Literary Birthday: Paul Theroux

After graduating from college in 1963, Paul Theroux (born today in 1941) spent several years teaching in countries ranging from Singapore to Malawi before writing fiction, which often featured clueless Westerners getting in over their heads in foreign lands. Although some of his novels, like The Mosquito Coast (1981), met with success, it was not until Theroux turned his hand to travel writing that he became widely known. His first was The Great Railway Bazaar (1975).

A bestseller that inaugurated the modern travelogue genre, it recounted his four-month journey by train from Britain through Asia, partially on the Orient Express. Theroux spends more time describing his personal encounters than places he visits. At one point he strikes up a conversation with a sniffy British couple about Graham Greene’s new novel The Honorary Consul. “Graham sent me a copy,” the husband says off-handedly. “I always like seeing Graham,” the wife replies.

Writer’s Desk: Nothing Wrong with Imitation

You could spend a good part of your life just trying to catch up with the output of Larry McMurty, who passed away this week. Screenplays (Brokeback Mountain), essays, nonfiction, and novels galore (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove). He was also one of the country’s great used book merchants.

He once gave Texas Monthly some very straightforward advice for what he would tell young writers to do:

The most important preparation for writing is reading. Certainly for me and most people I know. Trying to imitate the writers that we love to read. That’s what got us all started…. It doesn’t hurt you to read a lot. In fact, it’s better that you read a lot. You’ll find the right ones.

So if anybody reads what you have done and says that it reminds them of another writer, own up to it. Say McMurty told you to do it.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Grammar

People make assumptions about writers. That we have some magical talent bestowed by the muses. That we have read everything under the sun. That we really want to take a look at their sheaf of poems or 30-page memoir about their “quite interesting” life and murmur encouraging things.

Assumptions are also made about our mastery of the job’s more technical aspects. They may not understand that many (alright, some; alright, myself) are often getting by more on instinct. We know what sounds correct and pleasing. But please do not ask us to explain ourselves.

Joan Didion had a lot to say about this very specific kind of imposter syndrome. She once wrote:

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. 

Which brings to mind a memory from a first-year college English class. Handing back a paper slashed to ribbons with red ink, my professor asked in a tone of baffled incredulity, “Have you ever heard of a comma splice?”

My blank expression was answer enough. I was used to playing by ear. I continue to do so today.

Writer’s Desk: Let It Rip

In his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Jack Kerouac had some ideas for how to get things down on paper. Jack being Jack, most of those ideas pivoted around identifying the smoldering ember of creativity and using that to set the kindling of your prose ablaze. Some fragments of dharma:

  • “Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.”
  • “Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion.”
  • “If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance.”

In short, as Dean Moriarty would say, “Blow, man! Blow!”

Writer’s Desk: Edit After You Write

In “How to Practice,” Ann Patchett writes about what she learned when helping a childhood friend clean out her late father’s apartment, and how it reminded her of writing. In short, she says you cannot do two things at once:

I made the decision to wait until we’d finished with the entire house before trying to find a place for the things we were getting rid of. This was a lesson I’d picked up from my work: writing must be separate from editing, and if you try to do both at the same time nothing will get done.

Compare this to filmmakers, some of whom (Spielberg, Soderbergh) are known for editing as they go to save on unnecessary filming. To some degree, writers must do the same, since if you put down everything, you will never finish. Still, Patchett has a point. When you are writing, write. Let it pour out, and worry about editing later.

Within reason, of course.

Writer’s Desk: One Idea per Sentence

Though Bill Bryson takes on large subjects, including but not limited to the history of everything, he tries to keep things simple. In his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, he gave some particularly specific advice:

There is no quota on periods. When an idea is complicated, break it up and present it in digestible chunks. One idea to a sentence is still the best advice that anyone has ever given on writing.

Writer’s Desk: Create Something New

The late James Gunn, the Hugo-winning science fiction novelist and editor who passed away in December, had this to say in a 2017 interview about connecting writing with purpose:

I feel I earn my place here on Earth each day when I am able to create something that wasn’t there before, and, in turn, some of these things enter stories that influence people…

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Literary Birthday: Bertolt Brecht

German-born playwright Bertolt Brecht (born today in 1898) always intended to agitate as well as entertain. After World War I, he was denounced for the satirical poem, “The Legend of the Dead Soldier,” in which the Kaiser demands an inconveniently dead hero soldier be exhumed and marched right back to action. Brecht’s more famous plays, like The Threepenny Opera, used dark absurdism to deliver stinging critiques of capitalism and fascism.

Banned early on by the Nazis, Brecht went into exile in 1933. His allegorical 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, used a Chicago gangster drama to illustrate how demagogues like Hitler divide their opposition to gain power. Post-2016 productions of the play have tilted the allegory toward present-day authoritarianism, finding the continued relevance in lines such as: “If we could learn to look instead of gawking, / We’d see the horror in the heart of farce.”

Literary Birthday: Charles Dickens

As an ambitious young man with the kind of lower-class background that limited prospects in 19th century England, Charles Dickens (born today in 1812) was not sure what he wanted to or could become. After stints as a law clerk and comic, he landed on writing.

