“Only at the end of the day, reading over what I’d done, working through it with a with a green pencil, did I see how far I was from where I wanted to be. In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was pleasure in having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it could mean something. Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.”
—In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War
Category Archives: discovery
When people ask me the personal-experience question, my response is that I write from my personal experiences, whether I’ve had them or not. At first, this sounds like a joke and people laugh, but I’m not joking. Regardless of where I got the experience (or the story “idea”), I treat it personally; if it’s not personal, I don’t want to be involved. . . . I will explore it until I find the personal element and something sparks. Having a feeling for my material means sending myself on each journey, whether I’ve actually been there or not, and it involves the powerful act of the imagination that good writing requires: empathy.—Ron Carlson Writes a Story
Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson. Graywolf Press. 112 pages.
The amazing thing about how-to books on writing is this: some gal or guy who wrote successfully sat down one day and tried really hard to tell you how it was done. That’s not unique to writing books, I guess—entrepreneurs do it, and hit men—but writing is so challenging for most people, and so mysterious to everyone, that the simple fact of someone trying to give away hard-won lessons and secrets is impressive. And humbling.
Which is not to say that every writing book is good or, rather, that it’s good for you. Such a book is like any other: if I’m not informed and inspired, it’s not working for me and I quit. For instance, I consider The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, by Alice LaPlante, more interesting and useful, to me as a teacher and student, than the acknowledged long-time classic creative writing textbook Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway, which is fine. And recently I began reading an acclaimed book by a fiction writer who has an idiosyncratic approach and I soon thought, This is bad for me. Iput it down. That’s rare. But I know that very book might help me with my next project.
Ron Carlson Writes a Story had the opposite effect—even though it’s about writing a short story and I’m writing book-length nonfiction—it excited and inspired me. It helped me see how to make better scenes, to more effectively recreate dialogue, and to sketch settings with fewer but more telling details. (Interestingly it’s published by Graywolf Press, which published the previous book I reviewed, The Art of Time in Memoir; Greywolf must have a great list on writing.) Carlson’s book and his story it explicates model prose that I savored for its spare beauty. (I notice that I find craft books that employ plain prose more inspiring, perhaps because they make writing seem simpler, no problem to pull off.)
This short book follows “The Governor’s Ball” as Carlson writes it during one day. He conveys the hanging-in-there experience of writing for him. He does this almost line by line, kind of like this: I wrote A and then thought X and wrote B, which surprised me and I wrote Z; I wanted to take a break and celebrate but was at a dangerous point—didn’t know what was next—so I stayed there and this new character appeared and said . . . Obviously he isn’t a writer who plots his short stories or even who knows where he’s going. But his process of drawing from life and experience and intuition seems to result in discovery—he’s not bored, but interested—when he’s not mildly apprehensive (or scared shitless) that he’s going to hit a dead end or quit. He hangs in.
The latter point is key. He says: “The writer is the person who stays in the room.” To stay in the room, he doesn’t stop to ponder a name—if he can’t think of a good one, he plugs in a provisional one, Mickey for a guy and Doris for a gal—nor does he pause to consult a dictionary or a thesaurus. That’s for editing or polishing phases. Needless to say: no googling—and certainly no email reading or writing; the internet is a “heaping helping of what everyone else is thinking” and even reference sources “are simply metaphors for the critic, teacher, reader, editor, reactor in all of us, and we must leave these people out of the room.” He has learned not to leave his desk when he first wants to, which is always at a tough spot, not at a good stopping point, because, and this is his emphasis: “All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.”
Carlson emphasizes that his method is to “build upward from craft.” That is, he may have one small incident (in this case, a mattress he was taking to the dump blew off his truck) that sticks with him; this becomes a story when he makes it happen on the day of the Governor’s Ball and sets a narrator in motion (as he struggles with that mattress, the testy guy’s impatient girlfriend shows up and reminds him they have the party that night). Carlson creates at the keyboard. In his way of working, the text tells him what comes next (if he stays in his chair) as he experiences the action and the setting, sees the characters and key “status” details. Always he looks for “the next thing” that happens to help him keep going, to help him “survive the writing of the story.” He trusts this process, and finds it teachable.
