Writer’s Desk: Amuse Yourself

In her 1966 primer, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) had some choice advice for what writers should do. Above all, she said:

The first person you should think of pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers and the readers can and will come later.

This should probably not be taken to mean that if you hit a rough patch in your writing to immediately abandon ship. But if you have difficulty sustaining interest in your topic, it is almost certain readers will do the same.

Writer’s Desk: Nothing Wrong with Imitation

You could spend a good part of your life just trying to catch up with the output of Larry McMurty, who passed away this week. Screenplays (Brokeback Mountain), essays, nonfiction, and novels galore (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove). He was also one of the country’s great used book merchants.

He once gave Texas Monthly some very straightforward advice for what he would tell young writers to do:

The most important preparation for writing is reading. Certainly for me and most people I know. Trying to imitate the writers that we love to read. That’s what got us all started…. It doesn’t hurt you to read a lot. In fact, it’s better that you read a lot. You’ll find the right ones.

So if anybody reads what you have done and says that it reminds them of another writer, own up to it. Say McMurty told you to do it.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Worry About Grammar

People make assumptions about writers. That we have some magical talent bestowed by the muses. That we have read everything under the sun. That we really want to take a look at their sheaf of poems or 30-page memoir about their “quite interesting” life and murmur encouraging things.

Assumptions are also made about our mastery of the job’s more technical aspects. They may not understand that many (alright, some; alright, myself) are often getting by more on instinct. We know what sounds correct and pleasing. But please do not ask us to explain ourselves.

Joan Didion had a lot to say about this very specific kind of imposter syndrome. She once wrote:

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. 

Which brings to mind a memory from a first-year college English class. Handing back a paper slashed to ribbons with red ink, my professor asked in a tone of baffled incredulity, “Have you ever heard of a comma splice?”

My blank expression was answer enough. I was used to playing by ear. I continue to do so today.

Writer’s Desk: Let It Rip

In his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Jack Kerouac had some ideas for how to get things down on paper. Jack being Jack, most of those ideas pivoted around identifying the smoldering ember of creativity and using that to set the kindling of your prose ablaze. Some fragments of dharma:

  • “Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.”
  • “Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion.”
  • “If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance.”

In short, as Dean Moriarty would say, “Blow, man! Blow!”

Writer’s Desk: Edit After You Write

In “How to Practice,” Ann Patchett writes about what she learned when helping a childhood friend clean out her late father’s apartment, and how it reminded her of writing. In short, she says you cannot do two things at once:

I made the decision to wait until we’d finished with the entire house before trying to find a place for the things we were getting rid of. This was a lesson I’d picked up from my work: writing must be separate from editing, and if you try to do both at the same time nothing will get done.

Compare this to filmmakers, some of whom (Spielberg, Soderbergh) are known for editing as they go to save on unnecessary filming. To some degree, writers must do the same, since if you put down everything, you will never finish. Still, Patchett has a point. When you are writing, write. Let it pour out, and worry about editing later.

Within reason, of course.

Writer’s Desk: One Idea per Sentence

Though Bill Bryson takes on large subjects, including but not limited to the history of everything, he tries to keep things simple. In his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, he gave some particularly specific advice:

There is no quota on periods. When an idea is complicated, break it up and present it in digestible chunks. One idea to a sentence is still the best advice that anyone has ever given on writing.

Writer’s Desk: Create Something New

The late James Gunn, the Hugo-winning science fiction novelist and editor who passed away in December, had this to say in a 2017 interview about connecting writing with purpose:

I feel I earn my place here on Earth each day when I am able to create something that wasn’t there before, and, in turn, some of these things enter stories that influence people…

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Writer’s Desk: Care About the Right Things

Paul Beatty, author of the incredible novel The Sellout, wrote about some things he wished he had known when he was starting out:

I felt a bit of pressure that if I wanted to be an author, I’d have be relatable, tell people what they wanted to hear, what they believed to be true about themselves, if not the world around them. Be like one to those corny Netflix stand-up comedians who win the (always overwhelmingly white) audience over by pillorying the easy target, pretending we’re all in this together, cultivating what Jerry Seinfeld calls the “we agree applause”.

He realized that worrying about everything outside the actual words on the page is mostly wasted effort:

I can’t say I’ve ever stopped worrying about becoming an author, and it’s not that I ever actively tried to become one, but I did stop thinking about trying. Reading WG Sebald’s Austerlitz and Percival Everett’s Erasure, listening to Bernadette Mayer and Rebecca Solnit talk about their forthcoming projects Helens of Troy and Infinite City, respectively, helped to remind me that the work is about the work…

Literary Birthday: Ayn Rand

Born today in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Ayn Rand (birth name: Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum) came to America in 1926 and quickly decamped for Hollywood. Even though her philosophically iconoclastic novels like Atlas Shrugged (1957) would later make her a libertarian icon, Rand started her creative career knocking out scripts for Cecil B. DeMille at $25 a week.

