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.

Writer’s Corner: Maintain Momentum

Waiting for inspiration is no way to write. One has to have a routine. Granted, that routine is likely to be a messy one. Take Lionel Shriver’s glimpse into her daily writing schedule:

Start with large, strong coffee. Read paper, doesn’t much matter which one. Concentrate on little stories. Dostoevsky snatched scads of ideas from newspapers. Self could not make this stuff up, so why bother?

…DO NOT LOOK AT EARLIER CHAPTERS. Do not pour through thousands of words searching for whatever Self called some character’s yappy dog several chapters back. First drafts rely on MOMENTUM. Refining adjectives does not count as work. Solving what-does-she-say-next and why-would-he-do-that, or making daily effort to construct at least one paragraph justifying stupid book’s existence – one paragraph other people might conceivably want to read in sloshing sea of unnecessary, look-at-me prose in which whole world is drowning – this is work.

There are writers who do not feel comfortable unless their prose has been raked over a dozen times until it is clean and sparkling bright. That can be done at one’s leisure, but as Shriver notes, momentum is all. If you don’t maintain a steady pace (helped along by routine) then you will not have anything to review later.

Writer’s Desk: Who Cares What They Say

The ineffably brilliant John Berryman was never a popular poet. But those who know his work tend to be, shall we say, highly committed to singing his praises. His style was raw and jangled, symphonic and bluesy, the sort of thing that hits you in the heart and makes you imagine everything terrible and beautiful in the world.

Of course, that also makes him not everybody’s cup of tea. His advice to young writers who are trying to make a go of it, and facing some resistance?

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

The Paris Review

Writer’s Desk: Start a Fight

Perhaps not literally. But writing is perception. And one way to test your perception is to try out multiple takes on the same thing and see the result.

Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club) has an approach she uses in her memoir-writing class:

…these are young, very smart people who are very confident about their memories and mostly should be. But I stage a fight, either with a colleague or with a student. And then I ask them to write what happened.

The result is often humbling, as the students write their accounts and then discover just how much they get wrong.

Maybe instead of a fight, you can try going to a place at a particular time of day, spend a quarter-hour there, leave and write about your memory of it. Then return a week later at the same time of day and see how close you were.

Writer’s Desk: Build Your Space

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright is one of our greatest living nonfiction writers. One of the reasons for this is that he spends the time doing the work. By work, he means doing an incredible amount of background investigation. Even his recent novel The End of October (about a pandemic, curiously enough), is mined from a ridiculous amount of research.

To be productive, though, it also helps to have a good writing space. Wright made his own, to spec:

I have a wonderful office that I’ve built in my house. David Remnick came to dinner one night and he called it “Writer Porn.” It’s something I’ve made especially for writing, and a desk I designed especially for writing. I have a white board, where I sketch outlines of projects. The most distinctive thing is my writer’s desk, which I had built about 30 years ago. It’s a bit Star Trek-y. It has wings curved around so I can have my manuscripts left and right, facing me. It’s a wonderful design for a writer and I’ve never seen it replicated. 

We can’t all make our own desks. But a comfortable, productive place helps us relax, focus, filter out the noise, and focus on the work.

Writer’s Desk: Create a Manifesto

When you are in doubt about your next steps — whether as an artist or just as a person — it cannot hurt to lay out your goals.

Witness Lorraine Hansberry. After moving to New York from Chicago and before storming Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun, she was writing poetry and journalism, finding her way. She was determined to get somewhere, though. Imani Perry’s biography Looking for Lorraine, quotes from a letter Hansberry sent to her boyfriend:

1. I am a writer. I am going to write.
2. I am going to become a writer.
3. Any real contribution I can make to the movement can only be the result of a disciplined life. I am going to institute discipline in my life.
4. I can paint. I am going to paint.
The END

Manifestos can clarify your intentions. They also keep you accountable later. Write your own. Pin it up by your desk. Look at it every day. Except maybe Sunday. That day can be for reading.

Writer’s Desk: Create Dangerously

Albert Camus did not approach the act of writing lightly. Although he gets lumped in with a certain class of French intellectuals whose headiness got in their way, Camus used a clean and light touch in his work. Any of us who have gone back to his unnervingly relevant novel The Plague these last few weeks have rediscovered just how brisk and energetic he can be.

But Camus also thought risk was a necessary part of the writing life. In his lesser-known 1958 tract Create Dangerously, Camus stated that the role of the artist was to place themselves directly in the toss and tumult of modern life. To invite rather than shy away from risk and critique:

Every publication is a deliberate act, and that act makes us vulnerable to the passions of a century that forgives nothing.

If that was true in the 20th century, it is doubly so now.

