Writer’s Desk: Know When to Move On

Every writer has had those sections that give them problems. They will be moving right along and then there is this part that just refuses to fit. They know it needs to be there. Otherwise the plot will not make sense or readers will not appreciate the argument being made or that one line of crystalline description will be orphaned.

John Steinbeck knew what to do in that situation. Take this item from a 1962 letter:

If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there…

Writers are always told to cut out the troublesome bits. But that does not always feel right at first. Sometimes you need to let it sit for awhile before you are able to put it out of its misery.

(h/t: Brain Pickings)

Literary Birthday: Isak Dinesen

Danish writer Isak Dinesen (born today in 1885) went by several names throughout her eventful life. Born Karen Christentze Dinesen, she became Baroness von Blixen-Finecke (aka Karen Blixen) after marrying royalty. Her family nickname was Tanne. According to biographer Judith Thurman, her “literary disciples” called her Pellegrina, Amiane, and Scheherazade. Dinsen started publishing short stories in 1907 under the pseudonym Osceola.

Her best-known books—Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and Out of Africa (1938), her memoir of running a coffee plantation in Kenya—were published under Isak Dinesen (she chose her first name because it meant “laughter” in Hebrew). This shifting cloaking of names fitted Dinesen, a theatrical personality whose travels and romances powered her twice-Nobel Prize-nominated writing. After winning the Nobel in 1954, Ernest Hemingway said “I would have been happy—happier—today if the prize had gone to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen.”

Writer’s Desk: Amuse Yourself

In her 1966 primer, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) had some choice advice for what writers should do. Above all, she said:

The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers and the readers can and will come later.

This should probably not be taken to mean that if you hit a rough patch in your writing to immediately abandon ship. But if you have difficulty sustaining interest in your topic, it is almost certain readers will do the same.

Literary Birthday: Paul Theroux

After graduating from college in 1963, Paul Theroux (born today in 1941) spent several years teaching in countries ranging from Singapore to Malawi before writing fiction, which often featured clueless Westerners getting in over their heads in foreign lands. Although some of his novels, like The Mosquito Coast (1981), met with success, it was not until Theroux turned his hand to travel writing that he became widely known. His first was The Great Railway Bazaar (1975).

A bestseller that inaugurated the modern travelogue genre, it recounted his four-month journey by train from Britain through Asia, partially on the Orient Express. Theroux spends more time describing his personal encounters than places he visits. At one point he strikes up a conversation with a sniffy British couple about Graham Greene’s new novel The Honorary Consul. “Graham sent me a copy,” the husband says off-handedly. “I always like seeing Graham,” the wife replies.

Literary Birthday: Anna Sewell

When Anna Sewell (born today in 1820) was 14 years old, she injured her ankle and never quite recovered full mobility. Spending most of her life crippled, she was still able to get around via horse-drawn carriage. It always pained her to see how most horses were treated in Victorian England. Several decades later, she began to write a novel about a horse who suffered under several cruel owners.

Written from the horse’s perspective (“The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.”) Black Beauty (1877) was mostly written while the author was confined to her sofa. Published just months before Sewell’s death, the book that she hoped would convince people to treat their horses with greater compassion proved to be a turning point in the history of animal rights activism.

Writer’s Desk: Nothing Wrong with Imitation

You could spend a good part of your life just trying to catch up with the output of Larry McMurty, who passed away this week. Screenplays (Brokeback Mountain), essays, nonfiction, and novels galore (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove). He was also one of the country’s great used book merchants.

He once gave Texas Monthly some very straightforward advice for what he would tell young writers to do:

The most important preparation for writing is reading. Certainly for me and most people I know. Trying to imitate the writers that we love to read. That’s what got us all started…. It doesn’t hurt you to read a lot. In fact, it’s better that you read a lot. You’ll find the right ones.

So if anybody reads what you have done and says that it reminds them of another writer, own up to it. Say McMurty told you to do it.

Literary Birthday: Flannery O’Connor

When Flannery O’Connor (born in Georgia today in 1925) first met her teacher Paul Engle at the University of Iowa in 1946, because of her thick accent he had to ask her to write down what she wanted to say. She wrote, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s Workshop?” Two years later, she had an agent and a story published in Mademoiselle. Many other stories, including her classic “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” followed.

Robert Penn Warren mentored her curiously powerful and Catholicism-haunted writing. On reviewing a collection of her short work, Evelyn Waugh noted that “If these stories are in fact the work of a young lady, they are indeed remarkable.” According to O’Connor’s biographer Brad Gooch, after the publication of her first novel—the twisted Gothic fable Wise Blood (1952)—at least one scandalized local in her hometown burned a copy in the backyard.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Grammar

People make assumptions about writers. That we have some magical talent bestowed by the muses. That we have read everything under the sun. That we really want to take a look at their sheaf of poems or 30-page memoir about their “quite interesting” life and murmur encouraging things.

