Writer’s Desk: Only If You Have To

Around the time of the release of his documentary Harmontown, the ridiculously prolific and idea-rich writer Dan Harmon (Ricky & Morty, Community) took part in an AMA on Reddit, where he delivered some tips on the trade.

This one hit home:

Nobody can tell you that it’s going to work out. Outcome can’t be controlled. We’re not luck writers; we’re screenwriters. So all one screenwriter can say to another is, ‘Hey, it’s a tough racket for a really long time with random pockets of insanely good fortune to be found.’ Would you write screenplays if you were on a desert island? If the answer is yes, you should stick with it, because what the hell else are you going to do that’s going to make you happy?

While he’s specifically talking about screenwriting, which is its own kind of death-by-committee trade, the same lens should be used to view any kind of writing.

In other words, if you can do something else with your time, go and do that thing. It will certainly make you happier than writing.

(h/t: No Film School)

Literary Birthday: Susan Sontag

When Susan Sontag (born today in 1933) published Notes on Camp in 1964, she was already something of an enfant terrible in the literary world. This inventively formatted and passionately argued book-length essay further fueled her reputation at a time when the lines between high and low culture were blurring fast.

In elliptical fashion, the normally fiery critic danced around defining camp (“a certain mode of aestheticism”) and tried to give some idea of the overwrought and self-conscious (except when it isn’t) artifacts that are part of the camp canon: Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake, King Kong, Flash Gordon, and “stag movies seen without lust.”

The next year, Sontag entered herself into the evolving canon of camp—its droll downtown Manhattan subdivision, at least—by sitting for one of Andy Warhol’s “screen tests.”

Writer’s Desk: Once Again, With Feeling

A few days after 9/11, Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian about the aftermath of the tragedy, the shock it had caused in the people he knew. Despite the world-spanning nature of the events, he noted that “the reckoning, of course, was with the personal.”

In describing how people channeled their traumatized watching into fantasies and daydreams that limn the cracks in the “terrible actuality”, McEwan hits on something essential in these imaginings about “what if it was me?”:

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion … Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

Your writing does not have to overtly engage with ethical quandaries in order to be moral. All it needs to do is whisk the reader into another person’s consciousness. By doing so, fiction can breed understanding.

Writer’s Desk: Invite the Reader In

In her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown“, Virginia Woolf described the phantom form that books can take for writers, a little figure (who identifies in this instance as “Brown”) and says “Catch me if you can.” That infuriating chase makes up the bulk of a writer’s life:

And so, led on by this will-o’-the-wisp, they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in the pursuit, and receiving for the most part very little cash in exchange. Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair…

And what to do when you have finally caught the phantom? How to bring the reader in to witness the glory of your catch? Treat them as a guest:

The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut…

If you give the reader something familiar to hang on to, they will be more likely to follow you anywhere.

(H/T: LitHub)

Writer’s Desk: Find the Time

John Cheever had a fairly simple formula for writing. He explained it once when meeting a wonderstruck Michael Chabon:

Writing was a practice. The more you wrote, the better a writer you became and the more books you produced. Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both. 

For Cheever, though, this meant there was little room for anything else. Children? Cheever called them “notorious thieves of time.”

Of course, Chabon went on to father four children and publish 14 books, including masterpieces like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Wonder Boys. So he must have figured out some way to budget his time.

Writer’s Desk: Art is Not Therapy

Art Spiegelman created some of the greatest literature of the 20th century by translating his and his family’s history into indelible art.

At the same time, he thinks it is more complicated than simply putting one’s thoughts, worries, and pain on the page. As he told Vulture:

Therapy is vomiting things up. Art is about eating your own vomit. There’s a therapeutic aspect to all making, but the nature of working is to compress, condense, and shape stuff, not to just expunge it. It’s not just an exorcism…

There can be nothing braver than coming clean in your writing.

But bravery is just the starting point.

Writer’s Desk: Follow the Scent

Here is Louise Glück telling Poets & Writers about her process:

When I’m trying to put a poem or a book together, I feel like a tracker in the forest following a scent, tracking only step to step. It’s not as though I have plot elements grafted onto the walls elaborating themselves. Of course, I have no idea what I’m tracking, only the conviction that I’ll know it when I see it.

One might imagine it’s actually better for the writer when they have no idea what they will find.

