Writer’s Desk: Write Like it Matters

New York, New York. Library of the New York Times newspaper. Editors and writers can look up every conceivable subject and get information not available in the "morgue"

This week, Harper’s published a piece from a list of writers ranging from J.K. Rowling to Malcolm Gladwell, Todd Gitlin, Dexter Filkins, and Dahlia Lithwick – as well as a range of other public intellectuals and artists (Zephyr Techout to Bill T. Jones and Gloria Steinem) – titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”

Here’s the gist:

We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us…

Harper’s

Remember your Ray Bradbury: “If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.”

Don’t think about what people will think. Use your judgement. Be thoughtful, yet unsparing. Write what is true. Put your soul into it.

If not, why bother?

Writer’s Desk: Ignore Success

As a writer, one generally understands that your work is most likely going to be overlooked by the vast majority of humanity. That doesn’t mean you don’t hope for some vindication in the form of some nice reviews and maybe even a royalty check every now and again. But expecting any kind of reward like that is a recipe for disappointment.

On the other end of the spectrum is the recently late Charles Webb. The author of The Graduate and Hope Springs, he spent most of his career doing everything possible to avoid success. Per The New York Times, Webb:

gave away homes, paintings, his inheritance, even his royalties from The Graduate, which became a million-seller after the movie’s success, to the benefit of the Anti-Defamation League. He awarded his £10,000 [about $12,530] payout from Hope Springs as a prize to a performance artist named Dan Shelton, who had mailed himself to the Tate Modern in a cardboard box…

That does not mean that if you are so lucky as to have a book that gets made into a generational classic movie you should give your money to a performance artist. But if you are waiting for a big (or any) payday, you may have chosen the wrong profession.

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Writer’s Desk: Move to Paris

Sometimes you just want to chuck it all and move to Paris. That’s how travel writer Edwina Hart ended up there after reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in her twenties (a dangerous thing to do when young and unmoored from adult responsibilities). She got an attic studio apartment in Montemarte and proceeded to fall in love with the city, particularly Hemingway’s beloved Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

After losing her apartment, Hart blew into the bookstore as one of its resident “Tumbleweeds” (“a title given to fledgling writers that live in the bookshop for free based on the proviso they ‘read a book a day'”). According to Hart:

Although little writing was ever done, I began to truly feel like a writer. I adopted the French art of flaneuring – wandering around without intention or direction. Armed with observations of Parisian life, I would scribble my thoughts down at street-side cafes or in the shade of chestnut trees in Jardin du Luxembourg (where Hemingway used to hunt pigeons to feed his family). On weekends, Tumbleweeds would make crepes in the kitchen of George’s apartment above the shop. Sunday afternoons were spent attending tea parties run by an octogenarian Welsh poet who regaled us with stories of how George used to cut his hair by setting it alight with a candle, or leave his shop entrusted to an unwitting customer, only to return a week later…

Little writing was ever done. Nevertheless, sometimes it helps to just feel like a writer.

Writer’s Desk: Give It Time

In 1948, Evelyn Waugh sent a letter to Thomas Merton in which he offered the following bit of advice from one writer to another:

Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask “Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way?”…

Wall Street Journal

You might disagree with Waugh’s usage of “plebeian” here (he was, after all, one of the great snobs of English literature, a genre already replete with the type). But the point remains solid: Take a second. Look again. That sentence you thought was carved with beautiful simplicity like a jewel could now show itself to be a bit baggy, in need of a little more carving.

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 Corner: Maintain Momentum

Waiting for inspiration is no way to write. One has to have a routine. Granted, that routine is likely to be a messy one. Take Lionel Shriver’s glimpse into her daily writing schedule:

Start with large, strong coffee. Read paper, doesn’t much matter which one. Concentrate on little stories. Dostoevsky snatched scads of ideas from newspapers. Self could not make this stuff up, so why bother?

…DO NOT LOOK AT EARLIER CHAPTERS. Do not pour through thousands of words searching for whatever Self called some character’s yappy dog several chapters back. First drafts rely on MOMENTUM. Refining adjectives does not count as work. Solving what-does-she-say-next and why-would-he-do-that, or making daily effort to construct at least one paragraph justifying stupid book’s existence – one paragraph other people might conceivably want to read in sloshing sea of unnecessary, look-at-me prose in which whole world is drowning – this is work.

There are writers who do not feel comfortable unless their prose has been raked over a dozen times until it is clean and sparkling bright. That can be done at one’s leisure, but as Shriver notes, momentum is all. If you don’t maintain a steady pace (helped along by routine) then you will not have anything to review later.

Writer’s Desk: Who Cares What They Say

The ineffably brilliant John Berryman was never a popular poet. But those who know his work tend to be, shall we say, highly committed to singing his praises. His style was raw and jangled, symphonic and bluesy, the sort of thing that hits you in the heart and makes you imagine everything terrible and beautiful in the world.

Of course, that also makes him not everybody’s cup of tea. His advice to young writers who are trying to make a go of it, and facing some resistance?

I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.

The Paris Review

Writer’s Desk: Start a Fight

Perhaps not literally. But writing is perception. And one way to test your perception is to try out multiple takes on the same thing and see the result.

Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club) has an approach she uses in her memoir-writing class:

…these are young, very smart people who are very confident about their memories and mostly should be. But I stage a fight, either with a colleague or with a student. And then I ask them to write what happened.

The result is often humbling, as the students write their accounts and then discover just how much they get wrong.

