Writer’s Desk: Follow Your Own Advice

Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville does not seem to be the sunniest person to be around when trying to finish a book. According to this interview in The Daily Beast, his wife has reportedly described his personality while writing as being like “a murderer who’s just come back from a particularly bloody killing.”

So perhaps it is not surprising that he is not one for giving advice to other writers:

When young writers approach me for advice, I remind them, as gently as I can, that they are on their own, with no help available anywhere. Which is how it should be. Like Popeye, I am what I am…

Though being reminded that it is all up to you is not-unhelpful. Meaning that Banville, despite his protestations, actually is giving advice.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Woke Racism’

I reviewed John McWhorter’s most recent book, which came out last fall and became a quick (not surprisingly, given the title) bestseller, for PopMatters:

Woke Racism has the feel of something written in a blaze of indignation between podcasts, which is both a strength and a weakness of the text. This may explain the nuggets of anti-woke outrage, mostly stories about writers and academics targeted by antiracist Twitter mobs, dispersed somewhat randomly throughout. Many of those stories certainly pass the absurdity test—very few Twitter pile-ons or abrupt firings following a social media defenestration look defensible in the light of day. But a scattering of anecdotes does not an argument make…

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

Writer’s Desk: Hook the Reader

Every writer knows the advantage given by a great opening line. Like here:

  • “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
  • “Marley was dead, to begin with.”
  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

The best first lines provoke curiosity. What drugs? How did Marley die? What the heck is a hobbit? Sometimes the more questions you can raise the better.

For examples of this, try looking not at great novel starts but newspaper ledes. Those are the Who/What/When/Where paragraphs that usually come at the start of a news item and can contain an entire novel’s worth of curiosity and detail if done right.

In “Florida Woman Bites Camel,” Calvin Trillin provides a delightful example of how one newspaper (in this case the Advocate of Baton Rouge, Louisiana) accomplished this task in a story from 2019:

A veterinarian prescribed antibiotics Monday for a camel that lives behind an Iberville Parish truck stop after a Florida woman told law officers she bit the 600 pound animal’s genitalia after it sat on her when she and her husband entered its enclosure to retrieve their deaf dog.

And it was all true. The reader who does not want to know more about this camel-biting pair from Florida is probably not a reader who would rather be watching television.

Writer’s Desk: What Drives Your Characters?

The great writers make it all seem quite simple. Take John le Carré (the pen name of David Cornwell). When the writer Kate Weinberg interviewed the master spy novelist and they started talking about writing, she confessed to having problems with the novel she was working on:

The characters had been living inside me for years now, and I had a premise, a good one I thought—but I was struggling to weave the kind of intriguing plot I admired in his writing without reducing the characters to pawns on a chessboard. Whenever I think of story, I lose the characters, I told him. And whenever I think of character, I lose my story…

Cornwell’s solution was elegant in its simplicity:

“You need to remember this. The cat sat on the mat,” said David. “That’s not a story. But the cat sat on a dog’s mat. Now that’s a story.”

It’s all about motivation in other words. Why did the cat sit on the dog’s mat? What does the dog feel about the mat? And so on. Once you know why your characters are doing or want to do something, tangling them up in a plot can be somewhat second nature.

Writer’s Desk: Joan Didion, Full Stop

The luminous Joan Didion, whose sage words on writing we have filched from before for Writer’s Desk posts and most likely will continue to do so in the future, is no longer with us. Absconded from this mortal coil at the age of 87, Didion is now (as the comic Greg Proops might say) swirling in the heavens with all the other greats.

Didion wrote it all: Novels, screenplays, apocalyptic “whither America?” essays, meditations on mortality, and Saturday Evening Post columns about the hurly burly of life in the mid-late 20th century. She did it for all the best reasons: to explain something about life as she knew it (especially in California), to tell good stories, and to find some way of paying for the old mansion and nice cars that didn’t involve working a 9 to 5.

