Writer’s Desk: Less, Please

Minimalist writing is generally understood as a style that pares away unnecessary words to get at a truer understanding of the story. Think of a writer using minimalism like a sculptor cleaving off marble to expose the piece of art lying underneath.

In this essay about the novelist Amy Hempel, Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) described the value of her approach this way:

No silly adverbs like sleepilyirritablysadly, please. And no measurements, no feet, yards, degrees or years-old…

Get to the point. Write with a minimum of editorial commentary. The reader will get it, assuming you have done your job. Adverbs only when absolutely necessary.

Writer’s Desk: First By Hand

Yes, in the 21st century, there are still writers who use pen and ink, for their first drafts, at least.

Sam Anderson, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, told another writer at the paper that he actually composed the first draft of most of his long pieces by pen. He liked how it slowed him down:

There’s a kind of folk craftiness to it. The first step is a very personal thing — drawing yourself out of your mind and body. Then, later, you translate that into impersonal print…

Anderson also found that the process, even though it was time-consuming and required to be typed up later, was ultimately a time saver because it stopped him from fooling around on the Internet.

Writer’s Desk: Writing Through the Hard Times

Among the writers Charlie Jane Anders spoke with for Never Say You Can’t Survive was Rebecca Solnit, who has written many books (Hope in the Dark) about that very topic. This is Solnit’s advice for how to keep putting words on the page even when everything seems to be falling apart:

Your writing doesn’t ignore what you think, your writing doesn’t think your body is weird, your writing is not going to nag you about that thing you did when you were eleven, your writing thinks you are the boss, and so it’s the best thing to do in the worst of times, as well as in the best, or so I have found. Writing a sentence is drawing a line and some of those lines are roads out of hell…

Writer’s Desk: Keep Making Things Up

Though some people seem to forget this, much of the art of writing is the art of invention. Even journalism and history involve coming up with a story that pulls everything together, the only thing being that you then need to ensure you have the research to back up your story.

Nobel winner Isaac Bashevis Singer once quipped:

When I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I’m grown up, they call me a writer.

Writing is one of the only vocations where such behavior is encouraged. Run with it.

Writer’s Desk: Write For Yourself First

New Year’s Day is usually the time we start making promises to ourselves about what the coming year will bring. Writers are the same. We measure so much of ourselves by what we have produced. This makes us very susceptible to ideas of self-improvement, measurement, holding ourselves accountable, and feelings of letting ourselves down.

But as important as those things are when it comes to getting things done, none of it is worthwhile if you never enjoy yourself.

That is not to say every minute laboring over your piece is going to be a picnic. A lot of it will be be frustrating, a slog that challenges your desire to ever write another word.

But if that is all you feel, then this is the year to find the joy in this. Write for yourself for a while. Make yourself laugh, cry, or even just reminisce. Maybe you will never show it to anyone. That is okay. Writing is never a waste of time if you enjoy it.

Wendy Knerr said this in Writer’s Digest:

I’ve talked to published writers who are nostalgic about the days when all of their writing was just for them, before editors, agents and readers were influencing their craft. A friend who has published several short story collections told me he spent three years writing just for himself before considering publication and that he wishes he had spent 10. He said the time before the pressures of the market bear down on your creative spirit are often the best times of your writing career. You might think it is easy for published writers to lament their exit from the bliss of “pre-publication.” But this hindsight is an indication that, published or not, you already have access to the most rewarding gifts that writing has to offer…

Remember: This is supposed to be fun.

Writer’s Desk: Use the Holiday

Nobody wants to write over the holidays. Much better to watch the snow, open a book, make some kind of warming cocktail involving rum.

Still, we all have our schedules to stick to. So make the holiday work for you.

Think about this line from Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory:

One by one the household emerges, looking as though they’d like to kill us both; but it’s Christmas, so they can’t…

Give it a shot. Just no using mistletoe as a plot device

Writer’s Desk: Make This Your Life

At the end of a talk, playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) once gave, he despaired at being able to provide any practical advice. That is, except for how to procrastinate:

I’m undisciplined and unhappy writing and expect to be until the writing stops. I find a remarkable number of things to do in a day much more compelling than writing. I could give you absolutely sterling advice on how to avoid writing, how when you run out of things to do other than going to your desk and writing…

Eventually, though, Kushner circled to the thing itself. Like a great writer finally discovering his story, he focused on the fundamentals:

All I really know about writing is that if you’re a writer, writing is what you do. The work, intellectual, emotional, physical work, is everything—the means, the ends, the justifications, and the doubts, the ignominy, acclaim, disappointment, and elation, everything that can happen will happen only when and if you write…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Boring

Steven Spielberg’s latest, The Fabelmans, is an autobiographical piece about growing up in a fractured family as a frustrated dreamer with no idea of how to do what he cannot stop thinking about: making movies.

At one point, the Spielberg stand-in, Sam Fabelman, is interviewing for a television directing gig when the man he is talking with asks whether he wants to meet John Ford. Sam gulps and agrees.

When the grizzled director finally appears, he grumbles at Sam and directs his attention to two Western paintings on the wall. Ford asks Sam what he sees. Frustrated at Sam’s fumbling responses, Ford tells him what he was trying to point out: Where the painter placed the horizon.