Vision, of course, is not teachable. Dreams are not teachable. The passion a writer brings to the page is not teachable. Can writing ever be taught? The best answer to that was given obliquely by rock musician David Lee Roth. When asked if money could buy happiness, he said, no, but with money you could buy the big boat and go right up to where people were happy. With a teacher you can go right up to where the writing is done; the leap is made alone with vision, subject, passion, and instinct. So a writer comes to the page with vision in her heart and craft in her hands and a sense of what a story might be in her head. How do the three come together? My thesis is the old one: they merge in the physical writing—inside the act of writing, not from the outside. The process is the teacher.
So whatever happened in his daydreams or his subconscious in the year between losing that mattress and deciding to write about is a blank, and he leaves it there. Nor does Carlson even hint why he united the mattress and the Governor’s Ball. Maybe because he lost the mattress in January and he and his wife had attended, in another year, the Ball in January. One senses (hopes?) there must have been more to start off with than he admits. But maybe not, at least not consciously, and his everlasting point is to trust the process and follow the story:
The process of writing a story, as opposed to writing a letter or a research paper, or even a novel, is a process involving radical, substance-changing discovery. If you let the process of writing a research paper on Romeo and Juliet change the advice the Friar gives to those young people, you’re headed for trouble. If you let the process of writing a story inform and change the advice an uncle gives his niece, you’re probably moving closer to the truth. I’ve also become convinced that a writer’s confidence in his/her process is as important as any accumulated craft dexterity or writing “skill.”
This is Carlson’s method—this exploration, this not-knowing-the-ending—what works for him. I’m not sure I could use it to write short stories. But it stimulated me by seeming honestly to reveal one man’s proven process for writing in an intuitive but workmanlike and disciplined way. And it resonated for me in terms of writing in general—what it takes to get work done, to discover what we know and feel, and to make a story better. This little book is a gem.
Do not be misled by the limited vocabulary the American marketplace uses to describe the possibilities for story and drama. If we’re really writing we are exploring the unnamed emotional facets of the human heart. Not all emotions, not all states of mind have been named. Nor are all the names we have been given always accurate. The literary story is a story that deals with the complicated human heart with an honest tolerance for the ambiguity in which we live. No good guys, no bad guys, just guys: that is, people bearing up in the crucible of their days and certainly not always—if ever—capable of articulating their condition.
“It is my belief that plot revolves around certain mysteries of fact, or what a story represents as fact. What happened? What will happen? Huck and Jim hop on a raft (fact) and embark on a journey (fact) and numerous events occur along the way (facts). On the level of plot, this narrative appeals to our curiosity about what may befall these two human beings as they float down a river in violation of the ordinary social conventions. We are curious about facts still to come. In this sense, plot involves the inherent and riveting mystery of the future. What next? What are the coming facts? By its very nature, the future compels and intrigues us—it holds promise, it holds terror—and plot relies for its power on the essential cloudiness of things to come. We don’t know. We want to know.”
“As with plot, I believe that successful characterization requires an enhancement of mystery: not shrinkage, but expansion. To beguile, to bewitch, to cause lasting wonder—these are the aims of characterization. Think of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness. He has witnessed profound savagery, has immersed himself in it, and as he lies dying, we hear him whisper, ‘The horror, the horror.’ There is no solution here. Rather, the reverse. The heart is dark. We gape into the tangle of this man’s soul, which has the quality of a huge black hole, ever widening, ever mysterious, its gravity sucking us back into the book itself. What intrigues us, ultimately, is not what we know but what we do not know and yearn to discover.”
“The object of storytelling, like the object of magic, is not to explain or resolve, but rather to create and to perform miracles of the imagination. To extend the boundaries of the mysterious. To push into the unknown in pursuit of still other unknowns. To reach into one’s own heart, down into that place where the stories are, bringing up the mystery of oneself.”
