Writer’s Desk: Find a Safe Space

BlackBeautyCoverFirstEd1877.jpegThe life of a writer is usually a precarious one, for those of us who make their living solely on their wits and their pen. The lucky ones do not have to hustle all day and night from one assignment and check to the next, but are actually employed to write as part of their job. Whether or not that writing is what they want to do (and if not, there’s always the weekend and mornings to work on the novel), it’s always a relief to be employed to do what one loves.

The great journalist A. J. Liebling—who found his base of operations at the New Yorker—once compared his fellow ink-stained wretches to a certain famous fictitious horse:

The pattern of a newspaperman’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty. Sometimes he finds a kind master who gives him a dry stall and an occasional bran mash in the form of a Christmas bonus, sometimes he falls into the hands of a mean owner who drives him in spite of spavins and expects him to live on potato peelings…

Sometimes this can mean swallowing one’s pride. But if the stall is nice, frequently mucked out, and comes replete with fresh hay and the occasional apple, that comfort can leave more time for doing what you are meant to do: Write.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Just Write Your Story, Live Your Story

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(New York Public Library)

Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans, once said that to her writing and reading can be acts of generosity:

One of the main reasons I read—and definitely why I write—is to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To try to imagine what life is like for someone who’s different from myself … I’m forced into having empathy for everyone—even someone who I’d normally be upset with, or feel wronged by…

As a result, she views writing as a fully immersive experience:

The moment a character becomes real to me, and their experience becomes real to me, the writing itself almost feels like method acting. When I’m writing a story, which takes me a year or more, I can feel my character living with me—they’re responding to whatever funny, familial, or social situation I’m in, and I think about their responses constantly. This feeling of living alongside a character is one of the most gratifying things about writing, and definitely one of the reasons I do it…

Don’t just imagine your characters. Live them.

Writer’s Desk: Always Have a Project

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Thornton Wilder (c. 1948)

In his latest dispatch for the New Yorker, John McPhee ruminated on all the many many projects he had taken up and never gotten to over the course of his (what looks like to the rest of us mortals) wildly productive writing life.

Trying to put a more positive gloss on a situation that had long bothered him (as it does most writers, who always have at least five unfinished projects for each one they complete), he recollects a lunch he had with his editor and Thornton Wilder many years back. Asked what he was working on, Wilder said:

… he was not actually writing a new play or novel but was fully engaged in a related project. He was cataloguing the plays of Lope de Vega … Four hundred and thirty-one survive. How long would it take to read four hundred and thirty-one plays? How long would it take to summarize each in descriptive detail and fulfill the additional requirements of cataloguing? … Wilder was sixty-six, but to me he appeared and sounded geriatric. He was an old man with a cataloguing project that would take him at least a dozen years. Callowly, I asked him, “Why would anyone want to do that?”

The response is vivid:

Wilder’s eyes seemed to condense. Burn. His face turned furious. He said, “Young man, do not ever question the purpose of scholarship.”

We all need something to do, and keep us going. Especially writers.

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.

Writer’s Desk: Know When to Stop

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Woman Reading by Henri Matisse (1895)

In John Guare’s heart-stopping 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, one of its alternately delusional and searching protagonists is a painter-turned-art dealer named Flan. At one point Flan, who is both criminally mercenary and honestly enraptured by the paintings he flogs, soliloquizes about his past life:

I thought… dreamt… remembered… how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He paints and paints, works on a canvas for months, and then, one day, he loses it. Loses the structure, loses the sense of it. You lose the painting.

There is not a writer around who does not know the feeling. Going along just fine, everything hitting its mark, all the pieces of your structure falling into place like toppling dominoes, and then … nothing. Sometimes you get the piece back. Sometimes it is gone forever. Flan continues:

I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?’ And this is what she said. ‘I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.’

Most of us are not lucky enough to have a second-grade teacher looking over our shoulder. Sometimes a piece needs hours, days, months of work to get it chiseled into shape. Other times, it just needs to be left as is.

If you feel yourself losing the thread, pull back, look again, and know when to let it go.

Writer’s Desk: Philip Pullman

Maybe you are spending January catching up on HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Maybe you are actually taking the long cold winter to get some writing done. If the latter, here are some tips from Pullman himself, courtesy of Radio 4:

Ignore the market and write what you want—Write what you want to write, be the next big thing and not another iteration of a phase that will pass…

Stay at the desk—Resist wandering off, checking social media or making yet another cup of tea. You wouldn’t to miss a brilliant idea because you weren’t there to receive it…

Find the way of writing that works for you—Don’t be tied to how you think you should write if it doesn’t produce anything…

Let the protagonist propel events—It’s useful emotional shorthand for getting your readers invested with your lead…

Explore different formats and genres—Ideas might not necessarily fit into what you’re currently working on. If you know something is a good idea, but just isn’t working, don’t necessarily throw it out…

Writer’s Desk: Love Words More Than Your Voice

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W. H. Auden (c. 1939)

According to legend, or at least a book with the lilting title How Does a Poem Mean?, W. H. Auden was once asked what advice he would give to a young poet. Auden responded that if he asked the young poet why they wanted to write and the answer came back that they thought they had something important to say, Auden’s conclusion was that there was no hope.

However, Auden went on to say that if the answer came back as “I like to hang around words and overhear them talking to one another,” then he thought the young poet might have promise after all.

Following Auden’s line of thought, you could say that if you start with a love of words, their flow and shading and endless permutations, you might get to somewhere important. But starting in grandiloquence will get you nowhere.