Writer’s Desk: Don’t Be a Menace

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According to novelist Maria Semple, when her first novel, This One is Mine, came out, the notices were good but the sales were not. So she retreated into herself, stopped writing, and blamed everything and everybody but herself.

Then one day, a friend told her something:

Maria, you’re a writer. Writers must write. If you don’t write, you’ll be a menace to society.

That line later showed up in her novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

It’s good advice. In fact, one could use the reverse of it as something of a test. If you don’t write for an extended period of time, and feel just fine about that, then maybe writing is just something you do, and not a vocation.

Not to mention a generally healthier way to live.

Writer’s Desk: Stop Complaining


In honor of the great Toni Morrison, who passed this week at 88, here’s some well-needed advice from a woman who was not just a great novelist and inspiration to millions, but a sharp-eyed editor and teacher who did not care for complaints.

Per a Salon interview from 1998, in which Morrison talked about whether she could teach confidence in addition to writing:

Well, that I can’t do much about. I’m very brutal about that. I just tell them: You have to do this, I don’t want to hear whining about how it’s so difficult. Oh, I don’t tolerate any of that because most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can’t get it is ridiculous…

Writing can be miserable, when the words just refuse to flow and you hate everything you do write. But writers also by temperament veer toward the solipsistic. So we always need to remember that no matter how tough it feels, writing is still just putting words on paper. Get it done, stop complaining, open your ears, and if you’re lucky a great writer like Morrison will give you some good edits and advice.

(h/t: Emily Temple)

Writer’s Desk: Try a New Format

Sometimes the same-old, same-old just does not work for what you are trying to accomplish. If you feel that you (or your work, or both) are in a rut, try changing things up.

Consider Jennifer Egan. She has written a number of novels the usual way. On some kind of computer, using a word-processing program, the results of which are ultimately designed and laid out on printed pages, bound together, and shipped around the world.

But in 2010, she tried something different. Her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, featured an entire chapter written in PowerPoint slides. It’s a brilliant way of showing how the 12-year-old autistic character can best express herself. (The Guardian has the whole chapter here.)

Then, in 2012, Egan serialized an entire story on Twitter. She didn’t compose “Black Box” on her phone, though, rather writing everything in longhand and spending about a year polishing it down to the chiseled nub required to produce fiction 140 characters at a time. Check out the full result at the New Yorker.

Think about the different avenues you want to take with your writing, what the obstacles are that keep you from getting there, and what tools might help you out.

Writer’s Desk: Get It Down

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A veteran of some pretty horrendous fighting in the Pacific Theater during World War II, Rod Serling suffered from nightmares much of the rest of his life. He also had a deeply-ingrained sense of justice.

Both came together in the somewhat maniacal writing schedule he maintained as one of early television’s most acclaimed live teleplay authors and then the showrunner and primary writer for The Twilight Zone.

The only way he could keep the pace going? According to Nicholas Parisi’s biography, he told a writing class at Ithaca College this:

The instinct of creativity must be followed by the act—the physical act of putting it down for a sense of permanence. Once you have that prod, that emotional jar that “I witnessed something” or “I felt something” … Write it down…. Don’t let it die aborning in your head.

Never wait. Keep a notebook around. Type it into your phone if you have to. But once you have that idea or that worthy experience, do not assume you will remember it a day or an hour hence.

Write it down.

Reader’s Corner: Indies Support Authors

  The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead is touring around now to read from his latest novel, The Nickel Boys. While he’ll be going to some chains, he’s a big supporter of indie bookstores. Why? He told Shelf Awareness:

My first book was about elevator inspectors, and who is going to support a debut novel by some weird black guy about elevator inspectors? And the answer is independent bookstores. They’ve always been supportive of my books no matter how oddball they sounded…

Writer’s Desk: Be Prepared

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Nick Cave in ‘20,000 Days on Earth’ (Drafthouse Films)

Nick Cave, onetime prince of the gothic rock dark arts via his time with the Birthday Party and that killer Wings of Desire cameo, might still be releasing albums and touring with his band but he now fashions himself more writer than rock star.

His process seems positively disciplined these days. As he says in the beautiful documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, “I wake, I write, I eat, I write, I watch TV.” And when he writes, he doesn’t just sit down and wait for inspiration. He gets ready:

Well, as anyone who actually writes knows, if you sit down and are prepared, then the ideas come. There’s a lot of different ways people explain that, but, you know, I find that if I sit down and I prepare myself, generally things get done…

And if nothing comes, then have a sandwich. Watch a little TV. But get back to work.

Reader’s Corner: Living in the Worst Place in America

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One of the year’s more interesting books is Christopher Ingraham’s If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now. A data reporter for the Washington Post, Ingraham became the  focus of some viral blowback after publishing a story in 2015 about how federal government-compiled data showed that Red Lake County in Minnesota was supposedly the worst place in America to live.

The residents were not happy. He went to visit, ended up moving his family there, and wrote a book about the experience.

My interview with Ingraham ran in Publishers Weekly.