From Tim O’Brien’s essay “The Magic Show,” collected in Writers on Writing, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini.
Frank Conroy (1936 – 2005), author of the classic memoir Stop-Time (which has the strangeness of true art about it), as well as novels and essays, was director of the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. He sat down for an interview with Lacy Crawford of Narrative magazine before his death. Some excerpts:
“The power and almost obscene wealth of parts of America resemble nothing so much as the Roman Empire. I don’t understand why people aren’t completely scandalized by the degrading of humanity through films and television over the last twenty years, a degradation of the soul. I’m not religious, but I insist on being able to use some of the concepts generally scorned in a secular society. The soul and spirituality are important parts of life. A lot of artists are trying to reclaim some of the language and territory so scorned. Life is a mystery, but you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream of America, everybody watching a rerun on TV. The country is in danger, but I don’t think that serious literature is in danger. Not yet. The spiritual emptiness of society is very deep and unsettling, so people are looking for something better.”
“I don’t believe in the natural writer. I believe in the natural reader who gradually begins to write. You can’t write independent of literature, so you read, you read, you read, you read, you read, and then you begin to write. A lot of it is mysterious. I see writing from many super-bright people, IQs of 165, and I have to say, smarts doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere with writing. High intellect may affect what you write about, but finally what makes writing stand out is not about intellect. I’ve known three people whom I would call astrally intelligent—and all three of them tried to write, and they couldn’t.
“Good narrative puts the reader and writer in a position of equality. The text forms a bridge between two imaginations. A challenging narrative must nonetheless be welcoming to the reader. A good narrative has drive. But I don’t care for theory, and we don’t spend any time here on theory. Talking about writing is one thing, and writing is another. On the page you have to teach the reader how to read you. I once had a student who couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag. And then she wrote an amazing story, and The Atlantic published it, and I said, What happened? And she said, Back then, it was all in my head. I knew instantly what she meant, because it’s not supposed to be in your head; it’s supposed to open between you and the reader.”
“[Self pity in a memoir] puts the reader in a position of being asked to sympathize with the ill fortune of another person, to be the witness rather than the co-creator, which is what I want out of the reader, someone whose energy is pouring in. I’ll tell you what I think motivated the writing [of Stop-Time]. Rather than, Oh, what a tough time I’ve had, one of the engines that drove the book—beside the fact that I wanted to be a writer—was anger. I wrote the book to try to get even, in a way, to extricate myself, Hey, fuck you guys! I wasn’t aware of it then, but in retrospect I see it was definitely there.”
“To write Stop-Time, I had to go well past any imaginative boundaries I’d set for myself. And there was the feeling that every writer has described: you don’t feel like you’re doing it—it’s passing through you in some way. Also, I was able to write the book because I’d read so much. Before I got to college, I read everything. I read the Russians, the Brits, the French, the Americans. I was years into college before I was assigned a book I hadn’t already read. In the beginning I read in order to escape my circumstances. I absorbed so many of the conventions and the rules and the rhythms of good prose. When I read [George] Orwell, I couldn’t believe it, it was so beautiful.”
“I didn’t remember everything about the past when I started the book, and I had a lot of chronology mixed up, and a lot of stuff was just repressed. The act of concentrating on the writing and trying to write perfect sentences opens closed doors.”
“In the culture at the time, everything was drugs, and beatniks, the whole beginning of the revolution. And there I was with a sort of semiclassical book, and they didn’t know whether it was fiction or nonfiction. Just before the book was published, the editor called me up and said, Should we call this fiction or nonfiction? And off the top of my head, I said, Everything in the book actually happened, so I’d call it nonfiction. Which they did. It was nominated for the National Book Award under the Belles Lettres category, and it didn’t win. About five years later, I spoke to one of the judges, who told me that the fiction prize winner that year, Thornton Wilder, was the compromise candidate because the judges couldn’t agree on the other books. Then, this judge told me, Do you realize that if your book had been listed as fiction, you would have won? I think what caused a certain amount of confusion both at the retail level in the bookstores and among the critics was that, when the first chapters were published in The New Yorker in 1965, it was almost unheard of to use fictional techniques to write about real situations. My name stayed the same, but I changed every other name.”
