August 2011

Thomas Pletzinger Live Discussion

The Writing University website hosted an online chat with International Writing Program alum Thomas Pletzinger at 11:00 a.m. (CST) Friday, Mar. 26th. You can read more about Thomas Pletzinger at his website: www.thomaspletzinger.de, and find samples of his writing at the IWP website. Thomas Pletzinger (fiction writer, novelist, translator, editor; b.

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Nora, Iowa City: I understand that you are not just a novelist but also an academic Americanist. Can you talk about your interests and preferences in the American tradition?

Thomas Pletzinger: I was always interested in America since I grew up playing basketball like mad, twelve times a week. I was not really good enough to become a professional ballplayer. But America fascinated me for whatever reasons. After high school and civil service I went to the University of Hamburg and got my M.A. in American Studies - it took me years, though, since I was working for a publisher in New York for two years. I always was interested in American literature, but only after I started the oldest of Germany's three creative writing programs did I really chose to be a writer. Some of my favorite writers are Americans, I like some American TV shows very much, I watch the NCAA tournament these days, I know - for example - that the Dallas Mavericks lost to Portland last night. And that Obama bought books at Prairie Lights yesterday. All these American details.


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Kecia, Iowa City, IA: Hi Thomas -- Your Iowa City Public Library panel paper on the topic of "How I Write What I Write" discussed connections between writing and athletics, specifically running. I remembered your paper when seeing Haruki Murakami's book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Have you had a chance to read his take on the subject? (For the audience, Thomas' paper can be found here: http://iwp.uiowa.edu/archives/event-docs/pletzinger.finalforweb.pdf)

Thomas Pletzinger: Thank you, Kecia! I have read and liked Murakami's book. It makes sense to me, since I am runner myself. A few days ago, though, I talked to a poet who has never run in his life, never did any sports, never was interested in sports. And he found the connection between athletics and writing and thought deeply boring. He preferred drugs and theory, he said.


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Mike, Baltimore, MD: Mr. Pletzinger, I understand the publishing scene in Germany is quite different from that of the U.S.A. I'm particularly interested in learning more about the Frankfurt Book Fair. Is this a place where new German authors may find a publisher, or is it more of a book festival for its own sake?

Thomas Pletzinger: The Frankfurt fair is more of an international book business fair whereas the Leipzig book fair in spring is very reader-oriented (it just ended last week, lots and lots of readings there). There also is the amazing festival lit.Cologne in March each year. I think all these events are not useful for a writer to find a publisher - it is the opposite, I think. Better find an agent, publish in a magazine, find an ideal publisher - although there is no recipe on how to get published, I think.


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Charlotte, Iowa City: Thomas, can you speak about how your practice of athletics connects to your writing?

Thomas Pletzinger: I could talk about it better, if I was still running as much as I did in 2005 or 2006. I still do it, I still lift weights, I still play basketball, but I have to admit that I cut down a bit. I also feel a little more confident in my writing now than I did a few years ago - so these days I run in the evenings, more to relax than to find inspiration. Maybe this has to with the nature of my work as well: I am researching and planning for a novel right now, I am only writing short pieces and episodes for a television crime series right now. Once I get to work on the book, I will also get back to using sports as a tool for writing.


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Ryan, Denver CO: I haven't been to Iowa City in a while. How did you liked your visit to it. How was the International Writers program?

Thomas Pletzinger: It was great fun when I was there in 2006. I was the youngest and meeting all these experienced writers with all their books and stories was a great learning experience. Iowa City itself was good, too, I enjoyed it. I had read so much about it before, so many stories and legends, that it was great to see it for real. I liked it so much that the protagonist of my next book will be buying beer in John's supermarket from time to time.


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Kiki, Iowa City: Welcome back to the States (and to the Midwest), Thomas! Can you tell us about what you will be doing at Grinnell College this spring?

Thomas Pletzinger: Oh, Kiki, I forgot to mention this in my summary: there is a character named Kiki in the book - a really likeable person actually, a painter.

