Writer’s Desk: Writing Too Much

????????????????????????????????????

For the average writer, turning out new pages and finishing stories, articles, or (if we’re so lucky) books isn’t a problem. It’s the whole reason they’re doing it. Productivity counts. Quality, too, of course. But in the end, finished pages are nicer. Since the best way for most of us to be better writers is to do it as much as possible (feedback, feedback, please), then the more the better.

For some writers, though, being prolific is seen as a problem. As in: If they’re so good, why are they publishing so much? Shouldn’t they be taking their time.

As somebody who knows a few things about over-publishing (four books in a year) Stephen King has some thoughts on that topic. In discussing one of his pet peeves, the belief that productivity exists in inverse proportion to literary quality, he pulls out the expected trump card: Joyce Carol Oates.

But then King talks about Donna Tartt and Jonathan Franzen, whom he considers two of America’s great living literary treasures, and have just eight books between them. That minimal output, he admits, drives him crazy:

I understand that each one of us works at a different speed, and has a slightly different process. I understand that these writers are painstaking, wanting each sentence — each word — to carry weight (or, to borrow the title of one of Jonathan Franzen’s finest novels, to have strong motion). I know it’s not laziness, but respect for the work, and I understand from my own work that haste makes waste.

But I also understand that life is short, and that in the end, none of us is prolific. The creative spark dims, and then death puts it out.

We are only here for a short while. So get cracking.

Writer’s Desk: Inspiration Close at Home

Sometimes it comes easily. The words flow and the paragraphs and plot lock together with smooth and powerful precision like girders in a swiftly-built tower.

'A Woman Reading' by Camille Corot (c.1869)
‘A Woman Reading’ by Camille Corot (c.1869)

Other times (most times), it’s a struggle to get even a good page done after a full day spent at the writing desk. That’s where inspiration comes in.

But where do you find it when it goes hiding? Usually, you can’t wait, you have to just keep plowing ahead.

In a long, sprawling piece for the New York Review of Books called “Inspiration and Obsession,” Joyce Carol Oates describes how what can seem casual and inspired is really the result of hard labor:

[Emily] Dickinson’s poems, and her letters as well, which seem so airy and fluent, give the impression of being dashed off; in fact, Dickinson composed very carefully, sometimes keeping her characteristically enigmatic lines and images for years before using them in a poem or in a letter.

Sometimes it can help to simply look to one’s own life. That of course can lead to too much of the bildungsroman we see in modern fiction (one of the reasons we see so many wealthy, educated characters and so few poor, unless it’s crime fiction). But sometimes it can open the spigot; Oates calls it being “a time traveler” in your own life. She quotes Virginia Woolf, who found great success this way:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in.

So there’s one road to inspiration, when all else fails. Look at your own life, but from an angle.

Writer’s Desk: Alone Time

Is there anybody here who can write in a loud room full of people? There are people out there who can somehow accomplish that feat; your average journalist, say, who doesn’t have the luxury of going off to find a cozy tea shop with decent coffee and good Wi-Fi. They’ve got 45 minutes to pound out that 1,100-word piece on the newest unemployment numbers or a listicle on the month’s top 10 most cringe-inducing GOP candidate flubs, and a deadline waits for no man or woman.

Them1Prose is a different matter. Because that’s what we’re generally talking about when we say writing, yes? Those of us who toil on both sides of the fiction divide don’t waste too much time worrying about process and idea-mongering when it’s time to work on the nonfiction material. It’s just as much work, and frequently just as much artistry. But nonfiction writing is simply different. Not to get into fuzzy notions of the muse, but one usually doesn’t need to be struck by inspiration to knock out 500 words on a new misery memoir or 1,500 on what the popularity of Game of Thrones says about the impending collapse of Western hegemony. You just need to find a way in and then how to put all the building blocks together. That’s a vast oversimplification, of course, but it generally holds.

Prose (or verse, assumedly), though, is a creature of a different hue. And it’s not an easy thing to do with others around. Joyce Carol Oates said this to Salon on the question of creativity requiring being alone:

Probably nothing serious or worthwhile can be accomplished without one’s willingness to be alone for sustained periods of time, which is not to say that one must live alone, obsessively. Ultimately, any art is intended for an audience — a community. In this way, the artist/writer is linked to the community and is only temporarily “alone.”