Ford’s lesson?

When the horizon’s at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring as shit. Now, good luck to you. And get the fuck out of my office.

Whether you are making a movie, writing a book, or painting a painting, keep the audience off balance. Lean into the unexpected. Make them look closer. Make them look harder.

And don’t be boring as shit.

Writer’s Desk: Dylan Says Study

Learning anything means practice. It means trying and trying and messing up and circling back and trying again and again. It generally also requires studying those who came before you. Some would criticize this as imitation.

Bob Dylan disagrees. In a 2004 interview, he said:

It is only natural to pattern yourself after someone. If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry.

But you can’t just copy someone. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to…

And that is from a Nobel Prize winner.

Writer’s Desk: Gather Life

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the only novel that poet Rainer Maria Rilke ever wrote, the author’s stand-in is a wandering nobleman and poet who walks the streets of Paris and tries to avoid going mad. In between those struggles, he worries that at the ripe old age of twenty eight, he has not accomplished anything. By which he means he has not written anything of note.

But then he catches himself and decides that, no, poetry should come later:

You should wait, and gather meaning and sweetness throughout a life—a long one if possible—and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people imagine, feelings (you have those early enough),—they are experiences. For the sake of a few lines you must see many cities, see many things and people, you must understand animals, you must feel how birds bird, and know the gestures with which small flowers open in the morning…

Is this self-justification for a life of wandering and travel and mooning over flowers in order to justify a few lines of verse? Absolutely.

Is he wrong? Absolutely not.

Writer’s Desk: Keep Going

Jesmyn Ward, author of the terrific novels Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, did not have an easy time of getting published. But she stuck with it. She also had a clutch of fellow writers in her corner who told her the right things:

Persist. Read, write, and improve: tell your stories. Accept rejection until you find acceptance, but don’t become disheartened, stop writing, and remove yourself from the conversation…

Sometimes the best advice is the simplest.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Write Until You Are 25

A lot of writers think they have something to say. It’s part of the reason they wanted to become writers. Some of them are correct. But not all. Unfortunately, the ones who do not have something to say tend not to find out until it is too late.

However, there is a simple rubric for determining whether what you are so eagerly scribbling down deserves anyone else’s time. Per the great Joe Queenan:

Don’t write until you’re 25. Don’t write for the high school yearbook. Don’t write for the college literary magazine. Don’t write that stuff — you never had any experiences, you don’t know anything, just shut up.

Any writer worth their salt will, of course, not listen to a word of that, correct though Queenan is. Especially those of us who wrote for the school magazine. It’s a proud kind of shame to carry.

(h/t Writer’s Almanac)

Writer’s Desk: Story Before Facts

Michael Crichton mastered the art of writing thrilling novels that both seemed like they could happen while stretching reality in ways that gave scientists headaches. The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Congo, these all existed in worlds that were adjacent to science in ways that pushed the thriller plots along but never let the real scientific truth get in the way.

That is one of the key lessons novelist Karen Dionne took from Crichton’s work for Writer’s Digest. Namely, do not be afraid to “play fast and loose with the facts”:

Story trumps all. Crichton’s gift was making the impossible believable. Everyone knows that dinosaurs can’t be cloned from fossilized DNA, but if they could …

That leap of imagination is where the magic lies.

Writer’s Desk: Making It Up as You Go

Back in 1973, Cormac McCarthy was about to publish his third novel, Child of God, and was already one of America’s greatest writers. Few people where he lived in Kingsport, Tennessee had any idea.

When a writer from the Kingsport Times-News tracked McCarthy down and tried to pry some wisdom out of the “the mustachioed, suede-suited novelist,” here is some of what the later very press-avoidant writer told them:

When you write something down you pretty well kill it. Leave it loose and knocking around up there and you never know—it might turn into something.

Which is a hard thing to do. Some writers worry that if they leave it knocking around up there too long, it might disappear. But maybe that’s the test? If it hangs around long enough, it’s something to hang on to and work on.

McCarthy went on:

Creativity is an elusive thing to pin down; but McCarthy finally made his point with a parable. While living in Spain some years ago, he had a novelist friend, “a kindred soul, a madman.” This friend was in a bar, where companions were quizzing him. “Where do you get your ideas?” While the conversation was taking place, only the novelist was paying any attention to a dwarf who was crawling along the top of the bar, methodically draining the abandoned mugs of their last dregs of beer. . . . “I can’t explain how one creates a novel,” McCarthy mused. “It’s like jazz. They create as they play, and maybe only those who can do it can understand it.”

Writer’s Desk: Find Your Rhythm

If you have ever read Truman Capote (and if you have not, dear reader, why?), you know that he has produced some of the most perfectly calibrated sentences in the English language. Whether he sounded them out in his head, simply knew the music of words better than the rest of us, or learned everything he knew from Harper Lee, who is to say. The story might clunk here and there, but the words on the page always sang.

Capote knew that rhythm mattered, almost more than anything else. In 1957, he talked about style and control to The Paris Review:

Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence—especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all…