Writer’s Desk: RBG and Professor Nabakov

Since Supreme Court justices communicate primarily through words on a page, not surprisingly writing is almost as important to them as making legal arguments.

The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was frequently cited for the clarity and strength of her writing. She often credited her teachers for instilling in her the proper discipline. In an interview collected in The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, she pointed to her professor of European literature at Cornell:

His name was Vladimir Nabokov. He was a man in love with the sound of words. He taught me the importance of choosing the right word and presenting it in the right word order. He changed the way I read, the way I write.

She also said about Nabokov:

Words could paint pictures, I learned from him. Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.

Ginsburg and Nabokov knew that this in some way, this is what writing is all about: convincing the reader. On some level, art is argument. That is true whether it is in the pages of a novel or proclaimed from the Supreme Court.

Writer’s Desk: Take Your Time

In 1991, comedic legend and sometime albatross vendor John Cleese gave a lecture on creativity, a topic he’s been somewhat obsessed with over the years (and in fact just published a short book about it). In that lecture, he gave examples of how to create what he called the “open mood” that allows ideas to come.

One example came from Alfred Hitchcock:

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s regular co-writers has described working with him on screenplays. He says, “When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first, I was almost outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure. He would say ‘We’re pressing, we’re pressing, we’re working too hard. Relax, it will come.’ And, says the writer, of course it finally always did.”

It’s a difficult balance. On the one hand, you have to keep to your writing schedule. Otherwise nothing gets done. On the other hand, pressing against a closed door rarely works.

When nothing is coming to you, sit back, take a breath, go for a walk, and think about something else. The muse is still there, you may just have to wait for her to circle back around to you.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Give Up

From novelist Yu Hua (To Live, Brothers), one of the great chroniclers of modern China, some advice about perseverance:

I’ve never considered giving up. Before becoming a writer, I was a dentist, spending all my days staring into people’s open mouths. Unhealthy mouths, too – healthy mouths wouldn’t come to the dentist. Maybe there’s a better job than being a writer, but I wouldn’t know. All I know is being a writer is better than being a dentist…

Take it from him. Don’t be a dentist. Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Limit Yourself

Best known for his titanic five-novels-in-one omnibus 2666, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño was prolific enough that even after his death in 2003, his bibliography continues to grow.

In “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories,” he suggested one reason for that prodigious output. Never stick to just one piece at a time:

Never approach short stories one at a time. If one approaches short stories one at a time, one can quite honestly be writing the same short story until the day one dies.

Of course, Bolaño also warns to be careful:

The temptation to write short stories two at a time is just as dangerous as attempting to write them one at a time.

But it seems clear which approach he followed.

Writer’s Desk: Get Away from Yourself

Twilight by Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith’s plays are often discussed in light of their signature method of presentation: No matter how many characters are in the piece, and regardless of their gender or race, they are all played by the same actor. Usually Smith.

Smith builds that shapeshifting of perspective and personality on a foundation constructed from hundreds of hours of transcripts. She interviews people herself and then puts their words on stage.

Why does she do it this way, traveling around the world to meet with people and listen to them for hours? Not just for verisimilitude, though that is part of it:

I’m very aware of travelling and being with the people and being in the place, away from my home, chasing that which is not me.

The further away you get away from yourself, the more clearly you can see everybody else. Go and find that which is not you.

Writer’s Desk: Make a Schedule

Annihilation by jeff vandermeer.jpg

The great and highly prolific sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer (best known for his eco-apocalyptic Southern Reach trilogy) gave an interview to the Chicago Review of Books a couple years back which was just packed with fantastically clear, actionable writing tips.

One of my favorites had to do with timing and productivity, two of the great obstacles for writers who have to juggle schedules:

People sometimes misunderstand the nature of writing, in that writing and revision are ongoing processes that are intertwined and don’t necessarily happen in two distinct consecutive phases. That said, inasmuch as you do work solely on a rough draft, do that work when you are fresh and energized. This may seem like commonsense, but I’ve known many writers who never really examined their processes, just kept on with the same habits they started out with…

The point is to organize your writing days or weeks around what you know about yourself—and about diminishing returns.

Writer’s Desk: Pay Attention

If writing were just stringing words together, literally anybody could do it. Because there is more to it, would-be writers spend many thousands of hours pondering how to do it better, and even read books and take classes to learn how to do something that seemingly anyone can do once they’re in elementary school.

In his superb guide First You Write a Sentence, English professor Joe Moran did his best to illuminate all the “intangible” ways that a sentence becomes more than the sum of its parts, and how he imparted that understanding to his students. His insight is simple but profound:

What I have learned is that trainee writers do not need to be able to parse every sentence into its parts. They just have to learn to care. Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, wrote that ‘what is done in love is well done.’ The purest form of love is just caring…. The purest form of praise is to pay attention. This is how we offer up the simplest of blessings to the world around us and to the lives of others. ‘Attention,’ wrote the French thinker Simone Weil, ‘is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ Give your sentences that courtesy and they will repay you.

Put another way, you have rarely written a sentence that would not be improved by another pass. Pay attention.

Writer’s Desk: What Hamill Said

When Pete Hamill died last Wednesday, we lost one of the greats. Once called “a two-fingered typist with miraculous powers,” he knocked out poetic tabloid prose for pretty much all the newspapers worth working for in New York, even editing a couple of them. He wrote novels, a killer memoir, and was old enough to have attended the funeral of Diego Rivera (who he wrote about) and to remember early Sinatra (you know, before the really good stuff).

