Interview by Lara Lillibridge
Writer and editorial consultant Ron Hogan offers insight into why writers write, and why it’s worth it to keep writing, whether you ever get published or not.
Many people pick up the guitar without eyeing a career as a professional musician, or start painting without caring if they get a gallery. But with writing the assumption seems to be that the goal must be to get published.
Why? Why is it acceptable to attain technical proficiency at “Stairway to Heaven” or plein air watercolors as a hobby, while writing is expected to earn its keep? In Our Endless and Proper Work, the second in Belt’s series of books about writing and publishing—along with Belt founder Anne Trubek’s So You Want to Publish a Book? (2020)—Ron Hogan argues writing should be an end in itself for more people. The founder of the literary site Beatrice, and creator of the popular newsletter Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives, Hogan offers concrete steps to help writers develop ongoing creative practice in chapters such as “Reclaiming Your Time for Writing,” “Finding Your Groove,” and “Preparing Yourself for the Long Haul.” Sprinkled throughout are adorable illustrations by “Positive Doodles” creator Emm Roy.
This concise, inspirational book speaks to this moment, when the number of aspiring but non-published writers—and the avenues by which they might become published—is burgeoning. With it, Hogan encourages all people to take up writing not, as so many other handbooks and resources suggest, in order to make money or become famous, but because it can help you become a happier, more whole and engaged person. As the Mary Oliver poem from which he takes his title exhorts: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
Ron Hogan has been an industry analyst for a media website, a digital marketing director for a publishing house, a freelance book reviewer, and an acquiring editor for a startup book publisher. He is the founder of the literary site Beatrice, and creator of a popular newsletter about developing your writing practice, “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives.
Ron Hogan: Nice to meet you as well.
LL: So, okay, let’s talk about your book, which I love.
RH: Thank you.
LL: How did it come into existence?
RH: I started the newsletter in the spring of 2018. At the time, I wasn’t necessarily thinking past the newsletter. I knew it had an overarching theme, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it being more than a newsletter. Then Anne Trubek at Belt Publishing, who had a newsletter of her own about the publishing industry, announced that she was turning some of her columns into a book about publishing called, “So You Want To Publish A Book?“
I reached out to her and said, ‘You know, that’s a great idea to do this book about the publishing industry. I have all these 1,000-word essays about the writing life, maybe there could be a book in that.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s a really cool idea.’ So we hammered it out from there.
LL: And your newsletter is called, “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives?”
LL: How did that name come about?
RH: That’s the opening line to one of my favorite Mekons songs. The full line is, ‘Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late.’ It’s been a song that has stuck with me for decades, and it felt really apt to use it to talk about the writing life. I mean, you don’t become a writer because you’re complacent. You become a writer because there are things picking away at you—things you have to get out. And in order to get them out, sometimes you have to blow up your routine and find a new way of doing things.
LL: There’s that whole theory that if you’re not crying, you’re not writing the right things at least in nonfiction. And you said something about that, as well. You wrote,
When we sit down to write, we should live for making waves. We should live for the awkward….well, maybe not all the moments we strive to provoke with our writing are awkward, exactly. Maybe disruptive is a better word, one that encompasses not just the awkward, painful stories but the world-changing, upbeat stories as well.
And I loved that because I don’t want to just cry when I write. I think you’re the first person I’ve seen that has placed value on the ‘world changing positive’ as well.
RH: Sometimes transformation is a painful process; self-awareness and self-recognition often come with an acknowledgement of the trauma that has come before. But sometimes it’s about stepping into a brighter, a more positive future. You hit upon this thing of beauty, or joy, and you allow yourself to live in that moment.
LL: And we need those moments in literature right now, I think, more than ever.
Another thing that you wrote that I had never seen before in a craft book was this idea that you don’t have to equate publishing with success. You wrote that we don’t assume that everyone who picks up a guitar is going to go on to become a rock star, that we assume that you’re playing guitar for pleasure, you want to get better. But with writing, there’s sort of this agreement that in order to be successful, in order for it to be worth doing, you have to publish at the end. And you wrote in opposition to that.