Assumptions are also made about our mastery of the job’s more technical aspects. They may not understand that many (alright, some; alright, myself) are often getting by more on instinct. We know what sounds correct and pleasing. But please do not ask us to explain ourselves.

Joan Didion had a lot to say about this very specific kind of imposter syndrome. She once wrote:

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. 

Which brings to mind a memory from a first-year college English class. Handing back a paper slashed to ribbons with red ink, my professor asked in a tone of baffled incredulity, “Have you ever heard of a comma splice?”

My blank expression was answer enough. I was used to playing by ear. I continue to do so today.

Literary Birthday: George Plimpton

A snootily-dialected, aristocratic, and yet somewhat clownish enthusiast of many pursuits, George Plimpton (born today in 1927) was not only a load-bearing pillar of 20th century New York publishing, he made the writing life look positively a gas. Besides running The Paris Review (which, he often noted, was not based in Paris and did not publish reviews), Plimpton had a lucrative—and more importantly, fun—sideline gig in what he called “participatory journalism.”

Throwing his gangly Ivy League frame into one unlikely sport after another, he published a string of self-deprecating books about competing in baseball (Out of My League), golf (The Bogey Man), and hockey (Open Net). In Shadow Box (1977), Plimpton described training for a 1959 fight with boxer Archie Moore by studying The Art and Practice of English Boxing (1807). A Sports Illustrated photograph of the results shows Plimpton beaming widely through a bloodied mouth.

Writer’s Desk: Let It Rip

In his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Jack Kerouac had some ideas for how to get things down on paper. Jack being Jack, most of those ideas pivoted around identifying the smoldering ember of creativity and using that to set the kindling of your prose ablaze. Some fragments of dharma:

  • “Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.”
  • “Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion.”
  • “If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance.”

In short, as Dean Moriarty would say, “Blow, man! Blow!”

Literary Birthday: Dave Eggers

Raised in suburban Chicago, Dave Eggers (born today in 1970) was only 21 years old when his parents died in rapid succession, leaving him to raise his eight-year-old brother, Toph. Eggers moved them to the Bay Area, where he helped found the short-lived Gen-X humor magazine Might and started the longer-lived website Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and related McSweeney’s independent publishing imprint.

His part-snarky and part-grief-stricken memoir of that time, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), was a Pulitzer Prize-winning critical and audience hit that placed Eggers in the pantheon of other boundary-pushing contemporaries like David Foster Wallace. True to his keenly ironic style, Eggers prefaced his memoir with “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book” (“you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 209–301”) and even lays out his major themes (e.g., “The Unspoken Magic of Parental Disappearance,” “The Knowingness About the Book’s Self-consciousness Aspect”), no doubt to the great relief of students assigned the book in a seminar on Postmodern Self-Referentiality in Modern American Biography.

Literary Birthday: Douglas Adams

Even for novelists, a famously time-wasting bunch, Douglas Adams (born today in 1952) was a procrastinator of epic proportions. One of his favorite jokes was about how much he loved deadlines, particularly “the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Adams had such a grueling time finishing Mostly Harmless, the bleak fifth entry in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy,” that when British TV program The South Bank Show contacted him about doing a piece on his writing the book, the blocked Adams proposed instead a show about his writer’s block (which, conveniently, offered yet another excuse for him to avoid writing). In the script’s meta narrative, Adams wrote about how “despite having sold 198 squigwizillion books, Douglas Adams still found it very hard to believe that he could actually write them.”

Writer’s Desk: Edit After You Write

In “How to Practice,” Ann Patchett writes about what she learned when helping a childhood friend clean out her late father’s apartment, and how it reminded her of writing. In short, she says you cannot do two things at once:

I made the decision to wait until we’d finished with the entire house before trying to find a place for the things we were getting rid of. This was a lesson I’d picked up from my work: writing must be separate from editing, and if you try to do both at the same time nothing will get done.

Compare this to filmmakers, some of whom (Spielberg, Soderbergh) are known for editing as they go to save on unnecessary filming. To some degree, writers must do the same, since if you put down everything, you will never finish. Still, Patchett has a point. When you are writing, write. Let it pour out, and worry about editing later.

Within reason, of course.

Literary Birthday: Frank Norris

Like many 19th century American novelists, Frank Norris (born today in 1870) led a full life outside of his bibliography. He studied painting in Paris, worked as a foreign correspondent in South Africa, and covered the Spanish-American war in Cuba. Inspired by the naturalist style of Emile Zola, drawing on his journalistic background, and fueled by a powerful fury against the corrupting nature of corporate monopolies, Norris published overwrought but vividly detailed novels of the often-bloody struggles for power and wealth in America.

While less-read today than those of his like-minded contemporary Upton Sinclair, Norris’s books like McTeague (1899), a melodramatic fable about money lust that was the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s silent film classic Greed (1924), are artifacts of their time but thrumming with still-relevant themes.