Walter Rhein, an author of the Reckless Traveler, and many, many more stories, was kind enough to stop by on my blog today.
Walter, please, tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing career.
I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2001 with a degree in English Literature. I’d had several articles and short stories published while I was in college, but in my last semester I decided to write a novel. Initially I’d hoped to submit the novel as my senior project, but then they told me I had to do a critical paper instead. I wrote the novel anyway, and self-published it to the dark obscurity where it belongs (it’s terrible).
After I graduated, I moved to Lima, Peru and supported myself in part through editing and writing articles. Back then, you could live comfortably in Lima for less than $8K a year. I didn’t have hot water, but that was a small price to pay for the ability to enjoy a seemingly endless amount of free time. Perseid Press has recently published an autobiographical novel inspired by tales from that period titled Reckless Traveler which has been very well received so far.
What has your career taught you that you didn’t learn in college?
I have to admit that I’m becoming more and more cynical. I’m kind of curious to go back and take another look at standard canonical writers to evaluate how many earned their status through the quality of their work, and how many were manufactured for profit or ego. One of the main reasons I chose literature as my field of study was that I wanted to be introduced to writers I’d never heard of. The only writer whose work blew me away that I encountered because of college was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We read “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and her Heartless Grandmother.” I didn’t even appreciate how good that story was at the time, I only realized about ten years later that I’d thought about the story weekly since I read it. However, the whole class wasn’t dedicated to Marquez, we only read “Innocent Erendira” over a weekend and spent about half a lecture in discussion.
Having actually worked as a writer provides you with a strong perspective shift as to what writing is all about. For example, when you’re in college you’re impressed to be taking a course by a professor who wrote the textbook that is assigned to the class. However, when you’ve worked as a writer, you realize that a publisher is excited about giving a contract to a professor who can assign his textbook as required reading to 1,000 students a semester. You realize that the guaranteed sales rather than the quality of the work is probably what ensured publication.
What do you mean “manufactured for ego?”
I’ve long had a theory about the art world. Obviously nobody is truly stupid enough to pay millions of dollars for a “painting” that’s just a white canvas. My thought is that a lot of “artists” are sponsored by their rich parents or relatives who become tired of going to high society gatherings and having no answer to the question, “so what is ‘so and so’ doing these days?” Rather than respond, “oh, he’s a bum,” they decide to manufacture an art career. They probably own a couple newspapers, and they can coordinate a buyer, so “poof” the kid becomes respectable leaving the rich relative to enjoy their mini hot dogs and cocktails in peace.
All you have to do is take a look at the work that’s raved about and the work that’s ignored and you can’t escape the conclusion that something other than the quality of the work is driving the discussion. After all, Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t make enough money as a writer (his letters begging John Allan for money are proof of that).
How do you feel about the Literary community’s ability to evaluate good work?
They’ve not been very effective for a long time. It’s interesting to note that for a couple hundred years after his death, Shakespeare’s sonnets were not fully appreciated. If you come from a tradition of literary criticism that can’t appreciate Shakespeare, then there are obviously some issues. But evidence of this shortcoming is everywhere. We’ve all read the stories about great novels that were rejected countless times, or about great novels that went unread for years or decades before finding an audience. The whole process is too random. I think part of the problem is the belief that good work will rise to the top no matter what the odds. There have been brief moments in history where that was true, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Remember how in the early days of Facebook the articles that came across your news feed had actually been “liked” and “shared” by your friends? Real human beings had endorsed those articles. That’s no longer the case, now most of the articles shoved in your face are paid promotions. The only hope for the wider circulation of quality material comes from new technology. There is always a bit of a delay between when new technology is launched and when people learn to manipulate it, although even that delay seems to be shrinking.
How do you define good writing?
See…that’s where it becomes tricky. The definition is fluid. “Good writing” is the writing that moves you when you are ready to be moved by it. If you read Shakespeare when you’re 5 and you can’t understand the themes, that doesn’t mean Shakespeare is bad now does it? The other day I randomly came across Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and I was moved to tears. I’ve never been moved to tears by a poem before, but this happened to be the intersection of the exact words I needed to hear when I needed to hear them (I wish the last two lines of “If” were a little better though…).
Even though you can’t really land on an exact definition of good writing, that doesn’t mean you can’t draw some conclusions. One of those conclusions is that there is no excuse for literary elitism. The belief that one author’s work is “literature” and another author’s work is “street trash” is a complete construction. There is no inherent, enduring, universal truth to any of it. Maybe one day university literature classes will be devoted entirely to the works of Taylor Swift. Of course that thought is absurd, but can you honestly look at the way things are going and reassure me that such a result is impossible?
What do you hope to achieve from writing?
I can’t help it. I simply feel the need to record things. Plus, writing about a situation helps you realize what actually happened. People don’t stop and reflect enough on how poor their own senses are. Compared to an eagle, we are blind, compared to a dog, we can’t smell, etc. We look at the world through a blurred lens, and of course we get the wrong impression of what we see. Our preconceived assumptions confuse the matter even more. Ideas about morality, right vs wrong, survival all lead to a big jumbled mess. Actually, it’s such a disaster that it’s remarkable that we aren’t all terrorized into inaction at all times.
You see people fall victim to a false idea on a regular basis and then tumble into darkness. Your own brain is a powerful tool, and the tricks that can be played on you are mind boggling. If I can contribute to a procedure for navigating through that tangled wasteland, I will be satisfied with the labors of my life. I have kids, I hope I can create something to help them get through a dark time if I should happen not to be around.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
There’s no aspiring, you’re already a writer. Be open to criticism, but fundamentally you’re the one who has to recognize what is good and what isn’t. Most publishers are business people, make them fear the thought of another publishing house signing you. Above all, establish a readership. Give people a reason to read your work, share your work, and preserve your work. Maybe selling a million copies is nice, but what does that signify? Do you really want armies of people subjugating their own personality and dedicating the labor of their lives to the printing and distribution of your work? If the answer is “no” then be satisfied with 10 or 100 or 1000 autonomous readers.
Write something you think is good, that’s the biggest challenge any writer will ever face. The rest is out of your control.
Thanks for having me! For questions or comments write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for being here, Walter! I loved your answers. Very thorough and thought provoking.