Writer’s Desk: Know When to Walk Away

Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014) was one of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century. When Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally solved in 1994, it was only because of what Grothendieck had discovered about algebraic geometry.

But he was not just a numbers guy. Like many mathematicians, he was primarily a problem-solver. He loved it. Not only that, he understood it on a more fundamental level than most people ever do.

According to Rivka Galchen’s fascinating profile, Grothendieck compared problem-solving to dealing with a hard nut:

You could open it with sharp tools and a hammer, but that was not his way. He said that it was better to put the nut in liquid, to let it soak, even to walk away from it, until eventually it opened. He also spoke of “the rising sea.” One way to think of this: there’s a rocky and difficult shore, which you must somehow get your boat across. There may be a variety of ingenious engineering feats that can respond to this challenge. But another solution is to wait for the sea to rise, providing a smooth surface to cross effortlessly…

Think of this the next time you come up against a seemingly unsolvable problem in your writing. Paragraph isn’t gelling or the plot isn’t making sense? Walk away for a bit. Come back and work at it but just a little. Don’t think you can solve the problem in one big go.

Wait for the sea to rise and the answer will present itself.

Writer’s Desk: Channel Your Emotions

The prolific and beloved poet May Sarton was an emotive, careful writer who seemingly never published a line that had not been weighed, judged, fully understood, and buffed to a high sheen.

Given her attention to both raw inspiration and careful editing, she had a lot to say about the art of poetry that can apply to almost any kind of writing.

In Writings on Writing, she references Valery and what he said about the inspiration or “the intense feeling” that generates a piece of work. She throws a little cold water on the idea of some great rush of emotion driving the creation of art:

A true poem does not begin with a feeling, however compelling, and of course we feel a great many things that never become poems.

Instead, she argues, the writing comes from that collision of a feeling with something else:

A poem emerges when a tension that has been something experienced, felt, seen, suddenly releases a kind of anxious stirring about of words and images … the energy that was absorbed in experience itself, now becomes an energy of an entirely different kind, and all that matters is to solve the sort of puzzle, the sort of maze in which certain phrases, and a certain rhythm lie around like counters in a game of Scrabble.

Without emotional inspiration, there would be little writing, or at least not much worthwhile writing. But that inspiration needs channeling and puzzling out before it can be fully formed and live on the page.

Writer’s Desk: Learn from the Pros

I covered three new books about writing (how to do it, why do it) for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the whole piece here.

Generally it’s not a great idea for writers to spend too much time reading about how to do their work. Better to just dive in and do it.

But sometimes, especially when you are stuck, it helps to see how some other writers break through that wall. Matt Bell’s Refuse to Be Done is a great handbook for this kind of thing. He is inspiring but also a realist, overflowing with numerous tips for hitting your deadlines and producing solid work.

The real recommendation here, though, is the anthology How to Write a Mystery. It is obviously very specific to its genre. But the book is truly a treasure trove of incredible and practical advice that can not just help any writer work through problems in their story but feel excited about doing it.

Hard not to love a book from an organization whose motto is, “Crime doesn’t pay. Enough.”

Writer’s Desk: Write Badly

Making art of any kind generally involves granting yourself permission. This can take many forms. Allowing yourself to fail, to be criticized, to bare your soul.

According to Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible), novel writing is not that complicated. She provided some tips to Publishers Weekly:

To begin, give yourself permission to write a bad book. Writer’s block is another name for writer’s dread—the paralyzing fear that our work won’t measure up. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve published, starting the next one always feels as daunting as the first. A day comes when I just have to make a deal with myself: write something anyway, even if it’s awful. Nobody has to know. Maybe it never leaves this room! Just go. Bang out a draft…

Of course, “bang out a draft” is harder than it sounds. But breaking it down like that can get some people over their anxiety. Put the words on page. They don’t have to be good. Just get something down. Bad pages can be improved.

Writer’s Desk: Ask, But Don’t Answer

At a recent panel for the American Booksellers Association, several novelists discussed “Storytelling in the Cultural Moment.”

