b Jean Roberta

Much has been written about writer’s block, the internal censor, and various other personal demons that interfere with the flow of inspiration. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, conceived of story-killing depression as a group of evil characters called Dementors and included them in the plot so that she could write around them, so to speak.

The last few posts here have dealt with some of the external factors, or impersonal demons, that discourage writers. Changes in the publishing industry that have resulted in dwindling rates of pay and a dwindling market for innovative work, plus the free-for-all of self-publishing, can make it look almost impossible to have a writing career.

Aside from (or in addition to) all that, broad and clichéd writers’ guidelines are unhelpful. I’ve read too many messages on publishers’ sites that say something like this: “We set up shop because we thought it was time for someone to publish interesting work that engages the reader. We like believable characters, strong plots, and fresh language. We are completely different from all other publishers.” Sometimes a shortened version of this (“Enter the unique world of XYZ Press!”) appears below an editor’s name on a rejection message. More honest guidelines advise writers to read what XYZ has already published to get a sense of what they accept.

Harassment is another thing that seems guaranteed to harm any sensitive person – as writers tend to be, since we need to be attuned to our own consciousness and our own emotional climate. Some sites, both on-line and in the real world of writers’ events, need to be marked like medieval maps with images of dragons in the wild places.

During my annual two months off from teaching, when I hope to achieve phenomenal word-counts per day, and make at least a good start on a book or two, I’ve disappointed myself. Self-doubt has set in, as usual. When I’m surrounded by students and colleagues, I dream of having the time and solitude to write. Alone in a room with a computer, some notes, and a list of calls-for-submissions, I wonder if I am too out of touch with the general zeitgeist to write anything that would be meaningful for anyone else.

If I’m below the radar, however, I’m less likely to be a target for attack than writers who engage more regularly with on-line commentators. During the past few months, while taking part in an awards contest as a judge and co-editing a “best-of” anthology, I’ve become aware of feuds, sock-puppet identities, and the trashing of writers by other writers. I know it’s possible to grow a thick-enough skin to appear impervious to insults, but I’m not sure it’s possible to prevent unexpected hostility from wrecking one’s concentration. Recovery probably requires disconnecting from the on-line world, at least temporarily.

I sometimes wonder how to develop tough-minded resistance to rejection, snark, bad reviews and threats of violence while staying open to new ideas and editing advice. I wonder if any writer has really achieved that kind of balance.

The book I’m supposed to be writing is a work of creative non-fiction (to use a broad term) on “censorship” in various forms, focusing on my personal experience. A local publisher is waiting to read my approach to political conflicts in the writing/publishing world. Reading about vicious trashing which has not affected me directly reminds me of less-drastic ideological conflicts in my “real” life during the past twenty years.

I’ve written here before about a persistent belief on the political Left that grammar is inherently racist and elitist, that the best writing is “free” (an unedited stream of consciousness), and that language should float somewhere above the specific cultures that produce it. This set of beliefs drives me crazy. I can’t agree that the most incoherent student essays are beautiful in their own way. Saying this in public, however, seems likely to get me banished by the cool kids.

Then there is the more traditional objection to anything written by or about those who are not white, male, heterosexual, and “normal.” This bias shows up in the form of some editors,’ publishers,’ and reviewers’ preferences for work written by and about white men, and in complaints within the Ivory Tower that academic standards have slipped because of the introduction of “women’s studies” and “queer” and “ethnic” or international programs.

Traditional bias can seem to come from different directions, but it is always based on the same theme. As a teenage writer, I was warned by my boyfriend at the time that I should write about boys, not girls, so that my writing would appeal to more readers. As a graduate student in the local English Department, I argued with my academic father AND my faculty advisor about “women’s lit.” My father’s themesong was, “What’s wrong with Shakespeare?” as though I wanted to remove every Shakespeare play and poem from the curriculum to make room for the work of unknown women, and possibly for gangsta rap.

Defenses of a traditional literary “canon” as the only literature worth reading seem as long-lived as the racism of 1910. This stuff is the blood-sucking vampire or the rotting zombie that will not go away quietly, and which can’t be killed with logic.

For better or worse, I will soon enter the circus of Fall Semester in the university where I teach. For academics as well as Jews, September is really the beginning of the year. I’m hoping the new and the fresh (new students, some new colleagues, newish subject-matter, cooler temperatures) will be inspiring.

Somehow, in spite of everything, I’m never completely silenced. Many other writers continue writing as well, and I know from reading their work that the Muses aren’t stingy with their blessings. To keep going, it seems as if we all have to cherish a level of optimism that looks naïve on the surface. I like the statement that things always turn out well in the end because if they aren’t going well, it isn’t the end.