I will be teaching a class on contemporary German writing: It will be about the connection between life and text in writing. What do you make of the things that happen to you, that you see and hear and read once you sit down to write. There will be writing, too - half autobiography, half complete and wild invention.


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Marcos, Chicago, IL: Could you give us a brief synopsis of your latest novel and tell us what inspired you to write it?

Thomas Pletzinger: This is a difficult question, but I'll try: FUNERAL FOR A DOG is the story of Daniel Mandelkern, a 32-year-old journalist and anthropologist who is supposed to interview a famous children's book writer. He is currently fighting with his wife a lot (she wants children, he can't decide to). Mandelkern travels to Switzerland and Italy for this, and instead of staying for a quick two-hour interview, he ends up spending four days in the writer's ruined house by Lago di Lugano. With them is a beautiful Finnish woman, a three-legged dog and a three-year-old boy. Mandelkern slowly discover that there has been a love triangle - and one of the three is dead now. He is sucked deeper and deeper into the relationship between Tuuli and Svensson and the dog, he discovers an unfinished novel and reads it, he drinks and eats and lives with these people, he becomes a different person. And somehow he is abler to sort things out - at least I hope so.

My inspiration was not one particular event - more a collection of events that I wanted to write about: 9/11, Lago di Lugano, the death of a person, reversing roles of sexes (can you say that?), a murder in Brazil, a three-legged dog, a ruin I really liked, modern life of 30+ people, etc.


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Joe, Iowa City: About writing friendships/kinships: writing, as a solitary act, seems to often require a sounding board for authors. Whether its a friend, a fellow author, or a loved one. Do you in your process have a "go-to" sounding board as you draft your work? How do you view the process of writerly fellowship?

Thomas Pletzinger: I do not think that writing necessarily has to be a solitary act. I really like to talk about projects even before they are finished (even before I get started, actually). Here in Berlin I work with a couple of other writers (Sasa Stanisic, Tilman Rammstedt etc.) and translators and editors, we rent an old cigar store and sit there - writing, discussing, reading, editing. We call it "adler & söhne literatur", after the old typewriter company. Fellowship is important for me, I would not write without it, I guess.


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Diana, Rome: hi thomas! What was a problem that you came across (or that your translator came across) while translating your novel into english (that you expected, or one that you didn't expect?) tell us some translations stories, please.

are you (thomas as translator) working on any translation projects now?

iowa questions: when are you in iowa next? what is your favorite place to sit and do work in iowa city?

Thomas Pletzinger: Thanks! There were many problems as you can imagine, but we expected most of them and I enjoyed discussing things with him immensely. The last question we discussed was a word with a double meaning in German and we could not really decide which one to chose in English (you have two words). I guess that this usually is a translator's nightmare: the author speaks the language he is being translated to fairly well - and he can spot mistakes. Terrible. But we made the best of it and I learned a lot, too.

I have just finished a giant translation project - ALLES BRENNT by Gerald Stern. It is a collection of his poetry from 1972 to 2010 and I have worked almost seven years on this book. It was published last week, a big bilingual book (English and German), with great illustrations: http://www.timdinter.de/illustration/alles%20brennt/seite01.html

I will be in Iowa next week, teaching at Grinnell, but sitting in coffee houses in Iowa City from time to time.


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Live Discussion: Edan Lepucki and Kristin Hatch

The Writing University website and the International Writing Program hosted an online chat with Writers' Workshop alumni Kristin Hatch and Edan Lepucki at 12:00 p.m. (CST) Tues, May 25th.

Kristin Hatch is a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop in poetry. Recent poems have been published in FENCE, Lo Ball, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a grants and membership coordinator at Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

Ann McCarry, UCD, Dublin, Ireland: Do you think young writers in the US are engaging with contemporary society? Are they inspired by what’s going on n society at the moment, and responding to it? For example, here in Ireland young writers were heavily criticised for not writing about our fantastic and short-lived ‘boom years’, the ‘Celtic Tiger.’ People felt that even during these years, writers were either being nostalgic about the past or writing about misery, stories of alcoholism and sexual abuse.

