Writer’s Desk: Be Humble, Yet Great

Back in 2010, Wild author and backpacker extraordinaire Cheryl Strayed was still writing the “Dear Sugar” advice column for The Rumpus. She received a lengthy and pained missive from a self-described “high-functioning headcase” who was depressed over not being able to write a book.

Strayed’s response is beautiful, funny, dirty, dead-solid-right-on, and worth reading in its entirety. But here’s the gist of her explanation about how she finally got over her issues and wrote her first book, what my journalism-school profs would call the “nut graf”:

I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing—so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do…

It’s great advice. Know you’re awesome. But remember that you’re never going to be the most awesome. Be okay with failing, sharpen your pencil, and march into that arena.

Writer’s Desk: Walk to Run

In his autobiography Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen explains that when it came time to write that album, he knew it was a make-or-break moment for his career. It couldn’t just succeed, it had to break through. So, he took his time. Per Justin Cox at The Writing Cooperative:

It took Springsteen six months to get Born to Run on paper. Six months for 344 words. The words had to stew. They had to develop. Then they had to be finessed and rearranged until they properly told the story that Springsteen envisioned.

Not every story needs to take half a year, but there is something to be said for not rushing. Spend time with the stories you’re working on. Pause them. Come back to them. Don’t hit the publish button until the story matches the vision in your mind.

It’s all about finding the right balance. Procrastination is one thing. You cannot just mull a piece over forever. Get things down on paper. Do the work. But if it doesn’t feel right, keep working the piece until it does.

You’ll know.

Writer’s Desk: Buy Some Cards

File:Another Green World.jpg

When in a bind, creative people do a number of things. Stare at the wall. Fidget. Groan. Panic. Eye the whiskey bottle. Open the whiskey bottle. It’s all stalling mechanisms in the hope that in the midst of all that prevaricating, lightning will strike.

Some artists have tried to break those logjams in a more proactive fashion. Philip K. Dick, John Cage, and others have used the Chinese divination book I Ching in the hope that kernels of wisdom from the ancients (though the hectoring tone of some, like “all day long the superior man is creatively active,” might prove to cause more delays in the long run).

Inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s Distant Early Warning card deck (mostly random quotes from other thinkers), Brian Eno and his artist friend Peter Schmidt came up with the idea for the Oblique Strategies card deck in 1975.

According to Salon, each card had:

… a specific, utilitarian purpose. The quirky cards were designed to help artists and musicians get out of creative ruts and loosen up in the studio. Each Oblique Strategy had a different aphorism: “Accept advice,” read one. “Imagine the music as a series of disconnected events,” read another. “Humanize something free of error.”

Get yourself a deck. Or maybe just play solitaire or flip through Bartlett’s Quotations.

See what happens.

Writer’s Desk: Write Like You Speak

Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In one of his last pieces for Vanity Fair before cancer stole him from us, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the loss of his voice and how he advised writers to not just read but listen to their words:

I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice…

Writer’s Desk: Death to Cliches

Avoid using this kind of image to illustrate your piece about Africa.

Cliches are irresistible to most people, and particularly writers. Why? They’re easy, people know what you mean, there’s millions of them for the taking.

The downsides, of course, are legion. Lazy writing, audience pandering, a lack of originality.

There is also the very real chance that you can do a great disservice to the subject. Rather than attempting to understand something new, many writers fall back on the familiar. Take Bivyavanga Wainaina’s brilliantly satiric article from a few years back in Granta. In “How to Write About Africa,” he includes a mock list of all the things writers should (not) include when covering that frequently ignored and usually misunderstood place:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular…

When venturing into an area you know little about, read and study all you can. Talk to anyone who will listen to you. But see it all with new eyes. Bring a fresh perspective. We don’t become writers simply to rewrite what others have done.

And please: Never use the phrase “Dark Continent.” Just don’t.


Writer’s Desk: Tell and Delight

In his poem “Tell Me a Story,” Robert Penn Warren lays down a dictum (intended or not) for what all writers should do:

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

(h/t: Mark Singer)

Writer’s Desk: Zen and the Art of Being Bradbury

The late, awesomely great Ray Bradbury should be remembered as not just one of the greatest voices in 20th century American fiction, but as one of the most enthusiastic writers ever anywhere.

Case in point comes from this piece in which Writer’s Digest dug into their archives and unearthed some phenomenally energetic Bradbury truisms:

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.

I always say to students, give me four pages a day, every day. That’s three or four hundred thousand words a year. Most of that will be bilge, but the rest …? It will save your life!

It has to be exciting, instantaneous and it has to be a surprise. Then it all comes blurting out and it’s beautiful. I’ve had a sign by my typewriter for 25 years now which reads, ‘DON’T THINK!’

If any of us can write with even a hint of that spark and enthusiasm, then we have nothing to worry about.

Remember, writing can save your life.