“I still write in longhand. I couldn’t compose on the typewriter, so I would write in longhand, and then, as I typed it up, that was a draft, and then there would be another draft and another draft … I think I typed the book by hand at least seven times. And each time, I was editing, and correcting, and changing little stuff. But again, I just had faith in it. Nobody can hold a whole book in his head. It’s impossible. You can’t do it. So you—Marilynne [Robinson] and I talk about this a lot—you jump in the pool, and then you learn how to swim. You don’t really know a lot about what’s going to happen. You just can’t! If you do, then you’re a hack.”
“Writing is a funny business. At its higher levels, there’s so much involved that we don’t understand, and can’t explain. One reason so many writers are anxious, drink so much, and fuck up their lives is that they hate not being able to control the writing completely. They’ve always got a big bet on the table, and the roulette wheel is spinning and spinning, and they can’t control it, and they’re afraid. You realize how miraculous and mysterious the act of writing is. You’ve been reading and listening to the voices of many hundreds of writers, and they succeeded, so perhaps you can. But you have fears, everybody has fears. Look at Joyce at the end, on his deathbed, saying, Doesn’t anybody understand?”
The February 8 issue of The New Yorker featured an essay by John McPhee called “The Patch.” It’s about one of McPhee’s passions, fishing for chain pickerel, but it takes an unusual turn for McPhee when it also portrays the dying in 1984 of his physician father, who taught McPhee to fish. The elder McPhee, felled by a stroke at eighty-nine, was unresponsive until his son told him about a pickerel he’d just landed with his father’s ancient bamboo rod. Dr. McPhee, though still silent—insensate, according to his doctor—wept. His son also depicts the callous young doctor and his own inner rage at the man.
McPhee, now seventy-nine, a staff writer since 1965 for The New Yorker, is the author of thirty-two books, including his new Silk Parachute and the Pulitzer-winning Annals of the Former World, a melding of his four books about North America’s geologic history. “The Patch” is a bookend for McPhee’s concise essay “Silk Parachute,” about his mother, which appeared a decade ago; both pieces are collected in the latest book by this master of literary journalism. The buzz around Silk Parachute has focused on its personal subject matter. McPhee has always been present in his work, but his use of self has been understated—no holding forth, using his personal history, or revealing his own emotional state—and he’s famous for meticulously planning his books and journalistic essays.
This quarter my class on the relationship of humans and nature read McPhee’s 1980 book Encounters with the Archdruid, in which McPhee takes wilderness trips with conservationist icon David Brower and with three of Brower’s foes—a geologist who wants a copper mine in the pristine Glacier Peak Wilderness, a developer who wants to build an upscale community on a wild Georgia island, and the head of the Bureau of Reclamation who wants to dam another western river. It was McPhee’s idea to throw these men together on trails and rafts and to record the sparks that flew. He appears to regard all parties in the adventure with similar admiration and wry affection. He’s present as a minor character, albeit the narrator and the writer who created the situations and the story.
Without striking a falsely “objective” reportorial pose, McPhee refuses to reveal his viewpoint in Encounters with the Archdruid on the big issue of who’s right, Brower the tree-hugger or the men who put humans first. McPhee shows that Brower’s establishment enemies are furious because Brower doesn’t fight fair: he will lie or misrepresent issues to gain public favor. His means may be dirty but, in debates on the trips, Brower’s stance seems reasonable: so much of America has been tamed or trampled, let’s preserve a few wild places. The developers have their own arguments stemming from human needs and desires. McPhee’s aim in the book seems to be to so clarify this issue that he puts the existential burden of taking one side or the other squarely on the shoulders of the reader.
