Writer’s Desk: Immerse Yourself

Michael Ondaatje doesn’t work fast. He spent six years on his seminal novel The English Patientwhich actually just won the Golden Man Booker Award (meaning it was the Booker Award-winner of the past 50 years). That is in part because he likes to drown himself in the material.

Per this interview from BookPage, Ondaatje prefers to get outside of himself and what he knows:

That’s how you learn. You don’t want to write your own opinion, you don’t want to just represent yourself, but represent yourself through someone else. It doubles your perception, to write from the point of view of someone you’re not. To write about someone like myself would be very limiting…

He was talking about his novel Anil’s Ghost. That one took seven years. Escaping into a new character and a new world takes time. But the immersion is worth it if you want to write something great.

Writer’s Desk: Get Raw

In her astounding 2015 novel, Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh conjured up a grubby, bleak, funny neo-noir whose female narrator didn’t mind in the least just how unpleasant she came off. That’s not a surprise, given how much Moshfegh takes after Bukowski. But even in today’s supposedly more open-minded publishing landscape, the presence of an unlikable protagonist (particularly if a woman) is stll enough to scare off publishers. Fortunately, Eileen found an audience.

It wasn’t an easy journey. According to a recent New Yorker profile, she worked hard in the city’s publishing circles (Overlook Press, The Paris Review) but eventually decided that college would help her along the path:

Hoping to escape the city, Moshfegh applied to the M.F.A. program at Brown, and was accepted. Her time there was productive, she said, but mostly because her scholarship allowed her to write without the distraction of a job. “You have a lot of people who aren’t good at writing yet telling you what to change about the way that you’re writing,” she said. “It’s a lot of mediocrity feeding on itself. So you better be radical, and you better hate everyone. Not that I did personally, but that I had to if I was going to protect the thing in me that I knew I wanted to grow.”

Be radical.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Sell Yourself Short

In the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, the late and astoundingly great Harlan Ellison told a story about the time a film company asked to use a clip from an interview he’d given about Babylon 5 (a show he’d worked on). Ellison said, sure, just pay me. This took the caller by surprise.

Per Open Culture, Ellison responded thus:

Do you get a paycheck? Does your boss get a paycheck? Do you pay the telecine guy? Do you pay the cameraman? Do you pay the cutters? Do you pay the Teamsters when they schlep your stuff on the trucks? Would you go to the gas station and ask them to give you free gas? Would you go to the doctor and have them take out our spleen for nothing?

There are many reasons besides money to write. But it’s also intensely time-consuming, frequently frustrating work that almost never gets the recognition or remuneration that it deserves.

Don’t be taken advantage of. Writing is a calling. It is also a job. Don’t be a sucker and give everything away for free just because you’re asked.

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Obama’s Guy

Jon Favreau—the other one, not the actor/director/occasional Tony Stark wingman—spent years as President Obama’s director of speechwriting. He distilled much of what he learned in that highly precise and pressurized job into “Five Rules of Storytelling.” They are:

  1. The story is more important than the words
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Always address the arguments against your position during your presentation, not after
  4. Empathy is key
  5. There is no persuasion without inspiration

Not all of these may be applicable to those of us not writing for the world stage, but Favreau’s rules are solid reminders to keep thinking about what you’re writing, how you’re going to get to your point, and what is the best way there. That applies whether you’re writing a murder mystery or white paper on fiscal policy.

Remember your reader, always.

Writer’s Desk: Anthony Bourdain Said Stop Complaining

In honor of the (sadly) late great Anthony Bourdain, here’s a little reminder from him about just how great it is to be a writer:

Cooking professionally is hard work. Writing is a privilege and a luxury. Anybody who whines about writers block should be forced to clean squid all day.

As some of us can also testify, writing beats the hell out of washing dishes, too.

Reader’s Corner: Beckett and Terror

With his bleak sketch fictions and disembodied existential plays, Samuel Beckett feels about as removed from the muck and mire of daily human life as you could get. That’s why it’s fascinating to read this opening to Fintan O’Toole’s piece in the New York Review of Books about Beckett’s political conscience:

In April 1962, Samuel Beckett sent a clipping from the French press to his lover Barbara Bray: a report of the arrest in Paris of a member of the Organisation armée secrète. The OAS was a far-right terror gang whose members were drawn largely from within the French military. It had carried out bombings, assassinations, and bank robberies with the aim of overthrowing the government of Charles de Gaulle and stopping the concession of independence to Algeria. Among its targets had been Beckett’s publisher and friend Jérôme Lindon, whose apartment and office were both bombed by the OAS.

Then there’s the punch line:

The press clipping detailed the capture of an army lieutenant who would be charged with leading an OAS attack on an arms depot outside Paris and a raid on a bank in the city. His name was Lieutenant Daniel Godot.

Always good for a laugh, that Beckett.

Writer’s Desk: It’s Like Fishing

Here’s how Eric Idle—novelist, doggerelist, once and forever Python—described the act of writing:

Writing and doing. It’s still what I love to do. To go to your chair first thing in the morning with a blank piece of paper and a pencil and find what is lurking in the depths of your unconscious. It’s fascinating. I always compare it to fishing. You never know what you’re going to catch but you must go regularly to the river bank and wait…

He’s right, of course, you do never know what’s going to come out. It could be that paragraph you’ve been honing and teasing and searching for for weeks. Or it could be five more pages of What The Hell Am I Going to Do With This? You never know.

But keep casting your line. The fish will bite. Eventually.