Searchlights & Signal Flares
Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange
What Is the Worst Sin A Writer Can Commit? (08/15/05)
Contributors this month:
I believe that a writer's worse sin is writing with inspiration and genius, and never sharing a word of it with others. A writer must realize that part of being a writer is sharing with a reader.
I believe that many writers would answer that question with, "not to write! That's the worst sin."
I am going to respectfully suggest that there is one thing worse than not writing at all, and that is to write "stuff" that is counter to what you, the writer, truly believe.
This happens when the writer starts churning out pieces or books to sell to one or more markets. The market dictates what the writer will write. When your writing becomes a vehicle for mass marketing, or it panders to the latest fads regardless of your own negative feelings about them, you have sold your soul for the money and/or fame it may bring you.
If this is what you truly want or need in your life, far be it from me to try to dissuade you. I am not a preacher, I just call ‘em as I see ‘em.
Anne Silber writes novels, essays, opinion pieces, and more recently, a magazine article. She lives with the sweetest cat on earth, in Colorado. Visit her website at www.annesilber.net to find out more.
I think that what works against a writer is talking about his story—experience of life—and not writing about it. The anecdotal part of talking becomes fleshed out by experiences of language, all the elements of fiction, setting, theme, plot, characterization, metaphor and hyperbole as the progress of writing grows, tapeworm by tapeworm, revision by revision.
The Seven Deadly Writing Sins by Arlene L. Mandell
1. Not writing
2. Not saving your writing
3. Not honoring yourself as a writer
4. Being envious of other writers' successes
6. Disparaging your own success
7. Resting on your writing laurels
Arlene L. Mandell, who has at times committed Sins #1, #2, #3, #4, #6 and #7, but never to her knowledge Sin #5, is smitten with her new four-month-old shelter kitten, Gatsby, who, it turns out, is a genuine Turkish Angora!
SILENCE—The Ultimate Sin by B. Lynn Goodwin
Do not let fear or frustration silence you, for that is the greatest sin a writer can commit. No one can tell your story but you.
When the words scramble and twist until you are doing nothing more than practicing your typing, get off the self-pity treadmill and embrace something new.
Shift your focus—move from short stories to poetry, from journalism to science fiction to press releases to personal essays to book reviews.
Freewrite, freewrite, freewrite. Do the morning pages that Julia Cameron suggests, writing to get rid of the detritus that is blocking your creative self. Rant about your problems until a breakthrough occurs.
When you are fighting your writing, it is because you have a personal relationship with it. Don't be afraid to do a "shitty first draft," as Annie Lamott advises. Don't be afraid to "murder your darlings," as William Faulkner suggests. Don't be afraid to explore and nurture your unique relationship with the written word.
Tell your story honestly and fully. Let the writing take you wherever it wants to go. Whatever you do, do not silence yourself. It is the worst sin a writer can commit.
B. Lynn Goodwin is a freelancer who publishes WriterAdvice, www.writeradvice.com.
The greatest sin a writer can commit is to dance around the truth, to skirt the edge of it like a volcanologist standing on the lip of Mauna Loa, and never to jump into the fire. The greatest sin a writer can commit is not telling the truth. You can detect this failure easily. The writing feels gray, indiscriminate, boring. You find yourself asking questions like, "So what?" and "Why do I care?" Unless a writer takes you under his wing, clutches you to his breast so you can hear the thrum thrum of his heart, what's the point?
I don't want to read about how to bake a loaf of banana bread, follow a recipe or read a simple list of ingredients, I want to smell the egg and flour, feel the wet slime of the mashed up bananas as I squeeze them through my fingers, watch the loaf rise, catch my breath as the heat from the oven pushes me backwards. I want to taste it—sweet and buttery as it comes out of the oven, do a little dance with my tongue because it's still too hot to eat.
Yes, a writer's greatest sin is definitely not to tell the truth, and you know when you're doing this too. If feels forced, you feel fake like some papier mache version of yourself reaching desperately for the right words only to come up with ash. If you don't cut and bleed on the page, go for the jugular, as they say. If your pulse doesn't quicken like you're out for a brisk walk, you're not telling the truth. If you' don't feel exposed, naked, like you're in one of those dreams where you show up to work with no pants on, you're only fooling yourself.
Christine Falcone, Novato, CA
What's the worst sin a writer can commit?
Well, of course, for me, the absolute worst sin a writer can commit is to not write. After a while my brain runs out of storage for those flashes of personally judged brilliance and begins to delete them from my memory bank. That little edge-worn notebook is never where I want it when that inspiring moment graces me with its presence. It, like the brain, seems to delete itself from my life. I think it has something to do with that "don't use it, lose it" theory. I pay for my sin by finding cloudy thought patterns, rusting word choices, and clogged up artistic outlets. May this little paragraph begin a penance for my erroneous ways and may the great Goddess of creativity and clarity forgive me.
Connie Mygatt, Santa Rosa, CA
One would think the worst sin a writer can commit is something obvious, like plagiarism, theft. I have heard horror tales of a writer submitting a short story for publication, receiving a rejection, only to see her work printed elsewhere, with a thief's name attached and credited. So, you might immediately assume that in this example the thief would have committed the worst sin of a writer. But in my opinion, that is not so, for one simple fact—the plagiarist is no writer at all.
As far as a real writer's sin, I feel it is sinful to write under pressure. Deadlines can be great motivators, but writing because one has to, without a viable seed, inspiration or purpose is sinful. The work comes out false, forced and just plain shitty.
Cristie Marcus, Santa Rosa, CA
I've given this plenty of thought. The worst sin a writer can commit is multiple homicide. Let's just go down the list: singular homicide (frequently called homicide or murder), second degree murder, third degree murder (I don't know what that is), manslaughter (sounds worse than murder but apparently it isn't), voting Republican, putting shampoo in a rabbit's eye, making an illegal left turn in rush hour traffic, buying cigarettes for minors, spanking your children in front of their friends (and worse still if your children happen to be adults, unless it is a consensual thing), leaving your trash on the Sonoma coast. I think that about covers it, but maybe you're after something more specific with your question. Writers' sins. Now I'm going to have to start over and give this plenty of thought.
Um, plagiarism? But that's too easy. Someone else is going to say plagiarism, or someone ought to.
Now my mind drifts to misdemeanors, venal sins: excessive use of ellipses… misspeling… using an unparallel structure… nouns/verb disagreements… no, no, no, these may be sins, but they're not really, really bad… not… characterological.
Glibness? (No, I think not.)
Trying to pass non-fiction as fiction or fiction as non-fiction? (I think this is acceptable now, so long as the writing is crisp.)
Cheap epiphanies? (Bad, very bad.)
No, it's coming to me. I'm seeing a montage of Hollywood films and in the worst of the worst is a certain kind of stereotyping, a kind of vilification based upon or bound up with narrow-minded cultural insensitivity. I'm talking about giving the archfiend a glass eye, a lisp (Gladiator & The Lion King), patterns of speech we associate with black ghettoes (The Lion King), a German accent (Die Hard), or worst of all, making him an Albino with a lisp and a German accent (Lethal Weapon II). As for the glass eye, I guess I just threw that in—maybe you can think of a good example. I'm talking about when writers subtly and not so subtly exploit our cultural fears and our intolerance in order to tilt our emotions in favor of the hero. Or perhaps I've wrongly assumed that the evil byproduct is not the underlying intention, i.e. to perpetuate an us versus a them, where them is superficially different from us, whoever it is we think we are. Good writing certainly does not thrive on the inculcation of fear and hatred, but there are a number of big industries in this country that do, and they rely on writers to get their messages out. It's sinful, on a par with buying butts for seventh graders.
