What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?

Andrew Sean Greer answers this question in the September 2014 issue of The Writer Magazine.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?

“That you be clever as clever, and people will be impressed, but they will only be impressed for so long. After that, unless you are very real in your writing, and donate some piece of your heart, and are vulnerable, someone else will come along much more clever than you. Better to be ready from the outset. There is no competition for vulnerability. We are all in that together.”

Note from Marlene:  There’s that vulnerability thing again.  Feeling vulnerable seems to go along with sharing your writing with others. . . that’s what Steve Jobs and I were talking about in the August 14, 2014 post about the most important tool in life about making big choices.  Well, Steve and I didn’t actually have this conversation. . . but we could have, in my writerly imagination!

Your turn:  What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?

The Writer Magazine

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  1. Ke11y

    Only A Fool Loves This Writer.

    Look, you cannot treat me as a normal human being because by any standard I am not one, never have been, never likely to aspire so high. Often cruel, most times selfish, always charming, I might have been raised by the ocean itself. ‘Hold onto me and I’ll become your enemy; let me go I’ll be your friend.’ The tide speaks it to the shoreline every day. You’d never want to meet me, never have that dance, or feel my warm breath on your face, but know this; in my whole life I’ll never be closer and more loving than I am on the page right now.

    If you’re going to love me, begin by loving the world of the writer. There’s no hero here, no knight on horseback, just a man of some beauty; a man who knows how to run away from anyone who dares to love him as much he loves them. He resides in his own windy castle, writing his love to the world because it was always more satisfying than tongues entwined in mouths, bottom lips bitten, and hands holding hip bones.

    So leave me on my shore. Let the wind ravage my soul and the waves cover my sins. Let the moon drop toward the night somewhere else. The graveyards are full of people who couldn’t be replaced. I’m a writer. I tell lies. If you must love, then love the creativity, not the creator. This writer is simply the tool; the real ‘artist’ in this equation is the person who appreciates what the writer has created.

    1. mcullen Post author

      Yes! Yes! Yes! Visceral and evocative and so very true. I DO love the creativity! Here’s the thing. . . Kelly, why your writing is so darn good . . . .besides the honesty, the genuineness, the poignancy. . . are your word and phrase choices: “Look, you cannot treat me as a normal human being because by any standard I am not one” and “I might have been raised by the ocean itself” and “The tide speaks it to the shoreline every day” . . . the ebb and flow, the letting go to be a friend (the trust), and “more loving than I am on the page right now.”
      And the memorable, “hands holding hip bones.” I mean, how many people write that? We talk about holding hands, embracing, hands around shoulders, around waist, encircling. . . but hip bones? That is the perfect visual, sensorial thing to write here. That’s how you capture the perfect essence. . . that something we can’t quite put our finger on that makes your writing exquisite and I have a feeling you “just do this,” that it’s your natural style of writing. Keep writing! Truly, I’m gobbling up your writing like leftover pumpkin pie with whipped cream!

    2. amctigue

      Beautiful. Love your last line. For me, the writer is the channel, the opening-through-whom… Thank you.

      1. mcullen Post author

        Yes, Amanda, I agree. And your book, Going to Solace, channels readers to journey to another dimension, to a world they might not otherwise traverse.

        1. mcullen Post author

          You are such a gentleman, Kelly!

      2. Ke11y

        Thank you, Amanda:

        My hat is swept from my head, across my waist, and my torso bent forward.

        Your book is now on my Ipad and will be read hungrily till dawn!

        1. A

          Delighted. Echoing the delight in encountering a gentleman. A rarity these days. All the best.

  2. Ke11y

    Just so you know.

    I’ve suffered the wrath of the amateur critics, those telling me my words are nothing but flowery phrases. Did they ever stop to think? Did they assume I could just pick my words out of the sky, those ones floating above my head, simply to bring them down and scribble them onto paper? Dear God, what I would give to think that true, instead of ringing them out of my hurt or happiness, my understanding or not understanding, the tears I used for ink when I was young and naive, listening to the false laughter of success.

    Do you want to know how difficult I am, how bloody minded, arrogant, how selfish I can be? Do you want to know how my legs feel when someone says: ‘thank you for what you’ve written, thank you for those words, they mean a lot to me?’

    I’ll tell you, I fall apart. I go to pieces because I don’t know how to say well enough what I want to say, how to make them understand how complimented and humble I feel. Because the very words ‘thank you’ reduce me to tears. So I crush them with a throw-away line, a cynical catch-phrase, or a thread of sharp arrogance, because no-one will ever know how touched I am, how much that ‘thank you’ means to me, how I could fall apart right in front of them, or want to hug them.

    I don’t understand, I don’t understand so many things, so I write, that’s all. I write because I don’t know.

    1. mcullen Post author

      I’m so glad you posted this, Kelly. I ponder your words. . . they stay with me for several days . . . as I contemplate your writing. . . my heart expands.

