EGJ on Writing & Being Published


In the movie, “Beautiful Dreamers,” two men, a vicar and a journalist, discuss the danger of Walt Whitman’s visit to a quaint 19th century English village. The Vicar is concerned about the wild influence Whitman will have on the people of his small pious town, while the journalist chooses to underestimate the famous writer’s influence, calling him “a harmless old man.” To this, the Vicar replies, “It is not the man that concerns me, but the voice.”

A writer is never harmless. Words are power. No matter what we write, we teach. Whether it’s non-fiction or novels, poetry or prose, adult or children’s literature, we are all influencing the minds of our readers and therefore have a responsibility to be true to the page. How that translates into personal experience is up to us. But it is our bottom line because a reader can sense when we are false. They may not know what it is or be able to articulate it, but they will nevertheless put down the book if it is absent of truth.

A fellow fiction writer who was having trouble finding a publisher once asked me in frustration, “What do publishers want?”

“The answer is simple,” I said, “they want the same thing readers want. The same thing we all want when we pick up a book: A genuine voice. A voice that shakes our world, alters our perceptions, opens us up, makes us feel we are not alone in this life. We want to fall in love with the story and its people. We want to learn and grow and feel and think. Laugh and cry. Live in another world for a while. We want to come away changed by a writer’s words, for a brief moment or for a lifetime. We all want the same thing from a book.”

Whitman-5Now, the only way to accomplish that is to write truth, whether the story is based in reality or not. Write what is true for you. When they tell newbie writers to “write what you know,” it creates a bit of a paradox in the mind. If people only wrote what they already knew, only detectives would write detective novels. Only sea captains would write about captaining a ship. Right? What that statement really means is, ‘write what is true… what is true for you.’

So when teachers say “write what you know,” they are not talking about knowledge or life experience (for that we have research), they are talking about inner experience . . . honest emotions. Put on the page what you have felt inside. Make it real, and readers will feel. Make it false and readers will waver, grow bored, and put the book down (in more ways than one).

As writers, we are all “beautiful dreamers” but we have to be real. Real to the page. Real to others. Real enough to stand up for our creation so that it too becomes real to the world beyond our corner desk, beyond the realm of imagination.

For many of us, writing is not a choice, it is a way of life. It is blood, breath, and bone. We require creation as we do light and air. Essential sustenance for the soul. And yet, if we cannot share what we write, something is lost. Part of what sustains us as we write is the hope of that second set of eyes, and the third, and the forth. We need an audience to complete the circle. Until there is a reader, the book is yet unfinished.

In the writing profession, we all have one thing in common. We all want to be published. Some are new at it, having never submitted their work, others could wallpaper their den with rejection slips, and some are too afraid of rejection to even submit, writing story after story that never sees sunlight, stuck on a virtual shelf while they move on to the next idea. But inside, we never leave ourselves alone. There is always that inner whisper (sometimes a scream) that says you should get your stuff out there. Get yourself published. Or publish yourself!


The pressure to present our work to the world comes not only from within but from without. As writers, we are up against the social presupposition that we are not true authors until we are published. The first thing out of anyone’s mouth when you say, I’m a writer is; “Really? What have you published?” If we are forced to answer, “Nothing yet,” the conversation often ends there and that lack of validation sometimes stings. If this goes on for many years, there is a tendency to feel like a failure, perhaps some of us even stop admitting in polite company that we write at all. If no one ever says yes to our creation, is it valid? Are we really writers?

Theorist of Symbolic Interactionism Charles Horton Cooley said, “An artist can not fail. It is a success just to be one.” And so it is with writers.

The other common response we hear when we say we’ve written a book is “Yeah, I’m writing one too,” or “I’ve thought about doing that also.” The art of writing is often devalued by the individual because everyone thinks they can do it and just haven’t gotten around to it yet. But you and I know the truth of it. That anyone can start a book, but very few will finish and still fewer will publish. It takes courage beyond compare. We must be brave enough to be honest and that courage must carry us through to the last page. Then we must be brave enough to allow ourselves to be thoroughly exposed. Brave enough to stand before all and say, yes I created this and it doesn’t matter what anyone says, “I believe in it and here it is.”

Whitman-9I have a friend who says, “The light at the end of the tunnel is keeping the coffee warm.” It might be small, it might be dim, but you can navigate by it and at least when you get there, you know there will be coffee. Find that little, practical light. Something to plot your course by. And though small and comparably insignificant, the light will never go out and the coffee will always be warm.

A writer’s biggest challenge is not what words to use or where to take the story next. In my experience, a writer’s biggest challenge is FINISH & FOLLOW-THROUGH, which includes writing, research, rewriting, editing, rewriting some more (as many times as it takes) and then on to publishing (traditionally or solo), launch, marketing and publicity.

When we have written the last line and the book is finally “done,” there is still soooo much to do that we tend to want to just go back in our cave and write another book—the pull to do so is powerful—but that won’t lead to a readership beyond friends and family. We must be willing and ready to become REAL, work our butts off, RISK exposure—do what it takes to get our creation out into the world and see it through. So what makes a writer an author? Honesty. Courage. Fortitude. Perseverance. Lots of editing, and a good marketing plan—a way to take a story from the realm of ideas to the “real world.” Yes, we are all beautiful dreamers, but the only real way to make a dream come true… is to wake up!

Find your passion. Write what is true for you. BRAVE THE DREAM. It’s worth the ride.

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