Contrary to what my employers seem to believe, I am extraordinarily unfit for my day job which is sometimes also a night job and occasionally a weekend job, even when I don’t have work to do—it sticks with me, a kind of trivial, biting toxicity requiring at least twenty-four hours of away time to purge from my system, according to my physician. According to my shaman (found him on craigslist), I should probably resign my post in an absurdist, perhaps cubist or maybe even modernist or surrealist fashion and write for a living, if in that way a living can be made these days, by me. Then I could tell people I’m a writer without also being a liar, although I may choose to be both a writer and a liar and keep the truth to myself in the spirit of avoiding awkward, inane, unintentionally confounding exchanges about “what I write” and the kind of person that makes me.
This is a long one, but please read on—there’s a super happy fun prize at the end.
Writing is a funny thing, and talking and writing about it is even funnier. Maybe that’s why I don’t like to (even though I’m doing it now, I know). There’s so much advice and wisdom floating around about method, approach, style, technique, manner, mode, routine, and, of course, the noun of the century, process. Oh process, where would we be without you? Guidance is not at all hard to find, especially in this self-helping age of ours, even if most of it is easy to ignore once you get control of the gag reflex it likes to trigger.
Do they do this with the other arts? Are there books and manuals with the essential tips for being a concert pianist or a great composer? What about for painting or sculpting? Writers write, and write about writing; you can’t really paint about painting, you just have to paint—or write about it, whether you’re a painter or not. What about photography and film? I’d be willing to bet that there are more guides to and handbooks for photography and film than to or for music or painting or sculpting but writing seems to have them all beat. In fact, it borrows from them all—writing about writing is full of musical, visual, physical, and cinematographic allusions and metaphors. And mechanical, procedural ones as well, borrowed from who knows where—that’s where it really starts to get stupid.
A fairly recent book by Roy Peter Clark, writing coach extraordinaire, sums this up: Writing Tools is a cute little exercise in accessibility (writing is a craft anyone can learn; “the writer’s struggle is overrated, a con game” to keep you from getting started) and the mastery of the banal and cliché (“begin sentences with subjects and verbs,” “establish a pattern, then give it a twist,” “write from different cinematic angles”), conveniently arranged in a set of 50 “tools.” It makes me nauseous, and once that passes and I settle into a milder antipathy, I just wonder why. What, really, is the point of this toolboxery and down-dumbing? To teach? To sell a book to the widest possible audience?
In his introduction, Clark writes that his book “invites you to imagine the act of writing less as a special talent and more as a purposeful craft.” Ugh. He would like us to think of writing as carpentry and ourselves as carpenters who simply need the right tools in our “workbench.” Does anyone else find this sickening? I think I’m going to write a carpentry manual where I recommend that would-be carpenters think of their work as writing and give them a dictionary and a thesaurus and a level and encourage them to go forth and build beautiful houses like they’re telling stories because anyone can do it if they have the right tools. That might make me feel better.
How much more blatantly can the point, the core, be missed? It sounds like the kind of low-level metaphorical drivel employed by corporate motivational speakers to boost morale and “productivity.” Clark even puts it in the classic us-versus-them schema, inciting us to see that we are not, in fact, so unlike them, the writers—we can all do it, and he wants us to buy in like writing is one of our company’s core values, right after teamwork. That’s why I think of the office when I read, see, or hear of advice like Clark’s, and a big reason why it makes me sick. It shares the plain-spoken spiritlessness and strange scientism of the average workosphere, lacking anything especially distinctive or personal or insightful. It’s like small talk in that it’s just filler, not entirely useless, just tiresome and uninteresting and quaint, nauseatingly so. It’s also like propaganda in that it pays some glancing lip service to values and certain other socio-cultural imperatives, like inclusion and equality and entitlement and unbridled free will, without a meaningful engagement with why. Those are big issues; you can’t just sneak them in there like that.
