Ecological catastrophes, global pandemics, endless armed conflicts … With the world in a constant state of turmoil, sometimes I wonder what the hell I am doing and if it matters even one iota.
If you have ever wondered something similar, we are fellow members of the Existential Crisis Club. The club has welcomed many new members since a spikey little coronavirus forced millions of people to evaluate their lives and what they were doing with them, sparking the so-called Great Resignation. In 2021, 47.8 million Americans quit their jobs, and the quitting continues as people tire of doing something they consider valueless and search for something more meaningful. In Europe in 2022, citizens facing the renewed threat of a cold war are also pondering the point of it all—life, that is.
For some, this existential panic takes a serious toll on their mental health. For me, it’s simply a constant hum of anxiety, like mild tinnitus of the soul that increases in volume every so often before subsiding again into the background: ever present but not debilitating. As a writer, the anxiety is partly about the legacy of my creativity.
Writers (all artists, of course) often suffer a lack of confidence in their value as a creator and the worth of their work in the world, especially when the daily struggles of everyday people are so blatant. What’s the point of asking people to buy our stuff when so few people can afford to properly heat their homes? Maybe they can burn the pages in the grate …
But writers don’t need a global pandemic or enemy invasion to be thrown into existential despair; frequently all it takes is a single rejection from an agent or publisher. Just one ‘no’ can make us question the value of every word we’ve ever written. With a rejection/acceptance ratio of several billion to one, it’s amazing any writer has any self-belief at all.
So, how do we as writers deal with such crises of self-worth? As far as I’m concerned, we could all take a leaf from the Stoics’ book. Here are a few basic tenets of Stoicism to keep in mind when the going gets tough existentially speaking.
1. Focus on what you can control. That means ignoring the vagaries of the publishing industry and concentrating on putting words on paper. Continuing to take action is crucial here; simply giving up with a shrug and a night of Netflix is not being Stoic … that’s just being lazy.
2. Be virtuous. Okay, this might seem like a stretch, but stay with me. Writers can spread happiness through their writing. So what if Harper Collins gives you the bum’s rush? Sharing your work with your friends, family or other forums makes your work valuable, and being an active and generous member of a writing community will help you and your fellow writers feel seen, heard and valued.
3. Limit your ego. Remember that A) Rejection is 99 times out of 100 about the rejecter, not the rejected, and B) You are not entitled to success because, as noted in point 1, there are too many variables to contend with. Behaving like a moody teenager when you don’t get what you want or being jealous of another writer’s success isn’t a good look, and you’ll only perpetuate your existential misery … follow point 2 instead!
4. Build resilience. For Stoical writers, this means managing your emotions and channelling them into action. In his book on modern Stoicism, The Obstacle Is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes: “Under pressure and trial we get better—become better people, leaders, and thinkers. … See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path is now a path. What once impeded action advances action.” In other words, learn to see setbacks as opportunities. How we feel about rejection and our self-worth (indeed, everything in life) is ultimately a choice, but that type of decision-making is a learned skill for many of us, so be patient and practice resilience daily.
5. Practice gratitude. Ah yes, where would the pep talk be without the platitude of gratitude! This is hard, but try to find things to celebrate every day on your writing journey, from the smallest achievements to the biggest successes. Perhaps you’re simply grateful for the fact you own a laptop! Recognise the fact that writing is a privilege and not everyone has the luxury of sitting down each day for an hour to work on their opus. Don’t abuse that privilege by giving into bitterness or self-pity.
Finally, when I’ve got my head firmly up my butt in a bout of existential angst, I remember that D.H. Lawrence said it best: “Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless.”
For some, this quote might make matters worse. For me, I am soothed by the idea that we must simply enjoy life in the moment without the expectation of reward. After all, if tomorrow never comes, none of our work will matter, period.
Did you know that the first known novel was written by a woman? In 11th-century Japan, Lady Murasaki Shikibu published The Tale of Genji chapter by chapter to a readership of ladies-in-waiting. Its protagonist was not a woman, sadly, but it's miraculous that she was able to produce a literary work, given the restrictions on all women, irrespective of status and culture, at that time ... and for many centuries afterwards.
