alongside you.

  12. John Ross Barnes (@BarnestormJohn)July 17, 2013 at 4:40 AM

    I loved that book. I still have the Pre-agent version, you know. Just in case you ever lose it. ;-)

  13. Yeah we, Nine or eleven of us in this corner, have kinda been concerned. So glad that you went and heard what you needed to hear, what many of us have, or will have, needed to hear.
    Thanks for passing that bit of wisdom along. It does ring true.

  14. Yes. And it should be referenced before we sign any contracts.

  15. Excellent point. I was reminded just the other day that Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass---and he wrote his own negative reviews to give it weight. When he was outed for reviewing his own work, he published those scathing remarks alongside his own reviews.

    Oh yeah. I am large. I contain multitudes.

    Thanks for the long-view, Stephen!

  16. Don't give up, Clara. Keep writing what matters.

  17. Thanks, John. I find it easier to be protective of other writers and their voices. I'm very thankful for those of you protective of mine.

  18. I may take you up on that, John. I'm not sure I have that version.

  19. Enjoyed reading this and will definitely keep it in the forefront of my mind. Writing is my passion, and I want it to stay that way.

  20. I am always moved by stories that ring of truth. Somewhere I read a famous author (maybe Neil Gaiman) saying that your voice is unique. Only you can tell your stories. If it takes away from your story or its characters, think long and hard.

    On the other hand, I do editing work with fiction. A good editor will work to pick up inconsistencies with the writing, characters, and story. We as authors need to work with our editors to make our stories the best they can be. If there is something to their comments about the substance of your story, especially if the different editors pick it, look at working on that section. These guys have been doing their jobs for a while, so hopefully they have some intuition about it all.

    However marketability is a term I find annoying. Who wants the same old stories?

    I think you did the right thing. Work with one editor is my advice. It gets to be a case of too many cooks.

    Good luck and I hope you find an agent that appreciates your voice.

  21. Loved the world needs writers. We write because we have a story to share, a story that lies deep inside ourselves and in writing that story we become more. Hopefully others will read it but in the end the story itself is what matters

  22. Yes. Yes. Yes! This is what I signed up for:-D Thanks for posting, Johanna:-D

  23. A wonderful piece Johanna, you are spot on with 'We need people who will speak honestly about their lives and their experiences, people who make us think and tell us hard-won truths. We need truth in all forms.' Such writing may unfortunately not sell, are we too scared of it? But it does connect us together and that is far more important than sales.

  24. This really resonated with me. Thank you

  25. Our Courageous Johanna...We all believe in you..Now Is Your Time,must be a bit Selfish to move on.Remember How Many People You Have Encouraged..Please xx Susan

  26. [...] The World Needs Writers Johanna Harkness on writers and storytelling. Telling those tales is important. [...]

  27. Your piece inspired me to keep writing at a time when I needed it most. Thank you.

  28. [...] The World Needs Writers from Johanna Harness (via M. Fenn) On the power and necessity of truthful honest raw stories… which means courageous storytellers. [...]