My problem is this, and I’m looking for a cure: I have a fundamental inability, confirmed by both my physician and my shaman, to accept that an art can or should be taught so un-artfully, especially by couching it in the warm-welcoming, stooping suggestion, thoroughly mechanized and proceduralized and toolified, that anyone can do it. Maybe I’m a fool or a silly sentimentalist or insufferable elitist romantic in this but I just can’t shake it. And I’m too stubborn to turn the other cheek without saying something about it first. So here’s what I’d like to say: It seems perfectly ridiculous to take something so complicated and nuanced and idiosyncratic—and uncommon, if we’re talking about actual artistic achievement—and boil it down to a simple act that, supposedly, anyone can replicate so long as they follow a few rules and heed some clichéd wisdom from one of our society’s proliferation of gurus.
Maybe they could, if that was all it is. But it’s not—or shouldn’t be—and that’s what’s great about it. Who would want to read the result of that simple act anyway, all nails and screws and two-by-fours, and what about really coming up with something really good (really)? If that’s not your objective, not something that almost torments you into being a writer or some other kind of artist, then why do it in the first place? If with art we create images of ourselves, as Milosz said, wouldn’t we want our images to be, I don’t know, at least interesting, whether they’re of our uglinesses or qualities, just so long as they’re something more than the application of technique, something more than an unreflective, unaware, flat-souled exercise?
It almost seems like that question doesn’t matter—how good the result is and the nature of real artistic talent seem secondary at best, presumably because it’s wrong, as Clark and so many other gurus, both armchair and professional, would have us believe, to think of writing as the special or secret property of the “privileged few.” The privileged few? So talent is a matter of privilege, and that privilege is improperly bestowed. That’s a strange set of associations, when you stop and think about it. I’d like to hear more on that, Mr. Clark, before we get into your list of tools. Should the extraordinary achievements of talented individuals not be treated as such, given special, privileged places in our culture and thought because of their brilliance, beauty, and rarity? Were Steinbeck and Faulkner and Chekhov and Proust and Rimbaud and Dostoevsky and Milosz just like the rest of us, only they used better tools? I don’t believe that, not for a second, and I think it sends the wrong message and does the art and it’s constitutive achievements a serious disservice to suggest they were and did, like saying don’t be too impressed by Frank Lloyd Wright, he was just a guy who built houses anyone could build. These people had—or for a time found—something else, and it’s that something else that made their work art. Otherwise they’d have been hacks like the rest of us, or maybe carpenters.
Where does this advice come from? It hasn’t always been this way, the prestige of beauty and sublimity has not always been so often and easily besieged by metaphor- and tool-wielding pedagogues. The impulse to disenchant and de-mystify is a characteristically modern one, if you’ll permit me some armchair historicism, and it has taken extra encouragement from an underlying egalitarian drive to make things more accessible to more people by reducing them to lowest common denominators, to basest elements, to material, concrete things, quantifiable things and easily understandable and repeatable things. It’s safe in there, nice and comfortable, and everyone can come in—and, collectively, we can go right on being, like Steinbeck wrote in The Winter of Our Discontent, “the wards of that 19th century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain” without even knowing we’re doing it or caring either way. It’s perfect—and it sells, and this, I think is truly our overrated con game: Come one, come all! For too long we’ve been hapless spectators, wandering around amazed and astounded by myths of secret genius, of untouchable, almost unspeakable talent! But art is simple, writing is simple—you just need a manual—my manual! Don’t let fables of “talent” and “fitness” and “struggle” keep you from donning your artist’s hat—there are so many hats in the world, let’s put some on! Because hats are made for heads and, don’t you know it, we have heads! Let me show you!