McPhee has combined reporting with personal nonfiction to striking effect in other pieces that are based on a great idea. I think his “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” published in The New Yorker in 1972 and widely anthologized, is one of the best and most creative American essays. It’s about McPhee’s game of Monopoly with another champion player (at their level, games last a max of about seventeen minutes; McPhee doesn’t go into how he got so good) and alternates between the board and his visits to Atlantic City in search of the actual places (he goes to jail several times in both venues). McPhee weaves in the history of the resort and the game, and he contrasts the game’s slick environs with the tawdry actuality of the actual place. The location of Marvin Gardens is a mystery he must solve, because it isn’t contiguous with the boardwalk area. The essay is segmented, so it’s structurally innovative as well as topically innovative.
In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times, McPhee attributed his comparatively personal turn in Silk Parachute to having lots of down time while he recuperated from surgeries. “I just started writing,” he said. “I guess I’m not used to all that spare time. I usually know where I’m going with a story. A novelist can feel her way with a story, but that’s not the case in nonfiction. It’s a central theme of the course I teach: Know where you’re going.”
James L. Howarth, in the introduction to The John McPhee Reader, which in 1982 excerpted McPhee’s first dozen books, described McPhee’s working method for literary journalism that allowed him to break a major piece into parts, to think in smaller components, and to develop a structure:
• He types up his field notes, sometimes adding new details or thoughts; his typescript, clasped in a three-ring binder, may run to 100 pages.
• He makes a photocopy of the typescript, shelves it for later use, and jots notes in the margins of his working copy about areas that need further research.
• He reads the binder and thinks about possible structures; he might foresee the ending, and at this point he sometimes writes the essay’s opening, as much as 2,000 words.
• He codes the binder with structural categories, usually cryptic words or acronyms; he then writes these topics on index cards, which he shuffles into various orders. He then tacks the cards to a huge bulletin board in his chosen order.
• He codes his duplicate set of notes and cuts them apart with scissors, sorting the thousands of scraps into file folders, one for each topical index card on his board. He puts the folders in a filing cabinet and, with a steel dart stuck beneath his first card on the board, begins to write. As the dart moves to a new card, he opens a new folder, sorting its contents until that segment within the structure also has a workable structure.
“Outlined in this fashion,” Howarth writes, “McPhee’s writing methods may seem excessively mechanical, almost programmatic in his sorting and retrieval of data bits. But the main purpose of this routine is at once practical and aesthetic: it runs a line of order through the chaos of his notes and files, leaving him free to write on a given parcel of work at a given time. The other sections cannot come crowding in to clutter his desk and mind; he is spared that confusion by the structure of his work, by an ordained plan that cannot come tumbling down.”
In writing his personal essays, McPhee may have abandoned his meticulous planning, but his steady labor at his craft apparently remained. In her Los Angeles Times profile of McPhee (here), Susan Salter Reynolds reports, “McPhee writes three or four drafts of each piece, spending about two years on the first draft, four months on the second, one month on the third and one week on the fourth.”
I celebrated McPhee’s rare interview because he helps clarify a difference in approach between writing based on memory—fiction, memoir, personal essays—and writing that reproduces intentionally reported experience or which builds a case. Everyone’s method will differ slightly, and most are surely combinations. Fiction and life-story writers tend to emphasize discovery; they may have a strong visual image or memory they explore to find out what else they remember, think, and feel. But a writer trying to render an event or to pursue a thesis for a magazine or book may well benefit from trying McPhee’s tested organizational method. How neat that he speaks for both planning and discovery, once again weakening the notion that nonfiction can be treated as a monolith instead of as a continuum that ranges from literature, in the form of the most novelistic memoir, to a basic news report about a city council meeting.
No writing advisors are more contradictory than those who say you must plan and outline vs. those who say you must plunge in and discover. Which works? Who the hell knows? What works is what works for you. I suspect that, like most things, the sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle. I understand those who decry the wasted effort of seat-of-the-pants scribblers. But I also believe in discovery, which can’t be planned (though outliners say discovery emerges best when the writer has an orderly plan that frees the mind to create). I do know that outlining after writing is valuable to see patterns, connections, redundancies.
