Writing is not a serious business! It’s a joy and it’s celebration; you should be having fun with it. It’s not work! If it’s work, stop it and do something else. – Ray Bradbury
Writers are phonies. I can say it because I’m that writer who (unfortunately) doesn’t write often enough to really own the title, but does it with passion unrivaled with any other so she can’t be anything else. So, I both belong to the tribe and I don’t, which means I’m objective and I know what I’m talking about first-hand: Writers are phonies.
I just finished reading Jon Winokur’s “Advice to Writers: A compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights”. The title is a little bit misleading because, when I ordered the book, I actually thought there really would be some fantastic anecdotes about famous writers, but the book is actually a collection of quotes by writers on having an agent, trying to become published, how to create believable characters, etc.
It was also not an ARRAY of literary lights, because I had an impression he was pulling quotes from one and the same bunch of ten or so writers. But I did find writerly wisdom here, to some extent, so it was worth reading in any case.
Why do I think writers are phonies?
I think so about all artists. Though my perception of them is inaccurate, somehow I put them in separate categories by what they do: musicians are promiscuous drunkards, painters are as far away from reality as possible plus sluts and writers are suicidal egomaniacs. At least I have the feeling they want an air of these descriptions to follow them.
Writers are phonies (it seems I can’t get enough of proclaiming this) because they truly believe they are martyrs. Oh, how agonizing the life one has to bear in creating worlds with his pen (or keyboard). How truly difficult and unrewarding it is, yet one has no other choice. It is some demonic force that keeps us writing and doesn’t let us live a normal life, did you know? That is why writers solemnly advise their younger and gullible followers to do everything they can to avoid such life. Be a doctor, they say. Be a lawyer. Just don’t be a writer, because it is oh so hard. John McPhee said that “it’s only compulsion that will drive you through the psychological nightmares of writing.”
Now, that is what I call a phony. Alright, I’ve never tried to make my living writing, so that kind of stress is unknown to me. But is it a burden? Don’t I think it is the greatest feeling in the world, typing out sentences that touch the soul, inspire, make me (and hopefully others) laugh, live with me when “less real”, worldly things try to leave their dirty mark on my soul? No, it’s not a burden, and yes, I’d tell anyone with any talent for writing to do it as often and and as much as they can. I’d just warn them not to be better than me, or else. 😉
No one can say it better than a writer
What I do like about writers, both in person and in books, with their eloquent advice, is that they have a way of voicing something important about the human condition that usually strikes me in a weird, deja-vu way. They have a way of pinpointing an emotion, a thought, something I always knew but never knew I knew it. I love how observant they are, and also how bold. They are both cowards and heroes.
In “Advice to Writers” I had the privilege of receiving advice from such literary giants as are Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Andre Gide, Somerset Maugham, Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Raymond Chandler, Saul Bellow, William Burroughs, Michael Ondaatje, Henry Miller, William Faulkner, Tennesee Williams, Ellen Gilchrist, John Updike, T.S. Elliot, Isaak Asimov, Woody Allen… Alright, I’m changing my mind about my “array” comment. I’m also kind of ashamed to admit that I’ve never read half of these writers, but I will, I will… 😉
Some useful things you can learn from a writer
When they don’t whine about their terrible fate, writers are very shrewd and interesting. They tell learning writers like me such helpful things as:
– a story is not a story unless something changes in the end – the character learns a valuable lesson and/or is changed forever in some way
– avoid exclamation marks, you’re allowed only one or two in your lifetime (how I love them for agreeing on this one)
– let the characters evolve and be who they are, follow them and get to know them
– read as much as you can, everything you get your hands on
– create a “constant succession of tiny, unobservable surprises” in your work (Ford Madox Ford)
– “try describing a hat in such a way the reader will realize its wearer has just had her dog run over” (William H. Gass)
– “details make stories human” (V.S. Pritchett)
– “I have found that a story leaves a deeper impression when it is impossible to tell which side the author is on” (Leo Tolstoy)
– distort reality to get to the truth
– don’t neglect grammar (I’m specifically glad to see real writers still know where a comma goes, and where the exclamation mark doesn’t)
They also put things into perspective. Edward Albee says that “there are two things to write about: life and death.” So true. There is not a topic under the sky not good enough to write about.
What is writing ultimately about
When I said earlier that writers are phonies, there are many among them who are not. There are those writers who embrace the beauty and privilege of their calling and who know what it is they are really doing.
During his speech when he was receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature (exactly what I’m waiting for while writing this blog ;), William Faulkner said: “It is [the writer’s] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart.” That is the proper way of perceiving literature.
There are also writers such as John Gregory Dunne who say: “Although it is not necessary for a writer to be a prick, neither does it hurt.” I can’t say he’s not amusing.
The book ends with a humorous note by my favorite Woody Allen, which shows how a writer should proceed if she really wants to write:
“In the afternoons, Gertrude Stein and I used to go antique hunting in the local shops, and I remember once asking her if she thought I should become a writer. In the typically cryptic way we were all so enchanted with, she said, “No.” I took that to mean yes and sailed for Italy the next day.”