Writers on Writing
The Tortoise and the Eagle:
Quill Pens and Inkwell
After a prolonged, lonely and uneasy vigil over this peculiar craft—the flame faintly flickering with tepid life under the shelter of unsteady hands—I openly proclaim the joys of writing. Oh, the joys!
My dear unknown reader, I’m not prejudiced against these smug, slack-jawed and demon-eyed technophiles with their portable machines emblazoned with the Sign of the Apple. Six of them enclose me as I pen these words. Do they dare judge me? I do not envy them their sophisticated machinery wherein they live out their pitiful virtual lives. I do not claim to fully understand their insider jargon: format, folders, cut, paste, copy, merge, file transfer, flash drive . . . I suppose I know, more or less, what they’re talking about. But I don’t give a tinker’s curse about their mumbo-jumbo. I merely assert my independence from their false God of Progress by quietly removing myself to an outdoor table where I won’t trip over their damnable cords.
Ah, the sweet breeze, the chatter of children’s voices, a vendor’s cry—“Strawberries, fresh and fine, just off the vine! Strawberries! Strawberries!”—, and the clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage. Is that Squire Thomas walking, hand in hand, with Miss Mary Jane down Mulberry Lane? A handsome couple. Have they set the date for their betrothal? I luxuriate in the hurly-burly, bustle and joyous noise of the brick-paved town square as yellow, green, orange and red balloons are released into the insubstantial air. I’m showered by the sun’s dandelion rays. I open my arms to a floppy-eared brown and white puppy as she hops onto my lap. Glorious day! Life itself!
Wouldn’t it be grand to have a quill pen, inkwell and parchment! The sudden revving of a motorcycle jolts me back to my own time and place. I suppose this Bic Pen, lined yellow pad and Cup ‘o Joe will have to suffice—as I ready myself to go wherever the Spirit pleases. I now call upon the slumbering Ancient Muses to awaken and bestir my dormant imagination:
Carry me wheresoever you will,
O Wingéd Ancient Ones.
I am ready to hear, and,
Hearing, to obey.
But where did I leave off? I pull five drafts out of my Goodwill leather shoulder-bag, readying myself to begin again, as always, at the beginning. I hunker down. The familiar internal monologue commences as I peruse my handiwork.
Descent into the Labyrinth: A Disgruntled Monologue on the “Writing Life”
Scribbles, sentence fragments, indecipherable notations in the margins. INSERT A: Where is it? INSERT B: Barely legible and, when legible, ungrammatical and incoherent. Inserts within inserts within inserts. Is this a run-on sentence? Would I know if it were? There’s something wrong about the division of paragraphs. Need to check this fact. Spelling of this word looks wrong. Wasn’t there an early draft that stank but had a usable sentence in it? Maybe I can stick it in right here as INSERT C. Or did I toss that draft? This section is going nowhere. Maybe it would work better in a different place. Or should I just knock it out? Oh, hell, I’ll just discard the whole damn thing. God, how I hate writing!
Am I inside a maze, or is this a labyrinth? What’s the difference between the two? What is the unifying theme of this raggedy concatenation of words—of my life?
O Wingéd Ancient Ones.
Neither Angels nor Men,
For Leaving Me High and Dry
The slogan of that young guy at the Shut Up and Write Monday night critique session at Borderlands Café is, “I’m not a writer. I write.” Very pithy, although, personally, I detest pith.
Okay. I’ll start with a slogan: “I’m not a writer. I don’t write. I slog.” Decent first draft, although lacking in pith.
We all use this common currency—words—in effect, making everyone a writer, whether good, bad, or indifferent. But unless you’ve mastered a distinct and worthy craft—such as photography, acting, dance, composing music or sculpting (all requiring apprenticeships that are demanding and exacting and that cannot be faked)—what other than words would you use to express yourself? Making faces? Hand gestures? Puppetry?
