“The first idea was not our own.”
—Wallace Stevens, “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction”
To linger around the bookstore alcove dedicated to how-to-write books is to grow quickly acquainted with the many species of human expectation. One after another the aspirants come—the good-sport retiree who has decided to tell her life story, the young specter of manhood with scores to settle and truths to tell, the Cussler- and Patterson-overdosed executive aiming to blockbust his way to lakefront property and setting his alarm for ten—and shyly pull books off the packed shelves, level upon level of volumes promising to atomize the frustratingly numerous barriers between them and their dreams. Yet most of the people who frequent the how-to-write section will never become writers. It gives me no pleasure to make that observation, just as it gives me no pleasure to admit that I will never play swingman for the Indiana Pacers.
The question is whether these people will never become writers because they are not talented or because the books that congest the shelves of the how-to-write section are mostly useless. This sounds much sharper than I intend. Look around the how-to section. To your left: books on how to garden. To your right: computer programming. Down the way a bit more: How to Play Five-String Banjo. Most of the people who buy these books will not become professional gardeners or computer programmers or banjoists either. Would a successful computer programmer sneer at a person seeking to explore the pleasures of writing a few lines of code? Somehow one doubts it. Dreams, after all, are many, often mundane, and their private pursuit is the luxury of every dreamer.
But an even dustier (and probably unanswerable) question must first be posed: Can writing be taught? Both congratulation and flagellation tend to accrue upon the answers this question receives. Those who maintain that writing cannot be taught are in effect promoting the Priesthood Theory of writing. In short, a few are called, most are not, and nothing anyone does can alter this fated process. Those who maintain that writing can be taught are, on the other hand, in grave danger of overestimating their ultimate value as teachers, though most of the writing teachers I know are squarely agnostic on the issue. My own view, if it matters: Of course writing can be taught. Every writer on the planet was taught, via some means, to write. Even those lacking the guildlike background of an MFA program or the master-apprentice experience of studying beneath an attentive teacher taught themselves to write—most likely by reading a lot of literature. To think about this question for more than a few moments quickly reduces it to the absurd. All human activity is taught. The only thing any human being is born to do is survive, and even in this we all need several years of initial guidance.
Harder to judge is the possibility of teaching a beginning writer how to be receptive to the very real emotional demands of creating literature. To write serious work is to reflexively grasp abstruse matters such as moral gravity, spiritual generosity, and the ability to know when one is boring the reader senseless, all of which are founded upon a distinct type of aptitude that has little apparent relation to more measurable forms of intelligence. Plenty of incredibly smart people cannot write to save their lives. Obviously, writerly intelligence is closely moored to the mature notion of intellect (unlike math or music, the adolescent prodigy is virtually unknown to literature) because writing is based on a gradual development of psychological perception, which takes time and experience. Writing can be taught, then, yes—but only to those who are teachable. Strong writers, especially, can be made, with sensitive guidance, even stronger. This is, in part, the service professional book editors provide. The problem is, truly fine writers have emerged from every cultural, sociological, and educational milieu imaginable. An even bigger problem, at least for those who teach beginning writers, is that no one can predict who is teachable. Perhaps it is best, then, to teach them all.
If any of this sounds familiar, it is because I am cribbing from John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, the book that did, in fact, teach me how to write. It is probably the most important book I have ever read—or rather the most important book ever read by the aspiring writer who became the person writing this sentence. Gardner, an erratically brilliant novelist, solid short-story writer, under-appreciated critic, legendary creative-writing teacher, habitual animadvert, massive hypocrite, and awe-inspiring pain in the ass, died in a motorcycle accident at the age of forty-nine in 1982, having written more than thirty books; Novelist is one of the last he completed. With the exception of Grendel, his genre-shattering masterpiece, most of his books are, today, out of print. (I should disclose here that, as a young editor at W. W. Norton, I was behind Novelist’s restoration to print. I tried the same daring rescue op with some of his fiction. That mission failed.) Why is Novelist so good? “Either the reader [of this book] is a beginning novelist who wants to know whether the book is likely to be helpful,” Gardner writes in his preface, “or else the reader is a writing teacher hoping to figure out without too much wasted effort what kind of rip-off is being aimed this time at that favorite target of self-help fleecers.” Instantly we see the many virtues of Gardner’s approach: honesty, an up-front acknowledgment of the typical how-to-write book’s worth, and a forgiving awareness of human limitation: “More people fail at becoming businessmen than fail at becoming artists.” It was Gardner’s unfakeable gift to write advice that feels laser-beamed into the cortex of each individual reader. Me, one thinks with amazement while reading. He is talking to me. Or so I felt, reading Novelist for the first time at a writer’s workshop in Bennington, Vermont.