In 1976, Didion published the now iconic “Why I Write” essay in the New York Times. It’s deadpan witty and trenchant all the way through. but even decades later, one part that continues to stand out is her description of barely graduating from Berkeley with a degree in English because she had forgotten to take a class on Milton. So she took the Greyhound down from Sacramento every week so she could talk Milton until the English department greybeards deemed her sufficiently well-versed:

I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote ten thousand words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus.

No knock on Paradise Lost, or what can be learned from deep study of any of the greats, but ultimately Didion is right. Better to be able to describe what you can see and taste and touch. Pay attention to that and you can be a writer.

Writer’s Desk: Emerson Said Get Some Sleep

The Transcendentalist thinker and author Ralph Waldo Emerson (that’s his study above) nurtured the careers of many writers, most famously Henry David Thoreau. As a result, he had some advice for how writers should pursue their work.

In his journals, Emerson wrote this:

Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.

If the statement seems axiomatic, that is a fair assessment. Nevertheless, just every writer has had that stretch where they let the days blur together, fail to get enough sleep, and refuse to acknowledge that their work is suffering.

Keep working. But remember when to stop. When you need to, take a nap.

Writer’s Desk: Remember to Live

For obvious reasons, we read writers about writing because, well, who else are you going to ask? We like to look to those we love, and maybe occasionally to those who we may not love so much but because we think: Damn, look at how he’s done, how did he do that?

Which brings us to Frank Herbert. There are people who love just about everything he’s written and others who think that the Dune series, well, it fell off a bit after the first two. Nevertheless, given what he accomplished with the first Dune at least, many people listen to what he has to say. Like when he says this:

A writer’s job is to do whatever is necessary to make the reader want to read the next line. That’s what you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re writing a story. Don’t think about money, don’t think about success; concentrate on the story—don’t waste your energy on anything else. That all takes care of itself, if you’ve done your job as a writer. If you haven’t done that, nothing helps…

I know what he is trying to say here. And it needs to be said. No matter what else you do and no matter how many rules you follow about exposure and making connections and studying the market and all that, none of it will mean anything if you haven’t put everything you’ve got into the work itself.

But still, telling writers, especially new writers, that nothing else matters? This feels like malpractice. Of course, the story is everything. How about the working parent who can only get an hour or so of solid writing time in between shifts and the baby? Doesn’t it make sense for them to consider focusing on what they can get done in that time and that headspace rather than putting hours and hours into a thing they may never be able to finish?

Of course the story is everything.

But money is not nothing. Neither is life.

Reader’s Corner: Best Books of 2021

The good folks over at PopMatters just put up their annual Best Books feature. It’s got pages and pages of great fiction and non-fiction reads. The link is here, you can see what my selections were above.

Here are some other great runners-up that I read this year and highly recommend:

FICTION

  • Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Cheng
  • My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Phase Six by Jim Shepard
  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

NON-FICTION

  • World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain
  • Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City by Rosa Brooks
  • Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia by Thomas Healy
  • Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever by John McWhorter
  • Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres by Kelefa Sanneh

GRAPHIC NOVELS

  • The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel
  • Street Cop by Robert Coover and Art Spiegelman
  • Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke
  • What Unites Us by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

Writer’s Desk: Listen, But Do What You Want

All writers need advice. Working in the garret of their own imagination provides the raw material, but never going outside and finding out what somebody might think will generally lead to subpar results … or a self-published novel filled with spelling errors and plot holes.

But, since nothing is easy, all writers also need to know when not to listen. Mel Brooks is a perfect example of this, though he definitely erred on the side of not. When working on Blazing Saddles, Brooks got some notes from a producer about things to change:

He said, “You can’t punch a horse.” I said, “You’ll never see it again.” I kept saying, “You’re absolutely right. It’s out!” Then, when he left, I crumpled up all his notes, and I tossed it in the wastepaper basket. And John Calley, who was running [production at] Warner Bros. at the time, said, “Good filing.” That was the end of it. You say yes, and you never do it.

Brooks’ advice might not seem applicable to people not working with movie studios or very pushy editors:

Don’t fight them. Don’t waste your time struggling with them and trying to make sense to them. They’ll never understand.

