The Best Thing About Being a Fiction Writer Is . . .

When the conference was over, Laz gathered the handouts and picked up his notebook and walked out of the assembly hall into the brilliant Carolina midday sun.  Everett emerged from the darkness at the same moment and the two old friends found themselves walking together.

“So what did you think of the conference, Laz?”

He shrugged.  “You first.”

Everett laughed.  “That pretty much answered my question.  I’m about the most idealistic person I know, but I have to tell you I got a little tired of the ‘high-and-mighty’ tone of the speakers.”

“All of them,” Laz agreed, nodding.

“I guess there’s something wrong with me,” Everett continued.  “They were saying all the right things and I know I was supposed to agree.  Intellectually I’m pretty much right with them.  Only . . . well, it’s hard to put into words.  Somehow all that righteous indignation put me off.”

“They were self-conscious,” Laz said.

 “Self-conscious?  How can you say that?  They did nothing but brag about themselves and drop names for the whole two days.”

“I mean they were self-conscious not in the ‘shy and embarrassed’ sense, but in the ‘I’m going to put myself in the limelight so you all will admire me’ sense.”

“Ah.  Yes, everything they said showed they were mostly conscious of themselves.  I think that’s it, Laz.  Despite the fact that I agreed with them almost completely in principle, their constant ingratiating attitude just sapped all my enthusiasm.  Listening to all those speakers pat themselves on the back, I got to where I thought this was a bragging contest.”

“You know what I kept thinking, Everett?”


“I kept thinking, ‘This is why I’m a writer.  This is why I write fiction.’”

“. . . What do you mean?”

“Well, I feel just as strongly as all those speakers did—and pretty much in the same way.  And maybe I want to express some of my strong ideas.  Only, when a person gets up and makes a speech about a controversial issue, half the potential listeners have already tuned him or her out.  And two thirds of those who are on the same side as the speaker are only listening to hear things they agree with.

“On the other hand, when you write a story—if you do it right—you can draw in any reader.  You can express your ideas either in what your characters say or in what happens to your characters and how they respond.  As a writer you have the ability to show a realistic grasp of both sides of any controversial issue.  Most public speakers forget there are two sides to any issue because they’re so busy trying to prove their side is the valid, important one.

“When you write about a controversial issue, you don’t have to make it the center of your story to express it fully.  You just work it in.  For instance, when I wrote The Medicine People, I deal a lot with the quiet underlying bigotry Native Americans and Western European descendants still harbor for one another but never express out loud.  And while it was essential to the story, it didn’t overwhelm the novel.  Stories have the power to make an issue live in the mind of the reader the way a speech never can.

“And the best thing about being a fiction writer is, you don’t have to brag to get your point across.  The best writer is one whose reader gets absolutely lost in the narrative and—oops!  Watch out for the curb, Everett!  Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  Just clumsy.  What were you saying?”

“I don’t remember.  Let’s go get lunch.”

Lazarus Barnhill is the author of The Medicine People and Lacey Took a Holiday, both published by Second Wind Publishing Co.


Filed under Lazarus Barnhill, life, writing

7 responses to “The Best Thing About Being a Fiction Writer Is . . .

  1. Pingback: The Best Thing About Writing Fiction « Bertram's Blog

  2. Why I can’t stomach another “writer’s” convention. It’s been years since I heard anything useful at one.
    Self-publicity seems to be the main reason for these. They’ll tell you about market trends, but by the time they’re telling you–that trend is all but over.

    Glad you both came out w/sense of humor intact. 😉

  3. christinehusom

    I haven’t been to a conference, but a book fair I attended offered classes. Because I had a table at the fair, I only attended the keynote speaker’s address before the fair began and that was a positive experience. She was warm and engaging and had a great story to tell.

    I have heard a couple of authors, though, who are very impressed with themselves and their work. More than anyone else could possibly be.

    So you can give some advice on the conferences to avoid!

  4. I totally agree with what you wrote. My book came about because I don’t like writing nonfiction but I had a lot to say about public schools. People do, of course, purchase nonfiction, but I wonder if most of the buyers/readers will pick the book up only if they already agree with the thesis. As for tuning out what people are saying, that’s even more relevant in the polarized society we have where people don’t want to hear anything different from what they already believe. I have only gone to one writers’ conference, but I’ve gone to many other conferences and your blog hits the nail on the head, especially with the panel discussions. the speakers are just performing, showing a version of themselves to the others there, either for ego or to sell a product. The audience is in a daze and they’re only there in the first place to see if they’re sitting next to someone who might be advantageous to know. Yes, I’m a cynic. I have to add that my favorite at a conference is when the speaker gives you a handout and then do a powerpoint that has the exact same words on it.

  5. I agree in principal here, but only to a point. As publishers today require more from their authors in terms of presentation and marketing, a writer must be prepared to separate his or herself from the pack if they hope to be noticed. Still, I think the requirements go too far. For example, I heard on NPR about a year ago that an author’s photograph is “essential in marking a book.” The segment went so far as to state that review copies of books have been turned down on the premise the author’s photo on the jacket lacked attractiveness.

    Women have been judged by their beauty and their body parts for centuries, and today that practice is considered politically incorrect, even as record companies award contracts based more on appearance than talent, and sex is used on TV to sell everything from automobiles to beer.

    Sports figures from every major sport generate huge incomes for using their looks and celebrity to sell products. As far back as 100 years, marketers clamored to get the likes of Ty Cobb to endorse their products—from orange juice to Coca Cola to health spas. American Idol (note the definition of idol: one that is adored, often blindly or excessively; something visible but without substance) endeavors to create empty vassals for the masses to adore. Corporate America “dresses” for success. So why shouldn’t authors be expected to be a spokesperson for their book?

    But now author photos, not the content of their texts, must generate sales.

    It isn’t enough that writers must endure rejection of their manuscript submission because an agent or publisher doesn’t think it is right for them; now they must consider that maybe it’s because someone doesn’t think they’re young and good-looking enough?

    While I believe a writer should be able to present his or her work well at an author event—I’ve seen well-known writers on a cable book channel read horribly—overall, this country, and now the publishing industry, is far too obsessed with youth and beauty. Plastic surgery (a practice in which both genders now indulge), liposuction, breast enhancement—all designed to enhance the superficial and distract from what really matters—in the case of books, what lies between its covers.

    Okay, sorry. I’ll hop down from my soapbox.

  6. Pingback: Why Do You Write Fiction? « Second Wind Publishing Blog

  7. Katrina

    “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” Story is paramount.
    And speaking of that, when are we going to get a new book out of you Laz? Hmmm??

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