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Are We All Great Writers?

Updated on August 27, 2013

Where the River Splits

Warning: I’m going to act as if I were younger and full of braggadocio like most of you young writers who boast about your voice, your muse, your "work" and fearlessly market like crazy because you are full of yourselves, as I was.

What a handicap age and experience is beyond the obvious! It’s a cliché of course but as we age we increasingly understand that we know very little. While young, we understand, theoretically, that people believe themselves smarter than they really are. Old, we know with absolutely certainty that we are all as dumb as a bag of hammers. (Some cliches are too good to pass up.)

And really, what good is it to embrace the truth that we are all dumb asses? Does that get you anywhere? No, much better to be boastful and arrogant, full of overblown confidence. It levels the playing field, makes the least talented among us eminently marketable.

If we can fool enough people, we can sell ourselves and, by extension, our "work." But we must whip up the enthusiasm, and we must believe in ourselves no matter how inferior the product. This applies to vacuum cleaner salesmen (even though they joke their job sucks). It applies to politicians, and especially to radio and TV blowhards. And despite our denials, it also applies to writers.

I used to think writers’ purposeful exaggeration and ginned up enthusiasm was merely a result of our techno-modern age in which we’ve become not only writers but self-publishers and marketers. Ironically as a result of modern technology I was able to watch an old interview of William Buckley interviewing Norman Mailer. While I had some prior sense of Mailer’s bombast and boastful personality, the you-tube interview crystallized it. It shows that writer self-aggrandizement has been around forever. Not surprising really. In most cases, these guys are the greatest, like Mohammed Ali.

Is bombast more prevalent today? Or is there merely an overabundance of writers who have the means to get themselves "out there" into the world, or at least the online world? Aren’t we all great, all of us Mailer, Buckley and Ali. And since we are so great, why languish in obscurity? Why not boast? To be fair, writers inflating their worth is understandable. No one stands over the writer’s shoulder and says, "Good sentence." We must think ourselves infallible, at least while writing. Otherwise, we wouldn’t write a word and we’d keep our tortured emotions bottled up and we’d extinguish ourselves in some grand suicidal gesture without anyone noticing. The logical extension of our delusion, especially in this age of instantaneous publishing and social networking, is to shout about how we’ve just written the best thing we’ve ever written in our entire lives.

However, some writers seek the middle. They don’t mind some attention but would much rather let their writing "speak for them" and would rather their self worth be judged by the quality of their product and not their publicity photo. On the other hand, we don’t strive to be Emily Dickenson type souls who die happily enough leaving behind a transcendent literary legacy. Most of us want to make at least a scant living from our craft.

Increasingly it seems that it has become more difficult to be heard amidst the shouting. There seem to be more "voices’ than ever. Or just a bigger platform for the shouting. It’s the technological conundrum of our time. It’s never been easier to present your voice to the world while at the same time it’s never been more difficult to be heard. This can be seen everywhere -- the number of contests, online journals, self-publishing, ebooks -- in virtually every topic, not only in the writing profession of course, but in everything. We have been overwhelmed with information and misinformation, and incessant self-promotion. We now have "Social Media Consultants" who provide three times a day, status updates, comments on other posts, tweets, retweets, "likes," even blog entries. This last one seems particularly odd. A ghost blogger? The end result of this is of course an avalanche of only slightly disguised advertising.

Occasionally, in publicity photos, you can sense the Lady Ga Ga type self-consciousness and utterly fake romantic gaze. Authors aren’t sure their writing is any good but boy, do they look sensitive, insightful, and slightly vulnerable, yet with a tough exterior of course. But that’s the whole point isn’t it? To put the best face forward. To advertise the personality. A writer friend once pointed out that nobody looks as good as they do in their Facebook photo. Some people don’t even bother to produce anything, and they become great "personalities" because they know how to "brand" themselves. (I always think of cows.) Some "writers" are pre-branded -- radio, TV, and political personalities. "The book" is almost incidental.

