Is Writing a Game of Solitaire?

Fiction writing is a game for kids who don’t play well with others. Instead of talking with other people they write dialog; instead of having adventures with their friends they imagine friends, imagine adventures. As they write, they imagine readers – people who, like themselves, can immerse themselves in imaginary worlds, characters, events. And once the writing is finished, the imaginary having been made manifest in words, there the text sits, unread, because writers don’t know any real readers like the ones they imagine. That’s why writers need sociable outgoing people like agents and publishers and publicists and retailers: to get their books out there into the real world, where actual readers live.

That’s the first paragraph of “Writing Precariously,” a Ficticities pamphlet available as a page on this website and as a .pdf (5,064 words). Like other businesses, the commercial publishing industry is an organized corporate enterprise, a host of workers possessed of complementary skills coordinating their efforts in order to produce, distribute and sell its commodities, making money for employee wages and for investor profits. A publisher typically outsources critical tasks — finding and prescreening talent, printing, warehousing, distributing, selling — with nearly all of these contractors likewise being organized corporate enterprises.

The only contractors that publishers hire who aren’t organized are the authors, who almost always operate as solo practitioners. Why is that?

One possible explanation is temperament. Writing is a solitary endeavor, a matter of secluding oneself from social distractions in order to pull a coherent text into the formless void of the blank page or screen. Hermits aren’t much good at organizing themselves into monasteries. The ones who do join the collectives are better suited to making copies of existing texts than to writing the originals.

Is that true? Are writers temperamentally ill-suited to organizing themselves together into collaborative enterprises? Do writers write because they can’t function well in organized group endeavors? Does organization invariably generate the sort of groupthink that’s anathema to the creative writer? Do writers need to buffer themselves from the pragmatic goal orientation of the corporate world in order to weave their spells?

Twice I’ve tried to join a writers’ group. The first was avowedly commercial in orientation: I was disenvited when I asserted that I didn’t want to edit my writing in order to please an audience. The second group consisted of several literary scholars who worked together and who wrote on the side. I quit after two sessions when my writings generated either silent indifference or digressions onto interpretive subtleties of Middlemarch and the temporal overlap of Manet’s artistic career with the Paris Commune. Maybe it’s just me.

I don’t have an MFA, but my understanding is that the programs’ educational processes rely heavily on collaboration among students and faculty. Some programs even publish their own literary journals. So collaboration among writers is possible, even productive. Maybe it just can’t last. Or maybe the graduates get so sick of collaborating that they’re relieved to go back out on their solitary ways.

So, how much can writers’ isolation from one another be ascribed to a shared psychological predisposition to solitude and to the exigencies of creative endeavor?

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9 thoughts on “Is Writing a Game of Solitaire?

  1. I’m like you, in temperament. I have the instincts of a hermit, and I appreciate the isolation and solitude that comes as part of the writing process.

    There was a time, however, when I was seriously interested in becoming an Episcopal priest. I was quite aware that my inclination toward solitude was at odds with the profession, which is primarily that of a leader in a social context, an upfront presence. Being a successful priest means networking, it’s a relational calling. In a sort of backwards way, though, that’s one of the main reasons I started going down that road: I felt like it pushed me to extend myself out of my head and that it would do so in a way that felt healthy to me.

    From conversations I’ve had with more extroverted writers, there’s a similar dynamic. They may be people-oriented, focused primarily on what’s happening socially and outside of themselves, but when they sit down to write, they find that it’s a refreshing form of solitude. It’s kind of like working out — it might be hard to motivate yourself to do it but you’re usually glad you did it and you rarely regret it.

    I wonder too — and this is strictly speculation — if it might be the case that the more commercially successful writers tend to be more extroverted and less hermit-oriented. Commercial success tends to come to those who tap into the shared trends and the public zeitgeist. Getting published, itself, tends to favor those with the ability to network, which tends to be a more social talent.

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  2. You said: “Does organization invariably generate the sort of groupthink that’s anathema to the creative writer? Do writers need to buffer themselves from the pragmatic goal orientation of the corporate world in order to weave their spells?”

    I think this is perhaps the deeper point. Beyond whatever personality differences we writers may have, is true creativity only possible if we detach from the pressures of groupthink and disengage from the trends in order to allow something unconventional and original to emerge?

    My own opinion is that we can’t answer this question with a straight “yes” or “no,” that it’s all highly relative and contextual. What I mean by this is that sometimes detachment can accomplish more creativity, but sometimes it simply becomes naval-gazing; but which it is depends both on the person and where they are in their creative process.

    I kind of think there’s something like a dialectic going on. On the one hand, a writer needs a connection to the world s/he is writing about if s/he in order to stir creativity. We need the stuff of the world to inspire us. On the other hand, it’s easy to become so absorbed in the world that we find ourselves writing not so much to create but in order to be read. This seems especially true in today’s commercial publishing industry, where, as you so wisely note, only a very few writers can actually earn a living, and yet the prospect of earning a living ends up being the primary motivation.

    Perhaps it’s a little like the idea of “being in the world but not of the world.” An artist must inhabit the world that s/he is inspired by — in a real sense a writer must participate — and yet to say something meaningful about this world, a writer must not merely participate but observe, in some non-attached way, in some objective sense.

    So, that’s why I say that this is all very personal and contextual. I sometimes feel that I’ve grown too detached from the world, from people and community around me, but at other times I feel I’ve become too absorbed. Much of this is just my own intuition at work.