Years later, the rabidly anti-Soviet writer (Bolsheviks had taken her father’s store in the revolution) returned to the movie industry in different way: Writing a pamphlet for a group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Screen Guide for Americans advised filmmakers on ways that they could keep their work All-American. Its many handy tips ranged from advice on selection of collaborators (“Do not hire Reds”) to artistic choices (“Don’t present all the poor as good and all the rich as evil”). 

Literary Birthday: Norman Mailer

When not heaving out controversy-grabbing articles and books, Norman Mailer (born today in 1915) was making a big stink of showing up at protest marches, running for office, or gabbing out of both sides of his mouth on some talk show. His books and articles were often reflections of that garrulous gasbag personality.

His 1967 novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, is a case in point. A stream-of-consciousness rant from a high unreliable narrator that draws from the Beats, Philip Roth, and Mailer’s own slurry of impressions of a degraded and violent America, the book baffled more than a few readers, who did not understand why a book set almost entirely on a father-son hunting trip in Alaska did not even make any overt connection to its title until the famous last line: “Vietnam, hot damn.”

Writer’s Desk: Follow Your Own Advice

Writers do not lack for advice. They are, in fact, drowning in it. This very site adds another drop to that flood most weeks; hopefully not entirely in vain.

Yes, sage advice from working authors can be crucial to those of us struggling to get words (the right words) on a page each day that do not embarrass us and hopefully put something new and fresh and true out in the world.

But that will only get you so far. This is what Richard Wright (Native Son) knew.

In 1945, in a letter Wright wrote to the artist Antonio Frasconi, he said:

I hold that, on the last analysis, the artist must bow to the monitor of his imagination, must be led by the sovereignty of his own impressions and perceptions.

You will not get anywhere without listening to what you have to say.

Writer’s Desk: Get the Details Right

In her novel The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner mined the details of her life in San Francisco, specifically growing up on the Pacific side in downmarket Sunset, long before Silicon Valley. Here is how she described it:

The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. It was us girls in the back of someone’s primered Charger or Challenger riding those short, but long, forty-eight blocks to the beach, one boy shotgun with a stolen fire extinguisher, flocking people on street corners, randoms blasted white…

Given the litter of specifics there, you can not only imagine the scene but feel Kushner’s tart pride in recalling everything. That same instinct could turn to insult when reading an author who lets their attention slip, doesn’t remember that it was “forty-eight blocks to the beach”.

In Kushner’s essay, “The Hard Crowd,” she writes about her time in Haight-Ashbury, in the detritus of the 1960s, with Oliver Stone shooting The Doors on her doorstep. Sidelining from that, she takes aim at another California-reared scribe, Joan Didion:

In her eponymous “White Album” essay, Joan Didion insists that Jim Morrison’s pants are “black vinyl,” not black leather. Did you notice? She does this at least three times, refers to Jim Morrison’s pants as vinyl.

Kushner then pens an imaginary letter of complaint:

Dear Joan:

Record albums are made out of vinyl. Jim Morrison’s pants were leather, and even a Sacramento débutante, a Berkeley Tri-Delt, should know the difference.

Sincerely,

Rachel

Get those little details right. Get them wrong, and a reader who knows will be instantly pulled out of your writing. Possibly never to return.

Do your research, and keep them coming back for more.

Writer’s Desk: Only If You Have To

Around the time of the release of his documentary Harmontown, the ridiculously prolific and idea-rich writer Dan Harmon (Ricky & Morty, Community) took part in an AMA on Reddit, where he delivered some tips on the trade.

This one hit home:

Nobody can tell you that it’s going to work out. Outcome can’t be controlled. We’re not luck writers; we’re screenwriters. So all one screenwriter can say to another is, ‘Hey, it’s a tough racket for a really long time with random pockets of insanely good fortune to be found.’ Would you write screenplays if you were on a desert island? If the answer is yes, you should stick with it, because what the hell else are you going to do that’s going to make you happy?

While he’s specifically talking about screenwriting, which is its own kind of death-by-committee trade, the same lens should be used to view any kind of writing.

In other words, if you can do something else with your time, go and do that thing. It will certainly make you happier than writing.

(h/t: No Film School)

Literary Birthday: Susan Sontag

When Susan Sontag (born today in 1933) published Notes on Camp in 1964, she was already something of an enfant terrible in the literary world. This inventively formatted and passionately argued book-length essay further fueled her reputation at a time when the lines between high and low culture were blurring fast.

In elliptical fashion, the normally fiery critic danced around defining camp (“a certain mode of aestheticism”) and tried to give some idea of the overwrought and self-conscious (except when it isn’t) artifacts that are part of the camp canon: Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake, King Kong, Flash Gordon, and “stag movies seen without lust.”

The next year, Sontag entered herself into the evolving canon of camp—its droll downtown Manhattan subdivision, at least—by sitting for one of Andy Warhol’s “screen tests.”