Literary Birthday: Ayn Rand

Born today in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Ayn Rand (birth name: Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum) came to America in 1926 and quickly decamped for Hollywood. Even though her philosophically iconoclastic novels like Atlas Shrugged (1957) would later make her a libertarian icon, Rand started her creative career knocking out scripts for Cecil B. DeMille at $25 a week.

Years later, the rabidly anti-Soviet writer (Bolsheviks had taken her father’s store in the revolution) returned to the movie industry in different way: Writing a pamphlet for a group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Screen Guide for Americans advised filmmakers on ways that they could keep their work All-American. Its many handy tips ranged from advice on selection of collaborators (“Do not hire Reds”) to artistic choices (“Don’t present all the poor as good and all the rich as evil”). 

Literary Birthday: Norman Mailer

When not heaving out controversy-grabbing articles and books, Norman Mailer (born today in 1915) was making a big stink of showing up at protest marches, running for office, or gabbing out of both sides of his mouth on some talk show. His books and articles were often reflections of that garrulous gasbag personality.

His 1967 novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, is a case in point. A stream-of-consciousness rant from a high unreliable narrator that draws from the Beats, Philip Roth, and Mailer’s own slurry of impressions of a degraded and violent America, the book baffled more than a few readers, who did not understand why a book set almost entirely on a father-son hunting trip in Alaska did not even make any overt connection to its title until the famous last line: “Vietnam, hot damn.”

Literary Birthday: Isaac Asimov

The first works published by Isaac Asimov (born today in 1920, a date now marked as National Science Fiction Day) both appeared when he was just 19 and could not have been more different.

One was his Columbia University thesis, “The Kinetics of the Reaction Inactivation of Tyrosinase During Its Catalysis of the Aerobic Oxidation of Catechol.”

The other was “Marooned Off Vesta,” published in the pulp science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories (which a young Asimov had read at the newsstand at his family’s candy store, despite his father’s disapproval).

Asimov received a doctorate in chemistry but writing proved more enticing. He ultimately published 400 to 500 books (accounts vary). Some were nonfiction works on science, math, history, and literature. But many of the rest were science fiction tales like his now iconic “I, Robot” and “Foundation” series, exactly the kind of thing his father had once tutted over his reading.

Writer’s Desk: Get Away from Yourself

Twilight by Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith’s plays are often discussed in light of their signature method of presentation: No matter how many characters are in the piece, and regardless of their gender or race, they are all played by the same actor. Usually Smith.

Smith builds that shapeshifting of perspective and personality on a foundation constructed from hundreds of hours of transcripts. She interviews people herself and then puts their words on stage.

Why does she do it this way, traveling around the world to meet with people and listen to them for hours? Not just for verisimilitude, though that is part of it:

I’m very aware of travelling and being with the people and being in the place, away from my home, chasing that which is not me.

The further away you get away from yourself, the more clearly you can see everybody else. Go and find that which is not you.

Writer’s Desk: Terrence McNally

The recently late Terrence McNally wrote many many plays. Some were great (Love! Valor! Compassion!) and some others were good but less than great (Ragtime, The Visit).

In any event, McNally — who passed away this past week from coronavirus-related complications — did what vanishingly few writers have ever done: Make a living on Broadway.

And he did it without making much of a fuss about the writing itself. A few years back, he provided some tips for the writing life:

What time of day do you get your best work done?
No particular time. I just turn on the computer and do the work.

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write?
I don’t have any rituals. I just put my fingers on the keys. It’s like second nature. I don’t think about brushing my teeth or shaving—it’s just something I do.

What’s the secret to being so prolific?
I live in a fascinating city at a fascinating time in history. When people say they have writer’s block, I say, “Go take a walk around the block! Read the paper! Open your window!” How can you have a block when there’s so much going on? I love what I do, so I don’t think of it as a job that you finish. It’s like breathing.

When you can say that you write like you breathe — and be telling the truth — it is safe to say that you are the envy of the great majority of writers who have ever drawn breath.

Writer’s Desk: Be More Than a Writer

There are people who have known all their lives that they wanted to be a writer. That’s a lot of us, to some degree. Then they tend to face that chasm between the want and the real. Is it a book deal? Getting an agent? Self-publishing and hoping a publishing house notices it? Being one of those strange tables at the publishing convention selling just one book that everyone stays away from?

The comparison between filmmaking and writing isn’t exact, of course. The former is far more collaborative and way more expensive. But filmmaker Mark Duplass made a worthwhile point when he said this:

It’s really hard, and particularly hard for screenwriters, because nobody wants to read your script. It just sucks. Until you’ve made something, until you’ve proven yourself, you’re basically a nuisance to everyone that you’re trying to get your script to, so you have to find a way to make yourself valuable. I know the first response is, “Well, I’m not a director, and I’m not an actor. I’m just a writer.” And my basic response is, “Then you’re going to be stuck.” I’m sorry, if that’s the way you think about it, you’re kind of going to go nowhere…

Don’t be afraid to be a nuisance. Get out there. Bring your book everywhere. Show it to anybody who will glance. Do what you have to do.

Unfortunately, being a writer takes more than writing.

