Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Religion of Writing: The Final Dogma

As I've mentioned before, when I entered college, I had to take a "dogma" test. It was something the school I went to, having a high percentage of ministerial students, required of all incoming students. You took the test going in and, again, going out, with the goal that they could figure out some way(s) to keep students from graduating thinking they knew everything. Specifically, this was aimed at the religion program, but it's something that would be valuable everywhere. [Just as a note, one of my suite mates my freshman year came in with the highest score ever, higher, even, than the scores of people graduating, which were generally pretty high. He was very proud of this fact.]

People have a hard time, as they get older, not deciding that they have things figured out. Sometimes, they think they have everything figured out. Usually, this is accompanied by not thinking about anything, because, really, why bother to think about anything when you already know it all? And this, this issue of becoming more and more dogmatic over time, is why people like priests, pastors, politicians become unassailable pillars of authority. This is why people will switch from telling you "here is A way to do" something to telling you "THE way to do" something. Whatever that something is.

And it's no different in writing, as can be seen just from the comments to some of the posts in this series as many people have responded to various parts with things like, "no, that really is required."

A few weeks ago, John Scalzi responded to a quiz posted by another writer. The quiz was supposed to tell you whether or not you are a "professional writer" or just a "hobbyist," as the author of the quiz put it. Scalzi (and if you don't know who he is, you should start following his blog) failed the quiz. Miserably. Out of the 10 questions, he only got one correct, so, apparently, he is not a "professional writer" despite the fact that that is how he makes his living. And a very good one at that.

See, the problem is that the author's quiz was all about the things she does to actually get the writing accomplished. Her process. She leaves her home a mess so that she can spend time writing. She doesn't watch TV so that she can spend time writing. She turns down invitations from friends so that she can spend time writing. And, evidently, if you don't do these things, you are not a writer. Like a neat writing area? Sorry, you fail the writing quiz. Like spending time with friends? Nope, you can't be a writer. If you don't follow her process, you are merely a hobbyist. Even if writing is the source of your income.

As Scalzi put it, she actually left off the only question that matters: Do you get paid to write? If the answer is "yes," you are a professional writer. Except that I would amend that somewhat and say that you'd need to actually be making enough at writing to live on to be doing it professionally. I think there's a definition about that somewhere.

But, see, the author of the quiz has decided that she knows the process, the process, and that if you are not doing it her way, you are not doing it correctly or adequately or professionally. You're just a hack. And that's dogma for you. Here's how Scalzi responded:
The problem with [the author's] quiz is that it confuses process for end result. Her quiz is about process, and presumably her process -- what she thinks is necessary for one to do in order to produce the work that create the end result of making money as a writer. But process isn't end result...
So, sure, we can measure end result, but we can't measure process, nor should we try.

Which really brings us to the point of this whole series. In different ways, people will try to tell you how to write. The way to do it. The way to get an agent. The way to get published. The way to become a bestselling novelist. They will tell you that you have to have beta readers, that you have to have an agent, that you have to pants it or you have to plot it. That you have to listen to the universe. That you have to eschew life so that you can write about it. That you have to drink coffee or that you have to drink tea. All of these things if you want to be real.

And it's all a stinking pile of manure. It's all dogma. It's all personal religion wrapped around the way that one person writes and, maybe, whoever else that person has turned into disciples. And those people... well, just feel sorry for them, because, mostly, everyone who writes does it his or her own way and trying to do it the way someone else says it ought to be done is just going to mess you up. Like trying to follow exactly in someone else's footprints rather than finding your own stride. Not to mention wearing shoes that match the other person, especially if your feet are bigger than his.

With writing, as with so much else in life, the only way to do it right is to find your own way to do it.The way that fits. The way that is right for you. Forget the dogma that other people preach. At least, forget it as dogma. Take it as an idea, maybe. Something to try out. If it works, great; if it doesn't, discard it. I'll leave you with a quote from Steve Jobs, because, really, I won't say it better than this:

"Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."


  1. Love this post (and had never heard of John, thanks).

    This one struck a better deep nerve with me, because when I was in college -- I felt like an English fraud. I hated Melville. I hadn't read all the classic books everyone had, I hadn't been published in journals... I felt like a joke in the English department.

    But, then I felt. And I took the nights I spent out with friends or times travelling or my tendency to people watch and started writing about it--and meeting bloggers like you who do similar things. I feel less like a fraud. And I constantly remind myself that there isn't just ONE way to write -- those snooty kids were jerks. They can read Moby Dick while I try and get my stuff published and meet fellow writers who support each other, and not tear each other down.

    Andrew, this was a great lesson. I'm sure the author who created the quiz meant no harm (hopefully), but was very shortsighted.

    How do you think you did on that dogma quiz? :)

  2. What a silly idea that quiz. Hemingway, Hugo and Agatha Christie wrote in the nude to keep them from getting distracted. And since they are giants in the industry it must therefor follow that if you ain't writing naked, you ain't no writer:)

  3. So true. I like writing advice based on stuff I'd learnt while writing, but my intention is always to offer someone a possibility of something that might help.