So buckle up, close the door, put on the headphones, whatever you have to do. Don’t worry. The world will still be there when you get back.

Writer’s Corner: Oates on Oates

In a mostly successful attempt to undermine and interrogate the whole concept of author publicity, the writer as an identity, the interview process itself, Joyce Carol Oates interviews herself for the Washington Post.

One key takeaway:

Is there something frankly embarrassing or shameful about being a “writer”?

The public identification does seem just a bit self-conscious, at times. Like identifying oneself as a “poet,” “artist,” “seer,” “visionary.”

Also, this:

Let’s get back to the crucial question: Are you, or are you not, the “writer”?

The point of James’s remark is that the “writer” is embodied in his — or her — writing. The place to look for James, for instance, is in his books.

Points to Oates as well for referencing both Henry James and Paula Deen in the same piece without straining.

Reader’s Corner: Jack London

Mostly remembered today as the man who wrote White Fang, in his time Jack London was one of the most popular living American authors. He was as celebrated for his wideranging command of styles (adventure stories to science fiction and political polemics) to his wildly wolfish and nomadic lifestyle. London was a heroic striver or sadistic bastard, depending on who you asked. He showed up in last year’s historical gothic horror novel The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates as a bullying alcoholic who appeared able to drink everybody under the table and then write a bestselling novel about it.

In the Weekly Standard‘s review of the new London biography by Earle Labor, William Pritchard notes that London’s prodigious literary output (50 books, 200 short stories, 400 nonfiction pieces) looks so impressive not just due to how swiftly it was delivered (he died at age 40) but to how much life he packed in when not writing:

…working as an adolescent in a cannery and as an “oyster pirate” on Oakland’s waterfront; going on a seal hunt in the Bering Sea; riding the rails across America, with an interlude of 30 days spent in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy; finding out how the poor live in London’s East End; joining the gold rush to the Klondike; running for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket; sailing to the South Pacific and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa; observing cannibals in the Solomon Islands. This is only the beginning of a list that doesn’t include his two marriages, his fathering two children with his first wife Bella, or his periodic intakes of large quantities of alcohol—all the while becoming, by 1915, the highest-paid author in America.

George Orwell called London “A Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer,” which seems to get it about right.

Readers’ Corner: Every Book, Ever

You always hear people complaining about there being just not enough time to read all the books out there. Just too much on the shelves to get to in this lifetime. Not the worst thing to have to complain about, of course, but still, frustrating—even if you’re not Burgess Meredith after the apocalypse.

So here’s the question: Has that always been the case? Was there a time at which one could have actually read every single book that had been written? (For the sake of this exercise, we’re limiting it to English-language titles.) Fortunately, there’s always a numbers guy out there working just about any conceivable problem, so now we may have an answer:

According to the site what if?:

If we estimate that during their active periods, writers are producing somewhere between 0.1 and 1 word per minute, then one dedicated reader might be able to keep up with a population of about 500 or 1,000 active writers … the date at which there were too many English books to read in a lifetime—happened sometime before the population of active English writers reached a few hundred. At that point, catching up became impossible.

The magazine Seed estimates that the total number of authors reached this point around the year 1500 and has continued rising rapidly ever since. The number of active English writers crossed this threshold shortly thereafter, around the time of Shakespeare, and the total number of books in English probably passed the lifetime reading limit sometime in the late 1500s.

So there you have it. It’s been a few centuries since reading everything out there was even possible. So if you can’t finish the complete works of Joyce Carol Oates in this lifetime (and, honestly, who could—as she publishes at the rate most people read), well, just hope for reincarnation.

