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.