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Silk’s Post #38 — Helga always comes up with the best advice on writing from her beloved ‘masters’. She has enlightened us recently with her exploration of le Carré, and the fabulous quotes she found from Hemingway and Atwood. Can you tell she loves to research?
When I glance at my groaning writer’s bookshelf, I see advice from writers P.D. James, Bill Bryson, Kingsley Amis, Janet Evanovich, Ray Bradbury, Elizabeth George, Jack Hodgins, Hallie Ephron, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, William Safire, and of course everyone’s favourite man-of-few-words, Elmore Leonard (who nevertheless managed to stretch his famous 10 Rules of Writing out into an 89-page hardcover book, although, to be fair, it does have pictures).
That list doesn’t even include the dozens of books I’ve happily purchased at writers’ conferences and online that are full of writing advice from experts who are better known as writing teachers, editors, literary agents, writing coaches, publishers and others who write about writing (although some of them also write, well, regular writing too).
This all got me thinking about advice writers give other writers. Let’s face it, we are awash in it. In fact, there are times I feel I could actually drown in writing advice. Like so many other things we struggle to learn, it all makes sense … it’s all so easy … once we already know the thing from our own experience. Oh, conceptually it’s not difficult to wrap your mind around. We’ve all read the many, many lists of rules. (Most of them say much the same thing, so don’t bother reading all of them hoping to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow). And, just to make matters a bit trickier, there’s lots of equally sensible sounding advice that tells us there are no rules.
But don’t think for a minute that I don’t appreciate all this advice. Believe me, I do. I lap it up. A prolonged bout of writer’s block – say anything over 15 or 20 minutes (yes, I’m kidding) – sends me straight to the bookshelf for a dose of it. An hour or two wallowing in advice usually brings my blood pressure down without need for further medication, after which I can calmly return to my blank page with a very clear idea of what not to do.
What’s so much harder than grasping the concept, of course, is applying all this good advice to your own work right there on that actual blank page. It’s a little like trying to learn to play a sport by watching it on TV. I don’t care how many times you see Tiger Woods swing a golf club or read books or study videos by golf pros, it’s not going to automatically get you into the cup in three strokes. Really, you just have to whack away until you ‘get it’ intuitively, physically, right in your bones.
Still, I’m grateful when I read advice from a great writer who once, like me, wasn’t. It’s a comfort.
Was there ever a profession more generous with its trade secrets? So full of mentors, coaches, evangelists? Writers seem to love to write for each other and about each other. After all, it’s what we do and who we are. I can’t imagine the same sort of soul connection between, say, chemists or bankers. Writers all have a common cause, a shared belief in the power of words and ideas, a passion for stories. We’re in love with them. Why else would most of us invest the insane amount of time, effort and heart into our work for so long with so little recognition or recompense to show for it?
Perhaps that’s one reason writers are so absolutely tribal, such a mutual aid society. Or maybe our willing embrace of each other comes from working alone so much.
Seriously, if you’re ever sitting by yourself in a strange airport or a crowded restaurant and you feel the need for human contact, just ask around and find yourself another writer. There’s bound to be one close by, if you believe the (now hoary but never really refuted) research finding that 80 percent of Americans want to write a book. When you locate this other writer (or wannabe writer), I guarantee you will have a lively conversation partner until your plane takes off or your dinner arrives. No secret handshakes required.
But back to Good Advice on Writing, which just happens to the title of a book by William Safire and his brother, Leonard Safir, on the topic. This is probably the best anthology of quotes on good writing ever collected – a whole bookshelf between two covers.
(I always had a bit of a crush on William Safire, the crusty, crafty columnist for the New York Times for 30 plus years. While I found his libertarian political views appalling, though always expressed with seductive charm, his columns on language were some of the best entertainment in print. Safire, in fact, wrote in just about every format imaginable; by his own account he was a: “reporter, press agent, lexicographer, speechwriter, novelist, pundit, anthologist and language maven.”)
Even in the preface to the book, impatient perhaps to get to the point, Safire immediately begins doling out good advice. When I read him, I feel like we’re sitting together in a good bar in New York City, chatting writer-to-writer over some kind of cocktails they haven’t mixed since the 1940s. Here’s a sample:
“This anthology is for the reading writer; specifically, the writer interested in good advice from successful practitioners in the art of transmitting original ideas. Although you are at the moment in the role of a reader, I presume you are a writer, or would like to be a writer, or get a kick out of hanging around writers and would not be averse to having them consider you a valuable associate.
“For me – the one doing the writing in this writer-reader symbiosis – that happily defines this book’s primary audience, but to you – the reading writer – it should raise the question: Is it a good idea for a writer to try to define an audience? More broadly, whom is the writer writing for? William Zinsser, quoted herein, has this answer: ‘You are writing for yourself … Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it.’
“Writing for yourself is not as arrogant as it seems … in the big writing decisions, from the selection of theme to the evocation of character, the good writer thinks only of an audience of Number One. Self-indulgent? Sure; that’s one of the pleasures that come with the pain of pulling a real purpose out of your mind. Creative authenticity comes from seeking to suit oneself and rarely springs from a desire to please others.”
Safire even advises us about the advice to be found in his book. He encourages skepticism.
“When writers read, they read with narrowed eyes, knowing that their emotions or thought processes are being manipulated and subtly directed by a fellow member of the scribe tribe … Writers read skeptically, often doubtfully … Reading writers are never mere receptacles. Read the sometimes conflicting advice of other writers [in this anthology] to help sharpen [your] purpose, but read with those narrowed eyes.”
To illustrate, he quotes one of his favourite pieces of advice from Somerset Maugham:
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
But should that seem to throw a pall on our writers’ tête à tête (remember, we’re still sitting in that New York bar), Safire just orders another round of Sidecars, or Rusty Nails or whatever our poison might be and reminds us why we’re all in this crazy world together:
“Many of us have been in varying lines of work, but insist that first and last we are writers. That’s because writing is less a profession than a professing – a way of stimulating, organizing and affirming thoughts to give meaning to some slice of life.
“When you’re tired of writing, you’re tired of life.”