    Always thought it was beyond presumptuous to assume that the only right way to write is the way you're using.

  4. The 'I've-got-it-figured-out' thing happens as we age. To almost everyone. It was described on a podcast I listened to as a transistion from learning mode to exploitive mode in our brain - an actual change in our brain where it becomes less open to taking in new info and instead takes already accumulated knowledge and uses it to conquer our corner of the world.

    Of course, it's a spectrum, but for most of us it gets harder to admit we don't know things that matter as we age.

    Great post.

  5. One person's process would totally derail someone else. You're right you can judge by process because we all do it differently. We can offer what we did to be successful, but that might not work for others.

  6. This is great advice for anything in life. You have to find your own unique way of doing things, not imitate someone else. I think people get so stuck sometimes trying to be followers that they never find their own individuality.

  7. To thine own self be true. Not that I remember who said that, but the idea that there is ONE way to be a successful writer, and that success can be measured in HOW we do it rather than in WHAT we've done is just ridiculous.
    Did you take the quiz?
    Tina @ Life is Good

  8. Some people think work can't be fun, can't be enjoyed. Which undoubtedly there are some jobs that probably can't be enjoyed - cleaning a sewer for example. But I see no reason why writing can't be both fun and profitable. I think the best writing is a creative process and for me, I can't really be creative when I'm feeling stressed or deprived or feel like I'm having to sacrifice something I really enjoy doing in order to write.

  9. I'll have to check out the quiz. From the question samples you offer I'll probably come out as a pro writer except for the making money thing, and to to me that's the only criteria that makes a writer a professional.

    I think you are right in your conclusion. We all need to go through the basic training--the kind you get in K-12 school--then after that we make our own rules. If working by our rules works then those rules are right for us. If they don't work, then we might want to start taking other advice and making up new rules. We need to find our own comfort zones.

    Tossing It Out

  10. Jean: Well, I've never been published in journals even though I love Moby Dick.

    Going into school, I had a below average dogma score, which was good. I never took the outgoing test, though. I'm not sure they were still doing it when I graduated. My biggest point of dogma has almost always been not being dogmatic. heh

    Anne: I didn't know that about Agatha. That's not something I think I'm ever going to want to take up.

    Misha: Offering ideas is so very different from telling someone how it must be.

    Rusty: I think, though, it only happens because people, overall, quit "exercising" their brains by taking in new info and asking new questions. I mean, maybe that change happens because we quit asking the questions rather than the other way around.

    Alex: Right. You can say "here's what I did" but not "here's what you need to do."

    JKIR,F!: Yeah, I've always found it sad that so many people are just content to be sheep.

    Tina: I looked at the quiz, yes. It was ridiculous. I scored "better" than Scalzi but not by much.

    David: Wait, writing can be profitable? Why didn't anyone tell me that before?

    Lee: Oh, I don't like comfort zones much. Which is not to say that I don't like mine, but I don't like the idea of them. Fortunately, I married a woman that is always challenging my comfort zones. heh

  11. One of my great life epiphanies came from living abroad: there's only so much I'll ever be able to understand about the world around me and that's a good thing. Knowing you don't and can't know everything is extremely liberating.

    As a teacher, I have the tremendous privilege of working around creative people every day. Teaching is a very different art form from writing but I think it's fair to say that there is no perfect way to teach. If you're comfortable in your own skin and you follow principles that resonate with yourself, your colleagues and your students, great things happen. What works for me, does not work for my teaching partner, does not work for my buddy down the hall. The students benefit from the differences.

    We, as consumers of art, benefit from the different approaches successful creators employ.

  12. I always have a bad reaction to people who preach the "you must outline" or the "write a fast first draft" dogma. I can do neither well. And yet I've still managed to finish multiple novels.

    But, you know, people who find a path to success sometimes think they are being helpful by telling others that they can do it that way too, since it worked for them. It's probably best to learn to shrug things off that don't apply. :)

  13. Great points Andrew. What's the point of writing if you can't enjoy living?

  14. TAS: You know, I think part of the issue is that, culturally, we kind of do think we know everything. Or are so close to it that the gap doesn't matter. People, in general, don't seem to realize that every piece of information that science gathers opens up whole new worlds of questions.

    L.G.: Well, yeah, being able to shrug things off is important. The problem is that (and Scalzi actually says this, too, somewhere in his post), very often, new writers don't know enough, yet, to know what to shrug off, so they come in and see a "pro" saying "this is HOW to do it" and think that's the truth.

    Maurice: Oh, we're supposed to enjoy that? Kidding! Kidding!
    And things are much less enjoyable when we're trying to follow someone else's prescribed method for something which happens to be wrong for us.

  15. Yep this applies to most things in life. It's up to us as individually minded people to research for ourselves and educate ourselves, then apply what we've learned to form our own processes. There's no tried and true way to be successful at writing, that's for dang sure!!

  16. According to that quiz I'm "a passionate lover that requires a lot of attention in the bedroom."

    ...I think I may have taken the wrong quiz.

