Why Writers Write

In the current issue of Poets and Writers. Michael Bourne offers an inventory of his own writing effort and its incumbent frustrations. In “Why We Write: Failure is an Option,” he asks a question I’ve long sought to answer: why do writers write when it can be such unsatisfying work? His answer: “I keep writing fiction because it isn’t easy, because it is the only discipline I care about that I will never truly master, no matter how long I work at it.”

Bourne speaks to the “good enough” novels — those good enough to publish, but which lack a clear commercial potential. Bourne writes, “Which books…get published has as much to do with luck, timing, and the individual editor’s taste as it does with literary merit.” Basically, for most novel writers, the effort to be published is a crap shoot.

I finished my novel last month, after finishing it a year earlier and then revising it substantially. I’m satisfied that I wrote a readable book in roughly three years. I know a bit more about novel writing, but I’m not sure I’m a novelist. It’s lonely work. At the end of the whole project, I know, as Bourne suggests, that the odds of being published are slim.

I’m now sending it to agents. My queries will be scanned in 5 seconds, and if I pass that test, the 5-page sample will be scanned in another 15 seconds. That’s where the hook is set or not. Pitches and queries belong to the realm of hope, a cousin to the purchase of lottery tickets. The odds against winning are great, but you won’t win if you don’t try.

Maybe I’m engaged by Bourne’s cold realism. In 2012 he offered an inside perspective on the challenges facing agents. “A Right Fit”: Navigating the World of Literary Agents. Maybe the question we should be answering isn’t why do we write, but why are we so insistent on being read?

I’m a LinkedIn misfit. When I signed on eons ago it seemed a professional necessity. More recently I’ve gravitated to Facebook for the density of interesting posts. On Facebook people are snarky. They reveal their wit. They’re outspoken, often intelligent, and unafraid of judgment.

To move between LinkedIn and Facebook is like late-night channel surfing, caught between a bad 1950s black-and-white b-roll on manufacturing and a poorly dubbed, but visually rich Almodóvar film. It’s a schizoid experience.

LinkedIn is starched, stern, and predictable. It has little need for creativity, providing neat pigeonholes into which we try to insert ourselves. The only exception to this exists among the creative professions – designers, writers and artists. They’re expected to be interesting, and often are. But heaven help the bureaucrat or corporate manager who tries to inject irony or humor into a post. It won’t wash.

The fact is that LinkedIn is boring. I can imagine readers screwing their faces up in grimaces, pulling their butts tightly at the prospect of humor directed at the serious business of business. Imagine readers glancing to one another to check on whether it’s okay to laugh.

The sheer number of people participating in LinkedIn suggest a collective agreement that it’s a valuable career tool, while also ignoring its lack of readability. If job searching and networking isn’t painful enough, the site prods us to maintain a current and upbeat presence, which is something like eating a stack of soda crackers without water. Every day.

On LinkedIn folks try to be interesting, but within the limited wiggle room of a straight jacket. Most posts recycle ideas picked up in management self-help books, business magazines, and training seminars. Sure. More business strategy, more ways to enhance sales, grow your organization, groom talent, and avoid these mistakes. No revolutions will take root there. The thoughtful ideas aren’t for readers, but for the posters, who are showcasing their talents.

I suspect that most people on LinkedIn are more interesting than their profiles suggest. If we join, we become searchable and indistinguishable, which isn’t the same as being discovered for our uniqueness. If we don’t conform we are search-engine outcasts, unfound by that imaginary recruiter or customer who wants us.

How paradoxical: I won’t be found if I don’t conform, but if I carve away the off-angles of my work history, I lose my distinct profile. I may be recruited to be the person I present rather than the one  I am. I acknowledge that I may be a misfit, and definitely a crackpot — facts that won’t appear in any profile along with the fact that I’m a hard worker and very reliable.

I’m a social-media coward, disinclined to comment on controversial subjects. That said, I’m commenting on a well-known but seldom discussed underside of Oregon civility, a banal intolerance that could be amusing if it weren’t real.

Oregonians are said to openly dislike Californians. Their disdain is sometimes traced to former Governor, Tom McCall, who once said, “Come visit us again and again…. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.” This statement, from a man who was born in Massachusetts, has been variously misquoted. Although he was speaking to a national audience, most who cite him focus the sentiment on Californians, not other migrants to the state.1 Those who bash Californians seem to believe that misquoting a former Governor makes intolerance okay. For some it’s amusing, in the way that jokes about race or dumb blondes once were.

