Writer’s Desk: Pull a Gatsby

Megan Abbott, whose newest novel The Turnout is out this month, had some good advice for how to find the right narrative perspective for your book:

I’ve always been interested in the “Gatsby structure,” which is when you don’t tell the story from the point of view of the most interesting character, though they can become the most interesting character, of course. You let Nick Carraway tell it…

You want a watcher to tell your story. Somebody with an exciting life may not have the time or focus to notice what’s happening around them.

Writer’s Desk: Put in the Effort

In this interview, Minnesota author Charles Baxter explains how he knows he is on a good streak:

I work during the morning. I pace; I stare out the window. I sit with my head in my hands. If I can feel myself breaking out into a sweat, particularly from my underarms, and if I give off a noticeable body odor that even I can smell, I know the writing is going well…

If it feels too easy, maybe give your last few pages another look.

Writer’s Desk: Write As Though You Are Already Gone

Sometimes the best advice can come from writers reminding you of what other writers have said. For instance, there is the 2012 speech that Jeffrey Eugenides gave in which he gave some advice via what one writer related about another writer’s advice:

In his 1988 book of essays, “Prepared for the Worst,” Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously.”

Eugenides goes on to interpret what Hitchens/Gordimer meant, which to him boils down to writing in some sense as though one is already dead and gone:

It may inoculate you against the intellectual and artistic viruses that, as you’re exposed to the literary world, will be eager to colonize your system.

Which is all likely true. Better to accomplish, of course, without trying to finish one’s memoir or mystery while viewing it through the veil of the after life.

(h/t: The Millions)

Writer’s Desk: Try Again, Try Harder

Writers love little more than those days when the words just arrive, streaming from your mind to the page with seemingly little to no effort on their part. It can, of course, be glorious to go from eking out a few lines to finishing five pages in a morning.

But Samuel Johnson has a warning:

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.

It’s good to feel the pleasure of your writing. But stay frosty.

Literary Birthday: Mark Helprin

After a peripatetic youth that included stints in Paris and Jamaica, Mark Helprin (born today in 1947) was inspired to write his first short story while at the graves of William and Henry James. Learning that a nearby funeral was for a young man killed in Vietnam he was also inspired to join the military. Opposed to the Vietnam War but determined as a Jew to support the nascent state of Israel, he instead joined the Israeli military.

That experience formed the nucleus of his first novel, Refiner’s Fire (1977). A globe-hopping spectacle that mixed breath-taking action with transcendent prose, it contains one of modern fiction’s great opening lines: “It was one of those perfectly blue, wild days in Haifa when the winds from Central Asia and the eastern deserts come roaring into the city like a flight of old propeller planes.”

Writer’s Desk: What Obama Read and Why

This should be obvious: Read more to write better. But what to read? Everyone has ideas, ranging from books on writing to books whose style and insights can teach you something.

In this LitHub piece, Craig Fehrman talks about Barack Obama’s relationship to literature specifically as a writer. In Dreams from My Father, Obama wrote about being castigated by Marcus, a college classmate for reading a “racist” novel like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. When Marcus walked angrily away, another classmate, Regina, commented that Marcus was in a “preaching mood.” Obama replied:

“Actually, he’s right,” I said. “It is a racist book. The way Conrad sees it, Africa’s the cesspool of the world, black folks are savages, and any contact with them breeds infection.”

When Regina then asks him why he’s reading it, Obama’s reasoning is instructive:

…because the book teaches me things … About white people, I mean. See, the book’s not really about Africa. Or black people. It’s about the man who wrote it. The European. The American. A particular way of looking at the world. If you can keep your distance, it’s all there, in what’s said and what’s left unsaid. So I read the book to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid. Their demons. The way ideas get twisted around. It helps me understand how people learn to hate.

Seen this way, almost any book you pick up has a lesson to teach.

Literary Birthday: Octavia Butler

As a black woman who grew up poor in Pasadena, Octavia Butler (born today in 1947) faced a host of obstacles in her quest to become a bestselling author. Reportedly inspired in her childhood by seeing the B-movie Devil Girl from Mars and thinking she could write better than that, Butler started publishing short fiction in 1971. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976)—kicking off her series of linked dystopic stories featuring telepathy, African mythology, and eugenics—received strong notices.

While revered by other writers, fame and fortune were still far off. To keep herself going, Butler used affirmations. A 2018 Huntington Library exhibition about her work displayed a notebook on which she had written plans for success (“This is my life. I write bestselling novels”) and what she could do with that success (“I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops”).

Literary Birthday: Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman (born today in 1905) was raised comfortably in Louisiana before her family, who did not always manage their money well, moved to New York. There, she worked various jobs while trying to get her writing career off the ground. When it did, with the 1934 premiere of her hit play The Children’s Hour, her success came with a heavy helping of controversy. Based on an incident that took place in Scotland in 1810, the story was set at an all-girl’s school where a student spreads a lie that the two women running the institution were lovers.

A milder version of the moral panic Hellman depicted greeted the play itself, which was considered too dirty-minded for the Pulitzer Prize. She, along with her longtime paramour Dashiell Hammett, palled around with Communists and other radicals. This gained her the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who put the playwright under surveillance. Hellman’s FBI file runs to over a hundred not terribly interesting pages: “Miss HELLMAN did not engage in any Communist activities in Fairbanks.”

Writer’s Desk: Lie to Tell the Truth

The passing of the great Janet Malcolm this week at the age of eighty-six is not a thing that the world of writing will bounce back from. One of the great profile writers the New Yorker ever had, Malcolm had a spare and wry yet richly illustrative style that compressed whole volumes of insight into a few lines.

