Writer’s Desk: Read to Write

Like all the greats, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an unrepentant bookworm. As she told Stylist:

Read, read, read. I’m not sure that one can be a good writer without being a good reader. If you’re going to build a desk it’s very good to see what other carpenters have done.

It seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many writers forget to take the time to see what great new books are out there. It’s not just good research, it’s also helpful to scope out the competition. See what you’re up against and that will push you to do better.

(h/t: LitHub)

Writer’s Desk: It’s Like Fishing

Here’s how Eric Idle—novelist, doggerelist, once and forever Python—described the act of writing:

Writing and doing. It’s still what I love to do. To go to your chair first thing in the morning with a blank piece of paper and a pencil and find what is lurking in the depths of your unconscious. It’s fascinating. I always compare it to fishing. You never know what you’re going to catch but you must go regularly to the river bank and wait…

He’s right, of course, you do never know what’s going to come out. It could be that paragraph you’ve been honing and teasing and searching for for weeks. Or it could be five more pages of What The Hell Am I Going to Do With This? You never know.

But keep casting your line. The fish will bite. Eventually.

Writer’s Desk: Write Past the Moment

Writing for the moment.

It’s almost impossible not to write in the moment. Even if you’re writing about 17th century mink trappers, unless you cut yourself off from the news completely—or use a version of that sensory deprivation chamber Jonathan Franzen likes to use—the present day is going to creep in.

But while immediacy and relevance have their place, they can’t be allowed to take over your writing completely.

Lauren Oyler has a few smart thoughts about what happens in jittery, politically panicked times like these, when art is so often trapped in the here and now:

Art is infinitely adaptable; it accommodates activism naturally. When used to describe specific works today, however, “necessary” constrains more than it celebrates. If we can access only the essential, we may start to crave the extraneous…

When applied to bad art with good politics, “necessary” allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult. When applied to good art with good, or even ambivalent, politics, it renders aesthetic achievement irrelevant. Not only is that depressing, it also nullifies the political argument in favor of art in the first place: Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?

All our work is ultimately temporary; data corrupts, ink fades, paper crumbles. We don’t need to write for posterity.

But looking past the present helps sharpen that focus on the work itself. Worry about being true and hitting the right note, not being “necessary.”

Writer’s Desk: Get Out There

Tom Wolfe, the great conquistador of New Journalism who died last week at the age of 88, had a problem with modern fiction. For the most part, he thought it stunk. To his way of thinking, all the American novelists of the later 20th century were too stuck in their abstracted heads. That was why he blowtorched the literary establishment with the 1989 Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.

In it, he issued a call for a return to the great reported fiction of the 19th century, in the mold of Dickens and Zola:

Emerson said that every person has a great autobiography to write, if only he understands what is truly his own unique experience. But he didn’t say every person had two great autobiographies to write. Dickens, Dostoyevski, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary…

Wolfe followed that rule for his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, using the same tools of close observation that served his nonfiction so well. Later novels like A Man in Full suffered from his preconceived notions overtaking what he saw on the ground.

But still, Wolfe’s call to get out into the tumult of life is as necessary as ever. You can only learn so much from your desk.

Writer’s Desk: Stay Out of Fashion

Just weeks before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Amherst College in which he talked eloquently about the role of the artist in society:

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style…

So be free and let your writing take you where it wants to go, whether you think it’ll sell or not. As Kennedy said elsewhere in the speech, that’s your duty as an artist. Society depends on you.

Writer’s Desk: Get It Right

They say writers should keep it basic. Don’t do too much. Stay in your lane. That’s good advice, until it’s not.

Jack Kerouac once wrote:

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

This from one of America’s most industrious creators of run-on sentences. But still, Kerouac knew to keep looking, to seek simplicity in his work. Just because he never quite got there doesn’t mean the trip wasn’t worth it.

Writer’s Desk: Philip Glass Drove a Cab

If you’re like most writers, you know that it almost never pays the bills. (The other writers know this, too, they just haven’t admitted it yet.) That means you need to keep working while writing. How do you do both? As usual, it’s whatever works for you. But flexibility is key.

Take composer Philip Glass. He had a couple day jobs that kept the lights on until he was in his 40s. He did some contracting work like plumbing and also building kitchens and putting in heating in SoHo lofts.

An even better fit, though, seemed to be his time as a cabbie. This is what he told Lolade Fadulu:

I would pick up a car, usually around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and I would drive till one or two in the morning, and I would get up early in the morning, actually to take my kids to school, because I had kids growing up in New York at the time. And sometimes I would stay up all through the night, write music, then take the kids to school. Then I would go to sleep around 8 or 9 o’clock and I would wake up around 4 o’clock and go back to the garage or wherever I was going. So I could combine a workday and a regular writing schedule at the same time.

It seems like there should be a good minimalist opera in him about driving the city at night. Or plumbing. Time will tell.