Edan Lepucki: At the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas asked the American novelists on his panel a similar question. Their answers varied, but mostly they said that it's not such an immediate translation, from present-day event to art. I agree. It takes time to process, and to render an event or era in such a way that the work doesn't come off as didactic or heavy-handed. I think opinion about American writers, and whether or not their work engages with society, really varies. I tend to think even the smallest, most quiet narrative reflects the feelings, anxieties and preoccupations of society. For instance, right now I'm writing a story about a woman in her early-thirties whose parents are divorcing. It's a story about family, but as I write it, I realize there's a lot of other stuff in it--about terrorism that doesn't affect one directly, for instance (two characters actually joke about terrorism, which I've been noticing happening a lot lately), and the fact that you can buy a pair of flip-flops for $1.99. These are just two details in the story, and they're small, but perhaps they capture this particular time and place.

I have never wanted to write about politics or economics head-on. It doesn't interest me. Character does, and it's through character, that larger issues are hinted at.
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Edwin Kelly, UCD, Dublin, Ireland: Kristin and Edan, In his Paris Review interview, Philip Larkin stated that "[t]he only thing that strikes me as odd, looking back, is that what society has been willing to pay me for is being a librarian. You get medals and prizes and honorary this and thats...but if turned round and said, right, if I'm so good give me an index-linked permanent income equal to what I can get for being an undistinguished university administrator." Would you agree, in principal, with an index-linked income for writers? Do worries about income and finances, worries which all people have, tend to have a detrimental impact on your writing practise?

Kristin Hatch: This may not be a popular answer here, but I side with no on the first question. I think writers need to be involved in the community and to hone interests and skills that are unrelated to writing in order to be interesting writers. I think it's good for us to have perspectives outside of ourselves and to not become too insular. I think when you get too far in (yourself or some type of literary social sphere), you can go to some dark places. It's really nice to have a coworker tell you about her weekend then or have your biggest concern be fixing the copy machine.

To your second question, sweet heavens yes. For me. Some people seem to do just fine with that insecurity. Maybe there is a time and place for a financial devil-may-care attitude and right now for me, I need a retirement plan? Maybe I am just a square ...

Edan Lepucki: Well, this is a complicated question. On the one hand, yes, definitely, worries about money have screwed up many a writing day. I remember I was once so worried about paying bills that I couldn't write at all--I think I left my desk and ate a pint of ice cream I couldn't afford. Finally, I went out and got a part-time job. It was at a bookstore, and I liked it, but it was still time away from my work, which left me feeling resentful (also, I should point out, that it was at this time that I added up all the time I spent working this job, and teaching, and it totaled something like 45 hours a week...and that didn't include my writing time.) Now I am grateful to have enough teaching to pay my bills, and to have a flexible schedule that gives me time to write.

In the years since I graduated from Iowa, the advances for books have decreased considerably. If I am lucky enough to sell my novel, the money I make probably won't be enough to support myself. I will continue teaching to pay the bills. In an earlier time, I might have been upset by this. Nowadays, I accept it, mostly because I don't think I should get money for something that doesn't make money. While Larkin's index-linked salary sounds wonderful, I wonder why someone should give me money to make art. If someone wants to buy my books, then I want to make money. But if I write books that no one buys? Well, then, why should I receive income? (This is why receiving the MacArthur "genius" grant for $500,000 would be a nice thing.)

Perhaps I sound crazy, but lately I've realized that I would continue to write even if I never got a single dime from any of it. I have been paid (a little) for my fiction, but it doesn't compare to process of writing itself. If and when my novel comes out, I will promote the dickens out of it, and make sure it gets read by the right people, with the hopes that I will find readers, and profit. But as long as I can maintain this flexible schedule that pays my bills and allows me to write, I am happy.