Write like nothing else matters. What else makes sense?

Writer’s Desk: Throw Most of It Away

There are times when your writing project takes forever. You head to the keyboard each day, knowing that you will emerge on the other side with naught but a few sentences, as fought-over as a few square yards of Flanders mud during an interminable battle in the First World War. But that can be worth it in the end.

There are other times when the fight means that you’re not going where you need to go. In that instance, consider the “inspired demolition job” Jenny Offill did on her novel Dept. of Speculation:

After spending years on a longer, more traditional novel that refused to come together, Offill stopped trying to force it; instead, she wrote out what she considered the best bits on index cards, then shuffled them around until she arrived at something she was happy with. The streamlined version, made up of elliptical yet propulsive fragments, many of them no more than a sentence long, tells the story of a marital crisis with the efficiency of a comic strip. Suggestive snippets of dialogue and description are juxtaposed with surreal factoids and literary quotes; Offill trusts the reader will know how to put these pieces together.

Giles Harvey, The New York Review of Books

Trust the reader. Trust yourself. Leave out everything you do not absolutely need and let the reader figure it out.

Writer’s Desk: Snoopy’s Rules

In the 2002 collection, Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, a stellar line-up of scribes from Ray Bradbury to William F. Buckley, Jr. responded to a Peanuts strip featuring Snoopy writing. 

One of the contributors was Charles M. Schulz’s son Barnaby Conrad, who provided these six rules for writing:

1. Try to pick the most intriguing place in your piece to begin.
2. Try to create attention-grabbing images of a setting if that’s where you want to begin.
3. Raise the reader’s curiosity about what is happening or is going to happen in an action scene.
4. Describe a character so compellingly that we want to learn more about what happens to him or her.
5. Present a situation so vital to our protagonist that we must read on.
6. And most important, no matter what method you choose, start with something happening! (And not with ruminations. A character sitting in a cave or in jail or in a kitchen or in a car ruminating about the meaning of life and how he got to this point does not constitute something happening.)

It was a dark and stormy night…

(h/t: Maria Popova)

Writer’s Desk: Fast, Cheap, and Good

Jim Jarmusch once told me Fast, Cheap, and Good… pick two. If it’s fast and cheap it wont be good. If it’s cheap and good it won’t be fast. If it’s fast and good it wont be cheap. Fast, cheap and good… pick (2) words to live by.

-Tom Waits

Do with that what you will. But cheap and good sounds like a good combination for your average writer.

Writer’s Desk: Be Ruthless

One of the greater speculative fiction writers of our time, China Mieville — imagine H.P. Lovecraft filtered through Kafka and Neal Stephenson with a generous dose of Marxism — talked to Clarkesworld magazine about his writing practice.

For Mieville, his productivity comes in spurts. But that doesn’t mean he is undisciplined:

I’m ruthless with early drafts, as one has to be … More and more as I get older and as I change as a writer, so what tends to happen is the first draft tends to be quite long and maybe quite flabby, then I’ll trim that down. There can be occasions when it’s very difficult because there are some sections that you really want to keep in, but, at the same time, you know that you probably ought to get rid of that bit. Sometimes, you have to be quite ruthless with yourself.

It’s good advice. After all, if a writer isn’t ruthless with themselves, it’s almost a guarantee that their readers will be.

Writer’s Corner: Go Fast

They always say to keep a notebook around. This is not only good advice, it is essential. Inspiration does not strike that often. When it comes, you need to have something to catch it with.

Take Joseph Heller. He told Rolling Stone that he got the idea for Catch-22 in the middle of the night:

It kind of burst into my mind. I was actually pacing the floor at four in the morning. I couldn’t wait to get into my office at this small advertising agency and scribble the first chapter.

He wasted no time. If he had waited, we might have lost one of the greatest books of the 20th century.

However, when answering whether writing classes are worthwhile, he digresses into how long it takes to write a book.

There was for me. None at all, I’d say, for the student who lacks talent. You can’t teach talent. And you can’t give intelligence. You can’t teach a person to be funny. A novel takes two or three years to write. By the time a student is halfway through his book, he’ll know so much more about writing and about literature, and will have experienced so much more as a person, that there’s a good chance he’ll lose interest in the book before it’s finished.

This is not much talked about but there are plenty of writers who have gotten a good distance into a long-term project and then lost any interest in finishing it. Of course by then, they’ve committed so much time (or, if they’re lucky, were paid an advance) that there is nothing for it but to press on.

So when you know what you want to write, do it. Fast.

That’s what Heller would have said. Of course, in the twenty years between his debut Catch-22 and this 1981 interview, he had only managed to produce a total of three novels. So, as in so much of life, do as the man says, not as he does.