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.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Art

Bill Hader wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that before he was on SNL he had a very specific and romantic idea of what a writer’s life was like:

My high school girlfriend gave me a copy of Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk — this collection of her beautiful portraits of writers — and that’s how I wanted to live. Wake up, get your coffee, look outside, ruminate and sit down at your mahogany desk like Philip Roth. That’s fucking rad. That’s the life…

Many of us can relate. We know that dream.

But then we also come to discover that, well, it’s a dream:

In reality, there’s no mahogany desk. There’s only a conference room table, and you’re lying on the floor underneath it, scrawling something in mangled Italian on the back of an old lunch order for the Vinny Vedecci sketch. You can’t sit there and wait for inspiration. You think on the fly. You get the work done. You spend every day, every hour you have, trying to make the thing better…

Sometimes, as on-the-fly and unattractive as real writing is, it can be more satisfying in the end.

But a mahogany desk would still be nice.

Writer’s Desk: How About Oranges?

In 1965, New Yorker writer John McPhee met with the magazine’s famously hard-to-please editor William Shawn to discuss his next story idea. According to Wyatt Williams’ Oxford American essay:

The writer would suggest subject after subject only to be told that the idea had already been reserved for another writer or that Shawn wasn’t interested in it. This is the moment, as the story goes, when John McPhee finally just said, “Oranges.”

That was it. That’s all it took:

According to the version he told in an interview with the Paris Review decades later, “That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges. Oh yes! Oh yes! [Shawn] says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.”

McPhee came back with 40,000 words on oranges for the magazine. He later turned it into a book. Title? Oranges.

All from a one-word pitch.

Writer’s Desk: Random It, Like Bowie

‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’

One of the more eye-opening bits at the just-closed David Bowie Is exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum—besides that clip from Labyrinth, his tattered Union Jack coat, and all the cultural ephemera that inspired him—is the part focusing on his recurring fascination with automatic and cut-up writing.

The technique wasn’t new by the time Bowie started using it in the 1970s. The likes of William S. Burroughs had already been randomly cutting up strips of words and threading them together to create curious curlicues of randomized verbiage. Inspiration out of chaos.

According to music CD-ROM developer Ty Robert, Bowie’s method was strictly analog:

Roberts described Bowie as taking multiple word sources, from the newspaper to hand-written words, cutting them up, throwing them into a hat and then arranging the fragments on pieces of paper. He’d then cross out material that didn’t fit to create lines of lyrics.

Roberts had an idea for a computer program that could help speed up the process. The result was a Mac program called The Verbasizer:

It allowed for different input methods including simply typing in words and then arranged them in columns which could be restricted to nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Each column could be weighted and have multiple words if desired. With a push of a button lyrics would then be created.

Per Motherboard, Bowie said:

So what you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meanings and topic and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other.

This approach isn’t exactly a killer app for writing. But if you’re stuck for inspiration and feel you need a little kickstart, try randomizing things. If you can’t immediately see a method to the madness, go looking for it.

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Obama’s Guy

Jon Favreau—the other one, not the actor/director/occasional Tony Stark wingman—spent years as President Obama’s director of speechwriting. He distilled much of what he learned in that highly precise and pressurized job into “Five Rules of Storytelling.” They are:

  1. The story is more important than the words
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Always address the arguments against your position during your presentation, not after
  4. Empathy is key
  5. There is no persuasion without inspiration

Not all of these may be applicable to those of us not writing for the world stage, but Favreau’s rules are solid reminders to keep thinking about what you’re writing, how you’re going to get to your point, and what is the best way there. That applies whether you’re writing a murder mystery or white paper on fiscal policy.

Remember your reader, always.

Writer’s Desk: Write Past the Moment

Writing for the moment.

It’s almost impossible not to write in the moment. Even if you’re writing about 17th century mink trappers, unless you cut yourself off from the news completely—or use a version of that sensory deprivation chamber Jonathan Franzen likes to use—the present day is going to creep in.

But while immediacy and relevance have their place, they can’t be allowed to take over your writing completely.

Lauren Oyler has a few smart thoughts about what happens in jittery, politically panicked times like these, when art is so often trapped in the here and now:

Art is infinitely adaptable; it accommodates activism naturally. When used to describe specific works today, however, “necessary” constrains more than it celebrates. If we can access only the essential, we may start to crave the extraneous…

When applied to bad art with good politics, “necessary” allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult. When applied to good art with good, or even ambivalent, politics, it renders aesthetic achievement irrelevant. Not only is that depressing, it also nullifies the political argument in favor of art in the first place: Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?

All our work is ultimately temporary; data corrupts, ink fades, paper crumbles. We don’t need to write for posterity.

But looking past the present helps sharpen that focus on the work itself. Worry about being true and hitting the right note, not being “necessary.”

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.

Writer’s Desk: Get Your Tires Changed

It’s generally a bad idea to go to Facebook for—well, anything, really—but sometimes inspiration strikes.

Buzzfeed just wrote about a woman who, while waiting to get her tires changed, managed to knock out a few pages. The location (Tires, Tires, Tires) seemed to help:

Amy felt that that working at Tires Tires Tires was helping her word count, so she took her friend’s car in for an oil change, then her other car that was due for an oil change, then her sister’s car that also needed an oil change.

The moral of the story? Don’t assume that a tree-shaded cabin by a rustling brook is necessarily going to be your ideal writing.

Do what works. Wherever it works.