Take music. With few exceptions, most would not call themselves “musicians” who could not read musical notation; sight sing; tell the difference by ear between a perfect fifth and a minor third interval; know the basics of harmony and counterpoint; be able to transpose a tune from G Major to B Minor; and with some competence play at least one musical instrument. Is there a comparable standard for the craft of writing? Apparently not.
Another question occurs to me. Does a life fully lived need any medium of expression other than itself? Perhaps true wisdom is to leave no trace that we were ever here, like a high-gliding eagle miraculously becalming a lake far, far below the slow, majestic movement of mighty wings, while leaving no reflection upon still waters. Concealment, not expression, may be the truer path; and a deep interior Silence, not the worrisome cultivation of craft, the foundation of the Good Life. But that is not the sort of life I’ve lived—or know how to live. My way is not the eagle in flight, but rather, the tortoise plodding through a dense and thorny thicket, never knowing where he is.
“I must leave a record that I was here; otherwise no one will know who I was.”
Thus speaks the tortoise, dreaming this labyrinthine, untracked, brambly and darkling wood, one day perhaps to stumble upon an open field, peering up through the gloaming, and daring to imagine the other self—the eagle soaring.
As the mysterious wisdom of the eagle’s flight eludes me and as everyone, without exception, is welcome into the crowded Guild of Writers, I now venture to reflect upon the essentials of this all-too-common craft.
The Tortoise Speaks:
A Personal View of the Writer’s Craft
Gather round, fellow scribblers, and lend me your ears (I’ll return them when my discourse is done):
First and foremost, don’t sweat the small stuff, my friends, by which I mean character, plot, dialogue, description, style, poetry, drama—and writing exercises.
I make occasional forays into fiction. When I do, I’ve noticed that my protagonists are often mentally ill. This is odd because I embody all the traits of an untroubled and sunny disposition. None of my sad and divided characters has a “backstory.” I don’t give a damn that they don’t.
If the background of your fictional characters is important to you, then you’re probably a novelist. I don’t recommend writing novels; it’s too much work and takes too long. Besides, people’s attention spans are dwindling in this Digital Age. Even if you finish your novel, chances are your readers won’t. If they do finish it and don’t like it, then you just wasted a year or more of your life.
Stick with short stories. If people don’t like your short story, you’ve only wasted two weeks and can begin a new story immediately. If your readers like one of your short stories, then pad it out into a novel—not for artistic reasons, but rather, to make the big bucks. Thus, Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel” became 2001: A Space Odyssey and Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon” was bloated into a novel. Note that both stories were made into movies. Once your novel is optioned, you’re on the royal road to fame and fortune and, with the aid of Beelzebub and his minions (your publicity team), you need never write again. That’s right, my fellow tortoises and tortorinies—no more scribbles from the cellarage. You’ll soon be rolling in dough. Praise the Devil! Hallelujah!! Hal-le-lu-jah!!!
I don’t deny that some writers can create a variety of distinct and colorful characters. Dickens is such a writer. Shakespeare and Tolstoy were also quite adept at this aspect of the writer’s craft, not to mention all the other “small stuff.” My advice: don’t try to compete with the Big Boys on their own turf. Find your own little bailiwick—such as the deft use of commas, or perhaps the escalation of exclamation points into a near barbaric frenzy of excitement. If well done, such stylistic felicities will help to divert attention from your ineptitude at portraying character.
Cultivate your special little garden to such an extent that people on the street accost you, and say, “Hey, aren’t you Comma Man?” or “Aren’t you the guy with all the exclamation points?”
Observe that the last three sentences of the paragraph that precedes the two above comprise a 6-5 ratio of exclamation points to words, a ratio nowhere even remotely approached throughout the entire oeuvres of the so-called “Literary Giants.” Your only real competitor here is the estimable Tom Wolfe who registered 2,343 exclamation points in Bonfire of the Vanities. In a later novel, Back to Blood, Mr. Wolfe upped the ante with this exclamatory interjection: “Nnnnnnooooooooooooo!!!”—an astonishing 3-1 ratio of exclamation points to words. Wow!!! A prose stylist of this order of magnificence can easily divert his reader from noticing that he’s wholly incapable of creating and sustaining believable characters.
Many highly acclaimed writers often “create” characters that are slightly altered versions of themselves. I won’t name names (see Philip Roth) but, trust me, you can make it big time in the literature racket without being able to create characters with “lives of their own.”
Once you’ve dispensed with character, you no longer need a plot, for it’s an axiom of the writer’s craft that “character drives plot.”
All the big shots in the Lit Biz (the novelists) talk about how an image suddenly came to them in a dream, or a scene came to them unbidden, and the rest of the story followed. “I don’t know what my characters are going to do next” is how they put it.
“Billy Bathgate,” said the late E. L. Doctorow, “started with an image I had in my mind of men in black ties standing on the deck of a tugboat. I had the boy, Billy, watching, in the very first paragraph, and jumping on board just as the tugboat took off.”
All the greats tell similar stories of how their novels began. I seldom remember my dreams and never receive compelling imagery in the waking state. It doesn’t matter. The tortoise (you know who you are) who ventures into fiction should stick with the short story which barely requires any plot at all. If you need a refresher course on this form, read Chekov.
I don’t do dialogue and don’t care that I don’t. If you’ve read this far and received some slight pleasure from my verbiage, it certainly isn’t due to “sparkling dialogue.” No doubt many skillful writers can tell an entire story through conversation. By means of dialogue, they reveal character and advance plot. Please recall that we’ve already eliminated these two aspects of craft (see above).
I must caution the novice writer that “an ear for dialogue” is comparable to a gift for creating fresh, original and flowing melodies. Authors with this gift are inimitable. For the most part, dialogue is not a teachable skill (sorry, no refunds!) and, as such, ought rightly to be subsumed under the more fundamental category of an author’s “voice.” No one has adequately defined “voice” in this odd pastime of wordsmithery, although, like love—or love’s counterfeit, obscenity—you know when you’ve come upon it.
For my money, there’s already far too much yakking in the world.
Like all tortoises, I have the uncanny ability to completely retract my head inside my shell—in fact, I’ve chosen to do so, more or less, permanently. Or perhaps one day I noticed my head was retracted and forgot how to poke it back out into the world. Either way, please don’t confuse me with my cousin among reptiles, the turtle, as cold-blooded as me, but whose fins enable it to glide effortlessly through its watery domain. Great swimmers though they are, turtles’ heads lack my peculiar vocation for retraction. Inside my shell, I dream of water as often as of sky, but my clawed, land-bound feet are only good for digging in small, dry and confined spaces.
As I’m oblivious to my surroundings, I live in a nonvisual world. I can’t describe anything. When it comes to “the painterly eye,” I’m effectively blind. I therefore don’t need to carry around a notebook to jot things down, as I’ve been advised to do in writer workshops, because I notice nothing. I’m quite aware that writers are supposed to enliven their prose with the “telling detail.” I try to do this occasionally so my colleagues won’t bug me too much about it. For instance, in this admittedly eccentric essay, I wrote in the opening section, “Quill Pens and Inkwells,” that “I’m showered by the sun’s dandelion rays,” which took about 45 minutes to compose. I hope that by sticking in one or two sentences of this type, the reader won’t notice that I don’t know how to sustain a visually vibrant world. Unless I become someone else, it will always be so.
“I’m showered by the sun’s dandelion rays” is replete with metaphors, but, then, all language is metaphorical, that is, it is an attempt to describe one thing by means of something else. For the dimwitted, when I speak of “eagles,” “tortoises” and “turtles,” I’m speaking metaphorically. Metaphor is the most vitally important tool in the writer’s toolkit, but the least amenable to instruction—and the most elusive. Every metaphor is a kind of lie, or, if you prefer to employ a mathematical analogy, an asymptotic search for “truth.”
Listen to the words of Melville’s Ahab at the end of the chapter called “The Sphynx” in Moby Dick: “O Nature and O soul of man! How far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! Not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.” But no matter your skill or industry, the signifier is never the signified. If the best language can do is to describe something (things or states of mind) through the medium of what it is not (words), however cunningly deployed, then the whole linguistic enterprise is surely doomed to failure.
Innumerable writers, not all of course, can be cited in support of this pessimistic view of the writer’s vocation. Here is Mary Gordon: “No marks on paper can ever measure up to the word’s music in the mind, to the purity of the image before its ambush by language.”
The limits of language may briefly be stated by the following paradox: the more the map (language) becomes like the territory (the world), the more useless it is; on the other hand, to the extent the map (language) is not the territory (the world), it is false. Sometimes known as Bonini’s paradox, it has been stated most succinctly by Paul Valéry: “Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable.”
As to description proper, I hasten to add that I’m not entirely insensible to the variety of stimuli that make up our world. I’m perfectly aware, for instance, that the human body comes in two basic types. This was brought forcefully home to me surprisingly late in life when I went with some friends to Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional retreat in Northern California. The attractive woman next to my locker was naked. No one seemed to pay much attention. So I decided to “go native.” I soon came to the conclusion that once divested of clothing, the two distinct shapes of the human anatomy are not terribly enticing—and, if you will excuse the locution, barely worthy of description.
As a corollary I would add that people who you’d like to see take their clothes off, prefer to keep them on; while those who ought to keep them on (if they had the slightest consideration for others), insist on taking them off. This is not speculation. This is fact. I’ve run the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco several times. I have therefore been exposed to disproportioned shapes of the human body in precipitous decline, entirely at the mercy of Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy). Stated more colloquially, one might say that, as we age, our bodies are pulled down as the universe runs down. Anyway, I never want to describe those unseemly torsos, yet, disturbingly, cannot forget them.
Style is commonly contrasted with substance. If I had to choose between the two, I would choose the latter. After all, “All style and no substance” is not intended as praise. If you’ve come to the conclusion that my prose style is undistinguished, you won’t get an argument from me. On the other hand, in brief compass, I’m providing aspiring writers (of the tortoise variety) with a handy summary of the essentials of the writer’s craft. My pamphlet would make an ideal supplement to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; it could be returned to, again and again, for sustenance and inspiration, or simply as a reminder of the key principles herein enunciated.
“[John] Updike is a minor novelist with a major style,” wrote literary critic Harold Bloom of one of America’s “major” writers. When I tried to read the first of the late Mr. Updike’s Rabbit novels, I got bogged down somewhere in the middle. A bunch of boring people were talking to each other about problems I didn’t care about. The plot had come to a dead stop. I’ve never returned to Mr. Updike’s work even though he knows how to turn a pretty phrase.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned: Many are the dangers of the protean form of the novel. If you’re not a genius on the order of Melville or Proust, masters of both substance and style, till some other patch of soil.
Poetry is for sissies.
A Note on Drama
Don’t bother writing plays. We’re all contained within Shakespeare. If you think you can do better than King Lear, you’re delusional. The best play of the last century, Waiting for Godot, will likely be performed for many generations after you and I are forgotten dust. Yet Samuel Beckett’s play is little more than a gloss on these words of Lear: We came crying hither . . . When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.
But please don’t idolize Shakespeare in the manner of Harold Bloom, who calls himself “Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolator,” even claiming that the Bard invented what it means to be human! I demur. We could have managed without him. I agree rather with Robert Louis Stevenson, who said that the world would have gone on, no “wiser of the loss,” had Shakespeare been killed. “The services of no single individual are indispensable,” wrote Stevenson. “The ranks of life are full, and although a thousand fall, there are always some to go into the breach.” And if this is true even for a Shakespeare, how much more so for you and me?
Here’s some friendly advice. Do not make an idol of anyone. Not Shakespeare. Not Jesus. Not Buddha. If you see one of them on your life’s path, kill him. Wrap yourself up in the borrowed holiness of another, if you like; but unless you heed my advice, you’ll always be a secondhand person.
I detest writing exercises because they disclose that nothing happens when I try to write. For me, writing is an act of will and perseverance—and never fun. I persist because, as a tortoise, I feel compelled to leave a record as compensation for the insufficiency of a life not well lived.
Oh, how much I’d rather soar like the eagle, indifferent to the world’s judgment and heedless of the relentless ticking of the clock—cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown, in harmony with sky and wind and light and rain, within the world but not of it. I’d rather be the poet of my life, not of mere words, which I will never master, such that the left hand does not know what the right does, and, in this offhanded manner, do some little good in this poor, broken world.
When you become a scribbler like no other, you approach the lineaments of a writerly vocation. Your voice is unique—unfiltered by editors, unhampered by category or genre, unencumbered by an audience, and unsullied by crass considerations of the market. Naturally, you will be paid not one cent for your labors, even though you may, now and then, touch the “holy grail” of an effusive and incomparable—though somewhat melancholic—individuality.
As to the most likely economic outcome of your unswerving devotion to an elusive muse, heed these words of Carolyn Chute: “[M]y only income is from novels,” she writes. “This should explain the absence of dishwasher, clothes dryer, running hot water, electricity in all rooms, health insurance and other such luxuries . . . [My husband] has plenty of problems, too, as he is like me, not a marketable person.”
In his eighth decade of life, Norman Mailer cobbled together his final thoughts on the writing life in The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. In a coda to a lengthy section on the craft of writing, Mailer asserts, “I think [the] adoration of craft makes a church of literature for that vast number of writers who are somewhere on the bell-shaped curve between mediocrity and talent.” He calls this adoration an “evasion” or “escape hatch” from facing existential realities for which we are unprepared. The octogenarian concludes that “Craft is merely a series of way stations.”
I state categorically that the “rules” of the writer’s craft are all negotiable. You may, therefore, if you wish, begin your work in the passive voice, as do the Irishmen Frank McCourt in his memoir Angela’s Ashes and James Joyce in his short story “Eveline.” You may “tell” rather than “show,” if that’s your preference. For all I care, you can go nuts strewing adverbial clauses throughout your purple prose. All that matters is the authority of your voice. Once you’ve learned how to fake being authoritative, you’ve got it made!
Before I end this treatise, I offer one last bit of advice you won’t get from any writer workshop.
Whenever your invention flags, as it does almost unceasingly for the tortoise, steal. Here the rule of thumb is simple: pilfer from obscure, not famous sources.
For example, don’t begin your story with “Call me Ishmael” or “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” To be sure, these would both make great openings, as indeed they did for Melville and Tolstoy, but just in case there’s a remnant of cultural literacy in your reading public, you may well face ridicule, legal action, heavy fines, possibly incarceration.
I advise you therefore to scour obscure sources such as seldom read literary journals and blogs for tidbits you can use; but, to be safe, alter the word choice and syntax of your precious little gems. And for heaven’s sake, don’t feel guilty about the theft! All the “top guns” do it. In your darkest hours of writer’s block, keep these words of T. S. Eliot forever inscribed in your heart: “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”
Variants of this sage observation have been ascribed to no lesser lights than Picasso, Stravinsky and Faulkner. However, as attribution has never been firmly established for any one source, including Mr. Eliot, I hereby claim it as my own invention.
If “Craft is merely a series of way stations,” as Mr. Mailer asserts, then simply make use of whatever elements of craft you need to say something worth saying. Say it well. Say it differently from others. Otherwise why say it at all? Say it entertainingly. Otherwise you are stealing other people’s time. And when the well runs dry, be silent. (Please disregard this last admonition if writing is how you pay the rent.)
I have already packed my quill pen, inkwell and parchment.
As I prepare to take leave of you to return to my home in the darkling wood—perhaps to write again, or not—, these parting words: Apart from voice, which cannot be taught, and our use of metaphor, which is revelatory of nothing less than our true grasp of life, nothing else is essential in the so-called “writer’s craft.”
The tortoise has spoken.
About Don Plansky
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