Writers’ Corner: Franzen vs. World

Jonathan Franzen

As literary contretemps go, the great Jonathan Franzen-Jennifer Weiner debate of 2013 might not measure up with the best of them. It’s not exactly Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald or James Woods panning Zadie Smith’s writing as “hysterical realism.” But it’s nevertheless a bookish debate with some fire to it playing out in the commons, and thusly rare enough to deserve note.

the-corrections_oprah_book_club1In short, Franzen started things, as is his wont, with a cranky screed in The Guardian against, well, things he doesn’t like about the modern world. It’s a lengthy piece, with some well-considered points about Austrian satirist Karl Kraus and how (now, as in Kraus’ time in fin-de-siecle Vienna), “the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past.”

But there’s also a good dose of simple ornery lashing out against a modernity that has been much more artfully critiqued elsewhere. Franzen also doesn’t seem to think that novelists have ever in history been dragooned into doing anything to sell their books besides writing more of them better. To him, just being asked to take part in social media for the sake of publicity is anathema. Of course, the jury is definitely out on whether an author’s Twitter or Facebook presence actually helps sell books. But Franzen’s above-it-all attitude rankles here, as it did back in the days of his tantrum over seeing an Oprah Book Club burst on the cover of The Corrections.

jennifer_weiner1

Then there’s Jennifer Weiner. A writer of middlebrow popular fiction, Weiner’s books (like those of Jodi Picoult and others) are exactly the kind of thing which sell plenty of copies and yet never get any critical attention. She’s been having a go at the New York Times and other publications for not covering books of this sort. Whereas Franzen’s books—which might deal with more serious subjects but are difficult to classify as literature—are covered in depth. More particularly, Weiner’s been denouncing the Times, and correctly so, for having a dire shortage of female contributors.

Now, replying to Franzen’s line about “literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,” Weiner herself penned a swift and lightly denunciatory piece for The New Republic where she calls out Franzen for essentially whining from the mountaintop:

In 2010, I coined the hashtag Franzenfreude. It was very bad German for a very real problem: When Franzen’s most recent novel, Freedom, was published, newspapers and magazines devoted thousands of words to the book and its author, while giving other literary books far less attention, and, in some cases, ignoring commercial works completely. Perhaps Franzen’s recent name-check was payback for when I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, or for pointing out that he’s the kind of writer who goes on Facebook only to announce that he won’t be doing Facebook, with the implication that he doesn’t have to do Facebook, because the media does his status updates for him. Or maybe he just really, really hates “The Bachelor.”

As Weiner points out, Margaret Atwood tweets. So does Joyce Carol Oates. And it probably doesn’t help sell a single extra copy of their books. Maybe they just like having a new format to write in. Is that so horrible?

On Cinema: ‘Frances Ha’ in IMAX!

THRILL to Greta Gerwig's dancing in 'Frances Ha' in IMAX!
THRILL to Greta Gerwig’s dancing in ‘Frances Ha’ in IMAX!

It’s been nice to see The Onion spicing up their pages with the addition of some bold-faced names lately. Check out, for example, Joyce Carol Oates’ recent advice to aspiring young writers trying to get published (“A good writer should always be curious, constantly looking around for new and more powerful people to sleep with”).

Almost better, though is this satirical piece from director Noah Baumbach (or an Onion staffer doing a nice impersonation of his dry style that’s been used for a few “Shouts & Murmurs” essays in the New Yorker) about his new talky black-and-white micro-budget comedy, Frances Ha; now helpfully providing summer counter-programming for all those who don’t feel like seeing anything with The Rock in it. In short, Baumbach says, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen this sucker in 3D:

I just went all out when I was writing it, tailoring every character and scene for maximum impact on a six-story IMAX screen in a 601-person amphitheater…. And the effect, to be honest, is simply stunning. Through the magic of IMAX, every social faux pas, every quiet epiphany, every dinner party, and every awkward conversational exchange practically jumps off the screen. You feel as though you can almost reach out and touch the glass of white wine that a character is drinking. Simply put, no celluloid version of Frances Ha could provide the same visceral impact as witnessing a 30-foot-tall Greta Gerwig towering above the audience as she negotiates her relationship with her best friend or tries to find an apartment, all displayed in vivid black-and-white.

Now, if only it were true; the possibilities are nearly endless.

Writer’s Room: The Tricks We Use

I'm telling you, this chapter is killing me...
I’m telling you, this chapter is killing me…

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.