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Ciara Gillan - Dublin: Personally I use a computer every day in work and before the Masters, I found it hard to come home in the evening and turn on the laptop to do my own writing. But my job is not writing related so I was wondering -

Kristin, having worked a variety of jobs, do you find it easier to motivate yourself and do your own writing now that you're working in a job where you spend your day writing? Or is it a case that it's harder to motivate yourself having spent your day writing something else?

Kristin Hatch: The writing I do for work is very compositional. Grant proposals are kind of like argument papers, or something you might write for school. For me, it feels kind of like taking a Literature course (or a History course, or anything that involves papers with citations) and a Creative Writing course at the same time. How you wanted to write the short story assignment first, but instead you saved that as the reward for finishing your book report. Every night you get a reward! Surely some days are not like this, but this is how I like to think of it.
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Alan, Wicklow, Ireland: Having finished the creative writing course and facing into a sort of black hole of where to go next, how did you approach the following months i.e. motivating yourself and maintaining some level of output?

Kristin Hatch: I remember that gloom. But also I remember great joy in realizing I was not held to any output (x amount of poems/pages per week) and a chorus of peers, however helpful and brilliant and lovely, was not going to spend an hour discussing a line break to which I hadn't really given much thought. The freedom, together with the confidence that from workshop you learned stuff to make you a better writer, can, I think, make your writing blossom in ways that maybe it couldn't during school. You can be more wild without having to defend it or even just show people all the time. It's nice to have your writing for your-eyes-only for a while.

I did a lot of writing at cafes so, after graduating, I continued that some. It's nice to carve the time out. And too, if you don't feel like writing for a little while, I feel like -- contrary to when people say "you have to write every day" -- it's okay. Especially if you keep reading and wanting to write. It'll come back.

Edan Lepucki: The black hole, eh? Why not tell us how you really feel? You know, right after I graduated, I also moved across the country and got married. To say I had a nervous breakdown would be an understatement. In retrospect, I realize it was just too much change at once. It's hard, to move back into the real world, and alter the routines you set up for yourself. So, if things don't go as smoothly as you hope right after graduation, give yourself a break. (And, you know, they've got this drink called the martini that I highly recommend.)

I was very protective of my writer soul after graduation, and didn't ask of myself too much. I wanted to start a novel, but rather than dive into one, I spent 4 months or so doing free writes and research. I didn't push myself. After that, I joined a writing group that meant once a month or so, and I got to work. By then I was moved in, married, and feeling much better. I was actually relieved not to have to go to workshop every week, and I found the isolation a little welcoming after all the graduate school hullabaloo--which I'd reveled in at the time. I realized that, after 2 years of school, I was disciplined enough to write on my own. I had good habits, and that's all I needed to be a writer.

The writing group was enormously helpful, and I highly recommend you form or join one. I also now make deadlines with my old grad school friends: we'll agree to email each other our pages by a certain date, no matter what. It actually works.


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Ann McCarry, UCD, Dublin, Ireland: How do you think writers are viewed in your country in general? What’s the general response when you tell someone you are a writer? For example, here in Ireland, I think there is a reverential almost mystical idea of writers, which is great for a reaction but on a practical level, not so great - Reverence doesn’t bring in the cash!

Edan Lepucki: I think the reverential response is pretty common here as well--and I have to admit, I kind of love feeling like a shaman (though, you're right, it doesn't pay the bills). Because I live in Los Angeles, most people assume I write movies or for television. When I say I write short stories and novels, they then ask if I want to write movies or for television--as if that's my true, secret dream. It's also common for people to apologize for not reading enough. It's interesting: even if people don't reach much, they value and admire writers.

Kristin Hatch: First of all: HA.

Yeah. I kind of avoid that whole thing. I'll bring it up if I have to, but for me it's kind of personal, so I'm a little hesitant to bring it up.

That said ... writers can totally bring in the cash. So many places need copyeditors and people who know how to craft a compelling letter. Aside from the obvious skill sets a writer brings to a workplace, I think there is also a type of analytic thinking and attention to detail that situate writers uniquely in the workforce.