So we get tools and tips and tricks, suggestions on perfecting our “craft” from the author of That Other Book of Humdrum Advice (it was a #1 bestseller) or maybe from the woman who wrote some recently-published novel you haven’t heard of and now feel obliged to investigate because it has an intriguing title and if she has advice for the rest of us then she must know what she’s doing and it must be worth a look (and the price of admission). Or maybe from that friend of your friend who happens to have published a little something and is compelled—or perhaps impelled—to pontificate on the subject at dinner parties and wine tastings and bagel boilings, much to the obsequious admiration of his companions and the puzzled, slightly suspicious astonishment of his acquaintances, like you. Your friend thinks you should talk to this person because you’re “both writers” and maybe he “can help,” maybe he’ll be your personal Roy Peter Clark and you’ll make your dream a reality. Finally. And there will be much rejoicing. And then you’ll write a book of vapid advice and encouragement for young writers because passing it on is a duty (and an honor).
I know we’re supposed to encourage each other and at least say, as Mencken said of the object of his friend Theodore Dreiser’s strange obsession—a reclusive, odd-ball writer named Charles Fort who Dreiser was stubbornly backing—“the more the merrier.” But doesn’t it depend on who constitutes the more, and what kind of merriment they actually bring? Anyway, Mencken’s remark was not one of inclusion but dismissal—he just happened to put it more lightly than, say, H.G. Wells, who wrote to Dreiser that “Fort seems to be one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out-of-the-way newspapers & thought they were facts. And he writes like a drunkard.” Like Wells, Mencken too was exasperated with Dreiser and had apparently heard enough, calling Fort’s work “balderdash” and saying what he said about more and merrier as a way of telling Dreiser “look, I’ve told you you’re crazy and that this guy Fort is a joke but you go on and do as you like, just don’t expect me or any other sensible human being to follow you.” That’s essentially how I feel about most of the distillation gurus: do what you want (even though I really wish you wouldn’t), but let’s not pretend you’ve discovered the key to anything or even found an interesting way to present the mundane. The less attention we pay to you, the better off we’ll probably be.
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(I told you this was long)
One of my favorite pieces of humdrum writing advice is just do it, just write. Sometimes it comes with a suggested word or page count, usually attached to a workday-ish timeframe (a thousand words, a page per day). As with Clark’s tools, this advice is not necessarily wrong or completely useless, but in the touch-and-go context of self-help and coaching it reminds me of the motto uttered by the great Karl Pilkington: “I find that if you just talk, your mouth comes up with stuff.” Replace “talk” with “write” and “mouth” with “pen” or “fingers” or some such component of the typical writer’s corporeal repository and there you have your literary program. So just keep writing and your pen will come up with stuff. Brilliant. This tactic did not work for Fort, for one, and he moved his pen a lot (to the tune of four long books about, ironically, all sorts of strange phenomena and “data” modern science systematically excluded—no one really cared besides Dreiser and so Fort went the way of his “data”). We might say it has worked quite well for Karl, but that’s another story.
How about an example. I know of a pedantic gentleman, not terribly unlike Charles Fort in his marginality but brash and impetuous and entitled, with a couple mediocre sci-fi novels under his belt who is every bit of a Pilkingtonian, though he has no idea, which is exactly what makes him one. In the course of making small talk at some social thing or other, the pedantic gentleman offered some rather Karl-ish advice: 3000 to 5000 words a day. That’s it, that’s what he said was the secret to being a writer (like him). He also said—actually said—he had never heard of Dostoevsky (never heard) and declined to waste his time reading even something as midcult as the Game of Thrones series because “they’re like 900 pages long and HBO has already read them and told me what I need to know.”
The pedantic gentleman considers himself a writer, and in the strictest sense of being one who places letters into a particular order so that they form words which then form something like sentences and may in fact be read and comprehended by other human beings, I guess he is. He has followed at least some of the essential tips and tricks of the trade and reminds me of the kind of writer that intro to creative writing instructors in college like to suggest is latent within each of us and has only to be realized because we all have stories to tell, they say, so just write and you’ll see and we’ll enjoy being artists for a couple of minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays before we graduate and get jobs and forget about it and become just like everyone else, although maybe we’ll force out a book later in life because it was on our bucket list and we read a secondhand copy of Clark’s Writing Tools we found in the seat pocket in an airplane and remembered our teacher’s encouragements and then all our friends will say good for us. And again we will rejoice.
