William Faulkner said a lot about drinking; which makes sense, given how much he wrote while drinking. As he once noted:
You see, I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach; so many ideas that I can’t remember in the morning pop into my head.
For all those wanting to know what the man’s favorite tipple was, it’s simple: Whiskey. Any kind. And here’s his preferred way of taking it (your basic mint julep, simple):
- 1 tsp sugar
- served in a metal cup
(h/t The Migrant Book Club)
Every writer knows the pain of procrastination. Just about none of them know the answer to this question: Why do we put ourselves through it? By and large writers know exactly when they have to turn in their article/book/whatever and nearly everything about it (word count, tone, subject). And yet, time after time, deadlines are treated as little more than tissue paper-thin suggestions to be brushed aside at the last minute when work has finally (maybe) begun.
It’s a ridiculously neurotic cycle, and apparently impossible to break out of.
Megan McArdle’s “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators” tries to make some sense of this fundamentally illogical and self-defeating behavior. One anecdote she provides seems a fairly typical scenario:
I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
McArdle’s article spins off (too little, too late) into theories about overpraised millennials not being able to cope without constant feedback and structure. But before she gets to that, her theories about the roots of this procrastination—mostly rotating around the idea that many writers have an uncommonly intense fear of being unmasked as frauds, thus adding to the fear of actually writing something that could give evidence for that—are sound.
Not that that will do anything to help somebody finish that article on time. There’s always email to check, friends to write, drinks to make…
“Be honest, and unmerciful.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a bandit of an actor. From The Talented Mr. Ripley to Charlie Wilson’s War and The Ides of March, he was rarely better than when committing full-scale larceny on the screen—walking away with an entire film while leaving A-list actors stumbling about in his wake.
With such a rich body of work cut so horrendously short, you would think it would be hard to zoom in on one particular performance that summed up his appeal. But it’s not. Almost every writer who saw Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous still remembers the scene when Hoffman, as stupendously self-destructive rock writer Lester Bangs, advises the film’s adolescent wannabe scribe about remaining true to the art and not giving in to the temptations of flattery and cool.
A few lines are thrown into the lonely night (“good lookin’ people, they got no spine…their art never lasts”) and Hoffman creates a brotherhood of uncool with his awe-inspiring mix of gruff attitude and aching vulnerability:
The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.
The writing is Crowe’s but Hoffman makes it immortal:
Mostly remembered today as the man who wrote White Fang, in his time Jack London was one of the most popular living American authors. He was as celebrated for his wideranging command of styles (adventure stories to science fiction and political polemics) to his wildly wolfish and nomadic lifestyle. London was a heroic striver or sadistic bastard, depending on who you asked. He showed up in last year’s historical gothic horror novel The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates as a bullying alcoholic who appeared able to drink everybody under the table and then write a bestselling novel about it.
In the Weekly Standard‘s review of the new London biography by Earle Labor, William Pritchard notes that London’s prodigious literary output (50 books, 200 short stories, 400 nonfiction pieces) looks so impressive not just due to how swiftly it was delivered (he died at age 40) but to how much life he packed in when not writing:
…working as an adolescent in a cannery and as an “oyster pirate” on Oakland’s waterfront; going on a seal hunt in the Bering Sea; riding the rails across America, with an interlude of 30 days spent in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy; finding out how the poor live in London’s East End; joining the gold rush to the Klondike; running for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket; sailing to the South Pacific and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa; observing cannibals in the Solomon Islands. This is only the beginning of a list that doesn’t include his two marriages, his fathering two children with his first wife Bella, or his periodic intakes of large quantities of alcohol—all the while becoming, by 1915, the highest-paid author in America.
George Orwell called London “A Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer,” which seems to get it about right.
This could be your house
Still trying to figure out how to finish that first part of a six-part series of zombie CSI novels, or maybe you need time to work on your epic poem cycle about climate change? Working the job and paying rent can definitely take time away from time spent with your laptop or quill.
Well, worry no more, because there’s a new nonprofit organization called WriteAHouse that wants to give away houses in Detroit to writers. That’s correct: Free house to write in.
If approved, writers are expected to:
- commit to living and writing in the house for two years
- pay insurance and property tax
- finish renovating the house (it’ll be 80% inhabitable at time of moving in)
- regularly contribute to the WAH blog
- “participate in local readings and other cultural events”
Then, after two years, the writer is given the deed to the house. That’s pretty much it. Nice job thinking outside the box, Detroit.
(h/t: Ian Crouch)
Although he will go down in cultural history as the incarnation of Lawrence of Arabia (not so much the real-life one, but the fascinatingly cinematic variation thereof), Peter O’Toole had his literary side as well. When he passed away last week, most obituaries mentioned one of the hellraising actor’s more memorable lines of poetry:
I will not be a common man.
I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.
For more O’Toole greatness, check out Gay Talese’s rattlingly good profile on the man from Esquire in 1963. Among other snappy lines, it includes this bit:
All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church … a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (“My life is littered with copies of Moby Dick”) and reading the same sermon on that book (“…and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves…”)…
James Baldwin didn’t start out as a writer; but then, none of us do. Before he put pen to paper, he had a different calling: preacher.
In this interview from The Paris Review, he explains the difference:
When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.
It’s all communication, one way or the other.
Is it possible that to learn how to write something grand you should also practice penning something so abominably wretched it should never see the light of day? Probably not, the art of writing probably comes down to something as dreary as trying every single day to hone your craft to a sharp, chisel-like point.
So, if you were going to attempt to write horrendous prose, there’s really no other reason to do it except for a giggle. Because, after all, as more than one person has noted, somebody already wrote 50 Shades of Grey. So anything you do will be at best, second-worst writing ever.
Herewith one of the many preternaturally horrible opening lines culled from submissions to the Bulwer-Lytton Prize:
When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday, his children packed his bags and drove him to Golden Pastures retirement complex just off Interstate 95.
It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.
And, a personal favorite:
The professor looked down at his new young lover, who rested fitfully, lashed as she was with duct tape to the side of his stolen hovercraft, her head lolling gently in the breeze, and as they soared over the buildings of downtown St. Paul to his secret lair he mused that she was much like a sweet ripe juicy peach, except for her not being a fuzzy three-inch sphere produced by a tree with pink blossoms and that she had internal organs and could talk.
Somewhere in Reykjavik, thousands of people are writing their first (or fifth) mystery novel.
There is apparently no more literate or book-mad place than little Iceland. Even without the benefit of trees, the island nation of some 300,000 people apparently has more writers, published books, and readers per capita than anywhere else in the world. According to the BBC:
It is hard to avoid writers in Reykjavik. There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum”, everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach”. One in 10 Icelanders will publish one.
“Does it get rather competitive?” I ask the young novelist, Kristin Eirikskdottir. “Yes. Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.”
So get busy everybody, or Icelandic fiction will take over the world before you know it.
Check out this short video from PBS that uses animation to backdrop a neat snippet of an interview Leonard Lopate conducted with David Foster Wallace in 1995 about writing, ambition, and of course, tennis: