Writer’s Desk: Accept Imperfection

Despite what many might think, even the most talented writers harbor doubts about their talent. In fact, it is highly possible that self-doubt is crucial for many to succeed at their craft. A writer who just loves to death every line they slap down? That cannot be a good sign.

Still, it is surprising the extent to which some writers can only see the mistakes in their work. Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air), who is about as precise a stylist as one can find in the modern American canon, seemed to say just that in this 2016 interview following the publication of A Doubter’s Almanac, which took him several years to complete:

Even when you succeed, you fail. Even when others think you succeed, you fail. I mean, how can anyone write a novel? Every novel is a failure.

While Canin is overstating the case (one can think of a number of at least nearly-perfect novels out there), what he says is potentially helpful for any number of writers who right now are frozen in their process because they just cannot let go of a flawed work.

No book or story or poem will be perfect. Let them go.

Literary Birthday: Martin Amis

In the time before the Internet, Martin Amis (born today in 1949) was a favored author of a certain type of cold-hearted literati. Novels like London Fields (1989) were scabrous, pitch-black satires of soulless urbanites that took no prisoners.

But Amis was almost more scathing as a critic. He once pronounced that “all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart,” which can be argued sets a high standard in a world where the publishing business was briefly kept afloat by sales of Fifty Shades of Grey. Amis’s opinions were so hotly felt that he and his friend Salman Rushdie once disagreed violently enough about the merits of Samuel Beckett that Rushdie asked Amis to step outside to resolve the matter.

Literary Birthday: Toni Morrison

Unlike many novelists who became household names, Toni Morrison (born today in 1931 as Chloe Anthony Wofford; Anthony was her confirmation name, and led to her friends calling her “Toni”) had a professional career as well. She taught at universities like Howard and Princeton, and spent nearly two decades as a fiction editor at Random House.

As an editor she nurtured the careers of several black novelists, while also publishing everything from Muhammad Ali’s autobiography to The Black Book, a groundbreaking anthropological look at the black American experience.

In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her acceptance speech, she mused on her legacy and the meaning of what she and her community of writers did: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

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?