Writer’s Desk: Who Knows?

W. Somerset Maugham, the happy-looking chap pictured above, was among the most popular writers in the English language at the height of his career in the 1930s. He had some advice for novelists:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Sometimes the best advice to follow can be your own. Or none at all.

Nota Bene: Movies About Writers, Why?

From Anthony Lane’s despairing review of the biopic Tolkien:

Why do people keep making films about writers? And why do people watch them? It’s not as if writers do anything of interest. Unless you’re Byron or Stendhal, a successful day is one in which you don’t fall asleep with your head on the space bar. An honest film about a writer would be an inaction-packed six-hour trudge, a one-person epic of mooch and mumblecore, the highlights being an overflowing bath, the reheating of cold coffee, and a pageant of aimless curses that are melted into air, into thin air…

Writer’s Desk: What Does Mark Bowden Think?

Sure, Mark Bowden is a bestselling author (Black Hawk Down, Hue 1968, among others). But for many years, he was also a regular journalistic scribe trying to spin gold out of hay. So he knows something about the daily grind and making it work for you, your editor, and your audience.

To wit, here are some tips he gave to Publishers Weekly:

  1. Know something — “Try coming up with 800 words when you have nothing to say; then try when you have just had a new experience. When you’ve learned something—anything—you’ll struggle to stay under the word count.”
  2. Understand what you are trying to do — “A clear answer to that question will help you avoid confusion and cliché.”
  3. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more — “I still listen closely to my editors and usually take their advice. They are your first readers, and they get to talk back. They can tell you if your prose is confusing, boring, boorish, or simply wrong. A writer who doesn’t listen is a fool.”
  4. Be yourself — “Young writers in particular try to sound more learned or sophisticated or official. It’s the fastest way to make a fool of yourself on the printed page.”
  5. Scenes are gold — “Think about your experience as a reader. Pages turn swiftly when we’re reading action or dialogue, while exposition and description can slow things to a crawl.”

Writer’s Desk: It’s Work, Not Inspiration

Marlon James, 2014 (Larry D. Moore)

According to Black Leopard, Red Wolf author and Macalester College professor Marlon James, the only way he can get anything put down on paper is seeing it as work:

When I sit down with my laptop, I go to work. To me, writing is work: that’s part of my process, that it’s a job. I’m a big believer in that if you establish a routine, the muses show up. I love when people say they write when they’re inspired. I’m like, “Oh my God, I haven’t been inspired to write since the Carter administration. How does that work?” I’ve got to pay bills. I can’t wait on inspiration to write a novel. I’d never write anything…

James is far from strictly pragmatic, though. Although writing might be work, it’s also practice, and it’s through practice that the magic happens:

It’s a vocation. It’s practice. Dancers, musicians, and actors know what I’m talking about—I don’t have to convince them. But writers will say things like, “I couldn’t write today because I didn’t feel inspired.” And I’m like, “That’s lovely.” It’s about doing the work—and knowing that inspiration or creativity will show up once they realize you’re serious…

Writer’s Desk: Love Your Characters and Other Rules

Etgar Keret, brilliant creator of collections like The Nimrod Flipout, is one of the greatest living practitioners of the dry, droll, and surreal black comic story.

Interestingly, when he gave Rookie his 10 rules for writing, though, they were quite joyful and optimistic:

  1. Make sure you enjoy writing.
  2. Love your characters.
  3. When you’re writing, you don’t owe anything to anyone.
  4. Always start from the middle.
  5. Try not to know how it ends.
  6. Don’t use anything just because “that’s how it always is.”
  7. Write like yourself.
  8. Make sure you’re all alone in the room when you write.
  9. Let people who like what you write encourage you.
  10. Hear what everyone has to say but don’t listen to anyone (except me).

Writer’s Desk: Take Every Assignment

When Vivian Gornick wanted a job at the Village Voice in the late 1960s, she wrote an article and sent it to them. Editor Dan Wolf then called her up and asked, “Who the hell are you?” She replied, “I don’t know, you tell me.” She got anxious, sent him another article every year or so, and only then asked for a job.

Gornick told Artforum what happened next:

‘[Wolf said] You write one piece a year, how can I give you a job?’ I said, ‘No more, I’ll do anything you ask.’ He said, ‘Spend a day at the Catholic Worker and write a piece about Dorothy Day.’ I did. Then Jack Kerouac died and Wolf said, ‘Go to Lowell, Mass., and report on the funeral.’ I did. One more assignment—and he gave me the job. And that is how I became a writer.

Fight your anxiety.

Keep on pushing.

When the editor tells you to go cover something or somebody, you go and do it.

And that is how you will become a writer.

Writer’s Desk: Read It and Wing It

A notable anti-academic observation on the writing life from Kurt Vonnegut, collected in George Plimpton’s The Writer’s Chapbook:

I grew up in a house crammed with books. But I never had to read a book for academic credit, never had to write a paper about it, never had to prove I’d understood it in a seminar. I am a hopelessly clumsy discusser of books. My experience is nil…