Notes on Optimism, Books on Writing Craft

There is a constant need for optimism when working in creative fields. I pick the word need intentionally. In my relatively long working life, I’ve never run into a field before in which there are so many people that are willing to tell you how shitty you are, how the odds are against you, and why should probably stop and just go back to whatever mindless job you were doing before.

Bear with me. I swear I’ll get to the optimism. Eventually.

My writing group, The Smug Buttholes (TSB), has been doing a book club of sorts where we read about the craft of writing. I won’t provide a list because A) you probably don’t care and B) I can’t remember all of them. Most have been both informative and inspirational and prose focused. The book we’re finishing up, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, has been wonderfully informative. Knowing the vocabulary and mechanics of poetry has demystified it and helped me overcome an aversion I’ve held for years. When you can see how the wizard works the spell, it’s easier to release the fear and appreciate the magic.


In the very opening lines of the introduction, Mary Oliver says, “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.” She’s using no irony here and goes on to say, “Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given or earned or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart and redesigned for the next person.” If you pick apart that second line (and I believe that poets expect you to pick apart everything) you can generously interpret it to say that you can learn the fundamentals, but that only helps to get you to the epiphany of understanding. One could also read it as saying, you’re going to be a shitty poet unless you’re born with certain qualities. At first, that made me furrow my brow but I dismissed it because I have no intention of writing poetry.

The next book TSB is taking on is the classic: John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I was pretty excited because I’ve been hearing great things so I dug in as soon as I picked up my copy. Jesus Christ, John Gardner! I won’t retch up the entirety of the first two paragraphs of the preface, but they contain gems like:

  • …the ability to write well is partly a gift…writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing
  • a smart chimp with a good creative-writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant [than most of what’s published]
  • The instruction here is not for every kind of writer–not for the writer of nurse books or thrillers or porno or the cheaper sort of sci-fi
  • Not everyone is capable of writing junk fiction: it requires an authentic junk mind.

I know that Gardner became well known later in his career for publishing inflammatory literary criticism and was shouted down by many big names in fiction. I also know he was loved by most of his students. But why Why WHY start this book with the aggrandizement of teachers and the disparagement of writers without an MFA?

Don’t get me wrong. I love teachers. Much of my extended family and many of my best friends are teachers. But do I really need a prick with Ph.D. to pull down his literary underpants and moon me from the grave? It’s an issue that I’m sure I’m sensitive about because I don’t have an MFA and never will. It bothers me that there are teachers out there that will intentionally discourage creative people because they haven’t sat in a lecture hall. Or if they have, they haven’t sat in the right lecture hall. There is an entire industry that preys on people who want to be writers. Statements made by figures like John Gardner help to fuel the fear that causes people to spend tens of thousands of dollars they don’t have to get talked at by people who aren’t qualified. It pisses me off.

But I’m optimistic. I will traditionally publish a novel and it will likely be the cheaper sort of sci-fi or thriller or porno (probably not porno). People I don’t know will read it and be entertained. Some will think it’s great and some will hate it. I encourage you to do the same. Take the good stuff from writers like Oliver and Gardner and leave the rest behind.



I’m in the process of editing a short story that I plan to send out to some pro speculative fiction markets and I want to take a moment to say thank you to the critiquers in my life.

My critique group, unofficially dubbed the Smug Buttholes, is … well…these four are … the words fail here. Irreplaceable? Compassionate? Astute? Supportive? Insightful? Entertaining? Complete dicks? A single word to sum up might be friends or family. But both words are, curiously, too much and too little.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have this group of writers in my life. Every single story I’ve given them to review has come out better because of their involvement. I learned more craft by sitting around a table with them than a hundred writing guides could impart. Of equal importance is the emotional support. As I’ve discussed in other posts, a full-time creative endeavor can be a dark and lonely path. With their help, I’ve stayed on track both creatively and emotionally.

I can’t possibly leave Mrs. Blackwelder out here. I understand, based on conversations with a lot of other writers, how lucky I am. Not only is she much more than friend and family but my wife gives me honest, direct feedback on my work. She usually has the unenviable job of being my alpha reader. Love is far too small of a word to express my feelings for her.

A thousand thank yous to all of you. My world is a better place with you in it.


History & Endurance

I’ve been dipping my hand into the podcast cookie jar again. One of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent Revisionist History stories has gotten chocolate all over my … brain? Dammit. I hate when the metaphor falls apart. So, his Obscure Virus Club story is stuck in my head. That isn’t surprising since one of his stated objectives is for every episode to be thought-provoking.

Although I feel compelled to relay the entire story in as much detail as possible, the little angel on my shoulder with Mrs. Blackwelder’s face is giving me a look. The one that is usually accompanied by a covert stomp on my foot when we’re at a gathering and she knows that I’m about ready to launch into a thirty-minute monologue.

I’ll summarize. Two researchers have doubts about the science of viruses. Their peers patted them on the heads and told them to work on something different. They kept at it and we’re all alive right now because they did.

At its heart, the podcast is about science, persistence, and belief in one’s self. This, of course, hits me in all the right places.

Mrs. Blackwelder and I both have educational and professional backgrounds in science although she has been far more rigorous in her application of the scientific method than I have. The virologists in Gladwell’s story are really the embodiment of the proper use of science. Observable fact contradicts commonly held belief–research, gather data, present findings, and force the belief to change. In today’s world of populist thinking (I promised I wouldn’t say fake news) and dogmatic belief, it’s a relief to see the scientific method working as it should.

As a father, I want my kids to have the persistence and self-confidence displayed by these scientists. This is one of the things I worry about as a parent-probably because I perceive the lack of these characteristics in myself. The scientists in the story were called crazy by their colleagues for ten years until they were proven right and awarded the Nobel Prize. How does one give their kids the tools to say, “I’m right. Look at the data.” for a decade? More importantly, how do you give them the tools to know the difference between actually being correct and self-deception?

As a writer, I need to take these lessons to heart. I need to have faith in my projects and see them through. Self-confidence and persistence.