But the work that everyone will continue going back to is The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), ostensibly the story of how the relationship between writer Joe McGuiness and murder suspect Jeffrey R. MacDonald unraveled in spectacular fashion, but really an X-ray of why and how journalists do what they do.

In this slim and cutting book, Malcolm characterizes her profession as a confidence game of sorts:

Fortunately for readers and writers alike, human nature guarantees that willing subjects will never be in short supply. Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses — the days of the interviews — are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife…

Malcolm knows that for a writer to tell the truth about something or someone, they must often first strew the path before them with lies.

Literary Birthday: Chris Van Allsburg

Caldecott-winning author Chris Van Allsburg (born today in 1949) began his creative career studying and making sculpture. Some of his pieces from the 1970s have a puckish, off-key humor that would later be familiar to his readers (1974’s Event at the Observatory shows a B-movie flying saucer crashed into an observatory dome). He only took up writing and drawing children’s books later.

His first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979), in which a boy stumbles into a fantastical garden with surreal and somewhat threatening topiary, established the signature grey-toned look he would use in later books like Jumanji (1982) and The Polar Express (1986). But it was less a conscious choice than a practical one, as Van Allsburg’s schooling had only really acquainted him with using pencil and charcoal pencil.

Writer’s Desk: Read Raymond Carver

That’s what Rachel Cusk noted when she was asked to list her six favorite books. She included the collected stories of Raymond Carver, once the demigod of American creative writing for his oft-imitated clean, spare, scalpel-like style (sure, it may have been the work of editor Gordon Lish, but who’s keeping track?) because he can always teach us something:

His writing remains the best modern example of the technical and disciplinary basis of literary art. I often go back to Carver to remind myself what the rules are.

What are those rules? If you do not need it, leave it out. Find the emotion but don’t describe the emotion. Make everything high stakes while seeming to be low stakes. For starters.

If you are looking for a way to procrastinate on your writing some more, here are Cusk’s other favorite five:

  • The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence
  • The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
  • The Plague by Albert Camus

Literary Birthday: Louise Erdrich

After growing up in North Dakota, where her parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school, the part-Ojibwe and part-German Louise Erdrich (born today in 1954) became one of the first women admitted to Dartmouth College. Inspired to write by her parents—her father paid her a nickel a story—wrote numerous books (novels, poetry, nonfiction) that frequently explore Native American traditions and issues, first gaining critical acclaim with her novel Love Medicine (1984).

In 1999 she published The Birchbark House, the first in a series of young adult novels set in the Ojibwe community. Two years later, Erdrich opened Birchbark Books in her home city of Minneapolis. The store offers a wide selection of native artwork and features a wooden canoe hanging from the ceiling and an old church confessional that has been refashioned into a “Forgiveness Booth.”

Writer’s Desk: Start a Diary

Michael Palin, of Monty Python and travel-writing fame, has been writing in his diary since 1969. Even when nothing much is happening. Palin is a special case, because he can look back and read about that time he was with David Frost or John Cleese or at some little café in Tangier.

Still, for a writer a diary can be something of a gold mine. This is especially the case if you have a gift for description and observation. Several years’ worth of tracking what is happening around you can come in handy when looking for material later on.

But one doesn’t want to slap just anything down. Even if it is just your diary. Palin has some handy don’ts:

  • “Don’t be too obscure. British upper-class diaries are prime examples of this fault, as in Sir Arthur Fforbes-Ffinch’s account of London life in the 1920s: “January 4th: Bo-Bo, Tiggy, Spaff, Flatto, Gin-Gin, Mobbles, and Goofy came round and we all drank Brown Monkeys and played Sham-Sham until we’d crocked Bonzie’s and had to rumble.” Completely inexplicable if you didn’t know it was a Cabinet meeting.”
  • “Don’t try and make your life interesting when it isn’t. Diaries must be brutally honest. If you had only one egg for breakfast, write “Had egg for breakfast.” Don’t feel you have to have had 12 eggs for breakfast just to get in the diary.”

Also, one very helpful to-do:

  • “Write every day. Diaries are all about habit. They should become a regular part of your day, like cleaning your teeth or going to the lavatory. And, if possible, just as interesting.”

Writer’s Desk: Write, Don’t Worry

In Ocean Vuong’s 2020 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, his background as a poet becomes clear in the shards of impressionistic scenery, the free-flowing memory, the jolts of fricative emotion.

He also, in one sweet line, asks a question that many writers might think they know the answer to:

What if art was not measured by quantity but ricochets?

Writers would say, Yes and amen to that. Because a good numbers of want the numbers, of course (whether it’s sales or fans or even compensation). But what sits down deep in many of us is the idea that what we do leaves us and bounces out there in the world, maybe connecting with somebody, and possibly even multiple somebodys.

But then Vuong lops off the last part of that line and circles back to ask a harder question:

What if art was not measured?

This is the healthier response of course. But also one that so many of us will find it impossible to follow by not measuring ourselves against all the other writers out there.

Try as we might.

Writer’s Desk: Rules? What Rules?

So Seth Rogen has a book out. That may surprise some who just think, “The guy from Knocked Up?” He’s almost more writer / producer these days than charter member of the Judd Apatow comedy mafia.

Rogen and his longtime friend Evan Goldberg have something of a screenwriting machine going, ranging from instant classics like Superbad to series like Preacher to, well, The Green Hornet. So they know how to put words on the page and make something out of it.

Of the advice they gave to The Script Lab, one item in particular jumped out:

Any rule can be broken. They’re just basic guidelines that you can just shatter if the moment is right.

It seems obvious, but really it is not. We all have rules that get stuck in our head, from hanging that gun on the wall in the first act to the number of red herrings to give your detective hero before he/she finds the killer (by the way, that number has been scientifically calculated as 4.5).

But each and every one of them should be hurled out the window with great force the second they get between you and your story.