Literature, like many artforms, quickly became a male domain, and very few male novelists featured women as central characters. When they did, often the women were debauched (e.g., Moll Flanders) or debased (e.g., Tess of the d'Urbervilles). It took Jane Austen to put strong (within boundaries) women at the heart of the story, and then the Brontës and Eliot to do the same a little later, albeit initially under male pen names. (Of course I'm being somewhat reductive here, but you get my drift!)
So, "women's fiction" has been around since the 11th century, yet it is the male-centric Hero's Journey "monomyth", popularised by writer Joseph Campbell in the 1950s, that has come to dominate the contemporary teaching of writing and how to structure stories. In a nutshell, this is how Campbell describes the monomyth in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949): "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on HIS fellow MAN." [Emphasis mine]. The journey looks like this (lifted from Wikipedia):
But does this monomythic storytelling structure serve female heroes? Does that even matter?
It matters (at least to me) because women are -- and have always been -- subject to certain social and moral pressures not historically faced by men. Their desires and goals as protagonists are often hampered by these factors. Simply put, women have been torn between private desire and social expectation and her journey is disrupted by that dilemma; whereas a male hero is free to go off on his journey without the obstacles put up by the patriarchy. Sure, you can squeeze women's stories into the model, which is often done with protagonists like Jane Eyre, but might there be an alternative?
I believe it would be better for women to have their own storytelling monomyth, one that respects and reflects their individual journeys toward their goals. This is why I have invited friend and scholar Dr. Stacey Simmons to share her research into the "Divided Woman" archetype and a new women-centred storytelling model called The Queen's Path in a special FREE event on March 20, 2022. It promises to be a thought-provoking session, one that could help you shape your women-centred novel, memoir, play or screenplay.
If you want to join this session, hop over to the Writers Workshop page and register today!
I love short stories. A great short story is a short, hot shower, while a great novel is a long, luxurious bath, and both are equally satisfying to me.
However, the short story is an underappreciated literary form in Western culture, perhaps even more so than poetry. I blame the big publishing houses for marginalising the short story by actively discriminating against its creators, blatantly refusing to accept submissions of short story collections.
“Too niche,” they claim.
“Bullshit,” I say.
The reason so many people don’t read the short form is that the publishing industry perpetuates the myths that A) size matters, and B) short stories are too “literary” to have mass appeal. But, in actual fact, audiences LOVE short-form storytelling. They love it in the form of a beloved childhood storybook; they love it in the form of the many feature films adapted from short stories; they love it in the form of the annual Christmas tearjerker ad campaigns; they love it in the form of episodes of their favourite shows. The public would love short story collections too, if only the publishers gave readers the chance to discover them.
This unjustified literary prejudice is depressingly prevalent among new writers, too. Most of the writers I meet are working on full-length projects, be it a memoir or a novel, because they either think the short story too trivial or too intimidating. On that matter of triviality, those writers could not be more wrong. But when it comes to writing, the short story is certainly no easy option.
Why are short stories so tough? In my view, they are hard because the artform requires the author to NOT write. The short story needs restraint because it is most powerful when it is economical and undiluted, and when its ending is not neatly resolved but left open. Trickiest of all, the focus of a story must be narrow but its resonance universal.
Turning out a first draft of a short story might be quicker than a first draft of a novel, but it still requires a lot of work to hone it ... as the philosopher Cicero so eloquently put it, “If I had longer, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Nevertheless, I believe that writers should embrace the artform for many reasons, of which here are my top three:
1. A first draft of a short story can be finished quickly. This is great for new writers because finishing a first draft of anything is a huge confidence booster.
2. The short form is perfect for experimenting. It is a great vehicle for the dark, the weird, and the crazy because the writer doesn’t have to sustain it for long. It allows the writer to let their imagination loose and explore new voices and styles without committing to the long, exhausting marathon of novel-writing.
