Writer’s Desk: Anthony Bourdain Said Stop Complaining

In honor of the (sadly) late great Anthony Bourdain, here’s a little reminder from him about just how great it is to be a writer:

Cooking professionally is hard work. Writing is a privilege and a luxury. Anybody who whines about writers block should be forced to clean squid all day.

As some of us can also testify, writing beats the hell out of washing dishes, too.

Writer’s Desk: Read to Write

Like all the greats, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an unrepentant bookworm. As she told Stylist:

Read, read, read. I’m not sure that one can be a good writer without being a good reader. If you’re going to build a desk it’s very good to see what other carpenters have done.

It seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many writers forget to take the time to see what great new books are out there. It’s not just good research, it’s also helpful to scope out the competition. See what you’re up against and that will push you to do better.

(h/t: LitHub)

Writer’s Desk: It’s Like Fishing

Here’s how Eric Idle—novelist, doggerelist, once and forever Python—described the act of writing:

Writing and doing. It’s still what I love to do. To go to your chair first thing in the morning with a blank piece of paper and a pencil and find what is lurking in the depths of your unconscious. It’s fascinating. I always compare it to fishing. You never know what you’re going to catch but you must go regularly to the river bank and wait…

He’s right, of course, you do never know what’s going to come out. It could be that paragraph you’ve been honing and teasing and searching for for weeks. Or it could be five more pages of What The Hell Am I Going to Do With This? You never know.

But keep casting your line. The fish will bite. Eventually.

Writer’s Desk: Get Out There

Tom Wolfe, the great conquistador of New Journalism who died last week at the age of 88, had a problem with modern fiction. For the most part, he thought it stunk. To his way of thinking, all the American novelists of the later 20th century were too stuck in their abstracted heads. That was why he blowtorched the literary establishment with the 1989 Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.

In it, he issued a call for a return to the great reported fiction of the 19th century, in the mold of Dickens and Zola:

Emerson said that every person has a great autobiography to write, if only he understands what is truly his own unique experience. But he didn’t say every person had two great autobiographies to write. Dickens, Dostoyevski, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary…

Wolfe followed that rule for his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, using the same tools of close observation that served his nonfiction so well. Later novels like A Man in Full suffered from his preconceived notions overtaking what he saw on the ground.

But still, Wolfe’s call to get out into the tumult of life is as necessary as ever. You can only learn so much from your desk.

Writer’s Desk: Stay Out of Fashion

Just weeks before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Amherst College in which he talked eloquently about the role of the artist in society:

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style…

So be free and let your writing take you where it wants to go, whether you think it’ll sell or not. As Kennedy said elsewhere in the speech, that’s your duty as an artist. Society depends on you.

Writer’s Desk: Get It Right

They say writers should keep it basic. Don’t do too much. Stay in your lane. That’s good advice, until it’s not.

Jack Kerouac once wrote:

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

This from one of America’s most industrious creators of run-on sentences. But still, Kerouac knew to keep looking, to seek simplicity in his work. Just because he never quite got there doesn’t mean the trip wasn’t worth it.

Writer’s Desk: Discover Something

In February 1963, Esquire published “Ten Thousand Words a Minute” by Norman Mailer. Ostensibly a piece about the Sonny Liston–Floyd Patterson heavyweight fight in Chicago, Mailer as usual flailed all over the place, subject-wise, from the Mafia to America and back again.

Along the way, he delivered this:

Writing is of use to the psyche only if the writer discovers something he did not know he knew in the act itself of writing. That is why a few men will go through hell in order to keep writing—Joyce and Proust, for example. Being a writer can save one from insanity or cancer; being a bad writer can drive one smack into the center of the plague.

Mailer’s medical advice does not seem entirely sound. However, his declaration that writing is only worthwhile to the writer if it results in them learning something new is absolutely correct.

Why else bother?