Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How to Write, Part 1

For Will Blythe--
The best way to make money from writing is to write about how to make money from writing and charge for it.

Over the years, friends and passers-by have asked me for advice on writing. I have my own narrow views, informed by years in formal classes, story conferences with other writers, and burying my head in the standard how-to texts when I should have been writing. (Henry James, by way of example, can tell you precisely how to structure your prose if you want to write like Henry James. I'd rather write like Barry Hannah, but have no chance of writing like either of them.) Popular emerging literary criticism from the time I studied in graduate school particularly cherished the word "informed", so I honor it here.

One school would analyze the writer's prose aggregate of grains of sand sparkling on the upright cusp of a woman's arched bottie as she rises from the nude beach on the Riviera to chill in the mouth of the sea. Another would say that the one doing the counting is the author of the text, since there are no original ideas, let alone original grains of sand.

There's no magic pill--only snake oil--for cobbling together a string of descriptors to circumscribe the sputtering belch of a four-barrel Holley 4150 carburetor as it chokes down cool morning air on a summer's day in Augusta, the Dodge still mounted on bricks in a driveway strewn with the detritus of broken screws, oily rags, the tattered head of a stuffed giraffe, trampled wisteria blossoms and frenzied army ants, a pair of oily, frayed bluejean legs splayed out from beneath the gray bondo and rusted frame, one cuff tucked into a Vietnam jungle boot while the other simply ripped to the calf, exposing....

This is the thing, not the idea of the thing. It's about taking action against the desire to think about the action. There are two shot glasses on the nightstand filled with amber liquid. One is labeled "Heaven" and the other, "Instructions for Heaven". From which would you drink?

And with each day's march across the page, you pile up things in the order in which they appear across the screen of the mind, set to the cadence of the heart and, after a while, you have a nasty jumble of stuff, just like the tangle of cord from the stowed earphones of a portable music player in a packing box already bursting with co-polymer fishing line, red shoelaces for your white basketball Jordans, a corded telephone handset (for the moment the cordless batteries expire without warning), the knotted ball of rubber bands you knew you'd need in a pinch, and the pink and mauve thread you've saved to append stray buttons to the double-knit, scotch-plaid leisure suit which someday may rise from the ashes toward your statement of retro chic.

Most people who ask for advice lack the salt to spend the days and years it may take to cultivate their own voice--if ever. You have to write like everyone else that wants to be a writer until you're sick of it and the voices you hear from television or the crappy novels you've read finally percolate away. You have to be willing to end up being just an average writer. There just aren't enough average writers these days anyway.

After college (after one of the colleges) I worked as a cub reporter in Newark, California-- home to Morton Salt. At the bottom of the watery curve of San Francisco Bay there are wide flats of mud and foam. The seawater flushed in with every tide and the flats were caked with with heavy salts. Morton simply reigned it in. At the end of the harvest cycle, the water had evaporated into the California sun and through endless summer days the rust-hued machines crisscrossed the basin, piling up crystalline mountains of salt, blinding-white grains blowing across the road in the trailing breeze. Nature takes time.

Reading widely can help. One summer I bored through several dozen Harlequin romances, charting the structure, noting when the wealthy stud with the fencing scar finally admits his undying love to the hapless trucking company secretary. (It's around page 168).

"There is no rule on how to write," Hemingway said. "Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges."

A writer's job is to endure, Faulkner said. That means staying in the chair until the blasting and evaporating -- the erosion of the poorly wrought sentence down to bedrock -- does its thing.

My first and kindest writing mentor told me that everything I wrote could be cut by 75 percent. (You won't see barely enough of it here.) He didn't mean that I had become Thomas Wolfe incarnate, piling up huge constructions and plotlines of rectilinear animal motion. He did not mean that I wrote too much; he meant that I said too little. I wrote the way most high school students speak--and continue to speak well into their mid-lives (or at least until they have to work for a living). Like, you know, what I mean to say is that the sentence, to tell the truth, was, like, doing this and I was, like, thinking that and you know, it was fucked up.

Hemingway also once said the best advice he could give to an aspiring writer was to "go out and hang yourself", and repeat as necessary until you have some notion of the human condition. This advice is not applicable if you wish to become a technical writer, where suffering and writing constitute the same act.