I was advised once to put together a publicity packet/news release. I had to change my "author’s bio" so that it gave more information about me. Me. My personality. Sell your personality. Sell yourself. We are all told that. What about my writing? Yes, of course, that must be good. Goes without saying. Really? So much for letting my writing speak for itself. When I was a kid, I read because I liked the story. Usually it was fiction. Often it was "literature." Aside from a few interesting secondary points about the author – like how he killed himself – the writing came first. Has that changed?

It seems more writers lack the sweat, the "blood on the brow" commitment before posting their "life’s work." Not only that, since everyone else is trying to do the same, no one seems willing to say bluntly something like, "This is crap. Go do the work and then post." Most often, we writers lavish praise. That’s because it’s so easy to destroy someone online. No one wants to risk becoming the target of negative online campaigns. It can be devastating. Just ask any politician. So we chuck honesty for fear of ruining our chances of becoming a successful author. Writers are very nice to other writers. I realize of course that I am setting myself up to being ridiculed here. And frankly, I do worry about it. Otherwise, why would I mention it?

Some writers have been around long enough and had have been told by people who should know that a fraction of their writing reaches rarefied air. That’s nice. But as we are gasping for air, trying to survive and adapt, we are also drowning in the latest self-published erotica or avalanche of slush pile crap marketed by hard driving salesmen. Agents and publishers have known this problem since the advent of word processing. (I am writing this with a blue ink pen and a yellow legal pad. Think me smug, but word processing often increases only the number of words.)

I’m not sure that, if I were young today, I wouldn’t succumb to temptation and post my drafts in the hope that I was an accidental genius, that somehow no one noticed it before, but now everyone in the world (online) will see how wonderful I am. Maybe I would have posted rough drafts, but I doubt it. Even before the technological expansion I was extremely reluctant to show my work until I’d rewritten many times. I couldn’t even talk about a story until it was "finished." A few times someone had the balls to hurt my feelings with the truth. And I had to reluctantly agree that my current finished product was crap. Enough other times, however, I produced acceptable stories written with a somewhat unique viewpoint. And occasional "near misses" from big time publishers and several contest wins encouraged me. I’ve been on radio, praised in print newspapers, and so on, and on. Yet sales still provide only monthly beer money. Maybe it’s best we all just convince ourselves that our writing is crap, that lots and lots of people were wrong, that they were somehow mentally deficient in their assessment. Or worse, that they were merely other writers, lying to us while trying to boost their own careers.

If we still want to earn enough to justify ourselves as writers, must we shout? Must we become salesmen? I’ve tried that profession once – one of many jobs, you know the story, to support the obsession. How wonderful it was selling light bulbs. I sat in the sun on my back deck (no stuffy office for me) with my stack of cards -- my daily quota of making 50 telephone sales calls. I made two calls. Stared. A few more. I checked the time. Ten o’clock in the morning and I’d made about twelve calls, but I had also been amazingly successful in consuming three martinis and a pack of cigarettes. I don’t smoke. Maybe this wasn’t the job for me.

I thought selling my own writing might be different, but a quota of online exposure doesn’t feel much different than pimping light bulbs. Occasionally, I give it a try. So if you see a self-aggrandizing post from a certain Jeffrey Penn May (for most of my life I have been happily Jeff May), it’s likely I’ve had several drinks. I won’t be smoking cigarettes. Maybe that is the pleasant difference between selling light bulbs and selling my writing. I don’t need to smoke. I just need to be smokin’ hot, man!

One Year - 24 Novels

In 2010, I read an online headline: "Writer aims to write 24 novels in one year"

What? Shouldn’t the headline be "writer" aims to spew enough words to technically say he wrote 24 novels in one year, with the aid of assistive technology, not the least of which is word processing, a technology that has made us all "writers."

Don Britt, a Canadian writer, was a participant in what was billed as "literature's most grueling marathon: a 3-Day Novel Writing Contest, where writers are challenged to write a novel in just 72 hours."

Why does this contest even exist? What about readers enjoying a novel in just 72 hours. I’ve read novels in three days or less but I’m guessing they took much longer to write.

"Don is now embarking on a challenge to write 24 three-day novels in one year, starting November 5, 2010. The novel must be a work of fiction, averaging 100 pages in length… a coherent story."

