Here Be Dragons

by | August 26, 2015 | General | 8 comments

b Jean Roberta

Much has been written about writer’s block, the internal censor, and various other personal demons that interfere with the flow of inspiration. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, conceived of story-killing depression as a group of evil characters called Dementors and included them in the plot so that she could write around them, so to speak.

The last few posts here have dealt with some of the external factors, or impersonal demons, that discourage writers. Changes in the publishing industry that have resulted in dwindling rates of pay and a dwindling market for innovative work, plus the free-for-all of self-publishing, can make it look almost impossible to have a writing career.

Aside from (or in addition to) all that, broad and clichéd writers’ guidelines are unhelpful. I’ve read too many messages on publishers’ sites that say something like this: “We set up shop because we thought it was time for someone to publish interesting work that engages the reader. We like believable characters, strong plots, and fresh language. We are completely different from all other publishers.” Sometimes a shortened version of this (“Enter the unique world of XYZ Press!”) appears below an editor’s name on a rejection message. More honest guidelines advise writers to read what XYZ has already published to get a sense of what they accept.

Harassment is another thing that seems guaranteed to harm any sensitive person – as writers tend to be, since we need to be attuned to our own consciousness and our own emotional climate. Some sites, both on-line and in the real world of writers’ events, need to be marked like medieval maps with images of dragons in the wild places.

During my annual two months off from teaching, when I hope to achieve phenomenal word-counts per day, and make at least a good start on a book or two, I’ve disappointed myself. Self-doubt has set in, as usual. When I’m surrounded by students and colleagues, I dream of having the time and solitude to write. Alone in a room with a computer, some notes, and a list of calls-for-submissions, I wonder if I am too out of touch with the general zeitgeist to write anything that would be meaningful for anyone else.

If I’m below the radar, however, I’m less likely to be a target for attack than writers who engage more regularly with on-line commentators. During the past few months, while taking part in an awards contest as a judge and co-editing a “best-of” anthology, I’ve become aware of feuds, sock-puppet identities, and the trashing of writers by other writers. I know it’s possible to grow a thick-enough skin to appear impervious to insults, but I’m not sure it’s possible to prevent unexpected hostility from wrecking one’s concentration. Recovery probably requires disconnecting from the on-line world, at least temporarily.

I sometimes wonder how to develop tough-minded resistance to rejection, snark, bad reviews and threats of violence while staying open to new ideas and editing advice. I wonder if any writer has really achieved that kind of balance.

The book I’m supposed to be writing is a work of creative non-fiction (to use a broad term) on “censorship” in various forms, focusing on my personal experience. A local publisher is waiting to read my approach to political conflicts in the writing/publishing world. Reading about vicious trashing which has not affected me directly reminds me of less-drastic ideological conflicts in my “real” life during the past twenty years.

I’ve written here before about a persistent belief on the political Left that grammar is inherently racist and elitist, that the best writing is “free” (an unedited stream of consciousness), and that language should float somewhere above the specific cultures that produce it. This set of beliefs drives me crazy. I can’t agree that the most incoherent student essays are beautiful in their own way. Saying this in public, however, seems likely to get me banished by the cool kids.

Then there is the more traditional objection to anything written by or about those who are not white, male, heterosexual, and “normal.” This bias shows up in the form of some editors,’ publishers,’ and reviewers’ preferences for work written by and about white men, and in complaints within the Ivory Tower that academic standards have slipped because of the introduction of “women’s studies” and “queer” and “ethnic” or international programs.

Traditional bias can seem to come from different directions, but it is always based on the same theme. As a teenage writer, I was warned by my boyfriend at the time that I should write about boys, not girls, so that my writing would appeal to more readers. As a graduate student in the local English Department, I argued with my academic father AND my faculty advisor about “women’s lit.” My father’s themesong was, “What’s wrong with Shakespeare?” as though I wanted to remove every Shakespeare play and poem from the curriculum to make room for the work of unknown women, and possibly for gangsta rap.

Defenses of a traditional literary “canon” as the only literature worth reading seem as long-lived as the racism of 1910. This stuff is the blood-sucking vampire or the rotting zombie that will not go away quietly, and which can’t be killed with logic.

For better or worse, I will soon enter the circus of Fall Semester in the university where I teach. For academics as well as Jews, September is really the beginning of the year. I’m hoping the new and the fresh (new students, some new colleagues, newish subject-matter, cooler temperatures) will be inspiring.

Somehow, in spite of everything, I’m never completely silenced. Many other writers continue writing as well, and I know from reading their work that the Muses aren’t stingy with their blessings. To keep going, it seems as if we all have to cherish a level of optimism that looks naïve on the surface. I like the statement that things always turn out well in the end because if they aren’t going well, it isn’t the end.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Anonymous

    I wonder why writing is an ambition. If a story pops into your head, write it down. If not, do something else. It's just brain chemistry. But for what it's worth…

    Return forgetful Muse, and straight redeem,
    In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
    Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
    And gives thy pen both skill and argument.

  2. Rachel Green

    Ah, I've struggled to write anything of worth for the last couple of years. Hopefully, the impending publication of my latest will jog me out of lethargy.

  3. Fiona McGier

    I think that authors write because we must. Otherwise the characters and storylines pile up inside our heads, crowding out room for us to hear our own thoughts. At least that's how it is for me.

    I once had a dream of being able to quit my second job, since my royalties would make up that money. Alas, no dice. So I write whenever I can stay awake long enough, and only after all of my other jobs and chores are done. Sigh…

    My head's becoming a noisy place again.

  4. Jean Roberta

    Thank you for commenting, Anonymous, Lisabet, and Fiona. Actually, my writer's block isn't as drastic as it might sound. I've written several stories during my summer holidays/vacation, and I keep posting on 2 blogs. What troubles me is my lack of progress on a whole BOOK (which at this point looks like a 500-mile journey on foot) that I promised a publisher. Reading about serious trolling & trashing within the spec-fic (sci-fi and fantasy) community makes me very glad I haven't been directly involved. (If you look up "Hugo Awards," "Sad Puppies," "Vox Day," "Winterfox," and "Requires Hate," and follow the links, you'll see what I mean.) I'm just very aware at the moment that writing is not a safe profession, even aside from whether it pays the bills (& it usually doesn't). However, I plan to apply for a book-writing sabbatical, and then make outlines & deadlines for myself, which will probably help.

  5. Lisabet Sarai

    Threats of physical violence?

    I guess I must be oblivious. I'm glad.

    Nor can I fathom the belief that writing grammatically is an elitist act.

    Nothing is really "safe". That's an illusion we create to make ourselves comfortable. For what it's worth, I think your blog posts are consistently incredible in their depth and logical subtlety.

  6. Jean Roberta

    Thank you, Lisabet!

    I remember how intimidated I felt in the real-world venue of the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal in 1988 (pretty much before most writers interacted on-line) when the flaming issue du jour was "appropriation of culture" or of "voice." I knew I was guilty of writing some first-person stuff about characters who were not exactly like me, and I hoped I wouldn't be "outed" and publicly shamed for that. (I wasn't, but I thought at the time that if I had had a higher profile, I might have been.)

    Luckily, the huge, tangled recent war in the spec-fic community was analyzed in an objective, well-researched blog post (the blogger's name escapes me – Laura somebody) which actually won an award at the Hugos. I hope that means the dust has settled, at least somewhat.

  7. realily

    I applaud your defense of grammar.

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