Writer’s Desk: Write Like You Speak

Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In one of his last pieces for Vanity Fair before cancer stole him from us, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the loss of his voice and how he advised writers to not just read but listen to their words:

I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice…

Writer’s Desk: Zen and the Art of Being Bradbury

The late, awesomely great Ray Bradbury should be remembered as not just one of the greatest voices in 20th century American fiction, but as one of the most enthusiastic writers ever anywhere.

Case in point comes from this piece in which Writer’s Digest dug into their archives and unearthed some phenomenally energetic Bradbury truisms:

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.

I always say to students, give me four pages a day, every day. That’s three or four hundred thousand words a year. Most of that will be bilge, but the rest …? It will save your life!

It has to be exciting, instantaneous and it has to be a surprise. Then it all comes blurting out and it’s beautiful. I’ve had a sign by my typewriter for 25 years now which reads, ‘DON’T THINK!’

If any of us can write with even a hint of that spark and enthusiasm, then we have nothing to worry about.

Remember, writing can save your life.

Writer’s Desk: Let the Magic Happen

When graphic novelist Alan Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) was asked by a fan what “happens” to him when he writes, this is in part how he replied:

I know that my consciousness, if I am immersed in writing something demanding, is moved into a completely different state than the one which I inhabit during most of my waking life…

When you descend into this level of our reality, the code of our reality if you like, then whether consciously or not; whether deliberately or not, you are working magic. So, the answer to your question as to what happens to me when I write, is the most banal and useless answer you will ever get from an author: the magic happens…

One of the secrets to writing, it would seem, is to allow yourself to descend into that fugue state and just let the magic work its way through you.

It seems to have worked for Moore.

Reader’s Corner: Don’t Give Up

Novelist, poet, and writing professor Chuck Kinder passed away recently. Known in many circles as the inspiration behind Michael Chabon’s glorious novel Wonder Boys (and its highly underrated film adaptation), Kinder sometimes had a hard time finishing things.

Per Shelf Awareness:

Chabon, who studied under him in the 1980s at Pitt and published Wonder Boys in 1995, spoke with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001 about Kinder’s role in inspiring the character played by Michael Douglas in Curtis Hanson’s 2000 film adaptation: “I remember peering into his office and seeing this monolithic pile of white paper–the inverse of the monolith from 2001–under his desk lamp. In my memory, it was 4,000 pages long. He was proud of how big a bastard it was…

Kinder eventually wrangled the beast into the quite svelte 360-ish page novel Honeymooners after a mere two decades or so.

Never give up.

Writer’s Desk: Deadlines Can Be Your Friend

Grantland Rice, deadline writer par excellence

James Parker in The Atlantic, reviewing a collection of great sports writers, noted that sometimes being rushed isn’t a bad thing for getting good material:

We’re all on deadline, of course, at all times and in all places. The last judgment, as Kafka pointed out, “is a summary court in perpetual session.” But a print deadline—the galloping clock, the smell of the editor—is a particular concentration of mortal tension. The brain on deadline does whatever it can: It improvises, it compresses, it contrives, it uses the language and the ideas that are at hand. Inspiration comes or it doesn’t. Here the writer is an athlete—performing under pressure and, if he or she is good, delivering on demand.

Writer’s Desk: See and Tell, Don’t Define


Legendary roots record producer T. Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou? among many many others) was on Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Broken Record recently. During a sprawling conversation about music, recording, and the genesis of art, Burnett mused on the following:

All really that artists do is, we’re going down a road and we mark things. We say, ‘At this day I was at this place and I saw this thing and it was beautiful. So I’m going to mark this so that maybe you don’t miss it when you’re going by.’ That’s the real journey of an artist.

He also noted:

Once you define a thing, you lose it.

So there you have it. Write about what you see. Describe a beautiful thing so that it is not forgotten.

But whatever you do, don’t try and explain it.

Writer’s Desk: Quality First, Money Second

Gay Talese, 2006 (David Shankbone)

Gay Talese is a great reporter. There are not many of those. He was also a great storyteller—which is not an art that even all great reporters can ever master.

So in the middle of a delightful Men’s Journal interview (sample quote: on how he handles aging? “I go out every goddamn night of the week. Every night. And I order a martini every goddamn night of the week”) Talese explains what he learned from his father about making money as a writer:

I’m the only son of a very prideful tailor. He didn’t make a lot of money, but boy, he took pride in the suits he made. He once told me, “Son, when you look for a job, never ask what it pays.” Instead, he said, master the job, because if you become really good at what you do, the money will come. Conventional wisdom will tell you differently: Hustle, get an agent, ask for a lot, and settle for less. I never did that. And although I wasn’t a tailor, I wrote like one. I cared about every stitch and every button, and I wanted my work to hold up, fit well, and to last. Good work is never easily done…

Be good first, and the money will follow.

Usually.