Maybe instead of a fight, you can try going to a place at a particular time of day, spend a quarter-hour there, leave and write about your memory of it. Then return a week later at the same time of day and see how close you were.

Writer’s Desk: Build Your Space

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

Lawrence Wright is one of our greatest living nonfiction writers. One of the reasons for this is that he spends the time doing the work. By work, he means doing an incredible amount of background investigation. Even his recent novel The End of October (about a pandemic, curiously enough), is mined from a ridiculous amount of research.

To be productive, though, it also helps to have a good writing space. Wright made his own, to spec:

I have a wonderful office that I’ve built in my house. David Remnick came to dinner one night and he called it “Writer Porn.” It’s something I’ve made especially for writing, and a desk I designed especially for writing. I have a white board, where I sketch outlines of projects. The most distinctive thing is my writer’s desk, which I had built about 30 years ago. It’s a bit Star Trek-y. It has wings curved around so I can have my manuscripts left and right, facing me. It’s a wonderful design for a writer and I’ve never seen it replicated. 

We can’t all make our own desks. But a comfortable, productive place helps us relax, focus, filter out the noise, and focus on the work.

Writer’s Desk: Create a Manifesto

When you are in doubt about your next steps — whether as an artist or just as a person — it cannot hurt to lay out your goals.

Witness Lorraine Hansberry. After moving to New York from Chicago and before storming Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun, she was writing poetry and journalism, finding her way. She was determined to get somewhere, though. Imani Perry’s biography Looking for Lorraine, quotes from a letter Hansberry sent to her boyfriend:

1. I am a writer. I am going to write.
2. I am going to become a writer.
3. Any real contribution I can make to the movement can only be the result of a disciplined life. I am going to institute discipline in my life.
4. I can paint. I am going to paint.
The END

Manifestos can clarify your intentions. They also keep you accountable later. Write your own. Pin it up by your desk. Look at it every day. Except maybe Sunday. That day can be for reading.

Writer’s Desk: It’s Not That Serious

In “James Taylor Marked for Death” the great rock critic Lester Bangs had this to say about art, creativity, and their appreciation:

Number one, everybody should realize that all this “art” and “bop” and “rock-’n’-roll” and whatever is all just a joke and a mistake, just a hunka foolishness so stop treating it with any seriousness or respect at all and just recognize the fact that it’s nothing but a Wham-O toy to bash around as you please in the nursery … The first mistake of Art is to assume that it’s serious.

Remember the same is true about writing. Unless it is time to take it seriously.

If you can tell the difference between the two, you have a shot at making it.

Writer’s Desk: Create Dangerously

Albert Camus did not approach the act of writing lightly. Although he gets lumped in with a certain class of French intellectuals whose headiness got in their way, Camus used a clean and light touch in his work. Any of us who have gone back to his unnervingly relevant novel The Plague these last few weeks have rediscovered just how brisk and energetic he can be.

But Camus also thought risk was a necessary part of the writing life. In his lesser-known 1958 tract Create Dangerously, Camus stated that the role of the artist was to place themselves directly in the toss and tumult of modern life. To invite rather than shy away from risk and critique:

Every publication is a deliberate act, and that act makes us vulnerable to the passions of a century that forgives nothing.

If that was true in the 20th century, it is doubly so now.

Write like nothing else matters. What else makes sense?

Writer’s Desk: Throw Most of It Away

There are times when your writing project takes forever. You head to the keyboard each day, knowing that you will emerge on the other side with naught but a few sentences, as fought-over as a few square yards of Flanders mud during an interminable battle in the First World War. But that can be worth it in the end.

There are other times when the fight means that you’re not going where you need to go. In that instance, consider the “inspired demolition job” Jenny Offill did on her novel Dept. of Speculation:

After spending years on a longer, more traditional novel that refused to come together, Offill stopped trying to force it; instead, she wrote out what she considered the best bits on index cards, then shuffled them around until she arrived at something she was happy with. The streamlined version, made up of elliptical yet propulsive fragments, many of them no more than a sentence long, tells the story of a marital crisis with the efficiency of a comic strip. Suggestive snippets of dialogue and description are juxtaposed with surreal factoids and literary quotes; Offill trusts the reader will know how to put these pieces together.

Giles Harvey, The New York Review of Books

Trust the reader. Trust yourself. Leave out everything you do not absolutely need and let the reader figure it out.

Writer’s Desk: Fast, Cheap, and Good

Jim Jarmusch once told me Fast, Cheap, and Good… pick two. If it’s fast and cheap it wont be good. If it’s cheap and good it won’t be fast. If it’s fast and good it wont be cheap. Fast, cheap and good… pick (2) words to live by.

-Tom Waits

Do with that what you will. But cheap and good sounds like a good combination for your average writer.

Writer’s Desk: Be Ruthless

One of the greater speculative fiction writers of our time, China Mieville — imagine H.P. Lovecraft filtered through Kafka and Neal Stephenson with a generous dose of Marxism — talked to Clarkesworld magazine about his writing practice.

For Mieville, his productivity comes in spurts. But that doesn’t mean he is undisciplined:

I’m ruthless with early drafts, as one has to be … More and more as I get older and as I change as a writer, so what tends to happen is the first draft tends to be quite long and maybe quite flabby, then I’ll trim that down. There can be occasions when it’s very difficult because there are some sections that you really want to keep in, but, at the same time, you know that you probably ought to get rid of that bit. Sometimes, you have to be quite ruthless with yourself.

It’s good advice. After all, if a writer isn’t ruthless with themselves, it’s almost a guarantee that their readers will be.