RH: I think part of that is just some of the economic nature of the way writing propagates in this culture. You know, to use the guitar analogy, it’s very possible to learn how to play a guitar and become pretty proficient at it, maybe even better than proficient at it, but just to be able to play is enough. You can pick up a guitar and play for your friends or your family or a small audience, and do things that way.
With writing, there are ways that you can share your work yourself—particularly now in the internet age, it’s easy to put stuff up online and share it. But there’s still this notion that success comes from a traditional publishing deal, which involves a lot of copies of the book, and then all those copies have to sell.
LL: And not get returned.
RH: Right, and not get returned. The minute you start thinking in those terms, when you’re thinking about the book as an economic object, you may not entirely lose sight of the aesthetic or literary notions of success, but the idea of writing for writing sake does get lost to a certain extent.
LL: You wrote,
A steady writing practice helps us realize what’s most important to us, what drives our passions and concerns, and helps us think about reorganizing our lives around these newly discovered priorities.
So you’re talking about writing making us better people, whether we sell it or not?
RH: Yeah, and that was something that I began to fully realize the longer I did the newsletter. I don’t really write about it so much in this book, because I had actually sort of forgotten it over the first couple of years of doing the newsletter, but I basically had what I’ve chosen to regard as a spiritual experience in very early 2018.
After that, I spent some weeks trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with this spiritual experience, because it’s not like it came with specific instructions. So I had to sit there and ask myself, ‘Okay, why did this happen? What am I supposed to take from it? What am I supposed to do moving forward?’
One of the things that emerged out of that process of contemplation was the notion of sharing what I knew about writing and the writing life with others. And that’s what I began to do through the newsletter. Over time, I became so focused on the newsletter that I lost track of the particular impetus, even though it was all right there in my prayer journals when I reread them two years later.
All that time, though, I was moving forward into writing about this notion of cultivating a writing practice, especially as I began reencountering voices like Thomas Merton or Henry Nouwen as part of my research. Reading them again, I began to recognize the connections between contemplative practice and meditation, and writing as a process of focusing your attention very intently on your thoughts, learning to work through your thoughts, identifying the ones that are transitory and the ones that are more substantial and bear more personal meaning to you.
LL: I was really impressed with the variety of sources that you referenced. Because, you know, they weren’t all necessarily books that I’d heard of before, or even necessarily what I would think of as a writing book, and yet, they seem so highly relevant.
RH: Writing is the form of creativity that I’m most familiar with, but I’m interested in creativity in general. I would never necessarily make a great talk show host, for example, but I can watch somebody like Conan O’Brien and recognize what they were doing with the talk show in terms of its structure or technique—see how they applied their personal vision to a genre, as it were.
Or, as somebody who grew up watching a lot of standup comedy, I can see how Hannah Gadsby’s work morphs even within itself from standup comedy, to dramatic monologue. There are lessons that you can take away from Nanette; there are lessons that you can take away from Rothko’s feelings about painting and art.
LL: Yeah. And, you know, I was glad that you reference that particular show [Nanette], because one thing I took away from watching it that I found really interesting was the idea that art is but a snapshot, and even if what you’re saying is true, you can shade the story. She talked about a story that she told that was funny, but in reality, she ended up getting beat up at the end of the story, which wasn’t funny at all. And it struck me that as creative nonfiction writers, people talk a lot about truth, but something can be true and yet also not at all representative of the situation depending on how much of the story you tell.
RH: I mean, we all bring perspective to what we do, and questions emerge: Are we cherry picking moments? Are we deliberately obscuring things that don’t fit our thesis? I think particularly if you’re writing creative nonfiction, part of the process is to be able to look at the totality of a situation and just see how all those pieces fit together. Maybe the story that you end up telling is the one that takes A, B, C, and D, but not E.
But there are ways that you can be overt or explicit about that. You can foreground your perspective as a subjective storyteller, rather than pretending to be an omniscient narrator.
LL: Right, own your bias or own your own lens.
Something else that you wrote that I was really excited about, is you wrote about being skeptical about the notion of innate talent. And the idea that some people have more natural ability, you don’t necessarily believe in that, but rather that writing is all skill, combined with how much opportunity they’ve also been given to develop their skill.
