People make assumptions about writers. That we have some magical talent bestowed by the muses. That we have read everything under the sun. That we really want to take a look at their sheaf of poems or 30-page memoir about their “quite interesting” life and murmur encouraging things.
Assumptions are also made about our mastery of the job’s more technical aspects. They may not understand that many (alright, some; alright, myself) are often getting by more on instinct. We know what sounds correct and pleasing. But please do not ask us to explain ourselves.
Joan Didion had a lot to say about this very specific kind of imposter syndrome. She once wrote:
Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power.
Which brings to mind a memory from a first-year college English class. Handing back a paper slashed to ribbons with red ink, my professor asked in a tone of baffled incredulity, “Have you ever heard of a comma splice?”
My blank expression was answer enough. I was used to playing by ear. I continue to do so today.
In her novel The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner mined the details of her life in San Francisco, specifically growing up on the Pacific side in downmarket Sunset, long before Silicon Valley. Here is how she described it:
The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. It was us girls in the back of someone’s primered Charger or Challenger riding those short, but long, forty-eight blocks to the beach, one boy shotgun with a stolen fire extinguisher, flocking people on street corners, randoms blasted white…
Given the litter of specifics there, you can not only imagine the scene but feel Kushner’s tart pride in recalling everything. That same instinct could turn to insult when reading an author who lets their attention slip, doesn’t remember that it was “forty-eight blocks to the beach”.
In Kushner’s essay, “The Hard Crowd,” she writes about her time in Haight-Ashbury, in the detritus of the 1960s, with Oliver Stone shooting The Doors on her doorstep. Sidelining from that, she takes aim at another California-reared scribe, Joan Didion:
In her eponymous “White Album” essay, Joan Didion insists that Jim Morrison’s pants are “black vinyl,” not black leather. Did you notice? She does this at least three times, refers to Jim Morrison’s pants as vinyl.
Kushner then pens an imaginary letter of complaint:
Record albums are made out of vinyl. Jim Morrison’s pants were leather, and even a Sacramento débutante, a Berkeley Tri-Delt, should know the difference.
Get those little details right. Get them wrong, and a reader who knows will be instantly pulled out of your writing. Possibly never to return.
Do your research, and keep them coming back for more.
In 1976, Joan Didion (born December 5, 1934) lifted a title—one of the best—from Orwell when she penned the essay “Why I Write.” She had a lot to say about writing, particularly about how she doesn’t start with an idea or theme but just a mental picture or two that she is trying to explain.
She also described becoming a writer in part because she was not so great at being a student at Berkeley:
In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.
Writers have to learn about many things before they can put words on paper: Gardening, missile trajectories, how to steal a car. But the end result of gaining that knowledge is not the thing itself, but making one’s writing as specific as possible. As Didion explains it, a writer is:
…a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.
No, writing isn’t some cloud-borne dream factory, but an arduous and labor-intensive search for precision and clarity. If it wasn’t, then what would be the point?
There are writers who don’t need a system to get their work done. They can go with what one could term the Stephen King method: Read a lot and write a lot. Sometimes, though, that straight-out approach doesn’t hack it. You’re blocked, you’re uninspired, you just don’t want to do it. That’s when writers resort to tricks and hacks to force themselves into productivity. Some need solitude, some need noise, some use a particular kind of writing software, some have a program on their laptop that doesn’t let them waste time on the Interwebs… The ever-precious Jonathan Franzen writes with:
noise-canceling headphones, on which I can blast frequency-shifted white noise (“pink noise”) that drowns out even the most determined woofing of a neighbor’s television set…
It goes on.
One other thing writers like to do (besides procrastinate and read their own reviews while claiming they never do so) is read or listen to more successful writers go on about their methods. The idea being, well, if it worked for Joyce Carol Oates, maybe I should try it out.
Novelist Ben Dolnick has a sharp essay about this in the New York Times called “Stupid Writer Tricks,” where he talks about his not-exactly helpful obsession with gleaning tips from writer interviews. Reading that Philip Roth likes to write at a standing desk or Hemingway always kept a small notebook on him seems like the sort of thing that might work out … until it doesn’t:
I had, for a long time, a profound vulnerability to hearing about these sorts of routines. Of course I knew that writing was terrifically hard work, and that there was no secret code, as in a video game, that would unlock Tolstoy-mode, enabling me to crank out canon-worthy novellas before lunch. But I persisted in believing that I might one day come upon some technique, some set of tricks, that would vault me irreversibly onto the professional plane. I didn’t have a working printer, but I agreed wholeheartedly with Joan Didion that I needed to be sleeping in the same room as my manuscript, so as never to lose touch with it. It would be years before I’d written so much as a single chapter of a novel, but I knew that when I finished a book, I would, like Anthony Trollope, begin my next one on the very same day.
Dolnick doesn’t chuck the whole idea of writing techniques, finding them to have their purpose. But he decides it’s ultimately more about how you approach writing than your technique; calmness is key:
If, though, you can reach out from a position of calm, as a swimmer reaches out for a kickboard before turning to begin his next lap, then you might find yourself feeling what all the tricks and tips are finally pointing toward: freedom. You might surprise yourself — roll onto your back, do a flutter kick, or just float for a while. The water, after all, is the point, and not how you scratch away at it.
Some of us might at times write more lucidly and energetically in a state of great agitation and nerve. But in the end, doesn’t it flow better when you’re actually enjoying the process? Write with joy, in other words. Unless you’re blocked, in which case, do whatever you must to make the words come.