Writer’s Desk: Put on the Clown Suit

Dave Eggers—who turned 48 last week—once gave a fantastic description of writing fiction:

It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody. You’re the guy in costume, and everybody’s supposed to forget that and go along with you.

The best advice in such a situation feels like it has to be: Go with it. Suit up, fool everybody, and plow through until it feels feels absolutely normal.

Writer’s Desk: Read in Cafes

You would think that the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (born March 6, 1927) was one of those people fated to be a writer. How else to explain his golden pen? But no, as a young man in the 1940s, he was just another Columbian law student. Fortunately for the rest of us, though, he decided to waste his free time on a different pursuit: reading.

From “How I Became a Writer“:

On free afternoons, instead of working to support myself, I read either in my room or in the cafés that permitted it. The books I read I obtained by chance and luck, and they depended more on chance than on any luck of mine, because the friends who could afford to buy them lent them to me for such limited periods that I stayed awake for nights on end in order to return them on time…

He discovered Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, and many other greats. Then came Kafka. And a challenge:

When I finished reading “The Metamorphosis,” I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise. The new day found me at the portable typewriter that Domingo Manuel Vega had lent me, trying to write something that would resemble Kafka’s tale of a poor bureaucrat turned into an enormous cockroach. In the days that followed I did not go to the university for fear the spell would be broken, and I continued, sweating drops of envy, until Eduardo Zalamea Borda published in his pages a disconsolate article lamenting the lack of memorable names among the new generation of Colombian writers, and the fact that he could detect nothing in the future that might remedy the situation. I do not know with what right I felt challenged, in the name of my generation, by the provocation in that piece, but I took up the story again in an attempt to prove him wrong…

Writer’s Desk: Solitary but Productive

Philip Roth spent about a half of a century writing. In the process, he produced one of the greatest and weirdest bodies of work in American letters. How did he do it? Sitting down and plugging away, for one:

The day-by-day repertoire of oscillating dualities that any talent withstands — and tremendous solitude, too. And the silence: 50 years in a room silent as the bottom of a pool, eking out, when all went well, my minimum daily allowance of usable prose…

Set yourself a goal and get to it. Every great book starts with the first word, it’s true. But there’s a lot of words that have to follow. A daily allowance of usable prose is a good place to start.

Writer’s Desk: First, Make Yourself Happy

Let’s face it: Sitting at a desk and putting words on paper or a screen and then (hopefully) printing them out in a big block of pages that will (again, hopefully) not immediately end up in the remainder stacks, can be drudgery. So find some joy in it.

Per Michael Holroyd:

The only happiness one gets from writing is doing a good day’s work, of suddenly discovering something on the page which works. You pick up the page, you shake it, it’s there, it doesn’t come to bits, and you didn’t know it at the beginning of the day and now you know it. Now that’s a real happiness, and unless there is some element of that, well why on earth is one writing? Because otherwise moving a pen across the page is not all that enjoyable…

Writer’s Desk: (Don’t Just) Write What You Know

Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) casts a little cold water on limiting your writing to what you’ve experienced personally:

I think the most famous piece of writing advice that there is is “write what you know,” and I think it’s—honestly, I think it’s the best piece of advice there is, but I think it’s the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is. It’s so simple and so obvious. It used to terrify me, this idea of “write what you know.” I was dreaming, I was in suburbia, in my house, dreaming of being of a writer, and I thought, what am I going to do with “write what you know”? What I know from childhood is I was on the couch, watching TV. So I should simply rewrite a whole series of sitcoms for you. I should write a book called What’s Happening? and then I should write a book called Little House on the Prairie is on at 5 o’clock. . .

Writer’s Desk: Read It and Wing It

A notable anti-academic observation on the writing life from Kurt Vonnegut, collected in George Plimpton’s The Writer’s Chapbook:

I grew up in a house crammed with books. But I never had to read a book for academic credit, never had to write a paper about it, never had to prove I’d understood it in a seminar. I am a hopelessly clumsy discusser of books. My experience is nil…

Writer’s Desk: Lie Truthfully

If writing isn’t truthful, readers can tell. That doesn’t mean it’s all pulled from real life. Writing is also about creating new realities. You have to make things up sometimes to get at the truth. It’s a contradiction that non-writers can have a hard time wrapping their heads around.

Here’s what Jamie Quatro told The Paris Review:

Fiction begins with small, lower-case truths, then translates them into a larger lie that ultimately reveals the largest truths. “None of it happened and all of it’s true,” said Ann Patchett’s mother.

And remember what Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story“:

Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.