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  3. I’m curious about how television series are written, where continuity of character and story development must be sustained across multiple episodes, each written by a different writer. How often do they actually gather together in the same room, working things out together, versus the showrunner making decisions and handing out the assignments top-down to the underlings? Or a show like Saturday Night Live, which has been running for decades now, with writers coming and going from season to season. There are separate sketches stitched loosely together — is each sketch written by a different writer, or do they write these things together?

    The commercial publishing industry doesn’t rely on the writers gathering together with one another, or even with their agent and publisher. From the pamphlet:

    I can imagine an affable literary world, with agents and publishers hosting NYC launch parties where, over canapés and champagne, the solitary writers gather. They read each others’ works in progress and, when the books are ready to come out, they write back-slapping back-cover blurbs for each other. Whenever their paths cross on the promotional circuit they get together for drinks and dinner and more drinks, maybe enjoying a quick fling back at the hotel, later becoming fast friends who take family vacations together every summer.

    I don’t know any agents so I don’t know how they allocate their time, but I can do the math. Based on their online profiles I estimate that a typical agent represents maybe thirty writers, each of whom has a new book moving along the publishing pipeline. At that rate each writer in the stable would be allotted less than two weeks of the agent’s attention annually. Factor in the staff meetings and the schmoozing and the attempts to lure new talent into the fold, and the agent’s time collapses to something more like one week per client per year. And that’s the average. I’m betting that the agent is always prepared to clear the calendar when a best-selling author wants a meeting or a word on the phone. Still, if other writers are anything like me, the lure of the fantasy overrides, for longer than anyone would care to admit, the humiliation of trying in vain to reach out from the slush pile and grab one minute’s attention from the agent’s – any agent’s – unpaid intern.

    Same with the writer-editor interactions: the editing must be accomplished very quickly, mostly remotely by email rather than face to face. I presume that the agents and the publishers do get together with some frequency, otherwise they wouldn’t all work in NYC. I suspect that most writers wouldn’t be very good at the sort of deal pitch schmoozing that goes on in those meetings. Still, writers have to pitch to agents and, given the limited amount of PR the publishers invest in an y given title, the writers have to pitch their own published books as best they can.

    Where I’m headed is toward the redundancy of the middlemen, whose purported social skills probably are overstated and not really necessary to putting good books together. At the same time, the fragmentation of self-publishing keeps those books from being tightly edited and presented widely to potential readers. Can the writers join forces without the professional middlemen controlling the interactions and the deals? I doubt it’s writers’ introverted personalities that keeps this from happening.

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  4. Ficticities: “I’m curious about how television series are written, where continuity of character and story development must be sustained across multiple episodes, each written by a different writer. How often do they actually gather together in the same room, working things out together, versus the showrunner making decisions and handing out the assignments top-down to the underlings? Or a show like Saturday Night Live, which has been running for decades now, with writers coming and going from season to season. There are separate sketches stitched loosely together — is each sketch written by a different writer, or do they write these things together?”

    And yet a show like SNL has the feeling of continuity. If someone didn’t know any better, I’d bet you could tell them that the shows were all/always written by one writer, or by the same team of writers, and they’d assume it was true. Ditto for Black Mirror. There’s a feeling of continuity.

    The same kind of thing works for greater cultures. A few years back I read American Nations where the author (Woodard, historian) argues that the United States is fragmented into distinct cultural regions whose values and way of life can be traced back to the first white European settlers. A certain culture was established and it continues, even to the present day, despite the fact that change is always happening: immigration occurs and/or technology advances and/or globalization spreads, etc. He’s not arguing that there are NEVER changes to the essence of a culture, just that it tends to be slow. Or to restate it in more colloquial terms: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Maybe that’s what makes alternative communities so effective and important: changing the essence of a culture (like the commercial publishing culture of NYC) isn’t really realistic.

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  5. Do the individuals who enter into an alternative culture already share common underpinnings that put them at odds with the dominant culture in which they’re trapped, common commitments that draw them together as if they had finally found their homeland? Or does the alt culture exist independently, even before a single individual joins it?

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  6. Corollary: does the world exist if, after walking through the portal, you don’t realize that that you’ve entered it? An excerpt from one of the Salon novels (forthcoming eventually on another channel):

    Suppose, once upon a time, the gods sent a savior. This savior lived and died in total obscurity. The savior didn’t just forgive everyone’s sins – he or she actually altered human nature, making it possible for people to become gods. Gradually but inevitably you transcend your mere humanity and are transformed into something great, all because of the actions performed generations before you were born by this anonymous messiah. Would you resent the other gods, the ones who came before, for not telling you what was happening to you? Would you resent the obscure savior for bringing about your deification without letting you know beforehand? And what if even the savior didn’t know? What if this savior never realized that he or she was the savior, was never informed about the mission, was never told of its successful completion?

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  7. That might be how culture works for most of us. Changes happen because the outliers imagine it while they and others (prophets, reformers and revolutionaries) actualize it. Unless this is an armed conflict, however, or highly publicized, it might not actually be noticed by most folks. Even in the United States, it’s been working this way. Neoliberalism has slowly taken over as the m.o. Bernie Sanders isn’t really presenting ideas that are “revolutionary” — they’re mostly just a re-statement of New Deal ideas that have mostly been dismantled (strong unions, regulation of banks and the financial sector, progressive taxation, etc.). But to most folks this sounds revolutionary, because we’ve kind of slowly been portaled into this neoliberal wasteland.

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