We all live on death row in cells of our own devising.
– from The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison (1937-2016), American writer of poetry, novels, novellas, essays and screenplays

The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity.
– William Faulkner (1895-1962), American writer of novels, short stories, and screenplays


You’re not a writer unless you’re all-in.

Not a real writer. A writer of great fiction.

To become a real writer you must gather up your heart and mind and soul in your arms and making the leap into the fiery chasm. You have to go all-in. Your art has to be everything.

Yes, you can make a living with your writing ability without going all-in.You can grind out respectable and even superior expository prose, journalism, academic treatises, essays, television scripts, or any of a dozen other crafts that require skillful use of the written word. But before you can look into the mirror in the morning and see the reflection of a true writer you must, with honesty and objectivity, judge your work in comparison with that of a Hemingway, Faulkner, Harrison, Vonnegut or other great novelist.

The writers of fiction who were all-in.

To paraphrase Hemingway, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” It’s not easy. Not many writers can bleed. We all know that bleeding, whether from a ruptured aorta in your body or the burst-open heart in your soul, will kill you. Put you in long-term palliative care at the very least. Every true writer, as Jim Harrison accurately wrote, lives on death row in a cell of his own devising.

To be all-in, writing must become the one relentless and enduring drive of your life. Writing must be your number one priority. The only priority, really. The writer can allow nothing to displace it, interfere with it, distract from it. Nothing. Not family, friends, second job, avocation, religion, community – nothing. How many writers have the will to do that? Almost none. Few writers can come to the brink of the chasm and make the leap. Those who do have to be a little bit crazy. All the great writers of fiction were a little bit crazy. Except the ones who were totally crazy.

It is a sacrifice too great for most of us to make. Even to consider seriously, although we may believe for a while that we have the courage and madness in our character to try. My youthful aspiration was to live the romantic life of a writer, or better said the life of a romantic writer, something that I was totally unfitted to do as it worked out. Down deep, I could not trust to my talent (or my mania) and cast everything to the winds of fortune: security, balance, control, steadfastness, the opinions of others, loyalty and commitment to anything other than my art. I have personally known only one writer, a poet, who could. He made the leap, he fell, he bled, and it killed him. Injured many people close to him, too. But that is what the art demands. Perhaps it is the same for painters, sculptors, jazz musicians. I do not know enough about their talents and passions to judge.

I know enough about writing to critically judge my own fiction writing: technically sound and often insightful, occasionally passionate, sometimes revealing, never hemorrhaging the blood of truth. Easy to pretend that works of fiction are not really true and spin some stories about make-believe worlds and people. Fiction writing: all of it is lies at base. Except it’s not. Great fiction is more true than the journalist’s fact-checked and data-heavy report. Some wit once observed that politicians make up lies to hide the truth while fiction writers make up lies to reveal the truth.

All hack fiction writers try to do that, too. We not-quite-great writers leak out dribbles of truth that become a gritty patina of words, truisms and platitudes, not unlike the ceramic honey jar on the kitchen counter that, no matter how many times you wipe it, has a tacky coating that is annoying, sticks to your fingers a short while, and tastes more of mold than of honey. Those of us who are not all-in are purveyors of writing that can be clever, well-crafted, descriptive, entertaining, and often lucid, but lacks the story-telling magic that makes the reader perceive and comprehend the anguish of life, that often toxic cocktail that is a blend of fear, love, anger, joy, hatred, compassion, pity, scorn, pride, and all other emotions that delight and torment us.

It is a magic that few writers can perform. To step out into the abyss the writer has to have supreme vanity, an unreasoning belief in his ability to fly. Or he has to be a little crazy. Or maybe craziness and supreme vanity are one and the same.

In the end, is the sacrifice the great writer makes worth it? I do not think he has a choice. He is all-in from the first moment he picks up the pen and feels the magic flow through his fingers and appear as words on the blank page. One more step, a few at most, and he is at the brink of the chasm and without hesitation makes the leap.

The rest of us, we can call ourselves writers, but we are not. We’re not.


More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on Jerry Johnson Author Page

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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