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.”

Writer’s Desk: Once Again, With Feeling

A few days after 9/11, Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian about the aftermath of the tragedy, the shock it had caused in the people he knew. Despite the world-spanning nature of the events, he noted that “the reckoning, of course, was with the personal.”

In describing how people channeled their traumatized watching into fantasies and daydreams that limn the cracks in the “terrible actuality”, McEwan hits on something essential in these imaginings about “what if it was me?”:

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion … Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

Your writing does not have to overtly engage with ethical quandaries in order to be moral. All it needs to do is whisk the reader into another person’s consciousness. By doing so, fiction can breed understanding.

Writer’s Desk: Invite the Reader In

In her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown“, Virginia Woolf described the phantom form that books can take for writers, a little figure (who identifies in this instance as “Brown”) and says “Catch me if you can.” That infuriating chase makes up the bulk of a writer’s life:

And so, led on by this will-o’-the-wisp, they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in the pursuit, and receiving for the most part very little cash in exchange. Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair…

And what to do when you have finally caught the phantom? How to bring the reader in to witness the glory of your catch? Treat them as a guest:

The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut…

If you give the reader something familiar to hang on to, they will be more likely to follow you anywhere.

(H/T: LitHub)

Writer’s Desk: Find the Time

John Cheever had a fairly simple formula for writing. He explained it once when meeting a wonderstruck Michael Chabon:

Writing was a practice. The more you wrote, the better a writer you became and the more books you produced. Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both. 

For Cheever, though, this meant there was little room for anything else. Children? Cheever called them “notorious thieves of time.”

Of course, Chabon went on to father four children and publish 14 books, including masterpieces like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Wonder Boys. So he must have figured out some way to budget his time.

Writer’s Desk: Art is Not Therapy

Art Spiegelman created some of the greatest literature of the 20th century by translating his and his family’s history into indelible art.

At the same time, he thinks it is more complicated than simply putting one’s thoughts, worries, and pain on the page. As he told Vulture:

Therapy is vomiting things up. Art is about eating your own vomit. There’s a therapeutic aspect to all making, but the nature of working is to compress, condense, and shape stuff, not to just expunge it. It’s not just an exorcism…

There can be nothing braver than coming clean in your writing.

But bravery is just the starting point.

Writer’s Desk: Follow the Scent

Here is Louise Glück telling Poets & Writers about her process:

When I’m trying to put a poem or a book together, I feel like a tracker in the forest following a scent, tracking only step to step. It’s not as though I have plot elements grafted onto the walls elaborating themselves. Of course, I have no idea what I’m tracking, only the conviction that I’ll know it when I see it.

One might imagine it’s actually better for the writer when they have no idea what they will find.

Writer’s Desk: Use Your Memories

In his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” Haruki Murakami talks about his memories as a capacious warehouse filled with odds and ends which he can draw upon for his fiction:

We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story…

He goes on to evoke Steven Spielberg’s E.T.:

There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player … [E.T.] manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing.

Pack your head with memories and ransack them at will. Don’t worry if they do not seem to make sense together at first. They will.

Writer’s Desk: Start Small

Nobody would ever accuse Mark Helprin of avoiding the big topics. His better novels (Winter’s Tale, Refiner’s Fire) rope in war time, global adventure, and magic realism, all of it written in grand leaping prose.

But when he talks about his inspiration for writing, he talks instead about going smaller:

We create nothing new — no one has ever imagined a new color — so what you are doing is revitalizing. You are remembering, then combining, altering. Artists who think they’re creating new worlds are simply creating tiny versions of this world…

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Hide Your Influences

In an interview published in Projections 11, director Jim Jarmusch talked about all the influences he put on screen in his 1999 genre mash-up Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai:

I’m not going to play a game like all those ideas are original and they’re mine: I want to talk about where they came from, because if someone sees Ghost Dog and it leads them to see films by [Jean-Pierre] Melville or Point Blank by John Boorman, or the films of Seijun Suzuki, or to read Don Quixote or something that I mention in the credits, then that’s a good thing…

If something inspired you to write, there is no reason to hide it. Putting that out there could lead somebody else to be inspired as well.

Writer’s Desk: Say It Out Loud. Again.

The great and ever-acerbic Martin Amis has a new book out, Inside Story, which appears to be pretty juicy and part of that popular new sub-genre of quasi-nonfiction “novels”. (He also appears in the great new documentary The Meaning of Hitler which is showing in some festivals now and should be tracked down with all speed.)

Whether he’s expounding on tyrants or the cynical complexities of the London smart set, Amis delivers sharp prose that has reads as though it has been turned over on a lathe until every rough or unfinished particle has been removed. So if he has a bit of advice to provide, it is worth listening to. Here is something he offered at the Chicago Humanities Festival:

Saying the sentence, self-vocalizing it in your head until there’s nothing wrong with it.

If it does not sound right when you say it aloud, it probably will not read right on the page.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Tell Them Everything

In this interview with the New York Public Library, Pico Iyer explains why it is best for writers to retain some sense of mystery:

Let this book hover somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Let me give the reader no clue about how to categorize it before she begins or even after she’s finished. Let me put the reader on alert, on edge, not knowing what she’s going to get into.

If your reader has no idea what you are about to do, then everything can be a surprise.

Writer’s Desk: Getting Past the Fear

25 years ago, Bonnie Friedman sat down and let all the things that stymied her as a writer just flow out. Her guide, Writing Past Dark, is out now in an anniversary edition.

LitHub talked to Friedman about what led to that book:

There were a lot of things I did that made me suffer as a writer, and I wanted to learn why I did them. For instance, I routinely sickened myself with envy in bookstores. And, I was so afraid of getting right to work in the morning that I did a bunch of chores first and set everything as straight as possible before sitting down, by which point I was tired and there wasn’t enough time left. Also, ambient sounds seemed so interruptive that, even in a frigid Massachusetts winter, I set an air conditioner on my coffee table and turned it on for its enveloping roar. And if a short story received more than two rejections I chucked it forever into a bottom bin, ashamed…

Be proud of your work. It helps.