In a helpful blog I follow, Pen on Fire, a podcast series of interviews with writers, novelist Andre Dubus III weighs in with the anti-outline faction. “Even a rainy Tuesday afternoon when you are worried about bills is a better day because you wrote,” he told interviewer Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, summarizing his philosophy and adding, “Don’t outline it. Go one true sentence to the next and see where it goes.”
In the interview, Dubus is frank and passionate—a regular carpenter- and teacher-guy as well as a literary artist who takes three or four years to finish a book. I’d enjoyed the movie made from Dubus’s House of Sand and Fog and read his The Garden of Last Days, the novelist’s meditation upon the final days of the 9/11 hijackers, who hit strip bars in Florida before their suicide mission. In addition to his no-outlines edict, he made an interesting distinction between fiction that is “made up”—planned and plotted—and that which is true because it is “imagined.”
“There’s an essay I’d recommend by Tim O’Brien called ‘The Magic Show’ [collected in Writers on Writing]. He makes a really brilliant point about characterization: Characters are flat when the writer has already figured out what he or she is trying to say . . . We do a disservice to our own imaginations and the figures that reside there. I tell my writing students, ‘Don’t outline your stories.’ There are some wonderful writers who do but there are many more who don’t. I find it much more helpful not to. One of the things you do when you outline is send a message to your imagination that you don’t trust it and you give it this safety net that I submit it does not need. And then when your characters show up in this thing you’ve contrived, they are going to have a job to do, things you need them to say and not say. Then characters become puppets and you become the puppeteer, and I think the reader always sees that. What O’Brien says is successful characterization is not a nailing down, which TV does all the time . . . clichés that do a disservice to how wildly mysterious and symphonic and miraculous we are inside and how, frankly, we can never know another. If you go into writing with an open heart, you are going to find things you didn’t know were there.”
“I don’t think writers have to worry about plot nearly as much as they think they do. So much of this is an act of faith, this daily surrendering to this weird thing we do. But the horse knows the way. If the heart of character-driven fiction is character, then setting and place are the lungs. And without that the character can’t breath. If you have a real character in a real place, then things are going to start happening. And you can deal with plot later.”
“I am on this book tour and I have a notebook with me, not because I am disciplined but because if I go without writing I feel far away from me. I tell young writers that if they can go three months without writing they probably aren’t a writer. If they feel strange after three days they probably are writers.”
“I do a lot of research on jobs. I went down to Florida and went in the strip clubs these men went to. For instance, I did not know that the strippers aren’t paid by the house they work for—they have to pay the house. I read thirty books on Islam and read the Koran over and over. Until I felt like I had enough knowledge. I would ask a prostitute where she had sex, but I would never ask how she felt. Because that’s the joy of writing. You research the what’s but not the whys. You get the whys through the writing.”
“I get stuck all the time. I think we get stuck when we write a lie and won’t admit it to ourselves. We know we’ve got to do some major revision and we don’t have enough courage to do it. The other thing is we’ve just stopped asking enough questions. Sometimes that sticking point is weeks or months.”
In April 2009 Dubus told Newsweek his most essential books:
1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. “By the final page, I was trembling.”
2. Selected Stories by Andre Dubus. “When I read these gems, my late father is back on earth.”
3. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake. “A dark and poetic collection.”
4. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. “This work of history reads like a Russian novel and allows its subjects not to be generals and presidents but real men and women.”
5. Selected Stories by Alice Munro. “Her characters are more alive than some living human beings!”
A book he frequently returns to: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “Honest, wounded, naked, yet ironic.”
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. Free Press. 309 pages
Books on writing fall into two broad categories: how-to and inspirational. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is solidly in the latter tradition, and I suppose so is Old Friend From Far Away. Yet Old Friend is ultimately highly practical, for it captures the spirit of writing and the essence of memoir. I think I tend to be kind of . . . straight-ahead, directed, event-driven in my writing approach, and this book underscores how important it can be to slow down, explore memories, and discover subject, theme, and narrative thread. Her freewriting methods (basically bursts of timed writing to discover subject or to pile up pages once one’s subject is found) seem great at getting beneath the chattering “monkey mind” (which Goldberg says is also highly and destructively critical) to tap what we really experienced and how we felt and feel.
