Writer’s Desk: Beerbohm on Writing’s Weakness

Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.

Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.

Caricaturist of some note and essayist beyond compare, Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) was one of those serenely talented Victorian aesthetes one not only doesn’t see anymore, one can barely imagine walking the planet. He understood that one of the great rules of writing is this: Never let them see you sweat. If you make it seem easy, that relaxes the reader.

Not that it wasn’t work. Beerbohm:

Writing, as a means of expression, has to compete with talking. The talker need not rely wholly on what he says. He has the help of his mobile face and hands, and of his voice, with its various inflexions and its variable pace, whereby he may insinuate fine shades of meaning . . . but the writer? For his every effect he must rely wholly on the words that he chooses, and on the order in which he ranges them, and on his choice among the few hard and fast symbols of punctuation. He must so use those slender means that they shall express all that he himself can express through his voice and face and hands or all that he would thus express if he were a good talker…

When talking, we have all the senses to work with. With writing, there is really just one. But great writing, even with such a narrow toolset to work with, can nevertheless excite every single one of the senses.

(h/t Gopnik)

Writer’s Desk: Stephen King on His Muse

Calliope -- she was the muse responsible for those writing epic poetry. (Library of Congress)

Calliope — she was the muse responsible for those writing epic poetry. (Library of Congress)

There are writers who like to talk about their muse. They don’t have to necessarily be thinking about one of the classical nine Greek muses, just trying to personify that indefinable thing which is inspiration. It’s an easy thing to wax poetic about because, well, most writers don’t truly understand this thing that we do.

Stephen King has his own way of describing his muse, when talking about his writing room:

My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That’s the other level, and that’s the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it’s a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level — the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread — fades even more. This is a real thing I’m talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it’s good, it’s better than the best pill.

Is that helpful to somebody struggling with the blank page? No, of course not. What’s helpful is how King ends the piece:

My muse may visit. She may not. The trick is to be there waiting if she does.

Meaning that being a writer is somewhat like being a Boy Scout. Always be prepared.

Quote of the Day: Memorial Day Edition

A casualty is ready for transport from the front line during the battle for Guadalcanal. (Library of Congress)

A casualty is readied for transport from the front line during the battle for Guadalcanal. (Library of Congress)

For this Memorial Day, a reminder from one of our great novelists of warfare and what it does to the men who take part in it, willingly or not:

This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE.

That’s from James Jones’ The Thin Red Line (1963) which follows the battle for a fictitious Pacific island and draws heavily upon Jones’ combat experience during World War II. Although his dedication shows a tongue planted firmly in cheek, the novel that follows is one of the deepest felt, most bruising things a man ever put to page.

Writer’s Corner: The Patterson Factory

James Patterson is seen at times as more machine than writer. There’s good reason for this. His advertising background; those couple dozen credited co-writers; a happy malleability when it comes to genre (romance, YA, mystery, whatever); multiple books a year; nearly $100 million in annual revenue.

thomasberryman-coverAll that being said, it’s helpful to remember that at one point even Patterson was a wannabe, just another unpublished novelist trying to get his book out there. From Todd Purdum’s profile for Vanity Fair:

His first novel, The Thomas Berryman Number, about a Nashville newspaperman on a murderer’s trail, was rejected by 31 publishers before Little, Brown published it, in 1976. It won the Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America, but sold only about 10,000 copies…

Selling 10,000 copies of anything would be a dream come true for most authors. Still, success as a writer is never guaranteed. Even for the man who accounted for one of every 26 hardcover novels sold in the U.S. during 2013.

Writer’s Corner: The Humiliations of Writing

Writing and publishing any piece of work, from novel to Facebook post to letter to the editor complaining about your neighbor’s cats, is a way of putting yourself out there for the world to see. So it stands to reason that there’s a large potential downside. Sure, there’s the (remote) possibility of fame and wealth, or even the occasional social media like. But more likely, and certainly more frightening, is the chance for embarrassment.