His first piece, a fairly low-key comedic sketch titled “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” was published in Monthly Magazine in 1833, but under the name “Boz.” One of his favorite characters in Oliver Goldsmith’s novel Vicar of Wakefield was named Moses, which was what Dickens had nicknamed his younger brother. That later became “Boses,” and then “Boz.” Dickens was never paid for his debut, having to buy a copy of the magazine in order to see his pseudonym in print. More pieces followed in the same vein. Three years later, the first collected volume of Sketches by Boz appeared. A preface to a later edition showed a self-conscious Dickens noting “their often being extremely crude and ill-considered, and bearing obvious marks of haste and inexperience.”

Writer’s Desk: Care About the Right Things

Paul Beatty, author of the incredible novel The Sellout, wrote about some things he wished he had known when he was starting out:

I felt a bit of pressure that if I wanted to be an author, I’d have be relatable, tell people what they wanted to hear, what they believed to be true about themselves, if not the world around them. Be like one to those corny Netflix stand-up comedians who win the (always overwhelmingly white) audience over by pillorying the easy target, pretending we’re all in this together, cultivating what Jerry Seinfeld calls the “we agree applause”.

He realized that worrying about everything outside the actual words on the page is mostly wasted effort:

I can’t say I’ve ever stopped worrying about becoming an author, and it’s not that I ever actively tried to become one, but I did stop thinking about trying. Reading WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and Percival Everett’s Erasure, listening to Bernadette Mayer and Rebecca Solnit talk about their forthcoming projects Helens of Troy and Infinite City, respectively, helped to remind me that the work is about the work…

Writer’s Desk: Follow Your Own Advice

Writers do not lack for advice. They are, in fact, drowning in it. This very site adds another drop to that flood most weeks; hopefully not entirely in vain.

Yes, sage advice from working authors can be crucial to those of us struggling to get words (the right words) on a page each day that do not embarrass us and hopefully put something new and fresh and true out in the world.

But that will only get you so far. This is what Richard Wright (Native Son) knew.

In 1945, in a letter Wright wrote to the artist Antonio Frasconi, he said:

I hold that, on the last analysis, the artist must bow to the monitor of his imagination, must be led by the sovereignty of his own impressions and perceptions.

You will not get anywhere without listening to what you have to say.

Writer’s Desk: Get the Details Right

In her novel The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner mined the details of her life in San Francisco, specifically growing up on the Pacific side in downmarket Sunset, long before Silicon Valley. Here is how she described it:

The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. It was us girls in the back of someone’s primered Charger or Challenger riding those short, but long, forty-eight blocks to the beach, one boy shotgun with a stolen fire extinguisher, flocking people on street corners, randoms blasted white…

Given the litter of specifics there, you can not only imagine the scene but feel Kushner’s tart pride in recalling everything. That same instinct could turn to insult when reading an author who lets their attention slip, doesn’t remember that it was “forty-eight blocks to the beach”.

In Kushner’s essay, “The Hard Crowd,” she writes about her time in Haight-Ashbury, in the detritus of the 1960s, with Oliver Stone shooting The Doors on her doorstep. Sidelining from that, she takes aim at another California-reared scribe, Joan Didion:

In her eponymous “White Album” essay, Joan Didion insists that Jim Morrison’s pants are “black vinyl,” not black leather. Did you notice? She does this at least three times, refers to Jim Morrison’s pants as vinyl.

Kushner then pens an imaginary letter of complaint:

Dear Joan:

Record albums are made out of vinyl. Jim Morrison’s pants were leather, and even a Sacramento débutante, a Berkeley Tri-Delt, should know the difference.

Sincerely,

Rachel

Get those little details right. Get them wrong, and a reader who knows will be instantly pulled out of your writing. Possibly never to return.

Do your research, and keep them coming back for more.

Writer’s Desk: Once Again, With Feeling

A few days after 9/11, Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian about the aftermath of the tragedy, the shock it had caused in the people he knew. Despite the world-spanning nature of the events, he noted that “the reckoning, of course, was with the personal.”

In describing how people channeled their traumatized watching into fantasies and daydreams that limn the cracks in the “terrible actuality”, McEwan hits on something essential in these imaginings about “what if it was me?”:

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion … Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

Your writing does not have to overtly engage with ethical quandaries in order to be moral. All it needs to do is whisk the reader into another person’s consciousness. By doing so, fiction can breed understanding.

Literary Birthday: Zora Neale Hurston

Anthropologist and so-called “Queen” of the Harlem Renaissance Zora Neale Hurston was born today in 1891. She liked giving people varying dates for her birth, invariably ones that marked her as younger. This fooled many writers like Alice Walker, who later helped rescue Hurston’s reputation from obscurity. Hurston most likely crafted this misconception not due to simple vanity but to obscure the fact that she did not even start high school in Florida until 1917, when she was already in her mid-twenties.

Despite such a late start to her education, after Hurston hit New York in 1925, she quickly became a literary star, publishing popular works of autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road) and autobiographical fiction (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and writing for the Saturday Evening Post.

Writer’s Desk: Art is Not Therapy

Art Spiegelman created some of the greatest literature of the 20th century by translating his and his family’s history into indelible art.

At the same time, he thinks it is more complicated than simply putting one’s thoughts, worries, and pain on the page. As he told Vulture:

Therapy is vomiting things up. Art is about eating your own vomit. There’s a therapeutic aspect to all making, but the nature of working is to compress, condense, and shape stuff, not to just expunge it. It’s not just an exorcism…

There can be nothing braver than coming clean in your writing.

But bravery is just the starting point.