    Really, though, if you need a quiz to tell you you're a writer, then you're not a writer. And the thought that certain 'rules' make you more of a writer than someone else is just ridiculous.

    Excellent post, and very well said.

  17. Are you telling me that there are writers out there who don't drink coffee!

  18. My gut agrees with you. I think the argument that the neuroscientist was making is that it's biological. Which I suppose explains why it is interesting. But if what he said is true in the general sense, I'd wager that there are numerous examples that contradict his conclusions.

  19. Pk: Yeah, if there was, we wouldn't have both King and Rowling.

    ABftS: But, wait! If I make rules that say only I am a real writer, does that mean everyone else has to quit selling their books? That could work!

    MP: Well, I've heard whispered stories of it.

    Rusty: Yeah, it's always good to be able to blame biology, then we don't have a choice in the matter which makes us free of responsibility.

  20. I read this last night, but couldn't comment because Mr Bunches had one laptop (watching "Operation: The Movie" while he played "Operation" (the game) and Mr F had the other laptop (watching "Baby Einstein: Baby Noah") and I hate commenting in a lengthy manner on my Kindle.

    Anyhow: As usual, you've made me think in a bunch of different directions at once.

    I am one of those people who doesn't care much for writing tips or suggestions or demarcations about whether you are a writer or not or how you should write. I subscribe to Andrew's Gospel Of Editing because I think it's necessary, but as to how/when/why I write or what I write, for that matter, I have little patience for most tips or suggestions, as they make writing more work than I want it to be.

    Of course, I'm a hobbyist not doing this for a living, so I can and should keep it fun. If I were to decide to make my living writing, I might make it more formal, and less fun, than it is now. As it is, I make my job as fun as it can be, but I am there 40-55 hours per week, on the weekends, too, wearing a tie (almost) every day and showing up early, staying late, being professional, because that's what you do when you want to make a living at something.

    So if I decided to make writing a career, I'd probably get an office and have regular hours that I tried to write and have set goals of so many pages per day, and would try to make my writing more commercial, etc. I'd make it a job, in other words. That's no different than anyone else. If you look at people who make it really big, they tend to treat their art as a career. Take football players: they practice all the time, study film in their off hours, lift weights, work on skills in the offseason, etc. They're playing a game, for a living. You don't need to do that if you just want to play football with your friends, for fun. You can, but you don't need to do it.

    So if you write for fun, write for fun. If you want to make a living, be serious about it and treat it like any other job. Serious people do not, I think, tend to write only for 1 hour per night while watching "Gilligan's Island" reruns. For every story about James Joyce writing in a tablet on his bed, people need to remember that writing, and publishing, is a business. Yes, there are filmmakeres, rock stars, actors, writers, who make it big through unorthodox methods, but there are hundreds more who make it big through steady, hard working professionalism. I'd take the surer route if I wanted to make a career at writing.

    (Which I do but it's too risky for me to undertake now, which is why it's just a hobby for me.)

    As for thinking I've got the world figured out, I think I'm more open-minded and less dogmatic than most. I have a habit that I try to follow: everytime I hear a new idea, or a proposal, I try INSTANTLY to think what a great idea that is. That is intended to keep me from rejecting ideas out-of-hand, and if you can do that, you'll find you're less rigid in your beliefs.

    As an example: my partner came in one day and said "I suppose you'll defend to me this idea that the minimum wage should be increased to $15 per hour."

    I would, probably, tend to say that, but instead, I thought: "What if it's a great idea not to do that," and then gave him a nuanced, reasoned answer that noted that not all minimum-wage workers are the same, and that not all industries are the same, and that perhaps instead of a uniform minimum wage law, we could set wages by age, industry, and location, or allow greater experimentation among the states to see what works best.

    I think I surprised him. I know I surprised me, because until he asked me that, I'd have probably agreed with his claim that I would think simply raising the minimum wage is a good idea.

    But it's taken me 44 years, and a lot of hard lessons, to absorb all of the foregoing.

  21. Briane: You know, that's probably what's wrong with a lot of the indie market: authors want their hobby to suddenly make them rich, so they don't put in the actual work that it takes to make what they're doing move from a hobby to a career. But that's just a guess. I do know that a lot of people (more than 80%, according to surveys) believe that they could just spew out a book and get right. If, you know, they took the time to write that book down on (virtual) paper.

    As for the minimum wage question: well, I do think it needs to be higher, especially after reading Nickel and Dimed. I'm not sure that you need to set varying minimums; the markets that want to attract higher skilled workers (of whatever type) will offer higher wages to attract those people.

    I think I have become less dogmatic with age. I mean, I know that back when I was 18 I thought I had a lot more of the answers. I suppose I'm travelling backwards along the spectrum.

  22. So much of figuring out how to write has involved working on the problem of what works for me while simultaneously trying to ignore the multitudes of advice pouring from every lobe of the internet.

    Because the internet has lobes.

  23. Elizabeth: Hey, at least it's just lobes you're getting advice from. There are worse places to have it pouring in from.