I was eighteen, had never been to a workshop before (and have, with a couple of exceptions, stayed away from them since), had never even been east before (I was then a community-college student in Michigan), and was surrounded, for the first time, by people crazy about writers and books. It was overwhelming, and after two days I wanted to go home. I did not have talent, was galactically outclassed by the Harvard students on their résumé-building summer vacations, and suddenly had no idea why I ever believed my deeply rural imagination would ever be capable of producing literary art. My teacher, sensing my distress, handed me On Becoming a Novelist, and by the end of the day I had nearly conked out my highlighter. One paragraph in particular saved my literary life, as I was then struggling with the demands of telling “the truth” about the asses and idiots every young man imagines living all around him. I remember the passage so vividly I scarcely need to consult the source:
One of the great temptations of young writers is to believe that all the people in the subdivision in which he grew up were fools and hypocrites in need of blasting or instruction. As he matures, the writer will come to realize, with luck, that the people he scorned had important virtues, that they had better heads and hearts than he knew. The desire to show people proper beliefs and attitudes is inimical to the noblest impulses of fiction.
Thunder! Lightning! Read that again, please. These are the words of a fundamentally good man attempting to show the young writer one honest way in which to think, to see. (When I found out that the aesthetically conservative Gardner was actively loathed by many of his fellow writers—Joseph Heller called him “a pretentious young man”!—I loved him even more.) If I belabor the point with autobiography—and there will not be any more, or at least not very much—I do so to make a point. Most writers have thoughts about writing as an act, as a way of understanding oneself, or as a way of being, and these thoughts are often interesting. I have any number of thoughts about writing, all of which I find incomparably fascinating. How fascinating to others, though, might they be? A how-to-write book saved my life, then, but it did so existentially, not instructively. Many of the best books about writing are only incidentally about writing. Instead, they are about how to live.
There are several types of how-to-write books. The first is the rigorous handbook-style guide that does not concern itself with creating interesting characters or crafting exciting scenes. Rather, it concentrates on how to write a decent sentence that means what one intends it to mean: a User’s Manual to the English language. The most famous is William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style. If one wishes to write New Yorker-style prose, this is the book to read. Of course, the New Yorker style is a fine style with which it is eminently worth getting acquainted, but it is not the only style. Nor is it, in every case, even the most preferable style. One truly interesting thing about the New Yorker style is that it can serve both as a hiding place for mediocrity and as the lacquered display table for masters rightfully confident in their powers. Used well, the New Yorker style is what one imagines the style of God might be, if there were any indication that God spoke English. Used poorly, the New Yorker style is all gutless understatement, decorous to a Fabergé extreme.
Composed of five parts (“Elementary Rules of Usage,” “Elementary Principles of Composition,” “A Few Matters of Form,” “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” and “An Approach to Style”), Elements is a handholding book, in the best sense. The first four parts are, as one might guess, almost ridiculously elementary, with brief and noticeably impatient advice as to how to punctuate (“A common error is to write it’s for its,” “do not use periods for commas”) and employ basic literary logic (“As a rule, begin each paragraph either with a sentence that suggests the topic or with a sentence that helps the transition”). The last part, “An Approach to Style,” opens with Strunk and White admitting, “Here we leave solid ground,” and that “no key unlocks the door.” It must surely rank among the most winning and incisive twenty pages on writing that have ever been published. “With some writers,” Elements tells us, “style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity.… The beginner should approach style warily, realizing it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style.” In other words, when it comes to the most important stuff, kid, you are on your own.
Nevertheless, there is much within Elements to debate. Many have quibbled with Strunk and White’s imperative to “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” In fact, the passage in which this advice appears is actually an apologia for the much-maligned adverb. “Use adverbs well” seems to be the actual, hidden point of this initially restrictive diktat. “Avoid fancy words,” Strunk and White tell us, and, if the wearisome battles I have had with copyeditors and family members is any indication, the entire planet now agrees. “Anglo-Saxon,” we are informed, “is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” Well, according to whom? Charlemagne? The “fancy words” Strunk and White unveil as examples—beauteous, curvaceous, and discombobulate—are less fancy words than incredibly dumb words. One thing a “fancy words” embargo does is squelch and stifle a certain kind of young writer—the kind of young writer who happens to love and cherish unusual words, and who can, more significantly, divine the appropriateness of a dumb word and a word of high contextual potential. “Do not inject opinion,” Elements goes on. Dear Lord in heaven, why not? “We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great.… [T]o air one’s views at an improper time may be in bad taste.” But good writing, like a good joke, is very rarely in good taste. It could be said—in fact, I will say it—that all a writer has, in the end, is his or her opinions. Hemingway believed that personal courage was the defining component of one’s life; that is of course an opinion, and his entire body of work is shot to the core with it. “Do not inject opinion” is itself an opinion! This is not advice for a young writer seeking a stately style. This is advice one receives in a Toastmasters public-speaking class.