In Old Friend—that person we were—Goldberg manages to blend the essence of good writing—tactile, visual, specific, quirky—with related Zen principles and a theme of human mortality. In this she conveys that writing is, or can be, a path, a spiritual path, a way of being in the world, a way to grow and to reach out. I can see why she’s so popular as a teacher, for she empowers. What she’s saying over and over is anyone can be a writer, an artist, which is true! Talent is common, actually. Just do it. This is an antidote to the feeling that one must have big Certified Success or why bother? How common but how narrow and narcissistic.
Writing can be part of being alive and a way to be more alive. Her way, that of the artist rather than someone who has a recipe for writing a bestseller, may seem somewhat artsy and touchy-feely to some (and as a guy who can be kinda macho I tend to resist) but Old Friend has a core of steel in it: spirituality, craft, and artistic determination. She’s obviously an artist herself, someone who tries to see and who tells the truth, and she tries to nurture and encourage and empower that part of others. Her approach to writing is intuitive rather than linear. As a linear guy, I needed Old Friend from Far Away a lot sooner than I got it. But perhaps it’s simply true that the teacher you need appears when you need her.
The above is Gay Talese’s outline for his famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”—which Esquire named the best article it has ever published. I was struck by its childlike creativity when I saw it in the Summer 2009 issue of the Paris Review, and it and the journal’s interview with Talese are now on line. His working method is idiosyncratic: writing notes and detailed outlines on the thin cardboard that comes with new men’s shirts. He also supposedly peers at his typed pages, pinned to the wall, through binoculars.
I was reminded of Talese’s playful or at least colorful approach by a recent story in the Wall Street Journal about the composition process of prominent writers, mostly novelists. Of seventeen writers, eight compose initially by hand, and Margaret Atwood alternates between handwriting and typing. Five compose at the keyboard. One, Richard Powers, lounges in bed and speaks into a computer that recognizes his voice. For two writers, their method wasn’t made clear.
But add Talese and John Irving, mentioned in a recent post, and handwriting first drafts seems more common than one would suppose in this age of the computer. And brainstorming and planning seem heavily skewed toward the sketched, pasted, storyboarded, jotted and otherwise handmade. Such organizing efforts themselves result in works of art.
I wonder if this is changing, with so many kids growing up keyboarding. But there’s something about that tactile connection—words are evidence of a way of thinking and seeing and feeling—and computers are cold and mechanical. In adolescence, I got the idea that the real pros typed, especially after I went to work as a journalist for a dozen years. We pounded out stories! Art takes time, though, drawing on the brain’s shy intuitive and wary unconscious realms.
Obviously many fine writers do this work at the keyboard, but just as obviously, many don’t. Poking around the web on this writing-process question, I was surprised by the allegiance of some writers to typewriters for first drafts. It made me nostalgic—I wrote on manual typewriters at my first two newspapers. Although I embraced the ease of computers when they came, I miss the crisp keystroke of a good manual.
Harlan Ellison, prolific science fiction writer and typewriter holdout, spoke for other typewriter users, and perhaps for hand-writers, when he said on his web page, “Making it easier, I think, is invidious. It is a really BAD thing. Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It’s not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. They should be out selling public relations copy.”
Paul Auster is famous for relying on a typewriter. But in his interview with the Paris Review, he made clear his initial process is even more hands-on: “I’ve always written by hand. Mostly with a fountain pen, but sometimes with a pencil—especially for corrections. If I could write directly on a typewriter or a computer, I would do it. But keyboards have always intimidated me. I’ve never been able to think clearly with my fingers in that position. A pen is a much more primitive instrument. You feel that the words are coming out of your body, and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had a tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.”