  3. Ke11y

    He’s just a dog.

    Reckless came across a crab this morning. He stood, with hairs raised, barking, daring not to venture too close. Some instinct is telling him this character is not to be messed with. Reckless, still in his youth, is a working dog. We keep sheep on the farm. He was the only dog in seven puppies, but I remember my thrill when seeing his instinctive zig-zag run toward the sheep just six months after he was born in the Isle of Mull. His training wouldn’t begin until he was almost three years old. The Border collie will herd instinctively, but is an animal that requires an adult brain to perform required tasks without harming the sheep.

    Here on the Mendocino shores, Reckless has learned to herd gulls quite effectively. When he was a puppy, learning from Ruby, his mother, he sometimes snapped at the heels of the sheep. More often excitement than intent, but still, he took some shaping. Hard to imagine these days that this dog has ever been careless. When the gulls settle close by, he immediately goes into his crouched position, ears open in my direction, chest beating faster, eyes glazed on the object of his instinctive calling. I know he wants me to instruct him, but these days he just hears me mumbling. I’ll say stuff like, “You’re done, lad, we’re done with all that, get off and play.” He looks at me, eyes pleading. When he finally understands that no instruction is forthcoming he will rush off like a child in a rage. Reckless’ father, a Scottish champion, winning several prestigious titles, was a dog my father trained. I could never have found such a dog myself, not being a farmer, simply a young man who’d grown up on Mull, raised under the shadow of Ben More. Reckless was a sixtieth birthday present from my father. Two years later my father sailed on. It was after that, Reckless and I would sail out into the western lochs, his nose sniffing on the wind. Some of the farmers in the area were very dubious about me owning such a fine dog. “Aye, tis a shame indeed, a dog like that should be working.” A whisper often heard when we would stop by the pub for a drink. Reckless liked his half pint of Guinness. In the years we’ve been friends, we’ve never reached a proper understanding about where he sleeps. Yesterday, I saddled up Grapefruit Moon for my daily gallop down the shore. Thunder, the stallion, tolerates dogs less, but Grapefruit doesn’t have a problem with him darting ahead, or running alongside. I suppose I’m trying to say something, but can’t decide what. Some days when I walk him, I hardly say a word, busy with thinking, or just mindlessly walking. Reckless cannot be placed here in print other than to write his name. His friendship, trust, is everything to me. He’s just a dog.

    Land Owners.

    The shore this evening was a treasure ground of debris. I found a very useful bin. It will hold grain nicely. It is red rusty, but solid. I had to take the ATV down on to the shore, tow it back to the house at the end of a rope. I have no idea what its original content would have been. I went three times, each time collecting timber for the fire. It will be next year’s fire; soaked as the timber is. There is something about the spit and crackle of a fire that comforts. Flames, while dangerous, can also be a source of mental well being when used to heat, and cook. I often have a beach fire to romance my wife, strum a guitar and pretend I’m anyone else, but who I am. Do you smile, wonder if my mental state is all it should be? Me, too. This is a private shoreline. It came with the house. A hundred yards north and south of the cottage. That is what the realtor told me. “It’s your own private beach!” I laughed. No one in their right mind would enter these waters, full of rocks and rip tides as it is. As for the beach itself? No man has a right to own such a thing. I tore the signs down. This is your beach, if you ever get this way enjoy it. I never understood land ownership. How a man can keep another coastal acres because he has wired it. We never own land, perhaps we have some responsibility for it, but we never own it. It will still be here when all owners have gone.


    I was frustrated today in my writing. The thoughts I had, they seemed to disappear as the fingers got set on the keyboard. Not unusually, I would go off to the kitchen, make myself a cup of tea, and hope that when I get back some idea had mysteriously grown in my brain. No such luck. I once believed that good work, any work for that matter, came out of ‘inspiration’, picking up on something someone else said. I’m sure this can happen, but I also think if I were the kind of person who waited for inspired moments, nothing would ever get written down. I try very hard to work at writing, but my skills are sorely limited, and frustration builds. I can scratch a week’s work in temper. I can ask myself what is the point of writing? I mumble, hold my head in my hands, and sulk! I honestly do. I sit and sulk. But what pleasure it is to sulk over writing. Some inferno in me that cannot be extinguished. Howls of rage, and gut sobbing frustration seems to me to be a part of this thing. I know when things are getting bad, because Reckless creeps away on his belly, looking for shelter under the coffee table, staring out from eyes that look dolefully at me. This is the time to stop, make that cup of tea, and maybe when I return Reckless will be waiting to see if things are calm. They generally are. Tetley is good for that.

    1. mcullen Post author

      I love how I get caught up in your story, Kelly and then wham. . . a brilliant ending. . .often unexpected, always satisfying. I love that things usually become calm. . . your writing is a balm to the soul! Truly it is.

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