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Edwin Kelly, UCD, Dublin, Ireland: Kristen, from your bio, you've held a variety of different jobs. Were there any in particular you felt were enabling to your writing, either in terms of time, atmosphere, location type of work etc, and, vice versa, were there any that were particularly detrimental?

Kristin Hatch: I think the most important thing is to enjoy whatever job you have for whatever strengths it offers and whatever you need at that time. Sometimes you need -- psychologically or actually -- a job that offers stability/the sense that you are building a "career" and sometimes a job with less investment (waiting tables, something with shifts you can give away) feels right. I write a lot about work, often in restaurants, so there is something alluring/nostalgic to me about that space. For me, this question maybe comes down to (most recently on my CV) teaching vs. working a 9-5. I think both are fine options and both have their positives and negatives. However, I feel as though the idea that kind of exists over here, that in order to be a successful writer you have to be teaching is goofy, quite modern, and, well, given the state of academic jobs available to us, flawed. To that end, I have found working in nonprofits to fit my writing schedule and work preferences. Nonprofits are often filled with creative types, artists and writers and musicians, who are dedicated to the ideas of the community, arts, culture, etc., and they tend to offer a opportunities for creativity and growth, and at the end of the day, you're done. I really appreciate that. But different strokes for different folks -- and trying different types of employment is the best way to find out what feels right to you. And, again, I think what you need/want changes with phases in your life. Being open is important.
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Edwin Kelly, UCD, Dublin, Ireland: Edan, You have taught creative writing in a variety of ways, both online and I'm assuming in the more traditional workshop setting, as well as founding your own business. Did you find that beginning a business based on something you are deeply committed to on a personal level (the act of writing) an experience that invigorated your beliefs in writing, or something that lessened the attachment to your personal writing practise?

Edan Lepucki: I find teaching incredibly intellectually engaging, and I usually finish a class feeling inspired to write. It keeps me engaged with discussions of craft and technique that I enjoyed so much in school, and I love that, as a teacher, I am asked my opinions on matters of point of view, structure, character, and so on. Teaching forces me to figure out how I feel about things, and that's awesome!

I've always made a point of writing regularly, in part so that, when I teach a class, I don't feel like an utter fraud. How could I talk about paragraphs (my current obsession) if I haven't written one myself that very day or week? There are times when I've had to put my writing aside because I'm teaching three live classes, and one online one, and there simply aren't enough hours in the day to teach and work on my novel. I hate those times, and thankfully, they don't happen very often. I am now making a real effort not to over-schedule so that I can write. That's important to me, and it's important to my students.

The only time that teaching is detrimental to my writing (aside from those times I haven't been able to write at all), is when I am teaching some very new writers with bad habits (cliches, inaccurate language), and it starts to wear on my brain. Afterward, I read a poem or something, to cleanse my palate. For this reason, I usually do my own writing first, and then I read student work.


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Ann McCarry, UCD, Dublin, Ireland: Do you think any other elements should be introduced on Creative Writing programmes to make them more beneficial to young writers? How could they be improved?

Kristin Hatch: If we’re talking “professionally,” I think Creative Writing programs are really useful in their sense of community and immersion. I don’t really think of these programs, at least in the States, as an investment in one’s employment, literary or otherwise. In some way, their refusal to be a job training program is where they get their magic. So I think it may be dangerous to add any skilled angle to them. I wouldn’t want to be in a workshop with a bunch of people who just want sweet teaching gigs or a credential to do this or that. I want to be with writers serious about writing.

This said, there were times in school when teachers decoded the practical points of “the writing life,” and I genuinely appreciated them. An informal session about writing your personal statement. Talking about logistics of publishing. More of these ongoing conversations would have been welcome. However, I am not sure I’d want them in the curriculum. There is something lovely about the separation – about workshop being about writing and not about your CV. Also, I think we have to generate skills outside of school by learning about things are interesting to us and perhaps handy in “the real world.” Graphic design, culinary skills … whatever.

