Writer’s Desk: Write Like You Speak

Christopher Hitchens (Fri Tanke, 2008)

In one of his last pieces for Vanity Fair before cancer stole him from us, Christopher Hitchens wrote about the loss of his voice and how he advised writers to not just read but listen to their words:

I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice…

Writer’s Desk: Zen and the Art of Being Bradbury

The late, awesomely great Ray Bradbury should be remembered as not just one of the greatest voices in 20th century American fiction, but as one of the most enthusiastic writers ever anywhere.

Case in point comes from this piece in which Writer’s Digest dug into their archives and unearthed some phenomenally energetic Bradbury truisms:

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.

I always say to students, give me four pages a day, every day. That’s three or four hundred thousand words a year. Most of that will be bilge, but the rest …? It will save your life!

It has to be exciting, instantaneous and it has to be a surprise. Then it all comes blurting out and it’s beautiful. I’ve had a sign by my typewriter for 25 years now which reads, ‘DON’T THINK!’

If any of us can write with even a hint of that spark and enthusiasm, then we have nothing to worry about.

Remember, writing can save your life.

Writer’s Desk: Let the Magic Happen

When graphic novelist Alan Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) was asked by a fan what “happens” to him when he writes, this is in part how he replied:

I know that my consciousness, if I am immersed in writing something demanding, is moved into a completely different state than the one which I inhabit during most of my waking life…

When you descend into this level of our reality, the code of our reality if you like, then whether consciously or not; whether deliberately or not, you are working magic. So, the answer to your question as to what happens to me when I write, is the most banal and useless answer you will ever get from an author: the magic happens…

One of the secrets to writing, it would seem, is to allow yourself to descend into that fugue state and just let the magic work its way through you.

It seems to have worked for Moore.

Nota Bene: Joy Division

Last month in the Los Angeles Times, Henry Rollins published a beautiful appreciation of Jon Savage’s brilliant new oral history of Joy Division: This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else. He included this description of the band’s music, which sums it up better than just about anyone else ever has:

Joy Division’s music doesn’t “rock” in the classic sense as much as shudder, roar and convulse. The songs are readings of temperature, light and lack of light. They walk silently for hours on city streets and return alone to small rooms with full ashtrays and no messages on the machine. It’s a fantastically difficult question to answer: Why do you like Joy Division? The more dedicated the listener, the more likely you’ll get an inhaled breath held for a few seconds, an exhale and a shrug…

Now go listen to Closer about 10 times and you will see what Hank means.

Writer’s Desk: Deadlines Can Be Your Friend

Grantland Rice, deadline writer par excellence

James Parker in The Atlantic, reviewing a collection of great sports writers, noted that sometimes being rushed isn’t a bad thing for getting good material:

We’re all on deadline, of course, at all times and in all places. The last judgment, as Kafka pointed out, “is a summary court in perpetual session.” But a print deadline—the galloping clock, the smell of the editor—is a particular concentration of mortal tension. The brain on deadline does whatever it can: It improvises, it compresses, it contrives, it uses the language and the ideas that are at hand. Inspiration comes or it doesn’t. Here the writer is an athlete—performing under pressure and, if he or she is good, delivering on demand.

Writer’s Desk: See and Tell, Don’t Define


Legendary roots record producer T. Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou? among many many others) was on Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Broken Record recently. During a sprawling conversation about music, recording, and the genesis of art, Burnett mused on the following:

All really that artists do is, we’re going down a road and we mark things. We say, ‘At this day I was at this place and I saw this thing and it was beautiful. So I’m going to mark this so that maybe you don’t miss it when you’re going by.’ That’s the real journey of an artist.

He also noted:

Once you define a thing, you lose it.

So there you have it. Write about what you see. Describe a beautiful thing so that it is not forgotten.

But whatever you do, don’t try and explain it.

Screening Room: ‘Non-Fiction’

In Non-Fiction, the newest movie from Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), a clutch of Parisian intellectuals have affairs, drink wine, and talk about the state of publishing and reading in the modern era. One of them is Juliette Binoche, who always makes things better.

My review is at PopMatters:

“Fewer readers, more books.” “I reject this materialistic society.” “These are narcissistic times.” Those are just a few of the cheery bon mots being lobbed around in the opening minutes of Olivier Assayas’s argumentative but thin wannabe literary salon of a movie…