I do not really believe that Strunk and White thought opinion had no place in writing, or believed “fancy words” were inherently ill-advised. The Elements of Style is not proscriptive, despite its many proscriptions. It is suggestive, and wisely so. It has made and will continue to make many people write better, and more clearly. So shouts out. But it seems unlikely to help anyone already on his or her way toward becoming an artist. If even this most ideal of books is read at the wrong time, it may actually damage (or at least discombobulate) the young artist.
What of the how-to-write books with more financially liberating titles? I speak, of course, of Daniel H. Jones’s How to Write a Best-Seller While Keeping Your Day Job!, Judith Appelbaum’s How to Get Happily Published, James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, and so on. Quite a few of these Golden Parachutes are penned by people who have rarely written anything but how-to-write books. They are usually hack books for hacks. Most are fairly, and forgivably, straightforward about this. The self-aware hack is, after all, one of our more pardonable literary coevals, largely because hacks pose no threat to an actual artist.
Artist. That is a grand word, and you might think that most of the Golden Parachute how-tos care little about the artier aspects of writing: integrity, truth, vision, and the like. You would be wrong. Many care deeply about art, as they care about advances and careers and publicity. Such books nanny every facet of writing equally, giving us a portrait of the artist as a fragile Hummel figurine.
Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel is both a case in point and not. Maass, an established literary agent who, according to his biography, “is the author of fourteen pseudonymous novels,” does not at first blush appear to be the most sensitive minister to the literary soul. Take, for instance, some of his clients, such as the historico-romance novelist Anne Perry, one of the two girls whose real-life matricidal crimes were the subject of Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures. Indeed, Perry provides the book’s foreword: “Put yourself on the page and all that you think and feel about life, but do it with discipline; do it with skill. Then the good agents and the good publishers will get your work into the hands of the good readers.” And then the good fairies and elves will approach your front door carrying bags of gold, and the leprechauns will come, and the gnomes, and the friendly talking monkeys will sing, oh sing! outside your window! Although Perry’s is some of the most insincere advice I have ever read, it is not even her preface’s silliest moment. That would be: “Good luck. There’s room for us all. They’ll just build bigger bookshops!”
Maass is much shrewder than all that. Writing the Breakout Novel is about just what it claims: breaking out. Intended mainly for the already published novelist marooned upon the Isles of Midlist, Breakout is largely a fiduciary affair, as breaking out has little to do with art and much to do with sweaty calculation. Maass acknowledges this, more or less. He also acknowledges that people in the publishing industry, most often, “do not have the foggiest idea” why some authors break out and some do not. Authors who have broken out, Maass writes, “toss around wholesale numbers like baseball stats, and generally display the ease and confidence of someone who has made it big through long and dedicated effort.” Such writers are often called assholes. However, these assholes have learned something. That is, “the methods [of] developing a feel for the breakout-level story.” The breakout-level story is one “in which lightning seems to strike on every page,” written by authors who “run free of the pack.” To write a breakout novel “is to delve deeper, think harder, revise more, and commit to creating characters and plot that surpass one’s previous accomplishments.” But! “I am not interested in punching out cookie-cutter best-sellers, so-called ‘blockbuster novels.’” Rest assured, “A true breakout is not an imitation but a breakthrough to a more profound individual expression.”
Cynics would not be blamed for suspecting that Maass is sleeping in both bunks, as it were. But the fact is, agents are not the brainless dollar-zombies routinely imagined by lit-biz chatterboxes. Virtually all of them know the difference between a work of art and a work of commerce, Maass included. Here is a man who can, in the space of one page, excerpt from and discuss the work of both Nicholas Sparks (“You have probably noticed from these excerpts that the prose and dialogue in The Notebook is rudimentary”) and Colson Whitehead (“His fully developed premise meets all of my breakout criteria”). In his extremely good discussion of “Tension on Every Page” Maass holds up not, say, Robert Stone or Neal Stephenson, but John Grisham. Maass admits that “it is fashionable to put down [Grisham’s] writing: His prose is plain… his characters are cardboard cutouts. There is some truth to those charges, but one cannot deny that Grisham compels his readers to turn the pages.” I have read two Grisham novels, The Firm and A Time to Kill, and though my eyes rolled skyward several dozen times, I did, indeed, finish them both. In the case of The Firm, I could scarcely turn the pages fast enough. There is that to learn from Grisham, as Maass notes, “even in the absence of artistic prose.”
But can one learn how to keep readers turning pages? Can one learn some magical method of “Building a Cast” of supporting characters, as one of Maass’s subchapters is headed? “Needless to say,” Maass writes, “the more complex you make your secondary characters, the more lifelike and involving your story will be.” One can almost hear the scribbly note-taking accompanying that insight. Maass is not wrong; it is needless to say. But seeking to provide writers with some surefire method of injecting complexity into secondary characters seems a sloggy concern more along the lines of a DePalma than a Dos Passos. How would one do this, if not intuitively—if not naturally? Well, let us try. Say I have just created a secondary character named Jake. Jake works at a zoo. He is overweight, conscious of his body, and has no girlfriend. Okay. Complexity now. He was once kicked in the face. By a zebra. That Jake, he hates zebras. This is pointless, of course. Characters, along with their hang-ups and complexities, appear in the mind of a writer and are honed or dispatched accordingly. It is as simple and dreadfully complicated as that. Writers who are able to summon up a lot of interesting secondary characters have one of two things going for them: they have had a lot of life experience and met many interesting people, or they are imaginative swamis.
