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Writer: Who Are You? A Guest Post by Dan Holloway.

OK, I’m the first to admit I’m subject to a not insubstantial influence from Ginsberg, Alliance of Independent Authors Community BuilderCassady, Patti Smith and various other parts of late mid twentieth century American countercultur — but this really has nothing to do with navel-gazing, primal screams or the Age of Aquarius. Just like those slightly awkward elements of hippydom, though, this is one of those topics that makes authors shift uneasily in their chair, shuffle and generally look for an exit.

 I get why writers resent the question: “What do you stand for?” You can understand it in two ways. First, it sounds like a segue into a discussion of branding and marketing, and both of those are somewhat distasteful topics. And in a way it is about this. In a way.

Second, many of us feel that what we write and who we are are two fundamentally


different things, and asking a writing “what do you stand for?” feels like it’s eroding that essential boundary between the private and the public.

I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable (ah, well, I think we know that’s a lie – a lot of us *need* to be made to feel uncomfortable, especially when it comes to art. But not in a bad way!) but I want to throw some things out there to go away and think about. I will be talking about all of them in some detail over the coming weeks either here or at my new blog The Cynical Self-publisher. For now, I’ll leave it at concrete suggestions and hinted reasons and hope to get you thinking.

  • This is the one to appeal to the side of you that wants to get your books read. Thereare *lots* of books out there. Hundreds of thousands of them are really very good. Even if you write in the smallest niche, there will be reams of books around that aren’t too scruffy. If a reader is going to pick your book next then it’s not good enough to be one of the crowd. You have to stand out. They have to want to read your book more than any other. This is the point that interests me the least personally. I’ve just started a self-publishing advice blog, The Cynical Self-publisher, that focuses on the artistic side of self-publishing and generally steers in the opposite direction from all the blogs out there that will tell you how to sell, sell, sell.
  • “What do you stand for?” is at the heart of one of the key things about writing – 
    voice. I know it’s a truism there are as many different views on what voice is as there are people to ask but here’s my contribution. A couple of days ago John Logan used Stanley Kubrick as an example of a creative who shifted genres with great ease. It’s also true to say that even if you’d never seen it before, you’d be able to spot a Kubrick film from a very short piece of footage. That’s what voice means to me. It’s what profilers mean when they talk about serial killers having a signature that stays the same even when the MO changes. Yes, this is visible through technique, throughoutward signs, but what it boils down to – in the case of serial killers and, I would say, of artists – is the basic need that your art fulfils, the central thing inside of you that you’re expressing. This will happen whether you are aware of it or not, but being aware of it is the kind of artistic self-knowledge that will allow you to work in the light rather than the dark, to make those tough editorial calls about structure, about what stays and what goes, and maybe lead you to modes of expression you wouldn’t have considered if you were working in the dark. It will, in other words, enable you to get what’s on the inside to the outside more faithfully – and that’s what art’s all about.
  • Which brings me to my final point. I’m a confessional artist through and through. To many people that means I have introspective numpty running through me like a stick of rock – can we have a look inside to find out? Stereotypes and defensive joking
    aside, and with the observation that I was a student during the heyday of Young British Art, for me the purpose of art is for the artist to take their inner truth and externalise it. This has nothing to do with autobiography in the general sense – it’s not about facts about your life. Rather it’s to do with something far more fundamental in terms of your relation to the world and your experience and the worldview that has percolated through all that. Your art is, literally, your mark on the world – faithfullyexternalising what is internal only to you is the way that mark becomes yours. Obviously this is just my point of view. It’s not particularly popular – the notion of the death of the author seems to have become the dominant doctrine in literature. You can think of it in terms just of your voice, but the point remains the same – you will never produce your best output unless you look right inside and figure out what’s there.

So, who are you? What do you stand for? They’re not just hippy memes. They’re the most important questions you can ask.

And answer.

Author: Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines, which has appeared at festivals and fringes from Manchester to Stoke Newington. In 2010 he was the winner of the 100th episode of the international spoken prose event Literary Death Match, and earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available for Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Transparency-Sutures-Dan-Holloway-ebook/dp/B01A6YAA40


This Post Has 17 Comments
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  2. Dan, I found you here as a result of your blog this morning at http://www.AuthorsElectric.co.uk
    It is lovely to learn more about you. I wrote my book ‘Emotional Health for Emotional Wealth’ based on my 20 years experience as a Psychotherapist. In The States where I trained you have to go to therapy to explore your own life and make peace with it so that you become a congruent person – the outside is the same on the inside. This is why I know who I am and that my books are from me personally and professionally. My work helped hundreds of people make positve changes and I wrote the book to inspire millions!

  3. this question seems to overlap or at least reverberate with the question of one’s identity. I’m not terribly interested in pursuing the question of my identity, although inevitably since all art is autobiographical to a large degree, questions of my identity must enter it. I’m more interested in the character’s voice than my own, but again don’t deny that mine is probably easily identifiable from one of my books to another.

