Writer’s Desk: Story Over Style

The late graphic designer Milton Glaser was respected not just for his iconic creations (everything from DC Comics’ “bullet” logo to “I Heart New York”) but for what he had to say about creativity.

One of his best-known advice essays was a talk he gave called “10 Things I Have Learned.” While some are likely more relevant to the design business than other creative endeavors, lesson six is one that writers will want to keep in mind: “Style is Not to be Trusted”:

It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty.

There are many writers who may unthinkingly box themselves in. Because they have always written narrative essays, they may think they cannot try fiction. Or a writer of cozy mysteries may not follow an idea for an autobiographical sketch dealing with family trauma because that is not “their style.”

Glaser’s point was more about not chasing trends, which is also valuable advice for any artist.

But in the end, it’s the story that counts, not your style.

Writer’s Desk: Speaking Out Loud

When David Sedaris is trying to determine what works or not in his writing, he test-drives it in front of an audience:

Sedaris says that he has usually rewritten a story about eight times before he tries it in front of an audience, where he ends up reading it and making tweaks up to 40 times before it is published. What he learns during those readings accounts for about 20% of the changes he makes in his text.

“If something is on its feet, I can make it stronger by reading it out loud,” he says. “When I’m reading things on stage, I try to be a little bit different every night. It takes you a week just to learn how to read it. But if you read it only once? That’s why all those stories in Barrel Fever seem so crude to me now.” These days, he says, by the time he records an audio book, he has a well-rehearsed tape in his head…

If you don’t have an audience (at readings, Sedaris will draw a skull next to a bit that doesn’t play well), read your story out loud while recording. Listen to it later and evaluate as though you were hearing a different person. Edit accordingly and without fear of hurting the writer’s feelings. In the end, no matter how harsh your feedback, it will be more generous than many readers.

Writer’s Desk: We Do Language

Toni Morrison in 2008 (Angela Radulescu)

For this week’s installment, we’re providing not so much advice as a reminder of what we do when we write.

In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her acceptance speech, she said this:

Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives…

We work in words. Sometimes, those words live on after us.

Do good work. Make Toni proud.

Writer’s Desk: Something Every Day

The poet William Stafford (1914–1993) had a fairly disciplined four-part approach to his daily writing task.
But the key element to his process is the last, where he advises this:
For this day, again, you give yourself a chance to discover worthy things. Nothing stupendous may occur… but if you do not bring yourself to this point, nothing stupendous will happen for sure… and you will spend the balance of your day in blind reaction to the imperatives of the outer world — worn down, buffeted, diminished, martyred.
Get something down on paper each and every day. Leave yourself open to something wonderful. Or terrible.
You can edit later.