(Library of Congress, c.1872)

(Library of Congress, c.1872)

In his essay, “Writing is a Risky, Humiliating, Endeavor,” novelist David Gordon describes many of the ways in which the act of putting your name on a packet of words for sale is one of the most harrowing experiences one could endure:

Let’s face it: just writing something, anything, and showing it to the world, is to risk ridicule and shame. What if it is bad? What if no one wants to read it, publish it? What if I can’t even finish the thing? Every time I begin a book, a story, even a fresh page, I have a sense that it might go horribly wrong. And for a professional writer, working on multiyear projects, that would be more than an emotional humiliation. It would involve awkward letters from the student loan people and the credit card company…

But as logical as it might be—after all, there are critics just waiting out there with sharpened knives and killer instincts ready to slice into just about anything you might want to publish—to get anywhere, the writer obviously needs to just get on with it and damn the consequences. And yes, it can take a kind of bravery. Gordon again:

Writing then, must feel risky in order to feel like life. I used to cringe when people talked about “brave” writing. I’d think, calm down, it’s not like you’re a fireman or a Special Forces commando. If the mission fails, just toss it in the wastebasket. But I do think, upon reflection, that there is a need to generate emotional risk, a sense of imminence, of danger, in order to transmit that aliveness to the page. This needn’t mean personal revelation or offensive language. Sometimes quiet, dense writing is the most deeply and complexly honest. Sometimes intellectual discourse is brave in our Twitter culture. Genuine and sincere emotion can be risky in a world of snark and irony. So can making silly jokes about matters our society regards with sanctimonious seriousness. Sometimes it is just a matter of a writer doing what she does not yet know how to do, speaking about something he does not yet understand. The risk of ambitious failure…

So get on with that werewolf detective novel, historical exegesis of your family’s immigrant past, memoir about your mental breakdown, or enraged photo essay about your neighbor’s cats.

Writing means risk, no matter what form it takes. And in pretty much every instance, it’s worth it.

Writer’s Corner: Selling Your Book

(Library of Congress)

(Library of Congress)

Ted Thompson’s first novel, The Land of Steady Habits, will hit stores in January. In his funny, honest essay for Salon, “I Sold My Book for $25,000,” he talks (a little) about the process and (a lot) about what he learned. It should be required reading for anybody new to the publishing game who’s got a novel in their head or hard drive and wants to know what awaits them.

tedthompsoncover1Firstly, Thompson brings a well-needed slap of reality to new writers’ often starry-eyed wishes, particularly the notion among many writers and lovers of quality work that a book is only as good as its writing:

Subject matter matters … Once a manuscript leaves your desk, subject matter is the primary (and often only) way it is discussed. So if you haven’t figured out a quick way to answer that cringe-inducing question “What’s your book about?” in a way that interests other people, somebody else will.

Though you wouldn’t know it from hearing all the self-publishing fanatics (the Hugh Howey types who insist that self-publishing is the only way to go) foam at the mouth about elitist publishers, Thompson insists quite correctly that the average publisher wants to like your book:

Every book they publish, especially if it’s by a first-time writer, is a risk to them and their reputation, and it’s one they take because they personally responded to the book. This was a revelation to me, the fact that the grand faceless facade of New York publishing turned out to be a collection of surprisingly normal people, all of whom were looking to fall in love with a manuscript.

And lastly, a point that can’t be made enough: Don’t expect to strike it rich. Thompson signed with a major publisher and even sold some foreign rights. Still, he made about $75,000, and that’s before agent and other fees.

So, even if you’re one of the chosen few who actually gets published by one of the major houses, it’s probably wiser to splurge a little on a new laptop and a few weeks at a writer’s colony for the next book, and bank the rest. In other words: Don’t quit the day job.

Writer’s Corner: Oates on Oates

In a mostly successful attempt to undermine and interrogate the whole concept of author publicity, the writer as an identity, the interview process itself, Joyce Carol Oates interviews herself for the Washington Post.

One key takeaway:

Is there something frankly embarrassing or shameful about being a “writer”?

The public identification does seem just a bit self-conscious, at times. Like identifying oneself as a “poet,” “artist,” “seer,” “visionary.”

Also, this:

Let’s get back to the crucial question: Are you, or are you not, the “writer”?

The point of James’s remark is that the “writer” is embodied in his — or her — writing. The place to look for James, for instance, is in his books.

Points to Oates as well for referencing both Henry James and Paula Deen in the same piece without straining.