    There are questions such as why do we write, why do we feel the need to tell stories, what does literature mean to us? But again these for me transmute into why am I writing this character to tell this particular story in this manner and why does it demand these particular readers to read & engage with it? I guess it’s one stage removed from the questions you raise above, but for me they feed directly into the narrative and its form

      1. I think what I’m saying is I don’t feel I need to answer those questions as they refer to me the writer, but the characters kind of do, why they inhabit their book and demand to be read

  4. I think I stand for not standing for anything. But in a purposeful, delightful, and above all very sexy way. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow. Along with my overcoat.

  5. Great question. It is one I have asked myself often, and now as an indie author, I’m asking it again. I look at my life and I know everything I’ve done comes from one spring: the belief that we are not perfect beings, we are instead profoundly interesting beings with the capacity to bring wonder to the world. If we let ourselves. I like to explore the ways to unlock that capacity, in large and small ways.

  6. Great post Dan. I am TOTALLY someone whose writing is fused inextricably with their life. I know no other way. (I know other people do it different of course!) I’m in the process of composing blogs on this very subject at the moment so I won’t witter on here. But I stand up for (in fact i did it today on Facebook and on a blog) for people taking themselves and their work seriously and being individuals in their approach to social networking (not following ‘rules of good twitter behaviour’ (when such rules are proscriptive ones)  I think the current problem with  promoting/marketing and letting people know about your work without pissing them off is based on older arguments and is also so wide that it’s really asking us to consider WHAT DO WE WANT from social media.  Or dare I say ‘who owns social media’  I stand for an acceptance that actions have consequences and that it’s inevitable that SOME PEOPLE DON’T LIKE WHAT I DO (but it doesn’t matter, they don’t have to take any notice) It’s not about BEING IN YER FACE all the time (in my opinion) it’s about giving an informed choice to people. They are perfectly at liberty to choose a) not to like me b) to disagree with me BUT they are not entitled to tell me how I must interact with the ‘norms’ of a marketing based or gossip based social media. Ooops… going off on high horse here which I promised myself not to.   Mainly though, I also agree with you re EQUALITY.  I have had a lot of trouble in my life (including never passing Maths exams) because conceptually I cannot accept that = exists. (in maths or in life) Treat everyone with respect AS an equal yes, but on one thing = any other thing. I think quantum theory agrees with me! Keep on keeping on Dan. 

    1.  aah, yes! I think maths actually agrees with you – I think pure mathematicians would say that “=” talks about symmetries and equivalence within a context without commenting on that context’s universality. I think for me the best account I read, even though I think it’s wrong in many ways, was Hume’s account of the psychology of how we come to believe in cause and effect (which we can apply to any two things we think of as going together – be it the case that “this thing” and “that thing” are both “bananas” or that “this person” and “that person” are both “men”, “women” or anything else) – he basically says that through constant associations our brains have fallen into a psychological laziness that has led us to see things as the same that are actually different – this propensity is absolutely essential for any kind of development of course – if we couldn’t learn, for example, that fire was hot, then we’d be stuffed – so evolution hardwires our brains to be able to construct the fiction of “categories”. The problem comes when we start taking those categories outside of their context of what’;s a useful fiction and talking about things that are universally true – the moment we do that we demote people to objects – which is another reason I don’t like writing that tries to make a point and always prefer the purely confessional – anything that doesn’t start with the absolutely concrete fails to do justice either to its subject or its readers

      1. I knew I was right. Can I get my Maths 0 grade now then? I was robbed. Same with physics. I got a D because I was a quantum physicist without even knowing it.
        And yes, Hume, I remember him well. I like his stuff on belief and knowledge. He was 2nd year staple philosopher at Uni (the joys of a Scottish university education) but that is many years ago and my copy of one of his works has literally fallen to bits – I know, I was just about to give it to my proto philosopher nephew and as I took it out from the bookshelf the pages cascaded into something BS Johnson would have been proud of!
        But then – beauty is truth, truth beauty, that’s all there is and all you need to know! (eh?) I agree, when you get deep down though.

  7. Anne – I think you’re spot on that we need to keep bringing ourselves back to this question because, like a guitar string we naturally find ourselves detuning over time, either getting distracted creatively, be it by things we read or others around us, or in some other way – for me it has sometimes been very lovely invitations to be part of things that just weren’t right for me – one of the hardest decisions to take was pulling my thriller from the market despite its success because I was becoming identified with it and was losing my way.