Dan Coshnear, Guerneville, CA.
The next to worst sin a writer can commit is when the writer can't and doesn't, but the worst sin is the sin of not writing when the writer can but doesn't, this also known as the sin of omission.
Doug Stout, Healdsburg, CA
What's the worst sin a writer can commit? Let see, to steal from others' work? To not write? To be boring? To read in such a low voice we can't hear them? To stand on stage and go through their work trying to decide what to read? To take more time than they should to read, cutting into other poets' time? To come to do a reading and not stay to hear the other writers read their work? So many sins, what to pick? I think not staying to hear other read their work. 2nd. Choice: I think it would be cutting into other writers' time, not caring that the other readers will not be able to read for the full time allotted.
Geri Digiorno, Sonoma County Poet Laureate, Petaluma, CA
The worst sin a writer can commit is not writing. Sometimes I make up excuses for not writing: "I'm too busy. I'm not good enough. All I get are rejection slips." But I think of an old adage, "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."
Rejection slips? So what? Better to have written and lost than never to have written at all." And besides, being rejected doesn't mean you have lost. Maybe you hit an editor that day who didn't have much taste.
By definition, a writer writes. How can you call yourself a writer if you don't write? A writer writes and doesn't talk about "writer's block" and all the chores waiting. "This room needs painting." There will always be chores, safe, comfortable chores.
Not writing is a sin because of all the readers out there who will never get a chance to read what you didn't write, never get a chance to laugh at your jokes, or marvel at your occasional brilliant line. It's a sin to deprive people of whatever tiny talent you have.
It's a sin to give up. Who knows but the manuscript you didn't send out might have been the one some editor loved. Why take that satisfaction away from that editor? Thomas Edison said, "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."
Experiencing failure is part of writing. Robert F. Kennedy said "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly." Not writing is taking the easy way out. A form of suicide. Being afraid of the risk, afraid of failure, or maybe being afraid of success.
Can you call yourself a writer if you don't write consistently? Now I've added another element. Consistency. How long a period of not writing is acceptable? A week, a month, a year? Suppose I got in an accident and broke both hands and couldn't write? Would taking six months off be OK? I've heard of painters who became paralyzed and then they held the brush between their teeth.
So maybe the opposite of not writing is being tenacious, taking a one in a million chance, realizing nobody may ever see your words, or somebody may see them and tear them to bits, but realizing all this, you say, like my old friend George said, jumping into five feet of water when he couldn't swim: "Ah to Hell with it. Let's go."
Now, about this month's question re: "worst sin." Assuming we are not talking about "cardinal" or "criminal" sins, I see the issue in two parts, "external" and "internal." The worst "external" sin would be to steal someone else's work, taking credit for it without crediting the original writer. The worst "internal" sin is a little trickier. Two writers I've asked have both said, "not to write." That seems too simplistic to me. So I will paraphrase what William Stafford said when I saw him interviewed by Robert Bly, who asked William basically the same question, and the reply was, "Don't become an alcoholic" (or a drug addict[my addtion]). The response was a bit of a shock to Bly. It seems to me that the result would be the same—not writing.
I believe that a writer's worse sin is writing with inspiration and genius, and never sharing a word of it with others. A writer must realize that part of being a writer is sharing with a reader.
I think the greatest sin a writer can commit (besides not writing at all) is not reading.
My worst writing habit is not writing. It is putting "Writing" at the bottom of a written or imagined To-Do list. It is mental wailing about not knowing what to write about. It is gloomy reflection on a long life of ordinariness. Take last night, for instance when plain old 80-year-old Ruth who had 7 children in her first marriage then married a man, a recovering alcoholic who was marrying his 3rd wife and adding 4 more kids to the pot, told about—that is, Ruth told about, as an aside to our discussion of Tolstoy, how her father—and here's what I'm getting at, rode in a railroad box car through Siberia along with his YMCA companions just after WWI. You see, Ruth has something to write about. My father never left Lanark until he went practically next door to Freeport to attend high school where he met my mother, got married and dropped dead one morning plugging in the breakfast coffee at the age of 67. Right there, in one sentence I've aced myself out of writing anything and fed my bad habit of not doing it at all. What a muddle.