I don’t know about you but it’s hard for me to believe that someone who has never heard of Dostoevsky and says he sees no need to read Game of Thrones because the TV gods have already condensed it into visual Cliff’s Notes so he doesn’t even have to waste energy using his imagination could ever—ever—write much of anything worth reading, whether he has studied every writing manual known to man or not (in much the same way that it’s hard for me to take anything Clark says seriously because of all his toolbox and carpentry and privilege talk). I just don’t think you can be that far outside the conversation or even the bounds of good sense and awareness (and so unashamedly ignorant of those facts—that’s the kicker) and be able to give back something valuable or meaningful in that conversation’s terms. Which makes it seem like pure self-indulgence, not the more social or broadly humanistic sort of self-imaging that Milosz likened to the currency of art, because there’s no exchange, nothing substantial on offer that strikes a chord in the hearts and minds of other human beings. I can’t say it’s soulless, though; there’s a soul in there, something pushing those 3000 to 5000 words out each day and being reflected in them in turn, some kind of drive. But it’s the kind of soul and drive only a mother could love. I seriously doubt that any amount of Dostoevsky, or Clark’s writing tools, or words per day could change this.
Do the world’s pedantic gentlemen and women take up the pen because they believe they’re in possession of natural talent so profound that they’re obliged to put it on display for the betterment of all humankind and their own deep personal satisfaction? Because they know their pens will come up with stuff? Or because they—and we, all of us—have the right to compose prose or verse, the individual, personal right, and there’s some ethical imperative to exercise it, like voting? Maybe I’m making too big a deal of it; maybe it’s just because, that’s all—just because they can. Is that enough?
I don’t think so, I don’t believe in just because, not with this. Just because is for the movie you picked to watch at home last Friday night when you were too tired to do anything else but couldn’t bring yourself to go to bed. Or when you pushed that kid in the fifth grade and he fell down and scuffed his knee and started to cry and you got in trouble. Just because. Don’t write just because, do it because if Faulkner hadn’t already said this, then you might’ve:
The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. (Paris Review, 1956)
This kind of desperation and savagery is not in the toolbox. It’s the stuff we can’t measure or explain (or sell) so it gets left out like Steinbeck said (Fort wasn’t a good writer but he did have a point), and I don’t think we can just assume it’s there, somewhere, lurking, unsaid and without having to be. This is not the kind of feeling that lurks in the background—it’s front and center, completely trivializing any and all talk of parameters and accumulations and all that elementary, book-club, bullet-pointed blather about processes and tools and such. If you’re not driven in this way, at least to some degree, it’s hard to see how you could ever be good, let alone great, even if you have heard of Dostoevsky, even if, for that matter, you’re the most seriousest and knowledgeablestest student of the artform the world has ever known, ever. It’s an obsession, an obsession and a challenge and a puzzle, and without it something is missing, something big. I know that sounds dramatic and maybe a little extreme but we’re not talking about carpentry here.
For my part, I wondered for years if I really felt that anguish or if I just wanted to so badly that I imagined it, if I was what Don Quixote described as the poet who knows the artform and wishes to be a natural, scribbling down some “precious emptiness,” in Faulkner’s terms. To an extent I was, though, because I was impatient and unprepared and extremely uncertain and it drove me crazy to think that I was just like our pedantic gentleman, differing from him and his ilk only in my awareness of that fact and willingness to keep silent forever and consign my hopes and dreams to a cubicle somewhere if it were true, waiting for the slaughter. I didn’t want to be a hack, or another sad Charles Fort toiling away on a decent idea or two without any real sense of how to capture it and put it out there with a fresh kick, nor did I want to write out of unmitigated angst and dissatisfaction with my apparent unfitness for all this “normal” nonsense. I only wanted to do it if I had reason to, and it killed me to think that maybe I didn’t.
