Some final thoughts on writing, 2013

On December 28, 2013, our Library writers’ group completed its fifth calendar year of twice-a-month workshops. That’s a lot of reading, listening and critiquing. At each meeting, I distribute a handout of writing advice culled from myriad blogs, websites, books, newspapers, magazines, author appearances and more. All told, I have passed out 106 such digests during those five years. Extracted from the 2013 handouts, on this last day of the year, I’d like to share a few of the thoughts on writing that I came across in books I read—not all of them books about writing—during the past 365 days.

• From The Liar’s Bible: A New Collection of Essays on Writing by Lawrence Block (via Kindle from Open Road Media):

Block“Sometimes I think it takes guts to write fiction. And other times I think what it really takes is arrogance. Consider the effrontery of the fictioneer. He sits down at his desk and makes up a story, assuming that the product of his own imagination will keep other people, total strangers to him, interested and enthralled. He invents characters and trusts that these strangers will care mightily about what happens to these made-up people. The flip side of all this arrogance is anxiety and insecurity. Why should anyone waste his time reading my made-up stories? Why should people care what happens to my characters? And where do I get off deciding what happens next? How do I know what my characters think/feel/believe? What entitles me to decide how their fabricated lives will turn out? It helps if I can learn to operate less on arrogance and more on humility.”Burke

• From Light of the World: A Dave Robicheaux Novel by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)

“At a certain age, you realize the greatest loss you can experience is a theft you perpetrate upon yourself—the waste of days given us. Is there any more piercing remorse than the realization that a person has thrown away the potential that resides in every sunrise?”

• From Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (Warner Books):Goldman

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”

• From Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (Random House):Kidder

“That you can learn to write better is one of our fundamental assumptions. No sensible person would deny the mystery of talent, or for that matter the mystery of inspiration. But if it is vain to deny these mysteries, it is useless to depend on them. No other art form is so infinitely mutable. Writing is revision. All prose responds to work.”

• From The Double by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown & Co.):

Pelecanos“[Spero Lucas] had too many books in his apartment and he liked to pass them on to the wounded soldiers and marines who had little to do beyond their rehab. Some of the books were biography and history, and some were considered literary fiction, whatever that was. But like most people, the recovering veterans enjoyed a good story told with clean, efficient writing, a plot involving a problem to be solved or surmounted, and everyday characters the reader could relate to.”

• From Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo (Alfred A. Knopf)

Russo“It didn’t take me long to learn that novel writing was a line of work that suited my temperament and played to my strengths, such as they were. Because—and don’t let anybody tell you different—novel writing is mostly triage (this now, that later) and obstinacy. Feeling your way around in the dark, trying to anticipate the Law of Unintended Consequences. Living with and welcoming uncertainty. Trying something, and when that doesn’t work, trying something else. Welcoming clutter. Surrendering a good idea for a better one. Knowing you won’t find the finish line for a year or two, or five, or maybe never, without caring much. Putting one foot in front of the other. Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly. Grinding it out. Knowing that when you’ve finally settled everything that can be, you’ll immediately seek out more chaos. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, without ever intending to, I’d discovered how to turn obsession and what my grandmother used to call sheer cussedness—character traits that had dogged both my parents, causing them no end of difficulty—to my advantage.”

[Thanks to my wife, Diane Melish, for reading the book and sharing the quote with me.—AM] 

• From Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press)17465707

“Sit around a scarred wooden table in a writing workshop for enough hours and you’ll hear write what you know, along with show don’t tell, never use adverbs, and other guidelines. And know that every rule you’ll hear in a writing workshop is meant to be broken. You can do absolutely anything—tell, not show, make excellent use of an adverb—as long as you can pull it off. Get out there on the high wire, unafraid to fail.”

“. . .If beginnings are leaps of faith, and middles are vexing, absorbing, full of trap doors and wrong turns and dead ends, sensing an ending is your reward. It’s better than selling your book. It’s better than a good review. . . .There will be a moment—today, tomorrow, three weeks or two months from now—when you’ll write a sentence and then stare at it, dumbfounded. It has caught you unawares. You can’t be on the lookout for it. You can’t will it, or force it, and you don’t have to, because it will feel inevitable. Everything has led to this.”

• From The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P: A Novel by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt & Co.)Waldman

“Sure, writing his book hadn’t been entirely easy.. . .[S]omething that existed only as a Microsoft Word document, a sprawling tale of a young immigrant family grappling with life in the American suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, [it was] a work he’d been revising and rewriting since he was in his midtwenties without ever having earned a penny from it. But writing his book—at least after a certain point, years in, when, by shifting its focus from the son to the parents, he’d finally seemed to find the thing’s pulse and the novel began to take shape almost of its own accord—had also been the greatest pleasure of his life. That a publisher was willing to pay him for it, pay him generously, was nothing to complain about. He’d do it again for free, in a minute. Many of those late nights, when he’d paced his apartment, his mind roaming the world he’d painstakingly created and could finally inhabit—moving within it from character to character, feverishly distilling into words thoughts not his own but theirs—had been ecstasies of absorption and self-forgetfulness.”

“. . .It could be difficult to stay motivated sometimes—he knew that—especially when you were unhappy. But he also knew that you had to push through. He had. He had written his book even on days when it was the last thing he felt like doing.”

Finally, all best wishes on writing well and with success in the New Year.—Alex McNab

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