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.

Reader’s Corner: Going Back to Updike

Rabbit Redux

In the London Review of Books, Patricia Lockwood does that thing some of us dread: Going back to the author we once loved—and everyone else told us to love—years later to see how they stand up. Reconsidering someone like John Updike, so of-the-moment in postwar American letters, she assumes will be a fraught matter:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are…

The piece that follows is not a hatchet job. Though yes, blood is fulsomely spilled. Lockwood looks at Updike with new eyes and finds much (so much) to be grimaced at, to the point of wondering, Did anyone actually read this?

There are also some grace notes: “When he is in flight you are glad to be alive.”

But also: “When he comes down wrong – which is often – you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea.”

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.

Writer’s Desk: Tell Your Story

The next time you are not sure what to write about, maybe take a crack at your own story. It doesn’t have to be a biography, or a college essay about an adversity that you overcome, maybe just a few pages on a childhood memory, or a piece about the chasm between what you thought your life would be and what it became, or an essay about the first time your heart was broken, or when you broke somebody else’s.

Everyone has a story, it’s all in the framing, the insight, how you build it.

In Exhalation, the beautiful new collection from Ted Chiang (whose “Story of Your Life” was adapted into the movie Arrival), he has a story called “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” It’s a future fable about a world in which everyone will have cameras that record everything, which can then be instantly accessed, dismantling the entire concept of memory. Chiang writes this:

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. Each of us noticed the details that caught our attention and remembered what was important to us, and the narratives we built shaped our personalities in turn…

The best stories are not from people who have the best stories. People who lead exciting lives can tell very, very dull stories. The best stories come from the best storytellers.

Do your best.

Writer’s Desk: Ignore ‘The Elements of Style’

elementsofstyle

Any writer who has made at least a passing effort to improve their work is familiar with the lessons gleaned from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The slim little handbook has been featured on curricula since it first came out in 1959. Following its own advice, the book is pithy, to the point, and highly usable. More than likely the sentences you just read break at least three of its rules.

If you listen to this podcast from linguist John McWhorter—who has been writing some great pieces on language in the popular and political spheres for The Atlantic, by the way, particularly here and here—there is no reason to take Strunk and White’s many rules (avoiding the passive voice, qualifiers and the word “hopefully,” all of which are sound) as gospel.

“It’s just a couple of guys,” McWhorter says. Not that there is no need for standards in writing. But as a proponent of communication, not a pedantic enforcer of codes (looking at you, Lynne Truss), McWhorter sees no reason for writers to wrap themselves up in worry over breaking a few rules.

Be clear, vivid, original, and to the point. Keep it short. If it feels wrong, cut it. If you’re not sure about a line, toss it or redo. Otherwise, write on, and that should do the trick.

Hopefully.