    Letitia – oh blimey, yes – so-called friends who constantly bombard you with requests for reviews when they *know* 1. you already work a 48 hour day and 2. their writing is at the opposite and of any spectrum that involves your taste. I think finding the right community to be part of is essential to helping us keep our belief and our sanity – the alt lit community is extremely supportive and playful and non-judgemental/non self-promoting and I think of that as your spiritual home. The problem is that we all also intersect so many other creative worlds and the key is keeping our identity whilst not isolating ourselves – which means sometimes speaking out as well as observing the so-called rules of courtesy – I wrote a post last year called “Manners Maketh Misunderstanding” that’s probably long due a repost http://eightcuts.com/2011/09/10/manners-maketh-misunderstanding/ about the way people from alternative communities are presented with apparently objective norms of acceptable behaviour that are actually passive-aggressive power mechanisms to strip them of their subjectivity and colonially subsume them.

    Orna – yes, everything has to fit together – it’s something that’s hard when you’re part fo a collective and want to do right by everyone in it because it will always be true that some people’s work is not what *your* community wants to hear about and to maintain yoru integruity, and the positive uimpact for those people you try to help whom your community would love that means you just *can’t* be part fo “tweet everything we blog” campaigns, for example – you have to be selective in what you put out there – what you don’t have to be selective in, of course, is helping people behind the scenes be it with tech or virtual cuddles when they’ve had a rough time, and that’s the balance to keep.

    And to answer my own question, I stand for two things, one of which subsumes the other

    1. as a curator, in my role at eight cuts gallery and the art world in general, I can sum it up in a single word – “overgrounding” – finding amazing things that people might not otherwise get to see and shining as bright a light on them as possible.

    2. obviously that has no actual content, which is where what I stand for artistically comes in – I firmly believe that no two people are alike in any way, that categories – adjectives, as it were – are all fictions (I was recently commenting on the marriage equality debate, pointing out the whole debate is based on the false premise that gender is a binary rather than a spectrum on which no two people occupy the same place – and furthermore it’s not a single spectrum but one that interats differently with every other spectrum in every life), and that the key to life is to reach the point where you are able to think of yourself without defnining yourself by a single category – in practice that means a life that is lived not thought – as Katelan Foisy puts it “go out and live. And live. And go on living, because you never know when it’ll stop.” And yet so few people ever reach that point. My art – and on a wider level my curation – is solely about celebrating lives that achieve that – be they fictitious like Sandrine in Songs from the Other Side of the Wall who finally realises she is not pulled by a choice between east and west, past and future, family or lover, city or country but has a life of dizzying, limitless possibility ahead, like the tragic and ultimately fictitious even within a fiction Tally in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes who is, literally, thought out of existence by the narrator who cannot accept that he is not weighed down by his past; or be they my real life heroes and heroines who inspired my new poetry collection

  8. The Cynical Self-Publisher might be just what the writing world needs.

    I know myself. I know I belong to an age and a world where a writer hands their work to experts who fix the ‘comma tourettes’ I am so well known for, and fix my waffling, and say – cut out that waste of words in the first four chapters, and generally fix the things I am blind to.

    I belong to an age and a world where I could write because thats what I liked to do and leave the rest to someone else. Even when that world called upon you to act, it told you what to do, it arranged where you should do it, and made a big red note in the diary.

    Now I am here in this world and sinking. I cannot self-promote. Never have been able to, never will. As long as the world of self-publishing has more to do with marketing than writing, I am always going to sink.

    I also know myself enough to know I am socialist by colour, Christian by creed, supportive by nature and non-violent by choice – but I have a large toasting fork reserved to jab into the temple of members of the writing community whose self-promtotion is toxic. They got hold of a copy of ‘How to sell, sell, sell’ which no doubt outlined all the places they can spam endlessly until they explode – and that’s what they do.

    I have begun to implement my three spam policy. As much as I am happy to broadcast the works of anyone I see, I will accept three “LOOK WHAT I WROTE DID YOU GET IT YET? DID YOU COMMENT ON GOODREADS? HAVE YOU BEEN TO SMASHWORDS – I NEED FIVE STAR REVIEWS…etc” before I forever block the poor struggling soul who is self-promoting.

    I am so pleased to hear there will be a place to go for people to learn other ways to make themselves known in the world.

    We may have forgotten that anything ‘viral’ usually makes us sick.


  9. Great post Dan. I think answering this question is particularly important for indie authors who use social networking as their way of reaching readers. With a clear sense of purpose and vision, all tweets, updates, videos, blog posts etc. can form part of the overall raison d’etre. (So no more moaning about them eating ‘writing’ time, as if they were not writing.

  10. As always, Dan – very thought-provoking and very worthwhile. I ask myself the question from time to time – usually when the self-doubt creeps in and the writing’s stalling. Seeking/reminding yourself of the answer keeps you on your artistic path – but you have to be honest – not kid yourself or force yourself to be something you’re not. And you Mr H are a great example of artistic integrity – keep rmeinding and encouraging the rest of us. 

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