We will lose a lot in these next months. We’ve already lost too much. One thing we don’t need to lose is our independent bookstores. You have watched all the episodes of Norsemen. I’ve watched them twice. Now we need books…
If there were ever a time to take a few extra moments to order through your local bookstore, it’s now. Admittedly, all retail is and will be under unimaginable strain in the coming months, but bookstores are one category where, with owner ingenuity and community spirit, survival might be possible.— Dave Eggers, “Bookstores Can Be Saved“
One of the greater speculative fiction writers of our time, China Mieville — imagine H.P. Lovecraft filtered through Kafka and Neal Stephenson with a generous dose of Marxism — talked to Clarkesworld magazine about his writing practice.
For Mieville, his productivity comes in spurts. But that doesn’t mean he is undisciplined:
I’m ruthless with early drafts, as one has to be … More and more as I get older and as I change as a writer, so what tends to happen is the first draft tends to be quite long and maybe quite flabby, then I’ll trim that down. There can be occasions when it’s very difficult because there are some sections that you really want to keep in, but, at the same time, you know that you probably ought to get rid of that bit. Sometimes, you have to be quite ruthless with yourself.
It’s good advice. After all, if a writer isn’t ruthless with themselves, it’s almost a guarantee that their readers will be.
They always say to keep a notebook around. This is not only good advice, it is essential. Inspiration does not strike that often. When it comes, you need to have something to catch it with.
Take Joseph Heller. He told Rolling Stone that he got the idea for Catch-22 in the middle of the night:
It kind of burst into my mind. I was actually pacing the floor at four in the morning. I couldn’t wait to get into my office at this small advertising agency and scribble the first chapter.
He wasted no time. If he had waited, we might have lost one of the greatest books of the 20th century.
However, when answering whether writing classes are worthwhile, he digresses into how long it takes to write a book.
There was for me. None at all, I’d say, for the student who lacks talent. You can’t teach talent. And you can’t give intelligence. You can’t teach a person to be funny. A novel takes two or three years to write. By the time a student is halfway through his book, he’ll know so much more about writing and about literature, and will have experienced so much more as a person, that there’s a good chance he’ll lose interest in the book before it’s finished.
This is not much talked about but there are plenty of writers who have gotten a good distance into a long-term project and then lost any interest in finishing it. Of course by then, they’ve committed so much time (or, if they’re lucky, were paid an advance) that there is nothing for it but to press on.
So when you know what you want to write, do it. Fast.
That’s what Heller would have said. Of course, in the twenty years between his debut Catch-22 and this 1981 interview, he had only managed to produce a total of three novels. So, as in so much of life, do as the man says, not as he does.
My interview with graphic novelist Noah Van Sciver, author of The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, ran in Publishers Weekly:
You’ve written three books about Fante Bukowski, a delusional, arrogant, and slovenly character. Do you find something admirable in his belief in his own greatness?
I’m always interested in people who are obsessed with one thing, like people who become obsessed with comics history. I think it’s admirable to dedicate your life to this role. But now I have to think about it. Is he admirable? He’s dedicated to being a drunken writer [laughing]. I don’t know if that’s admirable, though…
From Hilton Als’ remembrance of the late great Toni Morrison:
Loneliness and hurt are often an artist’s first tools…
Don’t ignore your hurt and how you feel in those dark times. Lean into it. Tell that story and make people feel.
We all know the stereotype of the absent-minded artist. Brilliant at illuminating the furthest reaches of the human soul but can’t remember where she put her glasses. It is a stereotype but a true one, nonetheless. Some think that artists have to be absent-minded because they have to keep space in their mind and their soul open for their art.
But at the same time, one must remember your Flaubert:
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
Get your act together in real life. Pour out the chaos onto new pages.
The life of a writer is usually a precarious one, for those of us who make their living solely on their wits and their pen. The lucky ones do not have to hustle all day and night from one assignment and check to the next, but are actually employed to write as part of their job. Whether or not that writing is what they want to do (and if not, there’s always the weekend and mornings to work on the novel), it’s always a relief to be employed to do what one loves.
The great journalist A. J. Liebling—who found his base of operations at the New Yorker—once compared his fellow ink-stained wretches to a certain famous fictitious horse:
The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty. Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings…
Sometimes this can mean swallowing one’s pride. But if the stall is nice, frequently mucked out, and comes replete with fresh hay and the occasional apple, that comfort can leave more time for doing what you are meant to do: Write.