Back in 2007, when I moved here, the real estate web sites assured California migrants that newcomers are welcomed. Once here, I realized that maybe it’s only realtors who were welcoming. Matt Love, an Oregon writer, admits to vandalizing cars with California license plates.2 Maybe he was indulging in hyperbole when writing of his antics twenty years ago, but Oregon Public Broadcasting reported a similar story of petty vandalism on California cars.3

Various blogs and message boards feature anecdotes of bias. Some snarky writers blame Californians for every national trend that Oregon has followed, and a few that Oregon has led. California buyers,  not the Oregon property owners who sell to them, are blamed for the rising cost of housing. Californians are rude. They’re outspoken. They’re slick. They’re too confident.

I’ve heard the coded question, “So what brought you to Oregon?” I’ve seen the change in facial expression when I let slip that I had previously worked in the Bay Area. At a job interview I was told, “I’m not sure how our Board would feel about hiring a Californian.”

Then there are the folks who introduce themselves by identifying the Oregon high school they attended. This is another coded message. If you’re a native you then respond in code by revealing your own high school pedigree – this even if you’re at a business meeting. Outsiders are perplexed at this odd cultural ritual. I think of it as a display of plumage, or the call of a bull elk.

It’s an accepted sport to bash Californians. In May, while attending a writers conference, I heard snide asides about Californians. I sat in silence and realized that I was “passing,” sandwiched at a table between two otherwise lovely bashers. Their words reflect a prejudice embedded in Oregon culture, weirdly acceptable even to those who would object to slurs based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Later, the table companion who bashed my people invited me to like her on Facebook, apparently unaware that I was one of them. She was hoping I’d buy her books.

As innocuous as my experience is, it hurts. I intellectually grasp that this intolerance is a form of tribalism, a paradoxical effort to bind a community. But it still stings, especially when coming from other migrants who hold a misguided belief that only Californians exert a negative impact on place.

This regional chauvinism is so widely recognized that it has been studied in academic circles. A research center at the University of Washington offers a temperate view of the historical division. They advise against California-bashing for the way that such attitudes “contradict our own perceptions of ourselves.”4 Indeed, all this bashing is ironic, given that Oregonians consider themselves above such things.


  1. A New York Times interactive map points to the paradox of Oregon’s Californian bashing. In 2012 fewer than half of all Oregonians were natives. Indeed, in 2012, of those who weren’t born here, 14% were born in California, which leaves another 40% of Oregon residents who were born elsewhere.
  2. Matt Love, in Rose City Heist (2014) writes, “…I grew up in Oregon City before it died as a mill town and I later had nothing to do with the gentrification of Portland. In fact, I think I tried to forestall it by drunkenly keying all those cars with California plates.” (p. 12-13)
  3. Erica Cain. ‘“Former Governor Tom McCall’s Message to Visitors” March 19, 2013.
  4. Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest. Lesson One: Who Belongs in the Pacific Northwest?

I’ve never been very good at networking. Write it off to my introverted personality. While I’ve always been responsive to others who call on me for professional assistance, I’ve never felt comfortable doing the same. I still cringe at the prospect of requesting a letter of recommendation.

The dilemma of networking resides in the challenge of distinguishing genuine friendships from those professional connections existing solely to advance one’s own interests. I’ve experienced the sad sensation of feeling popular, being sought for the coffee meetings, the catching up on professional news, only to discover — when I no longer had an impressive job title — that those connections were never interested in me. This sounds terribly naive, I know, but it still stings.

I’ve engaged with social media in part because it is a requisite activity if one hopes to publish fiction. I’m crafting my on-line persona as I’m indulging in my art and craft. The boundaries are clean. Few people seek to friend me because I am, at the moment, no one, but when someone does invite me to be a friend, I understand that they likely have little interest in me, except as a potential buyer of a book. It’s pretty straightforward.

I’ve been heartened by the audience for this blog, in fact touched that a few people have elected to follow me. (Another odd misplaced word.) Paradoxically, I understand that by following these inconsistent posts there is an implicit quid pro quo. It’s much like the game of charitable giving. I’ll buy a raffle ticket for your cause if you’ll buy a raffle ticket for mine. So thank you followers. I am lax in reciprocating, but I’m working on it. I know that following isn’t necessarily reading. But I’m always glad to sell the ticket even if you’re not attending the event. You need not be present to win.

My venture into this public sphere is characterized by long silent lapses. I post nothing, sometimes because I have nothing to say, or because I’m busy with life, or working on other writing.

I reflect on Facebook. A woman friended me last week, someone who knew others whom I know. I accepted, and then was inundated with her posts, which were mostly reposts of other people’s cute or reflective bon mots. These are the post-modern equivalent to the newspaper and magazine clippings that I once received from an ex-mother-in-law. They were the effort to connect, snippets of interest that revealed far more about the sender than the perceived interests of the recipient.

Occasionally an idea crosses my thoughts. I ponder that it could be transformed into a blog post. Then I think again. Some voice from the past pierces my consciousness. The brother-in-law who once interrupted me in conversation to say, “This isn’t about you” — his way to silence an outspoken woman. Or perhaps it was the mother who said, “Children should be seen and not heard,” or a family member, chastened by good Finnish Lutheran values, who inferred that to speak is to claim a place to which one is not entitled.

All those Facebook posts. They’re an effort to be seen and heard, to be affirmed. It seems that as the planet becomes ever more crowded with people we become simultaneously more lonely. The tiny flicker of “Like” is the star that emerges from a cloud, the twinkle of connection in an infinite night.

Women Writing Men

As I’ve started circulating my novel to agents, I’ve received the question – always from women – “Why is your protagonist a man?”

I then say, “Why do you ask?”

They reply, “I just wondered.”

Obviously there’s a subtext to the question that they’re not sharing. I’ve wondered if they feel a woman can’t write from a man’s point of view, that she isn’t allowed to imagine any perspective not her own. Or if my writing from a man’s point of view is some betrayal of my sex – something like going to the other side. Maybe the women who ask just aren’t interested in reading stories about men. There are certainly plenty out there, written by men about men for men. You know, masculinity as the universal point of view. Feminism 101.

I’ve also wondered why my recent writing has focused on male characters. I admit that some of my writing is cathartic. I’ve reached an age at which I fully understand the strange repression that accompanies femininity. I now see the doors that were closed to me in my younger years, or opened to the wrong corridors for the wrong reasons. If I was invited to the table it wasn’t for my brains but my entertainment value. Youth and its beauty are entertaining. The clarity of this truth is jarring.

So now I explore the masculine side in my writing. I wonder what made those men tick: the employer who diminished me with the compliment, “I think smart women are sexy.” Or the mentor who was a fumbling mass of arms and lips as I sought advice. There was the college chemistry teacher who gave me a B when I deserved a C. I realized later that he hoped to date me. Then there was the Shakespeare professor who gave me a B when I deserved an A – this after I declined his offer for extra-curricular tutoring.

Later there were the colleagues who advised me that my scholarly work wasn’t ready for publication – this simultaneous with it being accepted by an academic press. And then there were all the blundering efforts at communication and the endless mansplaining. I thought if I listened long enough I’d have a chance to be heard. That never happened.

I mistook interest for respect. Then I aged and it were as if I gradually became invisible. From this ledge I have a better view. What I observe is unaware that I’m watching.

I know the woman’s point of view. I now want to make sense of a perspective that sometimes makes no sense to me at all. I want to distinguish what is simply human from that which is masculine. That’s why I write male characters.

Over dinner with a few writers the conversation evolved to a discussion of agents. Two present had met agents through local writers conferences. Both were invited to submit writing samples. Neither heard from the agents. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the story.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned about the matchmaking business that occurs at writers conferences. Organizers know they can draw more registrants if they’re enticed with the opportunity to meet literary agents. Everyone has dreams.

Literary agents are like entertainment agents. The writers conference is akin to an open casting call. Anyone can audition. Aspiring writers queue up for their brief moment in the spotlight. They might join a group pitch — something like auditioning for the chorus. The most promising are pulled aside. That doesn’t mean they’re hired. They’re only winnowing a broad field. Think American Idol.

The agents are invited guests at these conferences. They know it would be ungracious to sit through one, two, three days of pitches without inviting a few writers to send their work. They have to justify their travel. At that open call a few writers will be asked to send a sample of their work.

When an agent says “Send me sixty pages,” he or she is just inviting a performer to come to the next round of auditions. It’s no commitment. Not even an expression of real interest.

This isn’t intended to dash hopes. Literary agents are inundated with queries. The world is full of writers hoping to publish their work.

Agents are looking for the next big star. If they see someone promising, they may send them back to work on revisions. That’s akin to being told, “Get your teeth fixed” or “Get boob implants.” Then we’ll see if Louis B. Mayer is interested.

You can invest in those improvements. Revise. Rewrite. Recast the story from the third- to the first-person. Then you go trotting back with your dazzling new teeth and oversized bosom and hope they won’t say, “Sorry honey. That was last year. The new look is natural.”

Maybe I sound a little snarky because I heard one of those lines a few months back. I’m still waiting for the call.


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