And I was really excited because so often as writers we talk a lot or think a lot about a natural ability and if we have it or not. I think a lot of what we call talent comes from being well-read, and having a natural feel for what is good based on reading a lot of books. But I like the idea that if you’re not just born a good writer than any of us could achieve that.
RH: Like you said, if it comes from being well read, well, where does being well read come from? It comes from having the opportunity and the privilege to sit around and read as much as you want, and access to books. The skill/talent question—I first heard that formulated in David Mamet’s American Buffalo, when one of the men asks, ‘Was he born that way or do you think he had to learn it?’
That’s something that really hit home for me when I was at Amazon in the late 1990s. I was hired as a book review editor there, choosing the books that got featured on the nonfiction homepage, deciding which books got reviewed, whether by myself or by freelance contributors, back when there was a much stronger human element to all that—it was less purely algorithmic.
In all honesty, it was one of the sweetest gigs I ever had in my life, because I got to sit around and read nonfiction and tell America what to read, but I also recognized that…I realized I was a good writer, a good reader, I had a pretty proficient critical acumen, but so did a lot of people.
And the idea that at 28-29 years old I was doing this job… I quickly realized that a couple thousand other people in this country could be doing this exact same thing. What I was doing with it was great, but it was not special, if you see what I mean. You really have to look at the opportunity and privilege that allows, or makes it easier for some people to put in the 10,000 hours to become an expert more quickly than other people.
LL: Right. Right, for sure.
RH: We do hear stories about people who come out of less privileged backgrounds to excel at literary careers, which proves that it’s possible, but we treat them as remarkable, because it doesn’t happen that often. But that’s only because the opportunities are not prevalent or widespread as they are elsewhere.
LL: And you wrote about our increased societal awareness in the last year regarding just how great that divide is between white middle class America, and how for many of us, we’re just opening our eyes to the fact that the United States is not as fair as our teachers told us it was. That privilege can be very subtle. It’s not just about who’s allowed to check out a book at a library, it’s whose books gets to be in the library and who has time to go to the library, and I mean, so many different things.
And you’re looking at the cycle from the other end—who is putting together the books that get reviewed? I think that until agents and editors and publishers are more diverse, the books that get published are never going to be as diverse or representative as we need.
RH: Gatekeeping is a real thing. You know, agents choose who they represent. Editors choose what they publish. Bookstores choose what they sell, and libraries choose what they carry. There is individual variance and drive out there—many people strive to be open minded and strive to be diverse in their own dealings—but institutional structures run deep.
But there’s also something the novelist Kelsey McKinney gets at—she doesn’t put it exactly this way, but when diversity efforts move forward, there can be a kind of baseline assumption that there’s the white middle to upper class experience, and then there are all the other voices.
LL: I have a quote from you just on the subject, actually.
RH: Let’s dive into that, then!
LL: You we’re talking about romance writers, and you wrote:
I’ve long been skeptical about the notion of innate talent, the idea that some people start out with more innate ability than others, that they’re just more “naturally” creative or expressive. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much all skill, and differences in capability come down to how much opportunity a person has been given, from an early age, to develop that skill, and how much opportunity they’ve been willing to seize for themselves.
As long as romance publishers continue to think in terms of, say, “African-American readers” or “LGBTQ readers” as niche markets that can serviced with discrete, finite efforts, they continue to define the mainstream in ways that predominantly cater to heterosexual white women, and writers who can effectively cater to that audience reap the rewards.
And I think that’s true across all literature, not just romance—as long as gatekeepers view it as, ‘this is a queer book, or this is a Black book,’ instead of ‘this is a book for everyone,’ they limit how many books they publish, how and where they market them, and all of society suffers from that.
RH: Right. As Kelsey McKinney says, you don’t read Toni Morrison to keep up-to-date on Black literature. You read Toni Morrison because she’s one of the greatest American writers, period.
Among Quakers, there’s this central premise of that of God in everyone. If you want to cast that in secular terms, we can talk about our full humanity. And I think, culturally speaking, the mainstream still often recognizes “full humanity” as white middle class, aspirational upper class. And, as we’ve talked about, sprinkling in some other niche identities. In reality, we’re all equally human, there is equally that of God in each of us. These stories can speak to any of us, even outside the niche that publishers and our marketing departments believe that something fits into. That’s not to say that writers can’t write or don’t write sometimes with messages for a particular community, because they absolutely do.