As general commentary, I believe that we, in the States, need more female teachers and mentors. In many ways, poetry world is still so fraternal. This is a challenge to many young female students scholastically, professionally and personally. Greater female leadership – both inside and outside if the academy – will help balance this tension. I think it’s changing, but it is still a much needed dialogue.

Edan Lepucki: One of the things I loved about graduate school was how we focused wholly on reading and writing. People wrote novellas, or turned in unwieldy 35-page short stories, because they felt compelled to. There was no thought of how the market would respond to these manuscripts, and I think that's how it should be: you write what you want to, what you need to, write. At Iowa, we were also lucky enough to meet agents and the occasional editor; they gave talks or a Q&A, and you got the opportunity to meet with them one-on-one, and talk about your work and give them something to read. I found it useful to have to answer the questions, "Who are your influences?" and "What do you like to write about?" I appreciated that this opportunity existed, and I was also grateful that it existed outside the classroom, away from our discussions of craft and technique.

Now that I'm a few years out of school, I've been thinking about what else my MFA program could have offered. On the business side of things, it might have been helpful to hear from small publishers and those people in the book industry who are circumventing the traditional publishing apparatus. On the craft side, I would have liked to see a workshop devoted entirely to revising. A friend of mine went to Boston University to study writing, where she took a revision class with the writer Jennifer Haigh. In that class, they were required to rewrite a story something like 3 times, and my friend says it taught her so much. I also wonder how graduate programs might better accommodate novel writers. I wrote stories while I was a student, and I was happy to devote myself to that form, but had I wanted to write a novel, I'm not sure I would have been totally satisfied with the novel workshops offered. It seems to me that a program that focuses primarily on novel writing would really prosper.


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James Stafford, University College Dublin, Ireland: Jan Morris, in the collected 'Paris Review' interviews (Vol. 3), speaks of the need to be lonely and to be 'utterly selfish' when writing. (In the same volume, Ted Hughes describes wearing earplugs and covering his windows with brown paper.)

Do you think that a successful writing life demands a higher level of what, in another field, would be called 'dedication' or 'application'? Or is it just that writers are more aware of this selfishness and more honest in labelling it?

Kristin Hatch: I don’t really think being a successful writer takes any more selfishness or dedication than anything a person wants to be really good at, though it may require a greater stomach for rejection letters. People say it takes time, but there are many hours between work and bed, so for me, the ambition seems manageable. I guess I shy away from labeling any type of drive – in work or in writing – in negative or positive terms because it seems so black and white. It has always seemed to me that this is just what we, as writers, do. We write and we make room for it. I suppose the making-room-for shows us what we are really committed to.

Getting older with writer-friends starting families, I have been wondering what that, let's say, "dedication" feels like when writers have kids, and find myself interested in poems that approach this topic (for instance, titles by or edited by Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolf). It’s a bigger discussion than the familiar finding-balance-as-a-mom-with-a-job talk. It’s being a mom with a job and another job as a writer. The idea is kind of terrifying to me. But people do it. Right?

Edan Lepucki: Writing certainly requires sustained focus, and when I'm knee deep in a story or a novel, I do find that I need to withdraw from the world to really work. I think most artists approach their craft in this way, whether they're fiction writers or painters or composers--I don't think writing requires more dedication than other art forms.

I wrote an essay for The Millions about going to an artists' colony, where I talked about this very issue of retreating from the world to work. I wrote,"The life of an artist is all about flinging yourself into the world, the muck and annoyance and pleasure of it, and then pulling yourself out, to make art." Removing yourself from the goings-on of life is often necessary, but I also don't think it can be--or should be--sustained. Life waits just outside the door. Most of the year, I find that having 3 hours a day to work is sufficient. My writing life is successful when I give myself that time, and don't let other demands swallow it.

It's a continual struggle to balance life with writing. Perhaps there is a selfishness to telling your friends or loved ones that you can't see them, because you're working. Perhaps there is a selfishness to stringing words together when you could be out making the big bucks. Or maybe selfishness is just another word for passion. In the end, writing means you must sit alone in a room and think. I don't think it's selfish to carve out that time, not if you're truly committed to your craft.

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