At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What a Writer Should Understand

Writers Are Not Normal People
Writers believe, secretly, that they are different from most people. Deep down, writers think that they have thoughts and feelings other people don’t have. This is probably not true, but it could be.  I’ve never answered the question to my own satisfaction. But the feeling of being unique, of having singular thoughts and feelings, is a prerequisite for sitting down to write. Writers express thoughts that most people leave unsaid, unrecorded, unexamined.

People who Don’t Write
Don’t write for several reasons. They are overwhelmed by real life: health problems, restraining orders, poverty, personal chaos. They don’t write because it’s not in their nature, their family, their background; writing is a mysterious thing that only select group of gifted people can do. They don’t write because they are more than happy to leave certain things unsaid; to let family skeletons lie. I once wrote a particularly close-to-the bone essay about staying home with the kids while my wife went off to grad school for two years. The piece, as I look back, was about me working through being pissed off about the whole deal, and back to love. A non-writer friend read it, and blurted, “I would never say that stuff!” I didn’t want to state the obvious: “saying stuff” is what writers do. Some potentially good writers don’t write because it’s no way to make a living. A writer works for weeks, months, even years on projects large and small, and only when finished does he asked to be paid–and the answer is usually “No.” What kind of crazy job is that?

The persistent writer, then, is the true odd duck in the human family. Everybody else is enjoying life–living it–while the writer is home examining life (essays) or else recreating life (fiction) on paper. “What good is sitting alone in your room?/Come hear the music play!” the writer’s friends and family say. Their siren call is usually not as explicit as the line from Cabaret, but the message is there nonetheless. But let’s imagine that you have gotten beyond those voices in your head, and remain serious about writing. You’d like to write––essays, poetry, short stories, novels, scripts, whatever––and someday see yourself in print. Below are some thoughts on that whole arduous, wonderful, always-changing process. And don’t kid yourself: writing is nearly always a process, and hardly ever a miracle.

One Last Thought
Before we get serious on the matter of writing (there’s still time for you to get the heck out of here–outside to where the sun is shining and people are riding their bikes and throwing the old ball around and the music is playing). There’s a story about a famous older broadcaster, possibly Eric Severeid, who was approached by an eager young journalism student. The student pitched himself, his credentials, then blurted: “Do you think I should go into broadcasting?” The veteran newsman simply said, “No. Look for other work.” The student went away, crestfallen. Later, he wrote Severeid an angry letter. Severeid replied, “I always say ‘No,’ because those who really have the fire, the persistence, will ignore my advice and become broadcasters in spite of me.”

It’s the same with writing. If you’re driven to write, you’ll eventually succeed at one level or another. But be forewarned: it’s way less about luck or knowing the right people or getting an agent than it is about persistence and hard work.

Explain To Me One Last Time Why You Feel the Need to Write?
Freud had a famous statement about why artists create.  I mentioned this in a previous entry.  Subconsciously, he suggested, it was for “Honor, Power, Riches, Fame and the Love of Women.” The “Honor” part I can see; one writes to express something that needs to be said–for example, a protest, early on, against the run-up to the Iraq War. There is personal honor in saying, “But the king has no clothes.” However, if your main goal in writing is to see yourself in print, and by extension become powerful, rich and loved, you’re in trouble from the get-go. People who see writing as vehicle to wealth and fame hardly ever succeed. If, on the other hand, you are a person who is sincerely engaged by the beauty, wonder and brutally of life; if you are moved to say something about that–and in doing so, figure out your own life– then you’re on the right track.

And I swear this is the last one: if you want to write mainly about the dark corners of life, that’s easy to do. There’s a lot of material. There’s even a chance you’ll get published and become wealthy. Your forbearers include Jack Kerouac, Walter Mosley, Kathy Acker the punk novelist, John Sandford and the scribbling horde of murder novelists (as distinguished from murder-mystery novelists), plus writers in the new, lurid genre of “true crime.” However, writers who, by very hard work and force of will, manage to break through the sad parts of life, and arrive at that small, beating heart of human generosity, good will and unbreakable spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity–it’s those writers whose work will find publication, be taken seriously, and have a long life in print.

I’m not talking here about writing simple, happy fiction; rather I’m saying that it’s easy to write about the gloomy side of the human condition, and stop there. What’s difficult is to keep going, to find one’s way back to The Good. As Woody Allen said, “We have to be optimistic; what’s the alternative?” Or a quote I like even better, from French writer Jean Cocteau: "Writing should be an act of love; otherwise, it's just paperwork."

But write what you need to write. It will vary from project to project. Just try to think a bit, before you start, about why you write in the first place. It can help you avoid lesser ideas, and get you closer to subjects of depth and significance.

Ideas Plus
There’s no limit to range of writing subjects, which is why, when you happen upon one, you should toss it around a bit first. Thump it, squeeze it, sniff it to make sure its ripe. You’ll never quite know until you open it up, but there are a few things you can do to improve the odds.

First, it’s nearly always good to write more about less. How big is your idea, plot, subject? James Michener’s novel, Centennial, begins in the beginning, with single cell slime growing emerging in ponds, then goes on to dinosaurs, as it traces the history (all of it!) of the northern great plains and eventual rise of the town of Centennial, Colorado. Contrast it with a James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce’s novel takes place over the course of one day, June 16, 1904 (“Bloom’s Day”), in Dublin, Ireland. Both writers pull it off, but Michener created a great deal more work himself, Joyce’s style notwithstanding. My young adult novel Full Service takes place over the course of a summer, and its setting is confined largely a gas station wherein the narrator gets a close look at everything that goes on in his small town. Short stories usually have even shorter calendars. Consider Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” (a brief afternoon), my story “Dispersal” (a couple of hours) about a farm auction, or Kate Chopin’s famous “Story of An Hour.”

Just to be Clear
We should pause here and sort two things: writing more about less (WMAL), and the time frame (TF) of your piece. While closely connected, they are different. WMAL has a lot to do with style, that is, the quality of your sentences, and your description in particular. You can write about the Vietnam War, you can write about the Battle of Khe Sanh, or you can write about the things soldiers carried (Tim O’Brien). Limiting your fictional TF is nearly always a good thing for your style, which will naturally become more focused descriptively, and more particular in image and detail, the more you limit your field of vision. It’s hard to write in much detail about the passage from Paleolithic to Mezozaic eras. With more time to kill, it’s possible to write much better sentences about a little old lady on a park bench, wearing a fur stole, a mink collar a la mode back then, which included the critter’s little feet, dried nose and small glass eyes.

Below is poem of mine that bears generally on what I’ve said above about WMAL and TF:

My Summer
Calendar is a field of oats
Drilled in April, fine green hair 
breaking into May,

A billion blue spears
 turning over June.
July a short arm high topped 
with a raggedy haze of kernels

Goat-bearded, fine, sleeved 
like tiny ears of corn,
Chewy, milky between the teeth as blue-green waves turn blond,

Stalks thinning, drying in high sun.
Swathed windrows float the sharp stubble 
of August.
Tawny Anacondas sunning 
across the field, baking
In the 
rippling heat, exhaling 
through their rough skin,

Husk and hull loosening 
their grip on the heart of summer.

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