Coherent? So 100 pages starting with "It was a dark and stormy night" and ending with "everybody died" qualifies? Averaging? So some can be 50 pages or even 20 and less? Wouldn’t that be a novella or short story? All right, maybe I’m quibbling. Let’s go on.

"What's more, the whole enterprise will take place live online. You can keep up with Don's progress at"

Okay, I went online, and have concluded that I don’t need to feel too frabdoozled (my made up word). The work is passable and sort of engaging, but can he keep it up? That is the question. Everyone will be asking it, won’t they? People will want to know -- can he do it? Brilliant! Marketing at its best. (After all, aren’t I providing publicity for Don?)

Here’s what I found online: "The Redemption of Wilbur Blake page 1 Finished!! in 2 days, 15 hours, 15 minutes, 3 seconds THE REDEMPTION OF WILBUR BLAKE by DJ Britt (DAY ONE GOAL - TO FINISH PAGE 40)"

Wow! Okay, it took him that long to "write" one page. Let’s do some math. Roughly two and one half days or 63 hours. Twenty-four times 365 equal 8,760 hours. Divide that by 63 and you get about 140.

At this rate, he will write 140 pages in a year. Hmmm, not exactly the 2400 pages he will need to write in order to crank out 24 100-page novels. He better pick it up a bit. He fell far short of his goal of 40 in one day.

Here is the first paragraph. "The strikers showed up early on that cold November morning. The sky was still dark and flurries were in the air as the thirty men, chosen at the meeting the night before, gathered around the flatbed truck. There was no sense of bravado that day, outside the chain link fence of the machine shop on Official Row. The men hardly spoke at all as they took their hastily painted pickets and their weapon of choice, crow bars chief among them. There was only the grim, silent knowledge on every face, the look of every man of every age upon being told that he was to be in the front line of the coming battle."

Not too bad, but I’ll bet he did some revising and rewriting.

"An application has already been submitted to the Guinness Book of Records to have the effort acknowledged as a record attempt."

If he’s going to make it, he might have to stop acting like a writer and start acting like a crazy fool trying to set a Guinness record.

Update in 2013 -- Apparently, he succeeded. "Don's the madman who wrote 24 3-Day novels in one year, all live online. His madness continues with free audio books (in the audio menu) and weekly podcasts. If you enjoy the content please consider a donation, to help the insanity continue unabated!"

I don't know if he qualifies as a great writer, but he now calls himself the "insanity writer," and it looks like he found God. Somehow, that seems fitting.

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    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 5 years ago from St. Louis


      Thanks for you favorable and kind comment.

      Being a crap-seller is okay and in fact noble enough, if enough people are buying your crap. And profiles are updated continuously, so we can go from one pretension to another.

      Thanks for stopping by, but more so for buying my books, which I'm sure you will do eventually. (How's that for being a crap-seller?)

    • shermanblake profile image

      Blake Sherman 5 years ago from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

      Being a professional crap-seller for many years I think I know what you're talking about. I'm also debating now the level of pretentiousness in my profile.

      That said, I love this article.

    • marwan asmar profile image

      Marwan Asmar 6 years ago from Amman, Jordan

      Good piece, well worth the read

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Just a teacher is darn good though and deserves respect.

      @Cocoa, please don't let me discourage you from being positively overwhelming.

    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 6 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      Although I write, I am not the type to call myself a writer - to me, it takes a person much more talented than myself to call themselves a writer - I will continue calling myself "justateacher"

    • Cocoa Fly Fishes profile image

      Cocoa Fly Fishes 6 years ago from Wherever the fish are!

      Oh, Mr. May, please accept my apologies for any overwhelm. That is never my intention! *oopsies* *blush* Your writing is so very clear, solid, honest, & humorous that even my lint-stuffed brain gets whirring along & actually...dare I say it?...thinking. *giggle*

      Best holiday wishes to you & Mrs. May, & the kiddos!

      Merry Jingle...Cocoa Fly Fishes

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi Cocoa Fly Fishes, I am always humbled and a bit overwhelmed by your outpouring of positive energy. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your views with such clarity and honesty. Happy holidays to you as well! Jeff.

