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.

Reader’s Corner: Literary Datebook

If you are looking for a holiday gift for a literary-minded friend, how about a fancy desk calendar?

Check out the 2021 Barnes & Noble Desk Diary. Besides being a handsome hardcover edition with David Levine art throughout, it also has a wealth of short pieces about authors written by yours truly tied to the month or year a particular writer was born. There are also some longer profiles, like this one for the great Ursula K. Le Guin:

Get ’em now while they last.

Writer’s Desk: Use Your Memories

In his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” Haruki Murakami talks about his memories as a capacious warehouse filled with odds and ends which he can draw upon for his fiction:

We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story…

He goes on to evoke Steven Spielberg’s E.T.:

There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player … [E.T.] manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing.

Pack your head with memories and ransack them at will. Don’t worry if they do not seem to make sense together at first. They will.

Writer’s Desk: Say It Out Loud. Again.

The great and ever-acerbic Martin Amis has a new book out, Inside Story, which appears to be pretty juicy and part of that popular new sub-genre of quasi-nonfiction “novels”. (He also appears in the great new documentary The Meaning of Hitler which is showing in some festivals now and should be tracked down with all speed.)

Whether he’s expounding on tyrants or the cynical complexities of the London smart set, Amis delivers sharp prose that has reads as though it has been turned over on a lathe until every rough or unfinished particle has been removed. So if he has a bit of advice to provide, it is worth listening to. Here is something he offered at the Chicago Humanities Festival:

Saying the sentence, self-vocalizing it in your head until there’s nothing wrong with it.

If it does not sound right when you say it aloud, it probably will not read right on the page.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Tell Them Everything

In this interview with the New York Public Library, Pico Iyer explains why it is best for writers to retain some sense of mystery:

Let this book hover somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Let me give the reader no clue about how to categorize it before she begins or even after she’s finished. Let me put the reader on alert, on edge, not knowing what she’s going to get into.

If your reader has no idea what you are about to do, then everything can be a surprise.

Writer’s Desk: Getting Past the Fear

25 years ago, Bonnie Friedman sat down and let all the things that stymied her as a writer just flow out. Her guide, Writing Past Dark, is out now in an anniversary edition.

LitHub talked to Friedman about what led to that book:

There were a lot of things I did that made me suffer as a writer, and I wanted to learn why I did them. For instance, I routinely sickened myself with envy in bookstores. And, I was so afraid of getting right to work in the morning that I did a bunch of chores first and set everything as straight as possible before sitting down, by which point I was tired and there wasn’t enough time left. Also, ambient sounds seemed so interruptive that, even in a frigid Massachusetts winter, I set an air conditioner on my coffee table and turned it on for its enveloping roar. And if a short story received more than two rejections I chucked it forever into a bottom bin, ashamed…

Be proud of your work. It helps.

Writer’s Desk: Be Brave

When Sylvia Plath was attending Smith College in the 1950s and writing furiously in her journals about the kind of life (writing life, to be very specific) that she wanted for herself, she was absolutely determined to better herself. The entries are filled with orders to herself (“I will learn shorthand”, “I will begin reading Joyce”) and plenty of self-criticism.

At the same time, she is also trying to give herself the courage to succeed. Part of that involved trying to overcome her fears. Which appear to be mostly the same as any other writer.

Along the way, she delivers this sharp little apercu:

Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.

The more commonly quoted part comes right after: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”. While this is certainly true, it does not have the same snap.

Anything can be written about. Just go out and do it. Take from life everything you can for material. But do not be afraid to make up whatever you have to.

Writer’s Desk: Meet a Stranger for Coffee

Like many performers, Maria Bamford is often stricken with insecurities about her own work. That can make it difficult to write, much less perform.

But unlike most writers, Bamford has a unique process for working out her material:

In 2018, she began issuing periodic invitations, on Twitter, for fans who live in cities where she is appearing to meet her for coffee and listen to her run through her set before she performs. 

Is it scary to have a total stranger critique your writing before anybody else in the world sees it? Absolutely.

Is it more scary than having somebody you know critique it? Absolutely not.

If they are willing, talk to strangers about your work. Generally, they’re nice about it.

Writer’s Desk: Say It Clean

In his landmark work From Dawn to Decadence, historian Jacques Barzun has this to say about how the readability of written English can be under threat:

…the resulting obstacles to good prose were: a vocabulary full of technical terms and their jargon imitations, an excess of voguish metaphors, and the preference for long abstract words denoting general ideas, in place of short concrete ones pointing to acts and objects.

When it doubt, say it plain. Simplicity above all.

(h/t: Tablet)

Writer’s Desk: Get Out There and Live

When Walt Whitman first published his genre-redefining verse collection Leaves of Grass, he was not going after small game, acknowledging in the preface:

The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes…

Not everybody can match Whitman’s cranked-up barbaric yawp approach to writing. But nevertheless, it is worth taking a page or two from his tactic:

Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost. This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants … read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul…

Embrace the world. Get out there. Come home. Write about it.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Give Up

From novelist Yu Hua (To Live, Brothers), one of the great chroniclers of modern China, some advice about perseverance:

I’ve never considered giving up. Before becoming a writer, I was a dentist, spending all my days staring into people’s open mouths. Unhealthy mouths, too – healthy mouths wouldn’t come to the dentist. Maybe there’s a better job than being a writer, but I wouldn’t know. All I know is being a writer is better than being a dentist…

Take it from him. Don’t be a dentist. Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Limit Yourself

Best known for his titanic five-novels-in-one omnibus 2666, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño was prolific enough that even after his death in 2003, his bibliography continues to grow.

In “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories,” he suggested one reason for that prodigious output. Never stick to just one piece at a time:

Never approach short stories one at a time. If one approaches short stories one at a time, one can quite honestly be writing the same short story until the day one dies.

Of course, Bolaño also warns to be careful:

The temptation to write short stories two at a time is just as dangerous as attempting to write them one at a time.

But it seems clear which approach he followed.

Writer’s Desk: Make a Schedule

Annihilation by jeff vandermeer.jpg

The great and highly prolific sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer (best known for his eco-apocalyptic Southern Reach trilogy) gave an interview to the Chicago Review of Books a couple years back which was just packed with fantastically clear, actionable writing tips.

One of my favorites had to do with timing and productivity, two of the great obstacles for writers who have to juggle schedules:

People sometimes misunderstand the nature of writing, in that writing and revision are ongoing processes that are intertwined and don’t necessarily happen in two distinct consecutive phases. That said, inasmuch as you do work solely on a rough draft, do that work when you are fresh and energized. This may seem like commonsense, but I’ve known many writers who never really examined their processes, just kept on with the same habits they started out with…

The point is to organize your writing days or weeks around what you know about yourself—and about diminishing returns.