Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Talk

Occasionally some notable literary discussions take place in less-notable places. Take, for one example, the MidAmeriCon, 34th World Science Fiction Convention, which took place over a few days in 1976 at the (historic) Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City. There, the great science-fiction author Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination) was doing the sci-fi-con circuit that kept the genre afloat and buzzing in those pre-Internet days.

Bester took some time to talk to an eager fan for the noted genre magazine The Tangent about writing:

You know, Robert [Heinlein] said to me once—we were talking shop, writing techniques and stuff like that—and Robert said I’ll tell you what I do, Al. What I do is get a bunch of characters together and I get them into difficulties, and by the time I can hear them talk they’ve solved their difficulties and I’m finished.

I was absolutely flabbergasted! I can’t even start a story until I can hear my characters talking. I’ve got to know who they are, what they are…I’ve got to identify with them completely…

“I’ll tell you what to do Al…”

It’s likely that more writers are like Heinlein than Bester. For some of us, characters are stubborn things. If you waited around for them to talk, you might never get anything written.

Writer’s Desk: It’s Work, Not Inspiration

Marlon James, 2014 (Larry D. Moore)

According to Black Leopard, Red Wolf author and Macalester College professor Marlon James, the only way he can get anything put down on paper is seeing it as work:

When I sit down with my laptop, I go to work. To me, writing is work: that’s part of my process, that it’s a job. I’m a big believer in that if you establish a routine, the muses show up. I love when people say they write when they’re inspired. I’m like, “Oh my God, I haven’t been inspired to write since the Carter administration. How does that work?” I’ve got to pay bills. I can’t wait on inspiration to write a novel. I’d never write anything…

James is far from strictly pragmatic, though. Although writing might be work, it’s also practice, and it’s through practice that the magic happens:

It’s a vocation. It’s practice. Dancers, musicians, and actors know what I’m talking about—I don’t have to convince them. But writers will say things like, “I couldn’t write today because I didn’t feel inspired.” And I’m like, “That’s lovely.” It’s about doing the work—and knowing that inspiration or creativity will show up once they realize you’re serious…

Writer’s Desk: Make Mistakes, Don’t Be Afraid

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

The author Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, the forthcoming Spying on the South) has ranged all over the world before settling back in America (sort of) to write books. Because most writers are rightly in awe of foreign correspondents (yes, it is a romantic occupation), it’s generally worth listening to what they have to say about the craft.

Here’s some notes from his interview in Writer’s Digest:

I think you’re much more likely to find the interesting stories if you take risks and do stories other people aren’t doing. In that way, you have to trust your own instincts, not follow the advice that everyone else is giving you, your parents, your editor, who encourage you to stay on the straight and narrow. And that’s a lot more fun…

You quickly discover as a writer that the worst experiences make for the best copy. I wouldn’t know how to write about a beautiful place. I couldn’t write a story on Hawaii. I sort of try to write about bleak places and frightening events. I find that’s more compelling to write about than, say, a nice vacation in France…

I tend to notice the absurd contradictions in my reporting. Like when I’m in a biker bar and some guy’s threatening to beat me up and I notice they’re watching male figure skaters on TV. Life is tragic and funny at the same time and I think that to tell a story in just one note or the other is too monotone. I don’t like one-note books…

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Collected Schizophrenias’

My review of Esme Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias ran in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

When giving a talk or at a doctor’s appointment, Esmé Weijun Wang often shoehorns “I went to Yale” into the conversation. This isn’t bragging. It’s protection. Ivy League status, she writes, “is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless”…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Listen to Advice

When Roxane Gay set out to write a novel, at first she got tired up in logistical questions:

… Is it really true that every chapter should be self-contained and readable as its own thing? Do you have to write from beginning to end or is it acceptable to jump around the story and pull it all together at the end? How do you pace a novel? How explicit is too explicit? Is it okay to leave gaps in the narrative? There is lots of advice on novel writing out there but I struggled to find satisfying answers for my specific set of questions…

Not surprisingly, this tied her up in knots and didn’t produce much writing. So she chucked all those questions:

Finally, there came a time when I decided to ignore all the advice I had read and do the only thing I know how to do, which is write. I wrote what I felt like writing, when I felt like writing, how I felt like writing. I jumped all over the place. None of my chapters had numbers. I didn’t take notes, or create a timeline, or plot anything out.

Once she stopped worrying about how to write, she wrote.

Writer’s Desk: Give Yourself a Chance

According to a talk Colson Whitehead gave in Amsterdam in 2018, as a young boy he thought that writing would be a pretty cool gig because “you didn’t have to wear clothes or talk to people and could spend all day making stuff up.”

While that remains true, especially the not always having to talk to people thing, it turned out to be a little more complicated. So here are some of the hints for new writers that Whitehead provided:

  • Give yourself a chance to learn: “Write a crappy story and then the next one will be better.”
  • Write what scares you, but find a way to make it fun.
  • Learn how to deal with rejection: “It didn’t matter if no one liked what I was doing, I had no choice so I got back to work and it got better.”

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Being Original

All writers want to stand out. How do you make a name otherwise? But it’s also easy to tie yourself up in knots worrying about it.

Poet Derek Walcott, who was never anything but original, dismissed such worries in his essay “The Muse of History“:

We know that the great poets have no wish to be different, no time to be original, that their originality emerges only when they have absorbed all the poetry which they have read, entire, that their first work appears to be the accumulation of other people’s trash, but that they become bonfires, that it is only academics and frightened poets who talk of Beckett’s debt to Joyce… We are all influenced by what we have read…

Own it, but earn it.

Do as Walcott says, and make a bonfire from the trash of the greats.