Writer’s Desk: Get Out There

Tom Wolfe, the great conquistador of New Journalism who died last week at the age of 88, had a problem with modern fiction. For the most part, he thought it stunk. To his way of thinking, all the American novelists of the later 20th century were too stuck in their abstracted heads. That was why he blowtorched the literary establishment with the 1989 Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.

In it, he issued a call for a return to the great reported fiction of the 19th century, in the mold of Dickens and Zola:

Emerson said that every person has a great autobiography to write, if only he understands what is truly his own unique experience. But he didn’t say every person had two great autobiographies to write. Dickens, Dostoyevski, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary…

Wolfe followed that rule for his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, using the same tools of close observation that served his nonfiction so well. Later novels like A Man in Full suffered from his preconceived notions overtaking what he saw on the ground.

But still, Wolfe’s call to get out into the tumult of life is as necessary as ever. You can only learn so much from your desk.

Writer’s Desk: Stay Out of Fashion

Just weeks before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Amherst College in which he talked eloquently about the role of the artist in society:

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style…

So be free and let your writing take you where it wants to go, whether you think it’ll sell or not. As Kennedy said elsewhere in the speech, that’s your duty as an artist. Society depends on you.

Reader’s Corner: Box of Norman Mailer

My article on the new box set, Norman Mailer: The Sixties, is at The Millions:

At nearly 1,400 pages packed into two volumes, it’s all too much at once, like a supercut of Mailer’s TV appearances, those bright dark eyes and halo hair, his machine-gun sentences snapped out one after the other until the white flag is waved….

And just for kicks, here’s Mailer and Gore Vidal going at it on the Dick Cavett Show—the last time a talk show guest could talk about The New York Review of Books and not get laughed off the set:

Writer’s Desk: Get It Right

They say writers should keep it basic. Don’t do too much. Stay in your lane. That’s good advice, until it’s not.

Jack Kerouac once wrote:

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

This from one of America’s most industrious creators of run-on sentences. But still, Kerouac knew to keep looking, to seek simplicity in his work. Just because he never quite got there doesn’t mean the trip wasn’t worth it.

Writer’s Desk: Philip Glass Drove a Cab

If you’re like most writers, you know that it almost never pays the bills. (The other writers know this, too, they just haven’t admitted it yet.) That means you need to keep working while writing. How do you do both? As usual, it’s whatever works for you. But flexibility is key.

Take composer Philip Glass. He had a couple day jobs that kept the lights on until he was in his 40s. He did some contracting work like plumbing and also building kitchens and putting in heating in SoHo lofts.

An even better fit, though, seemed to be his time as a cabbie. This is what he told Lolade Fadulu:

I would pick up a car, usually around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and I would drive till one or two in the morning, and I would get up early in the morning, actually to take my kids to school, because I had kids growing up in New York at the time. And sometimes I would stay up all through the night, write music, then take the kids to school. Then I would go to sleep around 8 or 9 o’clock and I would wake up around 4 o’clock and go back to the garage or wherever I was going. So I could combine a workday and a regular writing schedule at the same time.

It seems like there should be a good minimalist opera in him about driving the city at night. Or plumbing. Time will tell.

Writer’s Desk: Leave Out More Than You Put Down

One of the greatest writers of our time, John McPhee, had a lot to say about the writing process. A lot of it boils down to hard work, research, and edit, edit, edit.

Here’s a few tips:

Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.

If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.

I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.

And don’t forget:

Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.

Writer’s Desk: Read It Again

What looks like your best work ever at two in the morning can seem like dehydrated swill the next morning. It can be a letdown, but that second look is crucial, as is the third, and the fourth, and the…

In this discussion about his writing process on “The Stormthe article that became The Perfect Storm—Sebastian Junger talked about looking at your work with different eyes:

I try to edit my work in different states of mind. So I’ll go running on a really hot day and then read the 2,000 words I just wrote. Or if I’m upset, or really sleepy, or if I’m drunk, I’ll read this stuff. If you’re sleepy and you find yourself skipping over a paragraph because you’re bored by it and just want to get to the interesting part, it comes out. Those different states of mind are a really interesting filter.