3. A story is more likely to give a writer their first publishing credit. There are thousands of publishers of short stories but relatively few for full-length work. With a couple of story publications or story contest victories under their belts, writers stand a far higher chance of attracting an agent or publisher for their novels.
Here are my recommendations for initiating yourself into the wonderful world of the short form:
Look out of my Short Story Study Group launching via The Writers Workshop in 2022! We will read and analyse short stories and use them to inspire our own short-form creativity.
We know that writers threaten the social order because censorship is as old as the printing press. Every culture has a problem with censorship, even in the West where democracy has supposedly given citizens the inalienable right to free speech. But although people can write what they like (providing that privacy and libel laws aren’t broken), are they as free to read what they like?
According to the American Libraries Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), there are plenty of people who wish to curtail our freedom to read by attempting to ban materials from public, school, and university libraries. During Banned Books Week (launched 1982) each September, the OIF releases a list of the books/materials that were the most “challenged” in the previous year to raise awareness of what is bothering people and why, and highlight the importance of free and open access to information.
In 2018, the theme of Banned Books Week (www.bannedbooksweek.org) was “Banning Books Silence Stories,” and the aim was to remind everyone that they need to speak out against the growing problem of censorship: our very way of life depends on it. According to the ALA, calls for books to be banned came from many quarters, including teachers, religious and special interest groups, and even librarians themselves!
So, what was on the ALA OIF’s list for 2017? In total, there were 416 books that were challenged or banned last year, but here’s the run down of the top 10, complete with the reasons why the books were so frequently challenged.
Top 10 Challenged Books of 2017
1. Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher. New York Times-bestselling YA fiction. Published in 2007, but recently serialized by Netflix, hence its appearance at number one in this list. Challenged and banned in multiple school districts because it addresses the issue of suicide.
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie. YA nonfiction. National Book Award winner. Challenged constantly since its publication in 2007 because of profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.
3. Drama, Raina Telgemeier. Graphic novel from an acclaimed cartoonist. Stonewall Honor Award winner. Published in 2012. Challenged and banned in school libraries for featuring LGBT characters and for being “confusing.”
4. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. Challenged and banned for featuring sexual violence. Complainants also claimed it “lead to terrorism” and “promotes Islam.”
5. George, Alex Gino. A book written for elementary school kids. Challenged and banned for featuring a transgender child.
6. Sex is a Funny Word, Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Written by a certified sex educator, this children’s book, published in 2015, was challenged for “encouraging” children to “want to have sex or ask questions about sex.”
7. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Incredibly, this widely acknowledged American classic was challenged and banned for depicting violence and using the N-word.
8. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas. “Pervasively vulgar” and featuring drug use and offensive language, this enormously popular YA novel (now a film) was challenged and banned in school libraries and curriculums.
9. And Tango Makes Three, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole. Another children’s book! This 2005 title returned to the Top Ten Most Challenged list after a short absence to be, once again, challenged for featuring a same-sex relationship.
10. I Am Jazz, Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. An autobiographical picture book, co-written by the 13-year-old protagonist, was challenged for addressing gender identity.
What’s clear from this list is that plenty of people think that children and young people are at special risk. Too many people, it seems want to restrict children’s democratic right to read under the pretence of “protecting” them from . . . what? Moral "corruption" mostly. But as we all know, society’s definition of what is morally wrong is ever-changing. Only 100 years ago, it was considered entirely unacceptable for women to vote. Therefore, I hope that in significantly fewer than 100 more years, everyone will wonder why the hell, in 2018, everyone was so bothered about people’s sexual preference or gender identity.
Thankfully, the ongoing ethically bankrupt crusade by an anti-democratic minority does not appear to have dampened authors’ desire to address the important emotional, sexual, and social issues of our time by writing books with spine. And seeing the 2017 list makes me proud that literature continues to lead the way for social progress. So, tyrants and bigots be afraid: the pen is—and forever will be—mightier than the sword!
(And in the spirit of this post, any comments you make below will not require my approval before publishing!)
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith