Beginning writers look for rules, guidelines, clever sayings that can be posted on a mirror, and these things are important, or at least they were for me. My apartment used to be cluttered with sayings such as Flaubert’s “Live like a bourgeois and think like a demigod.” I also had on my walls crazy sentences, lines I’d typed out of novels, lines that I liked for their rhythm or their content. I had hundreds of these snippets Scotch-taped all over my walls, so that anyone who might have happened into my apartment without knowing that writing was what I was up to in my spare time might have thought I was a madman, without sense or order or reason—which I might well have been.
I am no longer quite so loony with energy. Work is harder. You’re never going to have it so good as you do when all your stories are new, when you’ve hardly ever told a story before, not a full one, not one that rings bells in your head and in all your readers’ heads. What I am getting at is how lucky a young writer is to be pushing forward, learning, and developing—and though only halfway developed, good enough to know only that writing stories is what you want to do.
Later, once your stories are accepted with regularity, and the mechanical rabbit you’ve been chasing suddenly disappears—the rabbit of Being Published Often—you’ll find that writing stories is not so much of a game or a goal anymore, but something riskier, a duty to yourself and your readers—something to be careful with. You move more slowly, more deliberately—cautiously—trying to guard your success. You’re less reckless, and that’s no fun, nor is it such a good thing for your writing. I don’t know much of a theory about writing. My theory is more the theory of feeling, which is no theory at all.
All I know for sure is that art makes you feel things more strongly than you did before you looked at the art: happier, or sadder, or more frantic, or calmer. It makes you feel something better and bigger than your own life, whether your life’s dull and boring or violent and original.
Art makes you forget your troubles; it’s an escape, a suspension of reality.
But let’s forget the theory of writing or feeling and talk instead about the theory of success—the success of feeling good about yourself and about your stories and characters.
Let’s say you’re able to smell the bacon frying, the coffee burning: you’ve seen you can live a full life, or be a writer. I can count on the fingers of maybe two hands the men and women I know who are great writers and who have also lived the fullest lives possible: people who have lived just as fully as if they hadn’t been writers. I suspect there aren’t many of these kinds of writers. But it’s not too much to shoot for, is it—to enjoy life, and write well?
The odds, however, are against you; it’s almost certain that you have to give up some aspect, some area of your life, regularly, in exchange for your writing. All too often, it seems, there will be a direct correlation between the degree of success in your writing and the loss of freedom.
A lust to create art can be good. Lust as if for bodily love, so that once the desire’s been fulfilled—you’ve written a good story—there’s only a brief flagging of the desire, and then it’s time to begin another story, because the next one is the only important one.
This kind of lust is good for a writer, in part because it keeps you moving forward rather than looking fondly back.
I guess I’ll give you some rules or theories after all.
These suggestions are drawn in response to weaknesses I’ve observed in students’ work—mistakes that can be corrected.
Do not, after writing a scene in which your characters remain seated at a table after the only other people in a restaurant have gotten up and left, say, “They were alone now.” Instead, for instance, after writing, “The man had his hand on the back of the woman’s white satin dress. They followed the waitress into the next room,” go on to say, “The cigarettes they left in the ashtray were still smoldering.”
Now your remaining characters truly are alone, and we, the readers, are alone, too, whereas if the author had said, “They were alone now”—well, they would have been alone, but at the readers’ expense: we wouldn’t have felt like we were in the story, with whatever was going on at that lonely table, and that’s no good.
Another common failing—and you’ll notice that I’m talking about negatives, rather than positives (but writing’s that simple: all you have to do is avoid the pitfalls, and you’re home free)—is what I call the Old One-Two. I’ve sprained my wrist sometimes, marking so hard through the second trailing sentence on a student’s paper, or on one of mine—the Echo Sentence, I call it—when the same thought, or concept, has been said better—often brilliantly—in the previous sentence, Sentence Number One of the Old One-Two. With a good enough first line, there needn’t be a follow-up.
An example: in the following student’s scene, a young boy is upset, having been given some bad news by his father. The passage is as follows: “I rushed from the house, oblivious to the cold air that hit me when I opened the door. I crossed the yard and started to circle the barn, my hands in my pockets, the frozen grass crunching under my boots, anger clawing inside me.”
This is okay. But listen to the next sentence—listen to the buzz go off, the Echo Sentence: “I felt helpless, then, and upset.”
Writing a story is like crossing a minefield. You cross the field, with the story loosely in your arms, and you try not to step on any of the mines.
Other mines to avoid are using the wrong word—a verb, usually—or intruding and giving the reader a homily: “There’s too much hate in the world,” or “You can’t count on anything.” Sometimes the most dangerous intrusions are the innocent ones—descriptions, usually—that swing the reader’s view away from the flow of the story, shifting the view to the wrong place at the wrong time.
Similes and metaphors, used improperly, create an effect of intrusion. Mastery in the use of metaphor comes with practice. Two all-time great metaphors are Eudora Welty’s: “The faded red roses were the color of a bird dog’s panting tongue” and “The buzz of the cicadas was like the sound of grain being poured into a metal bucket.”
Don’t compare bodies to car parts. This is a common affliction among beginning writers. “The blood in my veins felt like crankcase oil on a cold morning.” No. A person is not a machine, and don’t you forget it.
The matter of integrity in a story is also crucial. Choose the elements in your stories—characters, events, objects—carefully. What you put into a story from the beginning must be there at the end. Don’t put too many elements into a story. It’s more important to work thoroughly with the right elements than to have many elements.
Students often say, “But this really happened; I knew someone who did this,” or, “I want to write about something that happened to me when I was fourteen.”
Everyone writes about things that have actually happened. But it’s all too easy to be impeded by a sense of the sanctity or literalness of the death of a friend, a bitter love story, a moment of initiation.
There’s an enormous difference between being a story writer and being a regular person. As a person, it’s your duty to stay on a straight and even keel, not to break down blubbering in the streets, not to pull rude drivers from their cars, not to swing from the branches of trees. But as a writer it’s your duty to lie and to view everything in life, however outrageous, as an interesting possibility. You may need to be ruthless or amoral in your writing to be original. Telling a story straight from real life is only being a reporter, not a creator. You have to make your story bigger, better, more magical, more meaningful than life is, no matter how special or wonderful in real life the moment may have been.
Reality—if we use that word to indicate real life, and the way things really are—should always be viewed as a sheet of ice beneath which we, the writers (with our readers in tow) are swimming, trying constantly to punch through, so that we can breathe. With every sentence we write, we must be poised and alert to punch through and make the story better.
Another thing to do while working the minefields: read poetry. Poets can teach us about words, phrases, lines, sentences, and the concentrated efforts of language.
In a day’s works, quit when you start to feel tired—not after. Quit while you still know the direction of the story, or at least the next thought or even sentence, so that when you pick up the next day, you’ll have that necessary momentum right from the beginning. Each day, get a full rest. While writing, concentrate: Don’t have any distractions nearby, don’t write in a room full of books if you can help it. Don’t browse through anything else when the going gets slow.
There are dangers of writing, and there are also dangers of being a writer. Here’s some advice: Take care of each other. Don’t cross other writers. Don’t get caught up in envy or passionate personal attacks or defenses.
Pettiness is always out there. Avoid it. Be willing to learn from other writers, as well as critics.
Write every day. Don’t ever stop. If you are unpublished, enjoy the act of writing—and if you are published, keep enjoying the act of writing. Don’t become self-satisfied, don’t stop moving ahead, growing, making it new. The stakes are high. Why else would we write?