Writer’s Desk: Shape Matters

A Lesson Before Dying Book Cover - typographic layout with author name and book title with small image of an African American man standing beneath a wooden structure

In 2010, Ernest J. Gaines—the late author of A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—talked about how part of his fiction grew out of listening to the stories of the people he grew up around in Jim Crow-era Louisiana.

But, he emphasized, writing is not just about having good material:

Content is probably only 40 percent of it, no more than 50 percent, as far as I’m concerned … If a book doesn’t have form, then damn, it ain’t no novel. We can go down the block right now and find a guy on the next corner who’ll tell the biggest and truest story you can ever hear. Now, putting that story down on paper so that a million people can read and feel and hear it like you on that street corner, that’s going to take form. That’s writing…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Fit In, Never Explain

The late, irascibly great Nick Tosches was a son of Newark who skipped college, immersed himself in rock journalism at its raucous Lester Bangs-ian height, then went on to write fiction, music biographies (Dean Martin, Jerry Lee Lewis), and a somewhat indescribable book about Dante, teaching himself Latin and medieval Italian along the way.

Tosches wrote as he damn well pleased, and had some thoughts about it:

We are uncomfortable with works that can not be placed comfortably into a category…

Most best-selling books belong to one genre or another—espionage, crime, horror, suspense, romance, mystery, self-help, ghost-written political memoirs that take the genre of boredom to a ghastlier realm…

Like every other writer worth reading, [George V. Higgins] had no clue as to how he did it…

Structure is artifice, and artifice is for saps…

Writer’s Desk: Remember to Tell a Story

Wilmington, Delaware. Tower Hill School, noted country day school for pupils from three to eighteen years of age. A young pupil writing in a notebook at her desk

Since the Great Recession, more college students have been shifting their majors from English toward more supposedly employment-friendly study in the STEM fields like engineering, math, and computer science.

But one advantage held by people who study literature and write (though they may not be so hot at calculating a tip on the fly) is knowing how to make an argument and tell a story in a clear and engaging manner. Who thinks that? Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller:

Shiller, who is famous for predicting the dot-com crash and coming up with the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, is spending a lot of time looking at old newspaper clippings to understand what stories and terms went viral and how they influenced people to buy things — or stop buying things.

When asked if he’s essentially arguing for more English and history majors, Shiller said, “I think so,” adding: “Compartmentalization of intellectual life is bad.”

The world needs storytellers. Regardless of your field.

Writer’s Desk: Be the Bird

A lot of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, involves research. Crime novelists go out on ride-alongs with cops and interview morticians to figure out the tricks of the trade to embed in their books so that the made-up feels more authentic. Most nonfiction writers, even if they have a specialty, have to write about things they are not expert in, and so have to draw on others’ work.

Then there’s Malcolm Gladwell, the journeyman journalist who writes about everything from sports to music to the problem of elite education and solving homelessness. How does he cover it all? A few years back, here is what he told students at Yale:

I’m not doing the original work … There’s that bird on the back of the elephant that picks off the ticks — I am the bird.

Following that approach still involves being able to tell a good story. Narrative excitement and creating a sense of discovery and thrill is the duty of every writer. But in order to have a story to tell, writers need raw material.

Read widely. Absorb as much as you can. Find a better to tell a story, with connections nobody else thought of. Spread your wings and write.

Writer’s Desk: Get Past the Terror

Detroit, Michigan. Art director and copy writer at a large advertising agency

David Simon (Homicide, The Wire, The Deuce) on writing the character of Creighton on Treme, a frustrated novelist who committed suicide:

… there were some underlying fears that as a creative soul Creighton had shot his bolt. That fear is probably latent in every writer. You stare at the page for the first time and if you’re honest at all, you know there’s a little part of you screaming, “But what if I can’t do it anymore?” And then you start writing, and usually the first things are not great, and then you try again and eventually you’re off and running. But every time, there’s that first moment of vague terror.

It’s not that every writer has actually experienced terror at the idea that they couldn’t do the work anymore. There must be plenty who have happily floated past such worries.

But it is almost certainly true that a person who doesn’t understand the concept of being stricken in the soul over being unable to create, must not in the end have ever truly been a writer.

Writer’s Desk: Take Your Time

One piece of advice that many new writers get is to write as much as possible. That way you can publish more often. And the more you publish, the more people get to know your work, success breeds success, and so on.

But at what point does that approach start to feel less like art and more like industry?

Donna Tartt had thoughts:

People say that perfectionism is bad. But it’s because of perfectionists that man walked on the moon and painted the Sistine Chapel, OK? Perfectionism is good. It’s all about production and economy these days. I don’t want to be the CEO of a corporation, of Donna Tartt Inc. I work the way I’ve always worked, and I don’t want a big desk and fancy office and people answering the telephone.

Of course, she had the advantage of writing a bestseller right out of the gate (The Secret History). That left her able to basically take a decade per novel.

Still, it’s good to remember that not every author needs to be out there selling themselves every minute of the day, contributing to anthologies, blurbing their friends’ books, writing a 16-part Netflix series.

Maybe that means keeping your day job and writing at night or in the morning. If you think you need the time to get the lines right, take the time.

Writer’s Desk: Write, Write, Talk, Write, Get Lucky

Image result for Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight buffy graphic novels

Among the many questions that young writers have, besides “How do you make a living at it?”, is what they should do and what should they read to help them hone their craft.
There is no good answer. But embedding yourself in an ecstatically committed community of writers or at least people who love writing is a good way to start.
It has been a long time since I dared reread any of the wish-fulfillment stories I scribbled in my lonely teenage notebooks, but I suspect if I did, they’d contain something a little like this: You’re a freewheeling political reporter on assignment on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, covering a tech conference full of Ukrainian models, when Joss Whedon calls and asks if you’ve ever thought of writing for television. Of course you have, but only in the way that you’ve thought of being an astronaut. Six weeks later you’re in California, sitting in your first writers’ room, on Whedon’s new sci-fi show for HBO, The Nevers, and it turns out that the evenings you spent at college arguing about Buffy with your best friends were a better use of your time than you realized…
Sometimes writers get lucky. Very lucky. But for that luck to mean something, they have to have spent years preparing. Even if that means spending years writing, debating, and absorbing cultish fan-fiction. Whatever it is, commit yourself totally. It helps to be prepared.