Several themes were played with, including the idea of how to play with a “rupture” in your story. But one particularly salient point came from Jennifer Egan on the topic of curiosity:

Fiction for me is about asking questions and not answering them…

It’s a harder rule to follow than you might think.

Writer’s Desk: Find Perfection in the Little Things

The polymathically prodigious Samuel R. Delany (who turned 80 this week) published several novels by the time many people have yet to graduate from college, re-orienting the entire field of science fiction just as it was entering its great period of 1960s experimentation. He kept that going for decades, knocking out everything from space opera to dystopia to memoir.

In a recent piece for The Yale Review, Delany tried to answer the question of why he writes. He had several takes, ranging from wanting to read the books he could not find, to because it was fun, to enjoying the erotic imagination, and dealing with the certainty of death.

But one of his most salient points comes in this anecdote about Michelangelo agreeing to take an art-besotted baron to a tavern where all the artists hung out:

After three evenings, the lord said, “But all I hear among these men is talk of stone and chisels and files, gesso and tempera and pigments. I expected to hear talk about beauty, the truths that we learn when we gaze up at their works, the perfection that they create for us. Why do they waste their time talking about these trifles?”

Michelangelo answered, “But perfection is the sum of trifles, and perfection, my lord, is no trifle!”

Nearly everything writers do, from researching conversational patterns in nineteenth-century Turkey to deleting commas, is in a way trivial.

But that’s the only way to get close to perfection.

Writer’s Desk: Maybe Change the World?

Comics legend Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) has a writing tutorial now on BBC Maestro, which looks absolutely fantastic. Moore is an expert at weaving together numerous characters and overlapping dramatic arcs inside complex and frequently historical settings while still maintaining clarity and momentum. Not an easy feat.

On top of that, he wants to focus not just on mechanics, but the larger picture. Namely: What can writing accomplish?

You should remember that a writer can change the world. Think of the books that have completely changed human history. See yourself in that light. Because if you are a writer, then you are having an effect upon human history…

Aim big.

Writer’s Desk: Go Easy On Yourself

The lure of the writer’s life can be hard to resist. Tabitha Blankenbiller writes movingly in Catapult about its attraction and the difficulties of giving up the dream. Here she describes the recognizable zeal that overtook her in her MFA program:

I devoured the foundational texts: Bird by Bird, The Liars’ Club, The Elements of Style. They’re what pushed me to write page after page each night no matter how hard my day job tried to wring the soul out of me. Each paragraph, each new essay draft, each exchange with my advisor was microscopically better than the one that had come before it. And the act of doing this work as ritual, as necessity, saved me. There was no longer a question of what I would do with my life…

She became a writer. She placed pieces in a wide array of respected publications (The Rumpus, Tin House) and eventually published a book. Which is more than most of us can say. But eventually things caught up with her. The never-ending hustle to get notice, to get an agent, to climb the ladder of literary notice, it all takes a toll, especially when you add the grind of everyday life to it.

Then she learned how to take a break.

I did not write for days, weeks, months at a time. The further I drifted from the epicenter of that world, the less it defined me. I sat with questions I wouldn’t have admitted before for fear of cursing myself: What if I never write another book? What if I only create what I want, when I feel compelled, for no other reason than I have something I have to say?…

And the world did not end.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Give Up

You are writing a story. Things are coming together. You can see the ending. Not only that, you can feel the ending. And it’s going to be great.

But. There’s that one section that just is not working out. It feels awkward. Forced. Fake. You start to worry the whole endeavor is doomed.

Not so fast, writes George Saunders in LitHub:

A rough patch in a story is not an error or a defect or evidence of our lack of talent or proof that we are imposters, missing some essential frequency being broadcast from Story Central. It’s an indicator that our heroic, brilliant subconscious is working out a problem as it stumbles towards beauty, and is asking for our help, and what it needs for us to do, just now, is have faith. And wait. And, while we’re waiting (as an active form of waiting), keep revising (revising that bit and everything around it). Be O.K., for now, with its apparent imperfection (which is actually just a momentary lagging behind). Keep coming back to that place, with affection and hope, until it relents and pops into clarity…

A bad stretch of writing is not necessarily bad, just unformed.

