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PENNING: Writing about writing will keep me writing

• Nov 9, 2017 at 3:00 PM

I have been writing this column for more than 15 years, and it just occurred to me that I have rarely actually written about writing.

Once was when I shared about my experience participating in an event of writers and artists at an art gallery in Douglas. Another time I wrote about the experience of self-publishing a collection of these newspaper columns. But I have never written about the craft of writing.

Lately, however, writing has been on my mind for several reasons.

For one, I have noticed a decline in it. Video and emoticons seem more popular than actual text. Because of this, people are losing the ability to write fluidly, clearly and persuasively. Even in my field of public relations, I hear other educators and employers bemoan the lack of quality writing.

That all makes the second reason for my pondering writing even worse — the job market for writers. I have an old friend who has been unemployed for three years. He’s an excellent writer, with a diverse array of bylines in national journalistic publications and for organizations. But, he keeps getting a “no” after the third interview. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area, where the writing jobs are numerous. But there are also many young people who can be paid less for the same job.

So, while some employers complain they can’t find good writers, it seems many of them are unwilling to pay for it.

I also have been dwelling on the craft of writing because I’ve been thinking about a favorite author of mine, Jim Harrison. I encountered his work long ago when I was starting out writing for Traverse Magazine in northern Michigan. I heard about a local writer whose novel had been published, and I was intrigued. I read and own everything Harrison, originally from Reed City, wrote. He died last year. His friend and fellow writer, Phil Caputo, found him on the floor next to his writing table in his home in Arizona, collapsed from a heart attack.

“He died a writer’s death,” Caputo said. “With a pen in his hand.”

This past summer, I read Harrison’s memoir and learned how much he struggled, near poverty, but stuck with the craft. Eventually, he sold novels and screenplays and did well for himself. But the sheer challenge of writing was striking.

Then, in late summer, I was talking to an innkeeper on Mackinac Island who grew up in Grand Marais and met Harrison, who had a cabin there. The two became friends, and the innkeeper told me several stories about him. I was so excited. I had never met Harrison, but feel as though I knew him well through the bond of writing and reading.

A few months ago I attended a writers’ conference. I came away with equal parts inspiration and frustration. Publishers want you to have an agent, and agents typically want you to be committed to writing full time. I have a pretty full day job, which involves academic writing. I have an idea or two for a personal book I wanted to explore. It seems an uphill battle.

I was told there are 300,000 books published in the U.S. every year, and another 600,000 self-published. That’s a competitive field that doesn’t mention the volumes rejected.

Aspiring authors are also expected to do their own market research, establish a platform for themselves online to gain a following, and complete a lengthy and detailed proposal including market potential before they get anywhere near an agent or publisher. If the writing itself isn’t daunting enough, the logistics and business aspect could stymie your creative juices.

I did come away with some glimpses of hope. Several acquisition editors from publishing houses gave me good feedback and encouragement in one-on-one sessions the conference arranged. I was invited to write short pieces for a magazine. A literary agent followed up with some guidelines and invited me to send a proposal and sample chapters for my book. So, I am encouraged, but have more work to do than I imagined.

I’ll take the challenge. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing this column. It’s good exercise for me. And, every month when I think about quitting, one or two of you out there tell me you enjoyed my last column. At the end of the day, that’s what writers want: readers.

And, as many writers will tell you, they don’t really enjoy writing, but they love having written.

— By Tim Penning, Ph.D., Tribune community columnist. A collection of Penning’s columns in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays” is available at The Bookman.

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