Now, I’m not going to lie. It’s annoying, to have to take time out of my incredibly busy writing schedule in order to spell it all out for young people, just because they spend most of their daylight hours being urged by hoary old theorists in threadbare sweaters to write experimental fiction that will never sell. But I care deeply about the young—all of them, the world’s young—so of course I am humbled and honored to share the trade secrets embedded in my rigorous daily work schedule.
Like passengers in a lifeboat, all the words in a concise text must pull their own weight.
Novelists, poets, and playwrights aren’t the only people who can call themselves writers. Don’t forget the oft begrudged screenwriters. The New York Times highlights 14 of this year’s best screenwriters, including Julie Deply and Seth Rogen, and asks them for writing advice and one original line of dialogue for some excellent short films. Our favorite short film is Robert Redford’s.
When I’m struggling with my own work, I’m often drawn to biographies of writers. Not only do I learn fun facts about prominent figures — Henry James suffered terribly from constipation, Kafka chewed every bite of food 32 times, Flannery O’Connor cared for a flock of around 40 peacocks, Montaigne never saw his wife with her clothes off, Balzac fortified himself with a paste made of unroasted coffee beans — I’m also reminded that there’s no single path for living a successful creative or personal life.
To be a good novelist, you need to keep your sense of curiosity alive. You need to be the kind of person who wants to know things: about people, about events, about objects. What made you want to become a pilot? Do you get on with your sister? What is that police car doing there? Who lives in that tiny/big/smelly house? Who dropped that hand-written note in the park, and what does it say? Good fiction writers are nosey. I think “write what you know” is the single worst piece of writing advice. Instead, write what you’re really interested in. Write what is going to keep you awake at night; write what you don’t understand; write to figure something out. Good novels are journeys into the unknown, for their authors as well as their readers.
What’s better than being a writer? A writer who gets paid. Manjula Martin and Jane Friedman have launched the new digital magazine Scratch, which gives writers information on how to advocate for their work. The preview issue is free and contains essays on what freelancers can learn from street vendors, Cord Jefferson on outgrowing his materialism, and an interview with Jonathan Franzen. You can subscribe here.
“8. Don’t Use A Tape Recorder.
This is a sticking point for me. How do you accurately capture quotes without a recording device? Talese told the audience, “Don’t use a tape recorder, because then you have their exact words. You are a partner in the quotation. The quote is polished in your prose.” When prodded further, Talese said he would ask the questions again and again so that he could refine and get at what they really meant. The final quote, he told the audience, needs to be in your voice, with your tone, not the black and white words. Later in the conversation, Talese expanded on this by saying that he would include in his notes: “What they say, what he [Talese] says, and what they think.” His use of interior monologue was a tool Tom Wolfe complimented him on in his discussion of The New Journalism.”
Larissa Zimberoff, “The 10 Things I Learned From Gay Talese That Will Get Me a Job at The New York Times”
When I was younger, I remember going around totally deluded by the idea that other people might, in fact, be geniuses or at least be able to express this in any intelligible fashion. The idea that you might do something radically brilliant—that assumption is very empowering and it has given the world a lot of really interesting things to look at. It’s a side effect of the cult of normality—the idea that it would be preposterous and perhaps undesirable to single yourself out in that way. I think that’s why a lot of stuff that basically amounts to breaking china is seen as being creative when, in fact, it’s as subservient to prevailing norms as anything else is, as obedience to them would be.
Elissa Schappell thinks writers need to stop whining. “Writers seem to think that by virtue of intellect or sensitivity that we suffer more than others, that the work we do is more necessary than other work. This idea is not only ridiculous, it’s shameful,” she wrote after 2paragraphs asked her “What Do You Like Least About Being A Writer?” Pair with: our interview with her earlier this year.
If it is character, you’d be wise to (binge) watch the television series Orange is the New Black to chart heroine Piper Chapman’s transformation from prissy, naive, and entitled young white woman to young white woman who is learning (trying? failing?) to shed her prissiness, naivete, and entitlement. Prison has changed her — hasn’t it? One could argue that the former version of herself would not — spoiler alert! — have beaten the shit out of a fellow human being. The arc is terrific because you can chart its progress: you can see how every conflict that arises pushes Piper and molds her. The question is whether you can see that same cause and effect in your own work.