Maass’s book is at its best while destroying certain tightly held notions of why writers do not succeed. Writers whose books have not broken through, Maass notes, “would rather put their faith in formulas, gossip, connections, contract language—anything but their own novels.” This is certainly true, but who can blame them? The powerful counterargument is that dozens and dozens of writers (Joanna Scott, Brian Hall, Donald Harington, Gary Sernovitz, Wilton Barnhardt) have written brilliant, exciting, innovative breakthrough-style books and not yet bathed in the fountain of universal acclaim. I once asked a writer friend, whose first book had won an important literary prize, what that was like. He answered, “Like running around on a football field with a hundred other people and being the only one struck by lightning.” Getting Struck by Lightning is an ungainly title, and its premise is rather cracked. Ultimately, though, its premise is no more cracked than that of Writing the Breakout Novel.
Writing the Breakout Novel is published by Cincinnati’s own Writer’s Digest Books, possibly the most sinister malefactor of Panglossian expectations in the literary world today. Some of its books, like Maass’s, are useful. Most are pandects of stupidity. From The Insider’s Guide to Getting an Agent to The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits to Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer, Writer’s Digest Books preys on hopefuls’ dreams. How to Write & Sell Your First Novel, by the literary agent Oscar Collier and the freelance writer Frances Spatz Leighton, is no doubt something of a landmark book for these dreamers, as it sells them a vision not of publishing but publi$hing: “Publishing has become a $32 billion industry in the United States, and authors are beginning to appear on annual lists of America’s biggest earners.” So quit your job and buy a boat, why don’t you? “Writers,” we are told, “are continuing to move away from the typewriter toward computers.” And Model-Ts are beginning to roll down the cobbled streets of old Manhattantown. “A less promising development,” Oscar and Frances tell us, “has been the appearance of novels devoted almost entirely to extreme violence.” But first novels without such nasty bits still get published all the time. And what a feeling for the agent! “If I,” Oscar confides, suddenly ditching poor Frances, “can get such a charge from merely discovering a new novelist, think how much more you can benefit from becoming one.” Holy shit!
What does it take to write a saleable novel? Let us see: “a feeling for characterization,” “a passable plot,” and an “interesting and well-detailed setting.” What are the writer’s chances at publishing his or her first novel? Oscar does some casual arithmetic and comes up with the following: “[Y]ou have a once in ten chance of getting published, unless you do it yourself.” I would say that this is off the mark by a factor of, oh, two million or so. Oscar/Frances then give us the success stories, all set forth in one helluva Larry Kingian prose: “You couldn’t get more obscure than John Wessel who worked in a bookstore.” But Wessel sold his book to Simon and Schuster for $900,000. And since then Wessel has written… uh, let us move on. Tom Clancy! The admittedly interesting publishing history of The Hunt for Red October is addressed at length, and then: “Novels continued to explode out of Clancy.” Alack, yes. But what is a novel, Oscar? “A novel is a story. It’s just a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s all there is and you can handle it.” This seems about as convincing and heartfelt as a Sigma Chi preparing a drunken coed for her first anal goosing. “Writing about what you know is fine, and writing what you only dream about in your mind is fine, too.” Everything is fine, in fact. How do you make characters sympathetic? “In many ways.” How do you make people sound natural in a novel? “How do real people talk? They talk like you. They talk like me.” But what about finding the time to write a novel? “Steven Linakis worked full time as a book-keeper, commuted long hours on the Long Island Rail Road and still managed to write a first novel that earned him more than $200,000.” You know, Steven Linakis. He wrote… that book. That book that sold for $200,000.
Probably the most well known (and well bought) species of how-to-write book is authored by someone who has published a few successful works of fiction or nonfiction and decided to share with the world his or her incunabulum of literary secrets. Such books are often aridly titled, highly theoretical, exercise-driven, and contain generous tissue samples of other writers’ prose to be peeled and vivisected until the student-reader knows, as the plumber knows gallons-per-flush, why the passage “works.” Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design and Josip Novakovich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop are both fine and helpful examples, as is John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, an oak-solid Nuts & Bolts that is an interesting companion to his more philosophical On Becoming a Novelist. All of these books should be read, and not only by beginners. But this category breaks down into more Linnaean classification. Alongside the various Nuts & Bolts how-tos of solidly accomplished writers, one finds what I will call the Tea & Angels how-to. These are often deeply mystical affairs.