But it is a strong reminder that no matter how many notes you might get (change this character, trim that dialogue, cut the opening), don’t loose track of your original idea. It’s yours, not theirs.

Writer’s Desk: Make It Shorter

Writers like the great Andre Dubus (whose wrenching New England stories of love and agony put Raymond Carver to shame) choose a lonely and difficult road when they decide to master the short story rather than the novel. But the form does lend itself to those who prefer concision.

It is one thing to go through one’s draft to do some nipping and tucking. But Dubus was brutal:

Dubus’s prowess in narrative compression is legendary. Andre Dubus III has written that his father’s story “Waiting,” about the hollow ache experienced by a woman widowed by the Korean war, took fourteen months to write and was more than one hundred pages in early manuscript form. But when the story was published in the Paris Review, it spanned a mere seven pages…

Be prepared to dump 93 percent of what you write. At least.

Writer’s Desk: Be Intentional

There is a lot of writing in the new Wes Anderson movie The French Dispatch. After all, it is about a magazine. The editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by Bill Murray, is a grumpy but accommodating sort, the sort who complains constantly while still carrying inside him a deep and abiding love not just for the written word but also for those who know what to do with it.

In the film, Howitzer (based on legendary New Yorker editor Harold Ross) does not dole out much in the way of writing advice, but what he does say about the craft on multiple occasions is nevertheless solid:

Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.

This is harder to accomplish than one might imagine.

Screening Room: ‘Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time’

Back in the early 1980s, documentary filmmaker Robert B. Weide decided to make a documentary about his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut. He shot some footage, the two men hit it off, and soon they were good friends. But the closer Weide (who went on to create Curb Your Enthusiasm) got to Vonnegut, the harder it became to finish his movie.

Decades later, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is finally finished, and opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

More a student of comedy than practitioner, Weide has a nerdy on-camera persona that balances well with what he shows of Vonnegut. A cherubic, tipsy-on-his-own-jokes presence, the author is represented here in interviews that Weide shot with him starting in the early 1980s, as well as in clips from talk shows and public speaking engagements. Weide and [his co-director Don] Argott could have easily settled for a film about Vonnegut’s comedic instincts, his ease with irreverent one-liners being one of the reasons that his books are so beloved by a certain kind of puckish adolescent. But they make a worthy effort to pull back the veil on the man and show how a gloomy dissatisfaction brooded underneath his quippy surface personality…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Stuck? Write Something Different

Writers are not born prolific. They work at it. More than most of us. That’s how you end up like Isaac “I lost track of how many books I wrote” Asimov.

He got blocked, like the rest of us. But in that moment, he didn’t just sit there grinding his teeth. The asymmetric approach seemed to work for him:

I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. I don’t spend days and nights cudgeling a head that is empty of ideas. Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books. By the time I’ve grown tired of these things, my mind has been able to do its proper work and fill up again. I return to my novel and find myself able to write easily once more…

Just make sure you always have a spare project or five on tap.

Writer’s Desk: Short, Shorter, Shortest

A poet of many talents, including an icy wit and a cross-disciplinary verve, who tends to generate a high degree of excitement in a certain kind of literary enthusiast, Anne Carson is often asked about writing. Rarely does she pretend to be have any great wisdom to impart.

In this interview, though, when prompted about how her terse answers indicated she preferred brevity, Carson proves just that, illustrating her point with one of the greatest sentences in the English language:

Short Talk on Brevity… try to leave the skin quickly, like an alcohol rub. An example, from Emily Tennyson’s grandmother, her complete diary entry for the day of her wedding, 20 May 1765: “Finished Antigone, married Bishop.”

Reader’s Corner: ‘Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs’

Very happy to have received my copy of the just-published Lost Cities, Ancient Tombs: 100 Discoveries That Changed the World. I was truly fortunate to have been asked to help with the editing and writing of this truly beautiful book from National Geographic about some of history’s greatest archaeological finds.

Seriously: Long-vanished civilizations, sunken cities, invading armies, you can’t ask for more.