Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fifteen Things You Learned about Writing

In the matter of fourteen or fifteen days, you’ve read three novels of intense and diverse presence, each in its way grabbing you in metaphor by the collar, lifting you a tad off the ground then asking you how you can presume to think of yourself a practitioner of the same craft.

The three novels are Dennis Lehane’s latest, Live by Night, Virginia Woolf’s arguably most experimental The Waves, and Louise Erdrich’s latest, The Roundhouse.  If you were to add another week to the calculus, you’d have to add yet another novel, one also arguable as the most experimental of its author, William Faulkner, by which you mean your rereading of As I Lay Dying.

The effect on you of reading these is a salient reason why you seek out such works, which, each in its own way, is so daunting that you are, in the act of being metaphorically lifted off the ground, yanked past the sense of competitiveness and the stunned inability you sometimes experienced as an undergraduate, when you on frequent occasion came across narratives that seemed to drive the need to write from you, again with the metaphor, as though being dealt a spirited jab in the solar plexus that drove the breath from you.

At the time of your undergraduate years, you danced between this breathlessness and the naïve assurance that you, too, wished to “do” these things, construct these narratives, long and short.

The tricks to learn were these:

1) Writing is difficult, even when it seems easy, even when there seemed to be no end to the things you could produce.
2) Even were you to be able to write like one of the three writers you just mentioned or any of the others you felt “uplifted” by, you would not be doing what you ought and what you’d set out to do, which is writing like yourself, after, of course, finding who the you was in the equation.
3) Who is the you who for the longest time felt terrified to write in the first person because Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn seemed so unselfconsciously convincing—and daunting?  Who was the you who tried to forget having read Jane Eyre and Rebecca for the same reason.
4) Don’t for a minute stop looking for titles—past and present—that will lift you, deflate your breath, and in other ways transport you from your comfort zone.
5) Since there will be times when you can’t tell or predict the effect of a new title, allow yourself the luxury of discovering things you reckon to have achieved a narrative awfulness and emotional morbidity.  These are every bit as daunting as, say, Of Mice and Men, because they remind you how close you’ve come to committing the same or worse errors, or how disastrous your disconnect when trying to achieve something you considered “elevated” or serious.
6) When you achieved some matter of competence to the point where things you wrote were being given homes—not always the most prestigious neighborhoods—and some of your friends began urging you to get serious, you did just that.  You grew serious to the point of realizing no one wanted to publish serious things you wrote.  Even when you are serious, you are funny, but it was not deliberate, that funny was the funny of someone putting on airs of seriousness.
7) You are too impatient (still) to be serious.  Even you think you are funny when you become too impatient, then begin acting out, somewhat like a huge stork, waving its wings and yawping.
8) You have come a long way, understanding what you are not.
9) With one remarkable exception, you have not done well with deans.  This again reflects on your impatience with seriousness.  This reflects on why you are not at your best in faculty meetings, even those where you do not say anything verbally (apparently you nevertheless communicate with body language).
10) If editorial meetings go on for too long, even when you are editor in chief, you are not at your best.
11) Sometimes, even when you are doing your best not to be serious, the writing will still have that serious tang to it, something like over-the-hill hamburger.  This is one of the reasons writing is not as easy as you thought or, for that matter hoped.
12) You’d rather read mind-blowing novels now than you did when you were an undergraduate, whioh is one of the reasons you’re rereading some of the things you read when you were thinking writing was easy.
13) Every once in a while, you get a glimpse of what you are that is not based on what you are not.  These times come to you more often when you’re writing than when you are not.
14) Most of the time, writing keeps you from being too serious.
15) You hope it shows.

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