Who Are the “Real” Writers, Anyway?
Read Leigh Newman's Speech From the One Story Literary Debutante Ball
Photo by Aslan Chalom.
One Story was my first big deal publication and my first big deal contact with contemporary short fiction. I was from Alaska. I thought that the Paris Review was in Paris. Most importantly, it was an introduction to a community that has sustained and inspired me for the past 20 years. I remember attending to the inaugural launch back in ye old 2002, listening to John Hodgman read from “Villanova” and thinking, wow, I’d love to be in that magazine. And then also thinking: This will never happen. So just sit there, honey, and learn from the real writers.
The real writers. Maybe some of you can relate to this shiny, turd-studded tiara, never to be placed on your head, i.e.: You’re not a real writer if you’re not published by a literary magazine or an online magazine or Substack run by your old classmate from junior high who won the Pulitzer without going to grad school or even high school. You’re not a real writer if you weren’t published by a big enough house for a big enough advance to a big enough critical acclaim and big enough sales. You’re not a real writer if you got an MFA or if you didn’t get an MFA or if you got a PhD only so you could teach.
All of which somehow proves that you’re just not magic enough, special enough, mythical enough to ever, ever be real. You got started too late. You are writing about places, people, genders, races, ideas, identities, families and social classes that are not sufficiently sexy in this particular era. If not ignored, dismissed or—now, in our current climate—banned.
In real life, you lumber into rooms unable to be witty and urbane like a real writer or to be clunky and charismatically misanthropic like a real writer. You are too loud or quiet or blinky with humiliation when a dentist at the party asks where he can buy your book, because he’s trying to prove that you don’t have a book. Or when a dog walker (at the same party) tells you that he’s always wanted to write a book about fostering cats, then informs you that maybe he should send you his manuscript when he’s done. And that’s not a question.
For years, you write shittily in an office that is actually a closet or a bathroom—and yes, my office for many years was a bathroom, with a piece of plywood over the sink—which feels as if you are real writer, because you are broke and unrecognized but is actually more proof that you are not a real writer because you cut out early to breastfeed or play bad banjo or cover the household duties of your partner who makes the real money in this relationship or go to accounting school online, which you not only excel at but secretly enjoy save for the realization that there is no real writer/tax haven specialist that you can think of as a model… save for maybe Wallace Stevens who was the vice president of an insurance company. Until you also remember his wife—a former model!— took care of everything in his life outside of his poems and his plush office at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.
In your darkest hours, you realize: You have talent, of course, but you don’t have direction and you’re afraid of success. Or: You don’t have talent but you’re hard working and that only gets you so far. Add to this: you never had a mentor. Real writers have a mentor who sees them across a crowded workshop and in a moment of ecstatic recognition goes: Hello, anointed one. Hello friend. You are special. You are different. You are real. Let us sashay off to a literary party and I’ll introduce you to agents and editors and prize-awarders.
(PS I have met people this happened to and I have had to endure the whole dropped elevator of the soul in which I tried very hard to be happy for that person and succeeded for a brief hiccup of gravity until all the usual physics kicked in and down, down, down I fell.)
Real writers! In this day and age, the whole notion all feels a little Velveteen Rabbit, doesn’t it? Not that a real writer would ever bring up such a tattered, clichéd trope. And yet our minds flicker with such lint from the days of yore, whether we like it or not. The old nag horse in the childhood story was real because the horse was loved. And we all want to be loved. Don’t we? I do. I want to be loved so much that I would like to stand up here and say that the way to vanquish the toxic falseness of being or not being a real writer is to say: love yourself first. Or, at least, be yourself. And then, finally, at least you will be you.
Except that as a writer and as a human being, I am not sure about me. I am sometimes small, mean and greedy. I am sometimes generous, kind and expansive. I contain multitudes—the dingdong, the genius, and more often a clown car crashed into a truck filled with bats with overheated radar.
None of which has anything to do with what will save us in this occupation that only has one requirement: to measure our words against our own hearts, to create a reality on the page made of imaginary people who are people, not characters; imaginary places that are places, not settings; stories that are stories, not plots. A reality of sentences and wonky clauses and the clumsy, unflagging belief in beat-to death, pillaged words like “magic” and “upscale” if not overlooked, dazzling words like “dog doo” and “spatula.” So that the delight of writing is real. Just as real as the hard-work, exhaustion and boredom.
When I think about it (and boy, do I think about it) it might behoove us to only consider what is real—or not—about our writing. To scurry through the world as phony writers, fraud writers, forever illegitimate. In any crowded room filled with luminaries, prize-winners, and bestsellers of the literary community, please know know that all of them, like all of us, believe that they are just not upscale enough to be here. And possibly full of dog-doo.
I’ve long given up on being a real writer. I’m totally comfortable with my illegitimacy. And that is what I want you to be comfortable with, literary debutantes, and anyone else out there who hasn’t been published or wants to be better or has some of these same fantastical self-delusions of limitations. Let’s go forth and be illegitimate. And happy. And put down our words on paper.
Thank you One Story! Congrats on 20 years!
You can read more about the 2022 One Story Literary Debutantes here.