Writer’s Desk: Use Your Memories

In his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” Haruki Murakami talks about his memories as a capacious warehouse filled with odds and ends which he can draw upon for his fiction:

We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story…

He goes on to evoke Steven Spielberg’s E.T.:

There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player … [E.T.] manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing.

Pack your head with memories and ransack them at will. Don’t worry if they do not seem to make sense together at first. They will.

Writer’s Desk: Start Small

Nobody would ever accuse Mark Helprin of avoiding the big topics. His better novels (Winter’s Tale, Refiner’s Fire) rope in war time, global adventure, and magic realism, all of it written in grand leaping prose.

But when he talks about his inspiration for writing, he talks instead about going smaller:

We create nothing new — no one has ever imagined a new color — so what you are doing is revitalizing. You are remembering, then combining, altering. Artists who think they’re creating new worlds are simply creating tiny versions of this world…

Writer’s Desk: Say It Out Loud. Again.

The great and ever-acerbic Martin Amis has a new book out, Inside Story, which appears to be pretty juicy and part of that popular new sub-genre of quasi-nonfiction “novels”. (He also appears in the great new documentary The Meaning of Hitler which is showing in some festivals now and should be tracked down with all speed.)

Whether he’s expounding on tyrants or the cynical complexities of the London smart set, Amis delivers sharp prose that has reads as though it has been turned over on a lathe until every rough or unfinished particle has been removed. So if he has a bit of advice to provide, it is worth listening to. Here is something he offered at the Chicago Humanities Festival:

Saying the sentence, self-vocalizing it in your head until there’s nothing wrong with it.

If it does not sound right when you say it aloud, it probably will not read right on the page.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Tell Them Everything

In this interview with the New York Public Library, Pico Iyer explains why it is best for writers to retain some sense of mystery:

Let this book hover somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Let me give the reader no clue about how to categorize it before she begins or even after she’s finished. Let me put the reader on alert, on edge, not knowing what she’s going to get into.

If your reader has no idea what you are about to do, then everything can be a surprise.

Writer’s Desk: Getting Past the Fear

25 years ago, Bonnie Friedman sat down and let all the things that stymied her as a writer just flow out. Her guide, Writing Past Dark, is out now in an anniversary edition.

LitHub talked to Friedman about what led to that book:

There were a lot of things I did that made me suffer as a writer, and I wanted to learn why I did them. For instance, I routinely sickened myself with envy in bookstores. And, I was so afraid of getting right to work in the morning that I did a bunch of chores first and set everything as straight as possible before sitting down, by which point I was tired and there wasn’t enough time left. Also, ambient sounds seemed so interruptive that, even in a frigid Massachusetts winter, I set an air conditioner on my coffee table and turned it on for its enveloping roar. And if a short story received more than two rejections I chucked it forever into a bottom bin, ashamed…

Be proud of your work. It helps.

Writer’s Desk: Meet a Stranger for Coffee

Like many performers, Maria Bamford is often stricken with insecurities about her own work. That can make it difficult to write, much less perform.

But unlike most writers, Bamford has a unique process for working out her material:

In 2018, she began issuing periodic invitations, on Twitter, for fans who live in cities where she is appearing to meet her for coffee and listen to her run through her set before she performs. 

Is it scary to have a total stranger critique your writing before anybody else in the world sees it? Absolutely.

Is it more scary than having somebody you know critique it? Absolutely not.

If they are willing, talk to strangers about your work. Generally, they’re nice about it.

Writer’s Desk: Say It Clean

In his landmark work From Dawn to Decadence, historian Jacques Barzun has this to say about how the readability of written English can be under threat:

…the resulting obstacles to good prose were: a vocabulary full of technical terms and their jargon imitations, an excess of voguish metaphors, and the preference for long abstract words denoting general ideas, in place of short concrete ones pointing to acts and objects.

When it doubt, say it plain. Simplicity above all.

(h/t: Tablet)

Writer’s Desk: Get Out There and Live

When Walt Whitman first published his genre-redefining verse collection Leaves of Grass, he was not going after small game, acknowledging in the preface:

The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes…

Not everybody can match Whitman’s cranked-up barbaric yawp approach to writing. But nevertheless, it is worth taking a page or two from his tactic:

Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost. This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants … read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul…

Embrace the world. Get out there. Come home. Write about it.