There is a place for mysticism when discussing writing, as much of the process is bloodcurdlingly strange. So many things happen in any given piece of writing that cannot be explained: hauntingly unintentional thematic echoes, unplanned characters who arrive as though by séance, moments all but impossible to describe to the nonwriter when one does not feel as though one is writing but transcribing. Amazing, all of it. But the majority of writing is not like this, and should not be discussed as though it is, or can be.
Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is more mystical than ten Sufis trapped in a macrobiotic eatery. Get the right pen, Goldberg advises, and the right notebook (“Garfield, the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Star Wars. I use notebooks with funny covers”) and just go. Keep your hand moving, she coaches. There is another activity that requires you keep your hand moving. The important things are not to cross out, think, or get logical. And keep a big wad of Kleenex nearby. “Lose control,” she commands. Goldberg is St. Paul on the topic of the First Thought: “First thoughts have tremendous energy.… You must be a great warrior when you contact first thoughts and write from them.”
Goldberg tells us, “I teach the same methods over and over again.” Unfortunately, she also makes the same points over and over again. “What is said here about writing can be applied to running, painting, anything you love.” Indeed, writing is like cooking, she says at one point. Writing is like singing, she says at another. Writing is like running, she says (again). Actually, writing is like writing. Where did Goldberg pick up this breathtakingly inclusive view of writing? “In 1974 I began to do sitting meditation.” Uh oh.
Goldberg is also a very cunning egomaniac, as when she describes with dewy wonder how a friend of hers once spent the afternoon reading over her (Goldberg’s) old notebooks. “If you could write the junk you did then and write the stuff you do now,” this friend tells Goldberg, “I realize I can do anything.” Later on, she shares that she always brings a “date” to her readings: “I told the friend that as soon as I was finished reading, ‘Come right up to me, hug me, tell me how beautiful I looked and how wonderful I am.’” Of course, nearly all writers are needy monsters, but that is no reason for Goldberg to unwisely encourage this lamentable condition.
And yet some of what Goldberg says is beautiful:
We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived.
That is a lovely few lines of sentiment, and Goldberg is to be honored for sharing them. Equally salutary is her realistic appraisal of money and writing, so unlike Golden Parachutes and the troughs of lucre they promise: “I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to work at my real work.” One begins to like Goldberg—with qualifications, absolutely—but, all the same, one really begins to admire her spirit and goofiness, and then she says something like “If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you” and you bow your head. In Bones’s epilogue, she describes the day she finished writing the selfsame book and going to a local café: “I looked at everyone, spoke to no one, and kept smiling: ‘I’ve finished a book. Soon maybe I can be a human being again.’ I walked home relieved and happy. The next morning I cried. By the afternoon I felt wonderful.” Reading this book feels a little like being in a long doomed relationship with a manic-depressive. One also feels ruthlessly certain that, despite the fact that it has sold well over 150,000 copies, no one who ever read Writing Down the Bones became a writer by anything but sheer accident.
Of well-known how-to-write books by established authors, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is, despite her healingly mild approach, the most fun to read. The title comes from a story out of Lamott’s childhood. Her brother, overwhelmed by a grade-school writing project on birds, despaired of his ability to finish it. Lamott’s father put his arm around the boy and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Perhaps one feels a small temptation to snigger at this advice—how easily it is imagined upon a crocheted pillow—but this temptation should be fought, for a simple reason: like much of what is found on crocheted pillows, it is memorable and quietly true. Bird by Bird’s introduction offers a portrait of Lamott’s father, himself a writer, who died early, of a stroke, at fifty five. Lamott’s first novel, published when she was twenty-six, concerned a family coming to terms with its patriarch slowly dying. Intended as a gift to the man, it was written as he succumbed. Not having read the book, I have no idea if it is any good. Having read Lamott’s introduction, with its description of a dying father weakly raising his fist to his daughter as new pages are delivered, I can say I never want to: it could not be as good as that image, or as beautiful.
Like Natalie Goldberg, Lamott has a marked fondness for magical mystery tours (“December is traditionally a bad month for writing”) but she is tougher, funnier, and more honest. Her admission of why she writes (“I am completely unemployable”) may not be helpful, exactly, but it moved at least one reader to put down the book and laugh with warm recognition. Evidently, Lamott teaches quite a lot, and I was on guard for the moistly encouraging tone that I would imagine many career creative writing teachers are, for their humanity’s sake, forced to adopt. But getting published, Lamott writes, “will not open the doors that most of [her students] hope for. It will not make them well.” (To indulge, briefly, in further autobiography, my first published book has just appeared in stores. The last year of my life—the year of finishing it, editing it, and seeing it through its various page-proof passes—ranks among the most unnerving of my young life. It has not felt good, or freeing. It has felt nerve-shreddingly disquieting. Publication simply allows one that much more to worry about. This cannot be said to aspiring writers often or sternly enough. Whatever they carry within themselves that they believe publication cures will not, I can all but guarantee, be cured. You just wind up living with new diseases.)
