When considering the pursuit of writing as a means of expression, it is advisable to keep in mind Jean Paul Sartre’s famous statement about getting work before the masses: “Sometimes one must cut one’s palm to see if the razor is sharp enough to shave with.”(1) In other words, your goal may force a method you’d rather not have to employ. It’s for this reason that you had better really consider whether you have something of value to add to the literary landscape, and whether you have the constitution to get it out there. As we all know, there are examples, from Homer to Hemmingway, that lacking one or the other leads to trouble.(2)

Measuring the import of what you have to say is a tricky proposition. If one cannot judge the era in which we live while we are living in it, then how can we judge our literary expression while in the midst of creating it? Can we even truly judge it ourselves?(3) For myself the hard part is being patient with my process: I let myself work on something that may not ever see the light of day, and I work on it for an extended period of time—months, years—so that I can set it down and abandon it. Only when I’ve forgotten what I wrote can I honestly evaluate it.(4) Returning to a manuscript, finding rubble where you thought there was structure and finding beautiful bridges where you remember only chasm and lack, is when you also measure what is being said, whether it matters, whether it has weight or is as evident as water is to a drowning man.(5) One has to be prudent and sober in measuring their own work, as honest as Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert is in revealing his weakness.(6) One also has to be ruthless in pruning what was once cherished but now reeks of rot. Remember George Orwell’s advice to, “Kill your darlings.”(7)

As for the strength to get your work in front of the reading public, whether through a publishing house, self-publication or whatever means necessary, it may seem daunting until one remembers that a long journey begins with a single step.(8) For me the writing of query letters and submission process was less difficult than sharing my work with close friends and family members. I still have a hard time with this. Total strangers reading my work seems natural. I leave the story lying there, leave the area, someone comes along and reads it, or not. That’s life.(9) But sharing my work with someone I know? Egads, that’s hard.(10) After getting an agent and revising Numb(11) for the tenth or eleventh time I realized that there was a chance it could get published and that I would have to—gulp—share it with my parents. Numb is not pornographic, or overly violent, or, in my mind, graphic in its depictions of trauma(12), but there is sex and violence (sometimes at the same time (13)) and having my parents read it was a tricky proposition. In a fit of Let’s-get-this-over-with-ism I attached the document to an e-mail and hit send before I could talk myself out of it.(14) That for me was the moment I knew I could handle the submission process and editorial feedback. The fact that my mother suggested adding more graphic descriptions to the sex scenes also aided moving forward.(15) As quickly as possible.

So my advice to those who are working on those novels, short stories, plays, critical essays, poems, screenplays, or any other form of writing, bear in mind that you’ll need to be cruel to yourself, patient with yourself, and, above all, honest with yourself. It’s either that or fall victim to the same fate that befell James Joyce’s famous character, Edwin Charringhouse.(16)


(1)    I have no idea if Jean Paul Sartre ever said anything even remotely close to this. I may have made it up.

(2)    This note isn’t really about Homer or Hemmingway. It’s more of an admission that my first note wasn’t completely honest. I do know that Sartre never said anything like the included quote. I made it up out of whole cloth.

(3)    That thing about “not judging an era while it is being lived” was something that was tossed around in grad school. Never really got a firm hold about what it meant. And I’m really starting to regret the complete lack of research on my part. I mean, is Wikipedia really that hard to use? I couldn’t have used some search engine to find a good quote from Sartre?

(4)    Drinking helps this part of the writing process tremendously. “Tremendously” may be an under-statement.

(5)    “Tremendously” was definitely an understatement.

(6)    Not that I have a problem.

(7)    There is not a chance in Hell that Orwell said this. Again, not one pass at a text book or a website, not one google search? If laziness had a king, I would be holding a sceptre.

(8)    I inadvertently used the British spelling of scepter. Funny that I discovered my error while shopping at Target.

(9)    I could have used “C’est la vie,” but I just had that British spelling issue and it suddenly occurs to me that I might be seen as an intellectual snob. Plus I made claims to having read Sartre and Orwell. In fact, claiming to read at all… God, this coffin already has so many nails in it I might as well be from France.

(10) That’s what she said.

(11) Available here!

(12) Probably just lost half my readers. Le sigh.

(13) Just doubled my readers. Huzzah!

(14) See note (4).

(15) I’ve mentioned my mother’s suggestion elsewhere, and I’m sure I will again and again. It’s a memory that, to be honest, haunts me. In many ways, it’s my Marley’s ghost.(15a)

(15a) I’ve never understood why Bob Marley had anything to do with teaching Scrooge about changing his ways, but I do love his music.

(16) I absolutely just made that last one up. What the Hell is wrong with me?

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SEAN FERRELL is the author of Man in the Empty Suit (Soho Press, 2013) and Numb (HarperPerennial, August 2010). His short fiction has appeared in The Cafe Irreal and won the Fulton Prize from The Adirondack review. He lives and works, in no particular order, in New York City. You can find him online at www.seanferrell.com

10 responses to “The Serious Business of Writing”

  1. […] The Nervous Breakdown thenervousbreakdown.com/sferrell/2011/01/the-serious-business-of-writing/ – view page – cached Humorous essay on discovering if you have what it takes to get published., Humorous essay on discovering if you have what it takes to get published. […]

  2. Patty Blount says:

    DAMN IT! Premature “send”. Anyhow, you get the point… Funny as hell.

  3. Patty Blount says:

    OK, redo:

    (1) Googles Satre.
    (2) Damn it, Sean! *closes Google*
    (3) Wow. Seriously.
    (4-7) “beautiful bridges where you remember only chasm and lack” = best line EVAH and that’s without alcohol.
    (8) Photoshopping an image of you with crown and scepter. Except you have no hands to hold it. Photoshopping hands. With talons.
    (9) Cringes in sympathy. The first time someone asked to read my work, I blushed, stammered, and never actually sent the story. It was like handing someone my adolescent diary.
    (10) *chokes, spews beverage all over monitor* Damn it, Sean! I wasn’t expecting that here.
    (11) Read the book. Where’s my effing T-Shirt?
    (12) Nope. Still here.
    (13) *waves* Hi!
    (14) Knew you could do it! (Oh, and “That’s what she said!”)
    (15) I love your family! Every one of them. Your mom is telling you, “More!” while my husband read one of my short stories this weekend, growling, “You said it was only three pages…” *sighs*
    (16) We can explore this question but I’ll need obscene amounts of chocolate first.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Re: (4-7), agreed! And I decided to take a look back in my essay purgatory. One piece in particular definitely doesn’t suck. Thanks! You may have just jostled loose the hold of months-long writer’s block!

  4. Greg Olear says:

    I forget who said this…someone French…or perhaps Edwin Charringhouse…”Literature is when you proclaim to the world secrets you won’t tell your closest friends.”

    The way to deal with your parents reading your stuff is to take the offensive. Be all, “Come on now, it’s a BOOK, for Christ sake.” Inwardly, I mean. That’s worked for me. So far. Although Book #2 is a LOT more personal than Book #1.

  5. Always a delight, Sean. Thanks for this.

  6. Muchos Gracias for your post.Much many thanks.

  7. Rachel Pollon says:

    You’re my new favorite.

    (I clicked on your name — not stalk-ily at all — after reading your most current piece to see what else you might have posted here and now I’m all a fan.)

    (Again, in a normal not stalk-y way.)

    (Can one protest just the right amount?)

  8. CRM Software says:

    Serious business requires a serious approach. Therefore, I personally chose to use additional software in order to unload my affairs and my head was not clogged with unnecessary things. When everything is automated and in one place, doing business is much easier.

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