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FOR WRITERS

On Reading Manuscripts

(In response to a new writer's inquiry)

I'm gratified that my writing has helped fill your day. About reading manuscripts, the only thing I could tell you is whether it works for me or doesn't, and stuff that doesn't work for me is published and wins awards every year.

There are plenty of teachers and authors willing to pass judgment on new writers' manuscripts, thinking themselves capable of deciding good and bad. All I do is tell new writers (1) produce art; (2) look at the art thus produced and decide if it is the art you intended. If it is, congratulations. If it isn't (3) rewrite until it becomes the art you intended or surpasses that. Whether editors or readers like it are business matters which do not concern me.

I'm the only reader I'm trying to please with my writing, which means I produce my art but renders me a terrible judge of what your art should be to you. Do you like your own stuff? When you read it are there passages that make you want to skip ahead? Do you have any doubts about it? Once you put it in such shape that you love your own stuff, then send it to someone who backs up his or her judgment with either check or rejection. If it's a rejection, all that means is that particular editor isn't into your art and go try the next editor. If no one likes it, give it a read and see if you still like it. If you still like it, welcome to the Van Gogh Be-Bop School of Art-Before-Its-Time of which I am a charter member.

But keep doing your own art no matter what, for therein lies creative fulfillment. If you want to write for money, fame, or approval see what the editor is buying, go forth and do likewise. Or you can write insurance or perhaps code. As with painters (artists), composers, and musicians, a great many writers and poets are fulfilled by making their own art. Very few make a living at it.

So, what is doing your own art? I've gone at length on this subject in The Write Stuff, but I was recently watching the Ken Burns series on the history of jazz. In that series I ran across the advice Will Marion Cook gave to the young Duke Ellington: "First, find the logical way. When you find it avoid it and let yourself break through and guide you. Don't try to be anybody but yourself."

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