Writer’s Desk: Stop Asking Questions

J.M. Anderson

A little while back, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, many Missions: Impossible) noted that he was getting asked the same question by a lot of aspiring screenwriters. Basically: How do I break into the industry? His response was a long Twitter thread that started with the premise, “You’re asking the wrong questions” and went from there.

It’s well worth reading in full, even if you’re a writer with no interest in working in the movies. At one point, he reminds aspiring writers that it’s never easy, even for those with a name and an award like him:

I spent seven years – AFTER winning an academy award – asking the same questions. My career stalled (and I still have scripts that no one will make despite subsequent commercial successes).

Much of what McQuarrie says can be boiled down to this: Stop asking permission, stop waiting for somebody to hand you the key, do the best work you can, and never stop looking for a different way in.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Fit In, Never Explain

The late, irascibly great Nick Tosches was a son of Newark who skipped college, immersed himself in rock journalism at its raucous Lester Bangs-ian height, then went on to write fiction, music biographies (Dean Martin, Jerry Lee Lewis), and a somewhat indescribable book about Dante, teaching himself Latin and medieval Italian along the way.

Tosches wrote as he damn well pleased, and had some thoughts about it:

We are uncomfortable with works that can not be placed comfortably into a category…

Most best-selling books belong to one genre or another—espionage, crime, horror, suspense, romance, mystery, self-help, ghost-written political memoirs that take the genre of boredom to a ghastlier realm…

Like every other writer worth reading, [George V. Higgins] had no clue as to how he did it…

Structure is artifice, and artifice is for saps…

Writer’s Desk: Remember to Tell a Story

Wilmington, Delaware. Tower Hill School, noted country day school for pupils from three to eighteen years of age. A young pupil writing in a notebook at her desk

Since the Great Recession, more college students have been shifting their majors from English toward more supposedly employment-friendly study in the STEM fields like engineering, math, and computer science.

But one advantage held by people who study literature and write (though they may not be so hot at calculating a tip on the fly) is knowing how to make an argument and tell a story in a clear and engaging manner. Who thinks that? Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller:

Shiller, who is famous for predicting the dot-com crash and coming up with the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, is spending a lot of time looking at old newspaper clippings to understand what stories and terms went viral and how they influenced people to buy things — or stop buying things.

When asked if he’s essentially arguing for more English and history majors, Shiller said, “I think so,” adding: “Compartmentalization of intellectual life is bad.”

The world needs storytellers. Regardless of your field.

Writer’s Desk: Write Like a Scientist

For the last couple decades, Cormac McCarthy has been something of a fiction writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute, a scientific  center whose attendees are more likely to be doing postdoc physics research than crafting lucid prose.

Since clarity and concision matter as much as research in getting a point across, McCarthy has also been helping the scientists with editing their work. Here are a few of his tips:

Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.

Limit each paragraph to a single message. A single sentence can be a paragraph.

Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words — such as ‘however’ or ‘thus’ — so that the reader can focus on the main message.

With regard to grammar, spoken language and common sense are generally better guides for a first draft than rule books. It’s more important to be understood than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence.

Writer’s Desk: Be the Bird

A lot of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, involves research. Crime novelists go out on ride-alongs with cops and interview morticians to figure out the tricks of the trade to embed in their books so that the made-up feels more authentic. Most nonfiction writers, even if they have a specialty, have to write about things they are not expert in, and so have to draw on others’ work.

Then there’s Malcolm Gladwell, the journeyman journalist who writes about everything from sports to music to the problem of elite education and solving homelessness. How does he cover it all? A few years back, here is what he told students at Yale:

I’m not doing the original work … There’s that bird on the back of the elephant that picks off the ticks — I am the bird.

Following that approach still involves being able to tell a good story. Narrative excitement and creating a sense of discovery and thrill is the duty of every writer. But in order to have a story to tell, writers need raw material.

Read widely. Absorb as much as you can. Find a better to tell a story, with connections nobody else thought of. Spread your wings and write.

Writer’s Desk: Stop Selling

Tavi Gevinson, the onetime teen fashion maven and editor of Rookie and current New York ingenue, came to grips recently with all the time and energy she had been putting into crafting likable versions of herself for social media. It’s a common phenomenon in our era, the neurotic time-suckage of Instagram:

There are plenty of well-documented reasons to distrust Instagram — the platform where one is never not branding, never not making Facebook money, never not giving Facebook one’s data — but most unnerving are the ways in which it has led me to distrust myself. After countless adventures through the black hole, my propensity to share, perform, and entertain has melded with a desire far more cynical: to be liked, quantifiably, for an idealized version of myself, at a rate not possible even ten years ago…

But where it became even more problematic for Gevinson, who was trying as so many of us do to discover what the limits of possibility were as a bright young creative trying to make it in the city:

I think I am a writer and an actor and an artist. But I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson, too.

Anybody who has seen an author out there on the press tour knows that selling is part of the job. You publish a book and (if you’re lucky) the house puts you out there for a grind of interviews (answering questions like “Where do you get your ideas?” fifteen times a day in hotel rooms) which will hopefully lead to TV or radio or print or online segments that will then help sell more books. Hopefully.

But at some point the selling can become the thing. That’s especially true in our disintermediated time when all creatives are expected to be out there constantly pushing and shilling and crafting an image.

But there is a reason that “sales” has always had a somewhat disreputable ring. It’s fundamentally dishonest, as all the best salespeople can tell you. Whereas writing, at its best, uncovers the truth, whether something about the world or humanity or yourself or all three together.

Sell if you have to. Gotta move those books somehow. But only if and only when you absolutely have to. Otherwise write. And live.

Reader’s Corner: Going Back to Updike

Rabbit Redux

In the London Review of Books, Patricia Lockwood does that thing some of us dread: Going back to the author we once loved—and everyone else told us to love—years later to see how they stand up. Reconsidering someone like John Updike, so of-the-moment in postwar American letters, she assumes will be a fraught matter:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are…

The piece that follows is not a hatchet job. Though yes, blood is fulsomely spilled. Lockwood looks at Updike with new eyes and finds much (so much) to be grimaced at, to the point of wondering, Did anyone actually read this?

There are also some grace notes: “When he is in flight you are glad to be alive.”

But also: “When he comes down wrong – which is often – you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea.”