Annie Dillard, in an interview with NPR, indicated that the decade-long composition of her novel The Maytrees was traumatic—near the end, she cut about 1,000 pages to arrive at a book of a little more than 200—and blamed the computer’s ease, in part: “A story should be simplified and enlarged. Instead the computer dilutes it, spreads it all over the place. It muffles any impact it might have had as the poor reader makes his way through billions of unnecessary paragraphs about billions of unnecessary things.”
Meanwhile a friend of mine, the author of several books, loves his computer—the one he uses for writing isn’t connected to the Internet, to keep him focused—because his process involves thinking, playing around, and exploring at the keyboard. Amidst one of my recent typewriter fantasies (my handwriting is ugly, so when I think of doing something more tactile it’s often a return to typing first drafts), I asked another writer if he missed typewriters. Heavens no, he said. “Computer writing is much more spontaneous and creative, for me anyway.”
Yet, a few years ago at a conference, I heard a panel of first-time novelists describe their method. A commonality seemed to be initial, partial composition by hand—and writing “islands,” the good stuff, ignoring narrative bridges. I got the sense that many moved to the keyboard after the book’s tone was set in fifty or 100 pages.
There’s no formula, but each writer’s task is to find what works in his case. Art is intensely personal. And so must the artist be.
“The writer who writes for revision does not wait for a final draft but works through a series of discovery, development, and clarification drafts until a significant meaning is found and made clear to the reader.”—Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition)
Not many years ago, I was having dinner with a writer I admired, and when she mentioned having multiple versions of an essay I said, “You do? That surprises me.”
“I’m surprised that you’re surprised,” she said.
At the time, I was still polishing and calling that rewriting or editing. I didn’t even know what revision is or that it makes new versions—sometimes two, sometimes four. Sometimes six. Keep them all!
Our cuts, restructuring, and additions we make in trying to make a piece work might not work themselves. Or parts of them might work and some parts won’t. We find this out down the road as a manuscript jells. (Note to MFA students: This why even the best teacher’s review early in the process can be unhelpful.)
Right now, I am adding a chapter that was dropped from my memoir a couple of years ago. That old limbo chapter—which existed in three separate versions—now fits the narrative. In picking and choosing from the previous three versions, I now have two or three more of “What Freckles Taught Me.”
(Freckles was a sheep—pictured in my last post—and today’s photo shows her last two lambs on my lap.)
As Heather Sellers says of revision in her excellent Chapter After Chapter, “It’s not a process of improvement; it’s a process of learning. Revision means you ‘re-see’ your piece. You see it again and again, in a slightly different light each time. Some lights are more useful, more flattering, more interesting. Some aren’t. Revision is information gathering. It’s not a slow and steady always-forward moving march toward perfection. Revision means making a mess, not straightening up. (Editing is straightening up.)”
Most of writers’ time is spent not writing but revising, she says. And I have to agree, since it took me a year and a half to write the 500 pages I’ve been reworking now for two and a half. Now the book is 200 pages leaner, and I remember what a former teacher, a veteran editor, correctly told me when it was still 100 pages longer and I said I was polishing: “Stop polishing and start cutting.”
What I tell my students about their rewrites of short essays is this: don’t just clean up the copy, make the suggested edits. Do a “save as” and submit a whole new piece. You may not like it as well, and you may be right, but you’ll have two versions of your masterpiece.
Sellers again: “Every time I work on a piece, I make some parts better and some parts worse. When I am sick of making versions, I choose the one I think is best, polish it to the best of my ability, and submit it to publication.”
When it gets rejected, she produces a new version, or maybe restores an earlier one: “With each new version, I learn more about the truth of the piece, so I know which one to pick, which one is right, even if it’s an early draft. Learning is a series of little improvements punctuated by many, many, many terrible disasters.”
But this is why everyone says writing is rewriting, which isn’t what I used to think; it’s not editing or polishing one perfect copy. There always are many ways to tell something and no one right way. But there may be an optimum version that’s discovered through revision. As Don Murray’s quote above indicates, what often happens is that it takes true revision, and many versions, for a writer to discover his structure and what he’s really writing about, his theme or deeper meaning.