Writer’s Desk: Who Knows?

W. Somerset Maugham, the happy-looking chap pictured above, was among the most popular writers in the English language at the height of his career in the 1930s. He had some advice for novelists:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Sometimes the best advice to follow can be your own. Or none at all.

Writer’s Desk: Know When to Stop

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Woman Reading by Henri Matisse (1895)

In John Guare’s heart-stopping 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, one of its alternately delusional and searching protagonists is a painter-turned-art dealer named Flan. At one point Flan, who is both criminally mercenary and honestly enraptured by the paintings he flogs, soliloquizes about his past life:

I thought… dreamt… remembered… how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He paints and paints, works on a canvas for months, and then, one day, he loses it. Loses the structure, loses the sense of it. You lose the painting.

There is not a writer around who does not know the feeling. Going along just fine, everything hitting its mark, all the pieces of your structure falling into place like toppling dominoes, and then … nothing. Sometimes you get the piece back. Sometimes it is gone forever. Flan continues:

I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?’ And this is what she said. ‘I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.’

Most of us are not lucky enough to have a second-grade teacher looking over our shoulder. Sometimes a piece needs hours, days, months of work to get it chiseled into shape. Other times, it just needs to be left as is.

If you feel yourself losing the thread, pull back, look again, and know when to let it go.

Writer’s Desk: Philip Pullman

Maybe you are spending January catching up on HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Maybe you are actually taking the long cold winter to get some writing done. If the latter, here are some tips from Pullman himself, courtesy of Radio 4:

Ignore the market and write what you want—Write what you want to write, be the next big thing and not another iteration of a phase that will pass…

Stay at the desk—Resist wandering off, checking social media or making yet another cup of tea. You wouldn’t to miss a brilliant idea because you weren’t there to receive it…

Find the way of writing that works for you—Don’t be tied to how you think you should write if it doesn’t produce anything…

Let the protagonist propel events—It’s useful emotional shorthand for getting your readers invested with your lead…

Explore different formats and genres—Ideas might not necessarily fit into what you’re currently working on. If you know something is a good idea, but just isn’t working, don’t necessarily throw it out…

Writer’s Desk: Rebel Against Yourself

While all writers have to get out into the world to study it, feel it, live it, and understand something beyond what lies inside their own cranium in order to make an impact, they should not overlook the value that can come from determining what would shock themselves.

Per the great provocateur J.G. Ballard (Crash), circa 2005:

As for the special problems facing the middle-class artist — it looks as if alienation is going to be imposed on him whether he likes it or nor. Most artists and writers in the past have been middle-class, the surrealists to a man, with backgrounds similar to those of the Baader-Meinhof gang. However, the middle-class world against which they rebelled was vast and self-confident. Who today would bother to rebel against the Guardian or Observer-reading, sushi-nibbling, liberal, tolerant middle-class? I think the main target the young writer/artist should rebel against is himself or herself. Treat oneself as the enemy who needs to be provoked and subverted…

How can one shock the world if one can’t shock oneself?

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Your Characters

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There are a lot of writing books that tell you how to craft an exciting plot. They provide exercises, quizzes, little tricks to spur your creativity and come up with new and interesting wrinkles. Helpful tricks, of course. But no matter how thrilling or curiosity-spurring your plot, nobody will care if they do not care about your characters.

How do you get readers to invest in the fictional people you are writing about? Get to know them like you would real people in your life. Novelist Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) has some advice in The Writer:

I get to know my characters like you’d get to know someone at a cocktail party. You sit down with them and listen – whether they talk about work or their families or sports or politics, whether they seem open-minded or opinionated, whether they’re logical and articulate or rambling – and you get a sense of what’s important to them, who they are as a person. So I sit down and write about a character, or write in the character’s own voice and see what emerges. It’s a lot easier to bring characters to life on the page when you know them well…

Once you know how your character will act when they’re at a party, having a cocktail, watching the game, or who they voted for, you will be able to write anything about them and it will ring true.

Writer’s Desk: Love Words More Than Your Voice

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W. H. Auden (c. 1939)

According to legend, or at least a book with the lilting title How Does a Poem Mean?, W. H. Auden was once asked what advice he would give to a young poet. Auden responded that if he asked the young poet why they wanted to write and the answer came back that they thought they had something important to say, Auden’s conclusion was that there was no hope.

However, Auden went on to say that if the answer came back as “I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,” then he thought the young poet might have promise after all.

Following Auden’s line of thought, you could say that if you start with a love of words, their flow and shading and endless permutations, you might get to somewhere important. But starting in grandiloquence will get you nowhere.

Writer’s Desk: Rely on Your Instincts

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Rainer Maria Rilke

In Letters to a Young Poet (1929), Rilke corresponded with Franz Xaver Kappus, a young poet who was not sure whether or not to go ahead with a career in the arts or to stick with the Austrian military. It seems clear that anybody seriously considering those two paths in life would not be well-suited for a lifetime of uniformed service, but Rilke took the query seriously.

Commenting on some poems that Kappus had sent and some questions about their worth, Rilke had this to say:

You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

Feedback is necessary, particularly when it helps writers overcome blocks or be more attentive to flaws that escaped their notice in the first draft. But waiting for acceptance from the outside world or permission to continue on is a fool’s errand. Better to follow Rilke’s advice to dig deep, find a reason, and write as though it were your last day on Earth:

Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.