A complicated Irish guy from Brooklyn who tilted toward but didn’t abandon himself to either of those cliches, he embodied that old city progressive spirit but still knew when to draw out his stiletto. Read his 1969 piece, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class,” for everything you need to know about the country’s “ethnics” and their curdled embrace of conservatism over the past half-century.

In the end, though, Hamill’s rule for writing was short and sweet. A couple years back, at an NYU event with James McBride, he said you needed to do the following:

Imitate, emulate, equal, surpass…

Do as the man says. Go forth.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Write Your Pandemic Book … Yet

Writers are already a solitary lot. Even when there is not a pandemic. Those of us who pay the bills through teaching or other gigs that require contact with people have been even more isolated than usual. We also tend to respond to what is around us. So it’s more than likely than many of us have that COVID-related project that we have been tinkering around with.

However, Bill Morris warned in The Millions that we should maybe think about holding off. Not just because the market is about to be flooded with similar books, but because it’s probably better to let it sit for a while:

Daniel Defoe took his time before writing about his era’s horrific calamity, publishing A Journal of the Plague Year almost 50 years after the bubonic plague ravaged London in 1665. The book purports to be a first-person account of that grim year, and its rich detail and plausibility led many readers to regard it as a work of nonfiction rather than what it was—a deeply researched work of imaginative historical fiction. (Defoe was five years old during the plague.) The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has spent the past four years researching and writing an historical novel called Nights of Plague about an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions in Asia in 1901, more than a century ago. Before putting pen to paper, Defoe and Pamuk had the good sense to let time do its work of giving traumas context and perspective…

There is no rush. Let it sit. Get it right.

Writer’s Desk: Story Over Style

The late graphic designer Milton Glaser was respected not just for his iconic creations (everything from DC Comics’ “bullet” logo to “I Heart New York”) but for what he had to say about creativity.

One of his best-known advice essays was a talk he gave called “10 Things I Have Learned.” While some are likely more relevant to the design business than other creative endeavors, lesson six is one that writers will want to keep in mind: “Style is Not to be Trusted”:

It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty.

There are many writers who may unthinkingly box themselves in. Because they have always written narrative essays, they may think they cannot try fiction. Or a writer of cozy mysteries may not follow an idea for an autobiographical sketch dealing with family trauma because that is not “their style.”

Glaser’s point was more about not chasing trends, which is also valuable advice for any artist.

But in the end, it’s the story that counts, not your style.

Writer’s Desk: It’s All Material

A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser. A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.

Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out

There is one rule that should be learned by everybody who knows or is related to a writer: Beware. Everything that happens and is said is fodder for the printed page.

Writer’s Desk: Write Like it Matters

New York, New York. Library of the New York Times newspaper. Editors and writers can look up every conceivable subject and get information not available in the "morgue"

This week, Harper’s published a piece from a list of writers ranging from J.K. Rowling to Malcolm Gladwell, Todd Gitlin, Dexter Filkins, and Dahlia Lithwick – as well as a range of other public intellectuals and artists (Zephyr Techout to Bill T. Jones and Gloria Steinem) – titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”

Here’s the gist:

We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us…

Harper’s

Remember your Ray Bradbury: “If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.”

Don’t think about what people will think. Use your judgement. Be thoughtful, yet unsparing. Write what is true. Put your soul into it.

If not, why bother?

Writer’s Desk: Ignore Success

As a writer, one generally understands that your work is most likely going to be overlooked by the vast majority of humanity. That doesn’t mean you don’t hope for some vindication in the form of some nice reviews and maybe even a royalty check every now and again. But expecting any kind of reward like that is a recipe for disappointment.

On the other end of the spectrum is the recently late Charles Webb. The author of The Graduate and Hope Springs, he spent most of his career doing everything possible to avoid success. Per The New York Times, Webb:

gave away homes, paintings, his inheritance, even his royalties from The Graduate, which became a million-seller after the movie’s success, to the benefit of the Anti-Defamation League. He awarded his £10,000 [about $12,530] payout from Hope Springs as a prize to a performance artist named Dan Shelton, who had mailed himself to the Tate Modern in a cardboard box…

That does not mean that if you are so lucky as to have a book that gets made into a generational classic movie you should give your money to a performance artist. But if you are waiting for a big (or any) payday, you may have chosen the wrong profession.

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Writer’s Desk: Give It Time

In 1948, Evelyn Waugh sent a letter to Thomas Merton in which he offered the following bit of advice from one writer to another:

Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask “Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?”…

Wall Street Journal

You might disagree with Waugh’s usage of “plebeian” here (he was, after all, one of the great snobs of English literature, a genre already replete with the type). But the point remains solid: Take a second. Look again. That sentence you thought was carved with beautiful simplicity like a jewel could now show itself to be a bit baggy, in need of a little more carving.

Writer’s Desk: Speaking Out Loud

When David Sedaris is trying to determine what works or not in his writing, he test-drives it in front of an audience:

Sedaris says that he has usually rewritten a story about eight times before he tries it in front of an audience, where he ends up reading it and making tweaks up to 40 times before it is published. What he learns during those readings accounts for about 20% of the changes he makes in his text.

“If something is on its feet, I can make it stronger by reading it out loud,” he says. “When I’m reading things on stage, I try to be a little bit different every night. It takes you a week just to learn how to read it. But if you read it only once? That’s why all those stories in Barrel Fever seem so crude to me now.” These days, he says, by the time he records an audio book, he has a well-rehearsed tape in his head…

If you don’t have an audience (at readings, Sedaris will draw a skull next to a bit that doesn’t play well), read your story out loud while recording. Listen to it later and evaluate as though you were hearing a different person. Edit accordingly and without fear of hurting the writer’s feelings. In the end, no matter how harsh your feedback, it will be more generous than many readers.