    • Cocoa Fly Fishes profile image

      Cocoa Fly Fishes 6 years ago from Wherever the fish are!

      Dear Mr. May...

      "Or just a bigger platform for shouting." This made me laugh right out loud! Bless your heart for speaking to the proverbial emperor's wardrobe. *wink*

      You know, for absolutely years I kept my ghost writing silent among friends & professional acquaintances alike. I was horrified at the thought of being lumped in with my peers who, instead of celebrating a little published bit in a local publication, felt it necessary to trumpet that, lording it over us all, in some misguided perception that this is how an accomplished writer would behave. That lack of personal grace always has made me cringe.

      When I did finally 'fess up that I am, indeed, a writer, I would admit it sheepishly at first, apologetically, as one might admit to eating scabs or running the in-laws through a wood chipper, neither of which are, obviously, socially acceptable behaviors. *ahem*

      It took a full 3 years before I was able to answer someone asking my profession, "Yes. I am a writer," with a clear voice that conveyed the sacredness, the humility, & the steadiness that writing for a living will impart.

      There is no room for either bellowing or self-aggrandizing behaviors & words among true writers. True writers know what it takes, that the sheer grit, determination, courage, & commitment required to write for one's bread will break a person if s/he is not well-suited to the often solitary disciplines of the writing life.

      Of course, Mr. May, you know all of this, because you live it. The integrity, clarity, & honesty that shine from your work encourage the rest of us on the path & advise those who are younger & more eager for fame than excellence to adjust their perceptions & get their little tuckuses to work, earning the accolades that will time.

      I appreciate your excellent example & your humorous, honest thoughts on writing & the writing life. Thank you. You have my gratitude.

      It's serendipity all over that, just as I am now enjoying yet another visit to Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style", I would find this gem among your fine hubs here!

      Happy winter holidays to you & yours, Mr. May, & thank you for this lovely hub.

      Warm regards...Cocoa Fly Fishes

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi James. Your compliment makes it nearly impossible for me to respond with any sort of "smart" retort. So... thanks. I truly appreciate it. Jeff.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

      I very much enjoyed your writing here. I was entertained and amused and educated. Who could ask for anything more? Thank you for this pleasure.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi Reynold. I suppose giving anyone something to think about is worthwhile enough... it is strange to see those old interviews. Wishing you continued success with your books (sincerely:). Jeff.

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 6 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      This gives any writer a bit to think about. In that I have only recently joined the fracus of writing and publishing, I am not realy qualified to say much here. I did watch the video interview as I had never seen Norman Mailer nor read any of his novels. I was familiar with Buckley and had not seen him for 30 or so years so that was entertaining to see him after all this time. In that we have both written books about teaching brings us closer together.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi centaur, thanks for the meditative comments; your observations seem to be on target as I often meditate then frantically leap from my easy chair lotus position to write. Wishing you tranquility. Jeff.

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 6 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Hello there, Jeff May!

      I voted this up for 'funny' and 'awesome.' What a wonderfully sardonic meditation on literary desire. I suppose all writers like to feel we are CHRONICLING OUR TIMES! or EXPLAINING OURSELVES TO OURSELVES, and so on and so forth.

      As you say, Jeff May, without a little smidgen of such presumptious perhaps writers wouldn't have the nerve to write. Anyway, as I say, great meditation.

      I use the word 'meditation' deliberately. Sometimes you come across a piece of writing that seems to be the functional equivalent of allowing us to watch you, Jeff May, sitting in the lotus position, saying "Om" to yourself over and over, and there's a billboard above your head, and what you have written here, with its sense of tranquility, is displayed as what you were thinking.

      Take it easy.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 6 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi J, thanks for stopping by, being the first to comment, and adding insight.

    • J Burgraff profile image

      J Burgraff 6 years ago

      I'm going to have to agree that it has become "more difficult to be heard amidst the shouting". If you can hit the 'submit' button then you can be published no matter how many misspelled words, or how poor your grammar. Does it make us stand out or just look like we are keeping bad company??