But the more I think and write and read and rewrite and re-think and re-read and ride the waves roiling between all of those lovely, difficult things, the more I know I have to do it. Not because I read a book by a writing guru and decided I can do it too, not because I’m just that skilled, not because it’s on my bucket list, not because I feel entitled to tell my story, not because my voice should be heard, not because anyone can do it, not because I don’t know what the hell else to do, and certainly not just because. I know I have to do it because it brings peace, because the anguish stems from a need to lay something beautiful or meaningful or different out in the world, something that will stand, as much to help combat the ugly, mean, and stupid as for its own sake. I want nothing more than to do what some great minds and people have done for the rest of us and I need to see if I can, even if on a smaller scale—the jury is still out on whether I’m a hack or not (I’m just now starting to get the hang of this a little bit), and I’m going to keep writing till I find out, till Mencken tells me or Wells calls me a “damnable bore.” Because deep down I think I might be able to make something of it and I have to try, to see if just maybe I can touch good or even glance at great, if only in an instant here and there. Maybe I’ll surprise myself and give something much more than I could ever give by just existing, and I’ll only find out if I keep at it and let it be what I am, regardless of employers, writing coaches, pedantic gentlemen, and old ladies (sorry mom).
And since we’re on the matter of advice and self-indulgence and this is already too long anyway, I would advise anyone else who feels something like this to do the same—keep at it, please, relentlessly. Just do it, yes, but with some kind of fury, like you mean it, because if you do, you will (I’ve learned that much at least). Disregard word counters and toolboxers, sneer at tips and tricks because if it’s for you, if you’re “demon-driven with something to be said,” then dig down for it and do it and find your way of joining the conversation and putting some skin in the game, heeding the masters, dismissing the hacks and impostors, and nevertheless taking a little something from all of them, quaint little encouragements be damned.
Writing is hard, in one way or another, whether it’s going well or not. And good writing is the hardest of all—I think that’s why we marvel at it and why it humbles and awakens and touches and changes and clarifies and confounds and enchants and complicates and simplifies and all that good stuff. Being good is both innate and practiced; it comes around when “nature is mixed with art, and art with nature.” There’s no manual to tell you whether you have it or not (believe me, I looked), no amount of words per day that’ll prove it, but there are plenty of examples showing what happens when someone does or did—libraries are full of them. And I do not mean Game of Thrones.
That’s what I think. I just want to be good. And if I ever become good, really good, this is what I think good would look like: endlessly curious and inquisitive, at least a little desperate, sometimes savage and troubled, other times joyous and effervescent, conscious of grand and transcendent things as well as of the shabby, ordinary, and downright strange and hilarious, of how things really are, could, or even should be. It comes down to this, probably always will: if it’s worth thinking I should be able to find a way to make it worth writing, and making it worth writing should have something to do with making it worth reading. I hope it is.
But if it’s not, I’ll go teach intro to creative writing somewhere and make my students memorize the 12 Essential Strategies to Ensure You Don’t Become a Writebot (to go along with the companion textbook I’ll force them to buy), and tell them all about how wrong I was in thinking I might ever have art in me. Because they should know. Then they’ll say, ah, but Mr. Teacherman, how do you know so much about writing if you couldn’t do it yourself? And I’ll say exactly—and don’t you little bastards forget it. I know good writing, I just couldn’t pull it off. I’m here to help you see what it is and start thinking about if you can. They’ll nod or shrug or ignore me and then we’ll read the “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov and I’ll ask them what they know about parables. And I will never, ever, talk to them about toolboxes or tell them to begin their sentences with anything other than what makes sense, whatever makes it work.
Now that’s enough talking about writing—time to get back to actually doing some. Let us never speak of it again. Amen. Salud. Farewell. Here’s your prize: