Writer’s Desk: Terrence McNally

The recently late Terrence McNally wrote many many plays. Some were great (Love! Valor! Compassion!) and some others were good but less than great (Ragtime, The Visit).

In any event, McNally — who passed away this past week from coronavirus-related complications — did what vanishingly few writers have ever done: Make a living on Broadway.

And he did it without making much of a fuss about the writing itself. A few years back, he provided some tips for the writing life:

What time of day do you get your best work done?
No particular time. I just turn on the computer and do the work.

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write?
I don’t have any rituals. I just put my fingers on the keys. It’s like second nature. I don’t think about brushing my teeth or shaving—it’s just something I do.

What’s the secret to being so prolific?
I live in a fascinating city at a fascinating time in history. When people say they have writer’s block, I say, “Go take a walk around the block! Read the paper! Open your window!” How can you have a block when there’s so much going on? I love what I do, so I don’t think of it as a job that you finish. It’s like breathing.

When you can say that you write like you breathe — and be telling the truth — it is safe to say that you are the envy of the great majority of writers who have ever drawn breath.

Writer’s Desk: Be Specific, Above All

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?

Writer’s Desk: Look Out the ‘Rear Window’

Rear Window is one of the great movies of the 20th century. Suspenseful, humorous, inventive, and skillfully manipulative; it’s the best of what Alfred Hitchcock had to offer at his height. It is less remembered for the brilliance of its sprightly script by noir master Cornell Woolrich.

James Duncan of Writer’s Digest teases a half-dozen writing lessons from Woolrich’s script:

1. When in Doubt, Cast Doubt

2. Pile on the Doubt With Doubters

3. Trick-or-Trait!

4. All Five Senses Builds a Fine Atmosphere

5. Location, Location, Location!

6. Juxtaposition is SO Romantic

Not sure how to make these work in practice? Just go watch the movie again. You’re welcome.

Writer’s Desk: Write for the Future or Right Now?

This week, Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) won the David Cohen prize for a lifetime’s achievement in literature. The reaction of the 80-year-old playwright, per The Guardian:

 “Winning a lifetime achievement award, one’s first thought is: ‘Surely not yet.’ And one’s second is: ‘Just in time, mate’ …

Stoppard also had a few thoughts about his legacy:

History is full of the names of writers who at one time seemed to be permanently established and who slowly disappeared from view. I’ll absolutely own up to writing for the present and for posterity – but as Lytton Strachey said: ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’”

Writer’s Desk: Work in Groups

The writer’s life is a solitary one. That’s true, until it’s not.

Take the example of Aleksandar Hemon. The Bosnian writer had always followed the expected path:

[My writing] had taken place in the self-imposed isolation of my head. I don’t take part in workshops or writing groups; I don’t share ideas or drafts with my fellow-writers for feedback; I make all the decisions and am responsible for every word in the book that I am writing, acknowledgments included.

But then, like many writers out there in a world of hundreds of television shows needing scripts, he joined the collaborative workforce of televisual scriveners. Working out scripts for the sci-fi series Sense8, he discovered a new process:

… my role was to make proposals that would be taken up by the other people in the room and spun around a few times. The version of the proposal that emerged would have little to do with the original, yet belonged to me as much as to everyone else … I’d never experienced the pleasure of temporarily losing my intellectual sovereignty—of watching my bright idea be destroyed, only to be transformed into something entirely different.

Sometimes a writer has to hew closely to their original vision, come hell or high water, for it to be worth a damn in the end. More frequently, another pair of eyes, or five or ten, can make all the difference in the world.

Writer’s Desk: Be Tenacious

When Tim O’Brien, one of the great living American novelists, was asked for some writing advice, here’s what he told NPR:

I try to preach to students tenacity and stubbornness—to be a kind of mule walking up the mountain, to keep plodding. Inspiration is important, but you’re not going to get it on a bowling alley or on a golf course or all the other things you could be doing. If you’re not sitting there inspiration is simply going to pass…

Sticking with it can be misery. You sit and stare and fiddle and fidget and Nothing. Comes. But, eventually, every dam breaks. Just make sure you’re there to ride the wave when it does.

Writer’s Desk: Do What Edgar Rice Burroughs Did

Edgar Rice Burroughs, born September 1 in 1875, is arguably one of the most important writers of the 20th century, for better or worse.

As with many bestselling writers who almost seem to fall into success, Burroughs had a varied employment record ranging from ranch hand to teacher and ad man before turning to fiction in his 30s. Once he started with the first Tarzan of the Apes stories in 1911, he never stopped.

By the time of his death in 1950, Burroughs had published nearly 70 adventure novels ranging from the Tarzan series to John Carter of Mars and other fictional universes involving dinosaurs, civilizations under the surface of the earth, and so on. His books were translated into dozens of languages and spawned innumerable movies, comic books, and TV and radio series, not to mention creating the DNA of the century’s pulp fiction aesthetic.

In 1939, when Burroughs was as big in the cultural imagination (if not bigger) than James Patterson or Stephen King today, Alva Johnson published “How to Become a Great Writer” in The Saturday Evening Post. Using Burroughs as a template, Johnson included a list of what helps make a great writer:

  1. Be a disappointed man.
  2. Achieve no success at anything you touch.
  3. Lead an unbearably drab and uninteresting life.
  4. Hate civilization.
  5. Learn no grammar.
  6. Read little.
  7. Write nothing.
  8. Have an ordinary mind and commonplace tastes, approximating those of the great reading public.
  9. Avoid subjects that you know about.

Johnson’s tongue is planted in cheek here, but only somewhat

In other words, ignore the history and habits of bestselling writers at your own peril.

Writer’s Desk: Style and Forbearance, Young Scribe

The great dispenser of acid-laced bon mots Dorothy Parker, born on August 22 in 1893, had the occasional bit of advice for writers. To wit:

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style.

Hard to argue with, yes? Strunk and White’s paen to simplicity is a must-have tool for any writer of any age.

But Parker went on:

The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

While people have a low tolerance for writers whingeing about the frustrations baked in to the writing life—nobody forced us to do it, after all—it’s worth pointing out to those just embarking on that path that happiness and fulfillment don’t necessarily follow.

Just writing, and writing well (preferably with a copy of Strunk and White at your side), must often be its own reward.

Writer’s Desk: Edit Like Hemingway

Everybody knows you’re supposed to kill your darilings. But sometimes that’s easier said than done.

It’s summer. Shortcuts are nice. So, next time you’re having a hard time hacking your way out of the verbal underbrush, maybe just use the Hemingway Editor.

You never know. It might get rid of everything you like, and turn your beloved short story into a forlorn piece of faux-Papa prose.

Or, it could show you that less can be more and you didn’t need all that guff to begin with.

Either way, it’s free. What do you have to lose?

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Talk About It

Sometimes the best thing to do is just be quiet. That’s true whether you’re a president under investigation or a writer who is trying to get their book done.

In an essay published at The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone advises the following:

…If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.

Until then, hoard your manuscripts. Keep your secrets. Delete your tweets about your work in progress. Play coy in your bio notes. Be devoted to your book, and resist the urge to whisper about your relationship to others. Stay committed to that book, and one day—when the time is right—you can tell the world.

Writer’s Desk: Who Do You Write For?

Denis Johnson, the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke among other great works of quasi-Beat genius, died a couple weeks back at the age of 67.

Although his rehab-stippled talent took a while to be recognized, he finally won the National Book Award back in 2007. In a blessedly brief interview about that award, he gave one of the best bits of writing advice ever. In response to the question of who his ideal reader or audience was, he responded:

I write for my wife, my agent, and my editor.

Does anybody else matter, truly?

Writer’s Desk: Enjoy It

In 1958, Daphne Du Maurier, author of gothic treats like RebeccaJamaica Inn, and the story that inspired Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” wrote an essay about her fame called “My Name in Lights.” Du Maurier, born this week in 1930, had advice what to do when you have just done something right:

There come moments in the life of every artist, whether he be a writer, actor, painter, composer, when he stands back, detached, and looks at what he has done … This is the supreme moment. It cannot be repeated. The last sentence of a chapter, the final brush stroke, a bar in music, a look in the eye and the inflection of an actor’s voice, these are the things that well up from within and turn the craftsman into an artist…

So cherish it, because those moments don’t come often:

The feeling has gone in the next breath, and the craftsman takes over again. Back to routine, and the for which he is trained … The moment of triumph is a thing apart. It is in the secret nourishment.

Writer’s Desk: Just Put it Down

Earlier this week, Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died at the age of 88. Although the book, a philosophical rumination cast in the guise of a father-son road-trip novel, mostly holds true to its subtitle (“An Inquiry Into Values”), there’s also some solid writing advice to be found.

In the book, Pirsig is trying to help his son write a letter to his mother:

I tell him getting stuck is the commonest trouble of all. Usually, I say, your mind gets stuck when you’re trying to do too many things at once. What you have to do is try not to force words to come. That just gets you more stuck. What you have to do now is separate out the things and do them one at a time. You’re trying to think of what to say and what to say first at the same time and that’s too hard. So separate them out. Just make a list of all the things you want to say in any old order. Then later we’ll figure out the right order.

(h/t: Peter Faur)

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Your Desk

Writers get a lot of advice. Not just about how to write, but when and even where to write.

Fortunately, there’s Margaret Atwood. Rebecca Mead notes this about Atwood’s writing space in a recent profile:

Unlike many writers, Atwood does not require a particular desk, arranged in a particular way, before she can work. “There’s a good and a bad side to that,” she told me. “If I did have those things, then I would be able to put myself in that fetishistic situation, and the writing would flow into me, because of the magical objects. But I don’t have those, so that doesn’t happen.” The good side is that she can write anywhere, and does so, prolifically.

So set up a writing space to all your favorite specifications. By all means, be comfortable when writing. But don’t let that stop you from writing whenever and wherever and however you need to.