Friday, July 2, 2010

Letter to a Young or Middle-Aged Writer vol. 2

Dear Young Writer,
Some day in the finite future, you will be writing one or more letters to one or more young writers, carrying forth a grand tradition.  This does not have as much to do with the proliferation of writers of all ages as you might think, nor will this state of events preclude you from writing letters to middle aged writers or, indeed, writers in Seniors centers.

The fact is, you will be on the cusp of learning an important truth known to all arrived writers, which is to say writers who have found a voice if not actual publication:  Every letter you write is a letter to yourself, which makes the action of letter writing less than the unselfish gesture you hoped and supposed and more a need on your part to figure out some vital aspect of craft that has been keeping you awake nights.  The inherent wisdom here is that everything you write is a letter to yourself, a fact that should, if you have any understanding of the situation, prevent you from lecturing others how to do things your way; the best you can do is demonstrate how you do a thing.  This is not a license to assume you know the only way to do a thing or necessarily the best way, rather the best way for you...so far.  This means you are willing to see yet another way to do the thing in question even though you think you do the thing in question pretty well now.

When I was a bit younger, marching with grim determination away from youth and into middle age, the more thoughtful among those opposed to war came forth with the meme Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.  I always liked that approach to thinking about things; it has led me directly to proposing to you the potential meme Suppose you wrote a letter and nobody read it.  There is a supposition, perhaps because so many of us wish to be writers, that all we have to do is write it and it--whatever it may be--will be read.  Sitting as the editor in a number of publishing houses wherein I was paid variously every week, twice a month, every month, and when there was enough money to pay the help, I had as a part of my job description reading enough of a number of manuscript submissions that I could reasonably describe why I quit reading or why I read the manuscript all the way through, and why I might chose to recommend this manuscript be published.  From these experiences I can say that the ratio of manuscripts I read to the number I read and wished to be a publishing principle thereof was significant in its balance away from fifty-fifty.  It is not all that much an extrapolation to carry that ratio to the present, wherein I speculate that about two or three percent of all that is written is worth reading. Moving forth as is my wont, I speculate that few letters, including emails, are worth reading closely.

I have tried to put my best intention into this letter to you; have tried to consider this letter not a condescension but rather a sincere form of greeting that would not, were you to have sent it to me, be offensive or off-putting. 

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