LL: Sure, a writer can write for a particular community, and I think that book could also be marketed outside of that community to great success and to all of our betterment.
RH: Yeah, and people who are not necessarily part of that community can recognize the universal humanity and apply it to their own lives—although this is a tricky part, because there are ways to be culturally appropriative at a superficial level, and there are ways to be genuinely integrative in our learning and appreciation.
LL: Yes. And you know, you come back to this from different angles several times, is that as much as we write because we have something we need to share, the world needs us to share that in order to be more complex, more inclusive, and more alive.
We need everybody’s stories.
RH: When we’re just speaking to people who are just like us, or reading books about people just like us, we’re not learning to see other people’s full humanity. And I think it’s a fairly radical thing to actually see somebody in their full humanity—in their full circumstance, and to recognize them as your neighbor in, in that sort of Christian theological sense, where the idea is that you’re here to love your neighbor as yourself. Reading diversely teaches us to expand our concept of neighbor.
LL: Someone smarter than me said that reading is both a mirror and a window—a window into somebody else’s life, and then also a mirror of our own. And I think that’s really true.
So, this is just funny. On a personal note, you talked about Ball Four by Jim Bouton. I have a 13 and a 15 year old, two boys, and—just like your mother did—I picked it up for them because I thought, ‘Oh this is a book on baseball, this will be nice for my 13-year-old.’ And you talked about it being perhaps not entirely appropriate for a 13-year-old, but it was exciting for my kids—I came running in their room, I’m like, I’m reading this book. And they say Ball Four is one of the best memoirs and it’s a really great book, and then my kids were excited that something that they loved, you also loved. And I thought it was neat, because it’s not a book that a lot of the literary world, perhaps, read or holds up is like a great example, and yet it can be.
RH: That’s great! Reading Ball Four as a young teenager, or even on the cusp of being a teenager as in my case, has the kind of excitement of getting to see an R-rated movie without your parents knowing. There’s that surface level attraction of the pleasure of the forbidden, all the sex and drugs in baseball, but then when you reread it as an adult, when you are Jim Bouton’s age, or even older, it’s a much different kind of story—a much more profound one, as I realized.
LL: And you also wrote about how every book that you read can make you a better writer, even the books that we read for fun or, the books that maybe we don’t tell all of our literary friends that we love secretly—they all have something to offer and something to teach us. You wrote about reading all different kinds of books, not just one genre exclusively.
RH: I grew up loving to read. I was not a particularly athletic child. I played Little League for a while, but reading was easier. And I could read a lot more quickly back then, so I read through a ton of stuff. I was a reasonably smart kid. Schoolwork did not necessarily present much of a challenge to me—there were individual teachers who challenged me, but a lot of the schoolwork was just like, boom, boom, boom, it’s done, I’ve got all this time on my hands, let’s read. So I read really diversely.
And then, in the 2000s, when I was covering the publishing industry, it made sense to read as diversely as possible to understand more of the industry. You know, there’s still a tremendous amount that I haven’t gotten to yet, or that I’m not familiar with. But being able to dip my toe in a lot of different parts of the river has been rewarding overall. It’s exposed me to a lot of different writing. It’s exposed me to a lot of different people.
LL: My brother and I traded books when I was a kid, mainly because I always had too many fines to go to the library across the street. So I would read fantasy or science fiction and other things that I never would have picked up on my own, because when I needed a book, I would read one of my brother’s. You know, if you want to know about world building, read fantasy—I mean, like, every different genre has things that they really excel at. And I agree that it makes us better writers. And it makes us more interesting conversationalists to have read widely.
RH: We all need distraction. We are not machines, not even writing machines. So we need distraction, whether it’s books, or television, or movies, or social media. But we can look at those things, and even as we’re being distracted and entertained, we can see things and set things aside mentally, especially when they involve some form of storytelling. ‘Oh, that’s interesting how they did that,” or, ‘that’s a compelling conclusion that they’re reaching here—what does that say to me about the story that I’m trying to write?’
You can do that to varying levels of conscious intent. But I think it’s very helpful to have those sorts of things in your mental file cabinet to be able to pull out when you’re working through your own writing practice.
LL: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me.