"Life, friends, is boring, we must not say so," wrote John Berryman--expert writing advice from a brilliant poet with severe mental illness who leaped to his death from a bridge. It is not necessary to be mad or a drunk to write brilliantly, however many brilliant writers are both. Not all great authors stick their heads in ovens or walk with purpose out to the salty sea. Madness and suffering may fire the imagination, or help release the weasels in the brain, but it doesn't always equate to getting it down on paper. Under the Volcano is a uniquely fine example of a punitive alcoholic mind organizing the universe alcoholically--an exquisite novel of a lifetime, penned by a drunk who died choking on his vomit.

Hemingway, to follow the thread, is said to have shot himself because of creeping alcoholism. Please. The fellow suffered at least four major concussions following recurrent car/jeep/airplane crashes and you can't chalk it all up to two-fisted rivers of whiskey. Ray Carver's mean-edged, alcohol-tinged prose transcended into billowing clouds of winged grace in his last ten sober years on earth. Read and re-read "Where I'm Calling From" or "Cathedral".

'Nuff said on that subject.

I over-write all the do-dah day. The road of excess, Blake reminds us, leads to the palace of wisdom. You can't get to less until you've slathered the crap out of that prose turkey, basting with genuine butterfat. See? I wrote this piece in three hours and loose change. And I cut a third and re-wrote half the sentences before calling it quits. It would become something else entirely if I devoted (the perfect word) more time to it.

Whether you and I will accomplish a grain of victory in this writing life is another matter. There's alchemy, luck, and too many things we'll never control. I'm shooting for small, lovely moments. An email kiss from a stranger. The delight in dropping a period at the end of a sigh.

Maps to success, overarching plans, guarantees for commercial fanfare are best left to the publishing self-help mavens who routinely hear the cascading laughter of coins tumbling into the cash drawer. They know what it takes to sell books.

But getting out of bed, settling down to pen or keyboard, turning up the music, turning off the music, working at dawn or through the quiet hours of night, doing it with any consistency during a life that bears little evidence of progress when mapped by our critical mind-and hitting the "save" button with regularity-will foster progress and, quite possibly, character.


Bill Stankus said...

Very nice, well said.

May I add something?
One word: Publishers.
And a second: Editors.

Some writers write because there's a novel inside, forcing itself out through the psyche and fingertips to become a pile of paper or computer bytes regardless of anything real world.

But I do think there's some value to understanding the biz side of writing. Some of it is straight-forward and some of it is hidden within a mysterious labyrinth.

I've only written books on woodworking but each time it all began with:
1. An outline for the publisher's OK
2. A contract

Included in the contract were - a due date, how many words were required and the payment process. I think I had to furnish 65,000 words in slightly more than a year. Royalty checks were every 6 months.

What is a major issue - who is the editor assigned to tweak and grammar correct your words. This person can be your mortal enemy or best friend. It's nice to know that before sending stuff to the publisher.

Once all that is history, there's distribution, marketing and promotion. I complained to my publisher about their marketing strategies - in turn, they sent me an author's self-help book on guerrilla marketing of books. A friggin' do-it-yourself book on how to convince a resistant media world that my book was worth their time. As if.

Yoli said...

Yummy! I have singles in my wallet Gabe.

Mark R. said...

Gabby! It is so good to see that you are back at your craft. I just read all your posts of this month and am tickled pink that your "writers block" was short lived. I love your way with words almost as much as I love you man.

bb mcclain said...

There's countless differents ways to write a story and it's up to you to interpret how it sounds once it's written. It's a daunting task to write just decent prose.

A Cuban In London said...

Although officialy I am on holidays, I'm still in the country and therefore paying a visit to my favourite blogs. Starting in September I have lined up a series of essays written by the British author Zadie Smith and kindly donated by The Guardian newspaper where Zadie analyses the art of writing and what makes a good writer. This paragraph in particular had me in stitches:

'Henry James, by way of example, can tell you precisely how to structure your prose if you want to write like Henry James. I'd rather write like Barry Hannah, but have no chance of writing like either of them'

Quite right. And neither should you. It is true that we're the sum of our experiences, both our very own ones and other people's, especially past generations'. But there's a difference in doing consciously and unconsciously. You get my drift, don't you? Brilliant post, as usual.

Greetings from London.

Pete P said...

I stumbled across you quite by accident some time ago, and I am grateful for it.

Sometimes, we figure out where we are by looking around and seeing where everyone else is.

And at other times, we just go and figure it out when we get there.

Thanks for popping up in my world.

dutchbaby said...

But what if I want a magic pill? Snake oil is so repulsive. I'm sure you were a wonderful teacher!