One learns many things about Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. Quite likely, one learns far too much. We meet her friends Carpenter and the gay Jesuit priest Tom and Ethan Canin and a friend who died—far too young—of breast cancer. Lamott’s son, Sam, keeps popping up, too, often to say something enchantedly cute, such as when he decides that night air “smells like moon.” One or two instances of this would have been tolerable, but being held at parental gunpoint by Lamott so many times grows irritating.
However, a good deal of what Lamott says is terrific; she rewards you for hanging in there. Much of the beauty of writing is, she writes, “the beauty of sheer effort.” A whole chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts” argues, hilariously so, for the necessity of such drafts. Another chapter, about her multiple failures to “fix” a novel that seemed obdurately resistant to fixing (meanwhile her money was running out) is not only useful and heartening but undeniably wrenching. “To be a good writer,” she says, “you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care.” Elsewhere she notes that writing “is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.” In recounting a workshop that saw a good writer suddenly, viciously assault a bad writer after the class had offered the bad writer some patronizing praise, Lamott refuses any pat conclusions. Admirably refusing to criticize the good writer for her attack, she judges only that “you don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it, too.” She brilliantly and, I believe, accurately diagnoses the sort of student writer who routinely rips the spinal column from his classmates as a heathen seeking “pleasure that is almost sexual in nature.”
Less terrific is some of her advice:
Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul. What can you recall about your birthday parties?… Scratch around for details.… Write about the women’s curlers with the bristles inside, the garters your father and uncles used to hold up their dress socks, your grandfathers’ hats, your cousins’ perfect Brownie uniforms.
There is such a thing as too-specific guidance, and I fear it will take some time for anyone who has read Bird by Bird to write about a birthday party without mentioning all the hair curlers and garter socks and Brownie uniforms. Lamott simply beats one to the writing. Also, for a writer of such shrewdness, Lamott allows herself to get lost among some awfully simple terrain. A longish section intended to inspire beginners who do not know what to write about sees Lamott throwing out suggestions as unpromising as school lunches and carrot sticks. Yes, an ode to the carrot stick will get one writing, but Bird by Bird is not, I don’t think, intended for children but reasonably intelligent adults interested in writing. The whole question is beneath Lamott, and her suggestion is beneath her readers. Norman Mailer once said that, if a writer does not know how to get a character across the room, he is dead. I would append that: If a writer does not know what to write about, has no idea where even to begin, he was never alive to begin with.
“I do not think novelists—good novelists, that is—are altogether like other people.” This insight comes fifteen lines into Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art, which was published on Mailer’s eightieth birthday in January of 2003. This sentence places us high upon the mountainside of a different sort of how-to-write book, the Olympus, which only rarely deigns to address the actual processes of solid fiction-making. Instead, it focuses on the philosophy of writing—again, how to live—enjoying frequent, rather stark expeditions into the joys and terrors of literature. Reading such books is not always easy: the mountain analogy is apt. One’s pack is too heavy, the snow is thick, the guide is unforgiving, self-involved, but far too knowledgeable to ignore. One constantly feels as though one has to prove oneself worthy of his or her company.
The Olympus is always the work of a highly esteemed writer who has elected—perhaps for money, perhaps because the writer believes he or she has something interesting to say—to set aside the scepter for a short while and share with fans and hopefuls how and why he or she writes, and what a beginning writer can do to improve him- or herself. With their mandarin tones and necessary overstatements, such books routinely annoy and worry beginners. Beginners are probably right to be worried and annoyed, and it is no coincidence that the typical Olympus is not usually read by aspiring writers but rather by their authors’ fans and foes. The particles of their allure have an altogether different electricity: the insights are less global and more personal, more spiritual and less emotional. Not surprisingly, the Olympus also tends to have a much longer shelf life than other how-to books, from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel to Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners to Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. Joyce Carol Oates’s recent (and excellent) The Faith of a Writer will, I suspect, outlast a good deal of her other work.
Mailer’s The Spooky Art was greeted by notably hostile reviews. Many critics charged that it was simply one big microwaved potluck of Maileriana that contained only the stray spice of anything new. This charge was indisputably true, but some of us card-carrying Mailer fanatics are willing to read the man on topics as bleak as poodles or Madonna. (Indeed, some of us have read the man on poodles or Madonna.) Yes, Mailer devotees will be familiar with most of what appears in The Spooky Art. I will go perilously far out on a limb, here, to say that, if only for its arrangement and augmentations, it is still very much worth perusal. Here is something:
A man lays his character on the line when he writes a novel. Anything in him which is lazy, or meretricious, or unthought-out, complacent, fearful, overambitious, or terrified… will be revealed in his book.… [N]o novelist can escape his or her own character altogether. That is, perhaps, the worst news any young writer can hear.
This is a reversal of the mysticism one encounters in a book such as Writing Down the Bones, which promises that unlocking the inner writer will release only lemon-scented elation. Mailer suggests that the inner life of a writer is a vast, terrible ocean of doubt and despair. The former view will make for happier workshops and pleasanter emotional weather, certainly, but it is not likely to encourage a writer to “settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time,” as Mailer summarized his own goals in 1958. (“And I certainly failed,” Mailer adds now, “didn’t I?”) There is much in The Spooky Art that few writers would be willing to say. “You can write a very bad book,” Mailer tells us (and as anyone who has read Marilyn or Ancient Evenings or Of Women and Their Elegance or An American Dream can tell you, he would know), “but if the style is first-rate, then you’ve got something that will live—not forever, but for a decent time.… Style is half of a novel.” Of writing in the first person, Mailer says, with his characteristic admixture of wisdom and buffoonery, “It is not easy to write in the first person about a man who’s stronger or braver than yourself. It’s too close to self-serving. All the same, you have to be able to do it.” As for novel writing (I will hopefully assume he really means writing, as Mailer’s chief accomplishment lies in nonfiction, which is no small thing, whatever he may believe or wish to believe), “It may be that [writing] is not an experience. It may be more like a continuing relationship between a man and his wife. You can’t necessarily speak of that as an experience, since it may consist of several experiences braided together; or of many experiences braided together; or indeed it may consist of two kinds of experiences that are antagonistic to one another.” If this sounds confused, one suspects it is supposed to, and it is inversely stirring to see a writer of Mailer’s stature recklessly unable to come to terms with what, exactly, writing is.
In his bravely titled How to Write: Advice and Reflections, Richard Rhodes takes an opposite tack than that of his Olympian colleagues: “If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is.… You’re a human being, with a unique story to tell.… We need stories to live, all of us.” Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize–
winning author of, among other books, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (a great work of nonfiction everyone should read) and Making Love (a queasy memoir of all the sex Rhodes has had that I do not advise reading), has written a decent, old-fashioned Olympus that honors writing and the writer equally. That does not mean he will brook any of the delaying measures to which writers routinely subject themselves:
If you’re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, don’t show them until you write your way beyond fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence.
One is not likely to encounter any advice in a how-to book as commendably intolerant of writerly self-delusion as that. One will find in Rhodes, though, goodly helpings of advice that sound awfully close to the advice of Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott and any number of other Tea & Angels writers. To the stalled writer, Rhodes offers this encouragement: “Everyone knows how to do something: describe a process. How do you tie your shoe? How do you brush your teeth? How do you plant a bulb, drive a car, read a map?” Perhaps this K–8 tone can be traced to Rhodes’s early career as a Hallmark Card writer (about which he is unapologetic; he considers all types of writing, no matter how cheap, another tool in the writer’s box), but I do not believe it should be. Rather, many of these books sound so alike—from the atom-splitting concentration they bring to bear upon the minutiae of their authors’ lives to their nakedly desperate exhortations simply to write anything—because the questions the beginning writer needs answered are so depressingly similar: How do you start? What do you write about? How do you know if you are any good? Often you feel that these accomplished and famous writers are merely talking to themselves, since, in many ways, they still are that tremblingly uncertain scribbler. The how-to-write genre begins to feel less like an effort to instruct and more like a rearguard action to reinforce the garrisons of their authors’ own slaughtered confidences. Just about all how-to-write books have at least a little worth, and some, like Rhodes’s, have great worth. For instance, Rhodes’s discussion of the cardinal importance of “voice” in writing (“‘Natural’ is a hopeless word; it has always meant and continues to mean whatever the speaker wants to exclude from discussion”) is as good as anything one can hope to find on the topic. But what begins to rise up from these pages are the iodine and lotions of self-healing. You start to wonder if you are responding not to the how-to writer who is least crazy, but the how-to writer who is crazy in the same way you are crazy. You want to be healed, too.
On its face, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is primarily about self-healing—written, as it was, in the wake of the nearly fatal accident King suffered while walking along a country road in the summer of 1999. (The man who ran King down, one Bryan Smith, was later found, in a very King-like twist, dead of undetermined causes in his trailer home.) Most of the decisions about which how-to-write books to discuss in this essay have been due to my familiarity with their authors’ less subsidiary work. In King’s case, I confess to having read everything from Carrie to The Tommyknockers. (The latter’s demonically murderous flying soda machine made me realize, with what I can only call the shock of unexpected maturity, that perhaps I had outgrown this sort of thing. But it comes as no shock in On Writing when we learn that King wrote The Tommyknockers with “cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.”) In other words, I have read, by quick estimate, about 15,000 pages’ worth of Stephen King’s prose—and I do not regret one folio of it. Whether because of his success (“I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction”), his profligacy (“there’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all”), or the simple likeability of his voice (“Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter”), there are not many living writers whose views on writing will be as enthusiastically received by hacks, would-be hacks, artists, would-be artists, and civilians alike. On King’s Olympus, God walks alongside man.
“This is a short book,” King explains in the second of his three forewords, “because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” This is fairly representative of On Writing’s tone, though its anti-intellectualism is more akin to that of Abbie Hoffman than Rush Limbaugh. The approach results in some passages of wonderful bullshitlessness. For example, King’s strident belief that a work of prose is about brutally controlled paragraphs rather than artful, free-flowing sentences (“If your master’s thesis is no more organized than a high school essay titled ‘Why Shania Twain Turns Me On,’ you’re in big trouble”) seems that delightful thing: an insight that is both unexpected and true. His insistence that carefully placed fragments in a scene of action (King’s example: “Big Tony sat down, lit a cigarette, ran a hand through his hair”) nail down the writing, giving it a kind of vivid breather, is advice good enough to pay for. But King’s dirt-plain line of attack also results in some massively wrong-headed counsel. “Remember,” he writes, “that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word… but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.” It seems to me that only willfully obtuse people don’t realize that the mind very rarely says what it means to say in the heat of any given moment, writing included. One’s first word or thought is usually imprecise, muddy, and wrong. Writing is seeing, but revision is reflecting on what one has seen. And the first word that comes to one’s mind when one is writing about anything even remotely technical is all but guaranteed to be the wrong word. The same goes for characters whose professions or interests are unfamiliar to us: one has to go back and vivify those “dogs” and “trees” and “wiry-type things” that, in every first draft, exist lifelessly on the page. The many nuances of King’s advice will be teased out by more advanced beginners, but to the less skilled, one fears it will seem that King is giving prose permission to go AWOL from the interesting. “No one can be as intellectually slothful as a really smart person,” King writes. No one, perhaps, but an incredibly defensive dumb person. King is the farthest imaginable thing from dumb, and it is unappetizing to watch him pretend that he is.
But one quickly comes back to the good King, St. King:
I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals… and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
“Life,” King writes elsewhere, “isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” Of course, the world is filled with those who will sniff at the notion of making good writers out of competent writers, who will despair at the prospect of these empowered good writers writing their good novels and stories and filling the world with competent, merely interesting writing. That is, in part, what I believe angers so many writers about the how-to-write genre—and I would be fibbing greatly if I did not admit to regarding it with a certain amount of skepticism myself. Every writer’s road is hard, and lonely, and forever covered by night, and even the best how-to books splash the path with artificial spotlight and claim it is the sun.
Nevertheless, one wonders. Just when was it that “competent” became such a terrible fate? Like “cute,” it is a word that has somehow culturally capsized and spilled its initial, positive meaning. And since when have merely good writers been deserving of barbed wire and gruel? I, for one, am glad of the world’s good novels. I am reading a good novel right now.
I hope to write a good novel someday. (I have already written several bad ones. That does not really seem such terrible providence either, in the end.) Writers who fail are not pathetic; they are people who have attempted to do something incredibly difficult and found they cannot. Human longing exists in every person, along every frequency of accomplishment. It is the delusions endemic to bad writers and bad writing that need to be destroyed. Here are a few: Writing well will get you girls, or boys, or both. Writing well will make you happy. Fame and wealth are good writing’s expected rewards. Writing for a living is somehow nobler than what most people do. What needs to be reinforced is the idea that good writing—solid, honest, entertaining, beautiful good writing—is simultaneously the reward, the challenge, and the goal. Some of us will be great but, as King says, that will be an accident, and its determination is beyond our power, no matter how many books we read or write. Perhaps especially if those books are about writing.
There is a final book about writing that I need to talk about. God help us, it is published by Writer’s Digest Books, so allow me to encourage anyone interested to steal it forthwith, preferably from the warehouses of Writer’s Digest Books. It is called Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life, and forms a handsome collection of Peanuts Snoopycentrism. Snoopy, of course, is a long-suffering writer, and some of Charles Schulz’s funniest strips have been devoted to his worthy beagle’s literary frustrations; they are gathered here, in their glorious entirety. My second favorite strip gives us Snoopy in full profile, bent over his typewriter, diligently typing. “Gentlemen,” he writes. “Enclosed is the manuscript of my new novel. I know you are going to like it.” And in the final panel: “In the meantime, please send me some money so I can live it up.” In my favorite strip, Snoopy gives Lucy van Pelt a draft titled “A Sad Story.” “This isn’t a sad story,” Lucy complains. “This is a dumb story!” Snoopy takes back the draft and holds it close to his protuberant face. He thinks, “That’s what makes it so sad.”
That is what makes it so sad. That is also why we laugh. But it is a good laughter, a pure laughter, and not at all at Snoopy’s expense. It is the laughter of necessity, laughter rich with the hope that, eventually, all of our stories will be happier.
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