Marilyn Petty, Santa Rosa, CA
According to the folks at www.deadlysins.com, here are some of the transgressions that are fatal to spiritual progress—Greed, Wrath, Envy, Lust—in other words, the stuff of great literature. Pride, Gluttony and Sloth are pretty appealing, too. I think it's safe to say that when it comes to writing, sin is good for business.
It's interesting to note that the Catholic Church will tolerate a coward but not a slob. It's the opposite for writers: sloppy is bad, but giving in to fear is the one sure path to ruin.
Writing demands daring, and anyone attempting to put words to a page should cultivate absolute fearlessness. You can be nervous about the demons you might encounter. You can wonder if anyone else will care. But in order to chase the wily, elusive truth, a writer has to be willing to lift the veil, look under those rocks, dig up the basement and shake hands with the skeletons in the closet. It's not a job for the timid.
You might have to learn how to be brave enough to speak up. Most of us were raised by people who treated fearlessness like variation on the sin Pope Gregory the Great declared the deadliest—Pride. We weren't taught to be confident about who we are or what we do. That's why some of us hear a little voice hissing, "Who do you think you are?" whenever we start having a good time with our own thoughts. And if we get too close to the truth, it tries to scare us off by shouting, "HOW DARE YOU!"
So between the voices in our heads and the monsters lying in wait around every corner, it's tempting to just glide along the surface of the story that needs telling, stick to the places where it's climate-controlled and there's cable and cell phone reception. Being fearless might lead to pain or sorrow or wrath, or the sin of utter foolishness. Or, we might even say something important enough to change us. And if that happens, just like the folks at home warned us, we might get bigger than our britches. That's a terrible price to pay for spiritual progress, writers, but should you need some bigger pants, just remember, shopping isn't a sin.
Susan Bono is considering the price of bigger britches in Petaluma, CA.
Many years ago, goaded by the spirit of "I'll try anything once," I went to hear Billy Graham. I may have been the only nonbeliever in the stadium, although not the only sinner. Blond youths fondling their personal pocket bibles filled the bleachers, and the evangelist was a tiny ant on a dais at the 50-yard line. Suddenly, disembodied loudspeakers boomed: "Young people, ask me about SIN!" which practically knocked everyone back in our seats, and I could see the ant waving his arms.
Since then I have asked myself about sin many times and always in that booming voice, and have come to believe that writers should sample all of them—sloth, gluttony, lust, greed, et al.—before rejecting any!
After all, the sins are far more compelling than humility, kindness, abstinence, chastity, patience, liberality, or diligence (a.k.a. virtues), and they'll give you a lot more to write about.
Evil, on the other hand, should be avoided. For a writer to abandon her craft, stifle her voice, or blind her vision: that is pure evil.
Susan Starbird, sinning in Sebastopol
The worst sin a writer can commit is not, as you might think, avoiding the truth—no, the worst sin is believing you know the truth and so not getting to the dregs of it. Not offering up dregs w/the rest of the pulp. Dregs are essential, the lees, the sludge. I've been going over some ¶s I wrote in the 90's, and although they all speak grains of truth, not one speaks dregs.
Maybe sometimes you have to make yourself start at dregs before they stop making you flinch. Write-start, jump-start, start from there and only then begin to float your piece up to the top of the barrel where it can breathe. Sin free.
Terry Law, Bodega Bay, CA firstname.lastname@example.org
Worst thing is for a writer is to stop writing!
Searchlights Editor: Susan Bono
Columnists: Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers
Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.
Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.
David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.
David the Writer
David the Scientist
Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.
Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.
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