Writer’s Desk: If You Cannot Sleep…

Leonard Cohen, 2008 (Rama)

Sometime in the 1960s, Leonard Cohen inscribed one of his early poems (or at least the title) on the wall of a cafe in Montreal.

“Marita, Please Find Me, I Am Almost 30” is a beautiful, heartsick piece that threads the love of creation through a desolate sadness. In other words, it expresses precisely the type of temperament that people normally ascribe to melodramatic artistic types.

But take note of this:

but when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me

and just try not feeling and seeing yourself in that moment of joyful, rending creation.

Writer’s Desk: Give Yourself a Chance

According to a talk Colson Whitehead gave in Amsterdam in 2018, as a young boy he thought that writing would be a pretty cool gig because “you didn’t have to wear clothes or talk to people and could spend all day making stuff up.”

While that remains true, especially the not always having to talk to people thing, it turned out to be a little more complicated. So here are some of the hints for new writers that Whitehead provided:

  • Give yourself a chance to learn: “Write a crappy story and then the next one will be better.”
  • Write what scares you, but find a way to make it fun.
  • Learn how to deal with rejection: “It didn’t matter if no one liked what I was doing, I had no choice so I got back to work and it got better.”

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Being Original

All writers want to stand out. How do you make a name otherwise? But it’s also easy to tie yourself up in knots worrying about it.

Poet Derek Walcott, who was never anything but original, dismissed such worries in his essay “The Muse of History“:

We know that the great poets have no wish to be different, no time to be original, that their originality emerges only when they have absorbed all the poetry which they have read, entire, that their first work appears to be the accumulation of other people’s trash, but that they become bonfires, that it is only academics and frightened poets who talk of Beckett’s debt to Joyce… We are all influenced by what we have read…

Own it, but earn it.

Do as Walcott says, and make a bonfire from the trash of the greats.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Work

In his novel Hollywood, a not-so-thinly-veiled account of working on the movie Barfly, Charles Bukowski wrote this:

Writing was never work for me. It had been the same for as long as I could remember: turn on the radio to a classical music station, light a cigarette or cigar, open the bottle. The typer did the rest…

Open the bottle, turn on the radio, have a smoke. Or find your own routine. Do what you need to do to let the words flow.

As they say, if you love your work, you never have to work a day in your life.

Writer’s Desk: Love Your Characters and Other Rules

Etgar Keret, brilliant creator of collections like The Nimrod Flipout, is one of the greatest living practitioners of the dry, droll, and surreal black comic story.

Interestingly, when he gave Rookie his 10 rules for writing, though, they were quite joyful and optimistic:

  1. Make sure you enjoy writing.
  2. Love your characters.
  3. When you’re writing, you don’t owe anything to anyone.
  4. Always start from the middle.
  5. Try not to know how it ends.
  6. Don’t use anything just because “that’s how it always is.”
  7. Write like yourself.
  8. Make sure you’re all alone in the room when you write.
  9. Let people who like what you write encourage you.
  10. Hear what everyone has to say but don’t listen to anyone (except me).

Writer’s Desk: Render It Eternal

Even in fiction, when we’re writing, we are often reliving something something we already experienced. A thought, a view, a conversation, a stab of pain or shiver of beauty.

Part of the reason writers do that is simple: Fuel for the engine. But sometimes we write about an experience in order to go through it again, to remember what it felt like, get it down on paper, and let it some extent, live forever.

Anais Nin wrote in her diaries:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render it all eternal…

Writer’s Desk: Imagine Your Reader

Novelist and poet Russell Banks (Family Life, Continental Drift, Affliction) had some advice for high school students in upstate New York a few years back:

Imagine the teller but also imagine the listener. What is fiction after all but a sort of visual hallucination — you’re asking the reader to see things that aren’t there.

When you’re writing, you’re taking a journey with words. Remember that you want the reader to come along with you.

Writer’s Desk: Start with the Sun

James Dickey won a National Book Award for his poetry collection Buckdancer’s Choice. That was years before he hit the big time with Deliverance. To some degree, poetry remained his first and last love.

Later, in the 1985 collection How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, he offered some advice for aspiring, or even veteran poets. It begins with simplicity:

As for me, I like the sun, the source of all living things, and on certain days very good-feeling, too. ‘Start with the sun,’ D. H. Lawrence said, ‘and everything will slowly, slowly happen.’ Good advice. And a lot will happen…

Start by writing what’s in front of you. If you can capture that, it’s an amazing start.

(h/t: Maria Popova)

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be Self-Conscious

In Dorothea Brande’s classic 1934 guide, Becoming a Writer, she identified four of the key roadblocks afflicting most scriveners. Among the most serious was learning how to get out of your own way:

Sometimes it is self-consciousness that stems the flow. Often it is the result of misapprehensions about writing, or it arises from an embarrassment of scruples; the beginner may be waiting for the divine fire which he has heard to glow unmistakably, and may believe that it can only be lighted by a fortuitous spark from above. The particular point to be noted just here is that this difficulty is anterior to any problems about story structure or plot building, and that unless the writer can be helped past it there is very likely to be no need for technical instruction at all…

You have to keep your audience in mind at all times, of course. But if you don’t listen to your own voice first, there won’t be any audience for you to worry about.