Writer’s Desk: Find a Safe Space

BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877.jpegThe life of a writer is usually a precarious one, for those of us who make their living solely on their wits and their pen. The lucky ones do not have to hustle all day and night from one assignment and check to the next, but are actually employed to write as part of their job. Whether or not that writing is what they want to do (and if not, there’s always the weekend and mornings to work on the novel), it’s always a relief to be employed to do what one loves.

The great journalist A. J. Liebling—who found his base of operations at the New Yorker—once compared his fellow ink-stained wretches to a certain famous fictitious horse:

The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty. Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings…

Sometimes this can mean swallowing one’s pride. But if the stall is nice, frequently mucked out, and comes replete with fresh hay and the occasional apple, that comfort can leave more time for doing what you are meant to do: Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Just Write Your Story, Live Your Story

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(New York Public Library)

Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans, once said that to her writing and reading can be acts of generosity:

One of the main reasons I read—and definitely why I write—is to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To try to imagine what life is like for someone who’s different from myself … I’m forced into having empathy for everyone—even someone who I’d normally be upset with, or feel wronged by…

As a result, she views writing as a fully immersive experience:

The moment a character becomes real to me, and their experience becomes real to me, the writing itself almost feels like method acting. When I’m writing a story, which takes me a year or more, I can feel my character living with me—they’re responding to whatever funny, familial, or social situation I’m in, and I think about their responses constantly. This feeling of living alongside a character is one of the most gratifying things about writing, and definitely one of the reasons I do it…

Don’t just imagine your characters. Live them.

Writer’s Desk: Have No Fear

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Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In the speech that he gave accepting the Christopher Hitchens award, George Packer noted how he and Hitch didn’t always get along and actually disagreed quite violently on the Iraq War. Hitch thought it was a noble cause, while Packer (as covered in his incredible book The Assassin’s Gate) knew from on-the-ground reporting that it was a disaster. Nevertheless, their friendship persisted:

We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher…

Packer went on to talk about Hitch’s bravery and freedom from fear:

Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind. A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade…

Telling how things appear to you, and in the way that feels most right for you and your voice, is the only way to write.

A scared writer is a terrible writer.

Writer’s Desk: Philip Pullman

Maybe you are spending January catching up on HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Maybe you are actually taking the long cold winter to get some writing done. If the latter, here are some tips from Pullman himself, courtesy of Radio 4:

Ignore the market and write what you want—Write what you want to write, be the next big thing and not another iteration of a phase that will pass…

Stay at the desk—Resist wandering off, checking social media or making yet another cup of tea. You wouldn’t to miss a brilliant idea because you weren’t there to receive it…

Find the way of writing that works for you—Don’t be tied to how you think you should write if it doesn’t produce anything…

Let the protagonist propel events—It’s useful emotional shorthand for getting your readers invested with your lead…

Explore different formats and genres—Ideas might not necessarily fit into what you’re currently working on. If you know something is a good idea, but just isn’t working, don’t necessarily throw it out…

Writer’s Desk: Rebel Against Yourself

While all writers have to get out into the world to study it, feel it, live it, and understand something beyond what lies inside their own cranium in order to make an impact, they should not overlook the value that can come from determining what would shock themselves.

Per the great provocateur J.G. Ballard (Crash), circa 2005:

As for the special problems facing the middle-class artist — it looks as if alienation is going to be imposed on him whether he likes it or nor. Most artists and writers in the past have been middle-class, the surrealists to a man, with backgrounds similar to those of the Baader-Meinhof gang. However, the middle-class world against which they rebelled was vast and self-confident. Who today would bother to rebel against the Guardian or Observer-reading, sushi-nibbling, liberal, tolerant middle-class? I think the main target the young writer/artist should rebel against is himself or herself. Treat oneself as the enemy who needs to be provoked and subverted…

How can one shock the world if one can’t shock oneself?

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Your Characters

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There are a lot of writing books that tell you how to craft an exciting plot. They provide exercises, quizzes, little tricks to spur your creativity and come up with new and interesting wrinkles. Helpful tricks, of course. But no matter how thrilling or curiosity-spurring your plot, nobody will care if they do not care about your characters.

How do you get readers to invest in the fictional people you are writing about? Get to know them like you would real people in your life. Novelist Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere) has some advice in The Writer:

I get to know my characters like you’d get to know someone at a cocktail party. You sit down with them and listen – whether they talk about work or their families or sports or politics, whether they seem open-minded or opinionated, whether they’re logical and articulate or rambling – and you get a sense of what’s important to them, who they are as a person. So I sit down and write about a character, or write in the character’s own voice and see what emerges. It’s a lot easier to bring characters to life on the page when you know them well…

Once you know how your character will act when they’re at a party, having a cocktail, watching the game, or who they voted for, you will be able to write anything about them and it will ring true.

Writer’s Desk: Love Words More Than Your Voice

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W. H. Auden (c. 1939)

According to legend, or at least a book with the lilting title How Does a Poem Mean?, W. H. Auden was once asked what advice he would give to a young poet. Auden responded that if he asked the young poet why they wanted to write and the answer came back that they thought they had something important to say, Auden’s conclusion was that there was no hope.

However, Auden went on to say that if the answer came back as “I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,” then he thought the young poet might have promise after all.

Following Auden’s line of thought, you could say that if you start with a love of words, their flow and shading and endless permutations, you might get to somewhere important. But starting in grandiloquence will get you nowhere.