Chisel away.

Writer’s Desk: Skip the Complexity Trap

Some of the best writing tips are the easy ones.

Derek Thompson, who hosts the podcast Plain English, has a few simple rules drawn from practicing journalism on a regular basis:

  • Simple is smart: “Smart people respect simple language not because simple words are easy, but because expressing interesting ideas in small words takes a lot of work.”
  • Be interesting: “If you have nothing new to add to a topic in reporting or sources or interpretation or framing, move on.”
  • Write musically: “…think about repetition and variety. Crescendos and rests. Pace and punctuation. Read your work out loud, and feel the rhythm of the words in your voice.”
  • Avoid skin that is too thick or thin: “…stay away from the extremes of hypersensitivity-to-feedback and obliviousness-to-feedback. Seek out wise criticism. Reserve time in your week for the regret that comes with getting things wrong.”

Again, many of these thoughts may be self-evident. But repetition helps.

Writer’s Desk: Every Story is Haunted

Barry Hannah, one of the great novelists of the American South whom depressingly few people have ever heard of, let alone read, didn’t sell a lot of books. (Read Airships or the great whooping holler that is Yonder Lies Your Orphan and you will see what people have missed.) So to make a living, Hannah did as most literary authors of middling sales records have over the years: He taught.

One of his students was Judith Claire Mitchell. She remembered that Hannah would begin his fiction workshops by writing two words on the board: “Ghost story.”

What did he mean?

All stories, he’d say, are ghost stories. Something haunts the work and the reader turns the pages to find out what it is.

Now, given that Hannah is an exemplar of the brawling, history-haunted, orotund manner that we associated with many Southern writers, it is no surprise that he would always be thinking of ghosts. But most writers should. Ghosts are the past. And without a past, your story will have no anchor.

Haunt your words.

Writer’s Desk: Hook the Reader

Every writer knows the advantage given by a great opening line. Like here:

  • “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
  • “Marley was dead, to begin with.”
  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

The best first lines provoke curiosity. What drugs? How did Marley die? What the heck is a hobbit? Sometimes the more questions you can raise the better.

For examples of this, try looking not at great novel starts but newspaper ledes. Those are the Who/What/When/Where paragraphs that usually come at the start of a news item and can contain an entire novel’s worth of curiosity and detail if done right.

In “Florida Woman Bites Camel,” Calvin Trillin provides a delightful example of how one newspaper (in this case the Advocate of Baton Rouge, Louisiana) accomplished this task in a story from 2019:

A veterinarian prescribed antibiotics Monday for a camel that lives behind an Iberville Parish truck stop after a Florida woman told law officers she bit the 600 pound animal’s genitalia after it sat on her when she and her husband entered its enclosure to retrieve their deaf dog.

And it was all true. The reader who does not want to know more about this camel-biting pair from Florida is probably not a reader who would rather be watching television.

Writer’s Desk: What Drives Your Characters?

The great writers make it all seem quite simple. Take John le Carré (the pen name of David Cornwell). When the writer Kate Weinberg interviewed the master spy novelist and they started talking about writing, she confessed to having problems with the novel she was working on:

The characters had been living inside me for years now, and I had a premise, a good one I thought—but I was struggling to weave the kind of intriguing plot I admired in his writing without reducing the characters to pawns on a chessboard. Whenever I think of story, I lose the characters, I told him. And whenever I think of character, I lose my story…

Cornwell’s solution was elegant in its simplicity:

“You need to remember this. The cat sat on the mat,” said David. “That’s not a story. But the cat sat on a dog’s mat. Now that’s a story.”

It’s all about motivation in other words. Why did the cat sit on the dog’s mat? What does the dog feel about the mat? And so on. Once you know why your characters are doing or want to do something, tangling them up in a plot can be somewhat second nature.