Sunday, May 31, 2009

Writing is Difficult, and Short Cuts Are Few

'During the early days of my life as a writer, I devoured all sorts of how-to books, from the aforementioned classics to the more absurd. The latter were my porno, my bad TV; they offered nothing of any value, really. I forgot everything shortly after I read it. The titles always included some type of promise like Dare To Be Great, Write to Sell, Write To Break Out or Write To Live. Even if I could remember anything, I couldn't apply what I had learned. My writing brain lived in a faraway land; I could not find any direct route to this learning. The same thing happened in graduate school. The knowledge gained from reading, reading, reading, talking, talking, talking and workshop, workshop, workshop sat in one impervious mound of dirt inside my head only to be doled out over time by an invisible (and stingy) hand. I suppose there are those who find prescriptive advice about writing helpful, writers who can look at a project, identify a structure, use an outline, and get to writing. One, two, three...poof! But I cannot imagine a world where this is true, a world where one creates great characters in five steps, a world in which one pops books out like laying eggs. In my world, writing is difficult, and short cuts are few. The only real way to learn how to do it is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write--a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful--and interesting--to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers.'
--from Lee Montgomery's introduction to The Writer's Notebook--Craft Essays from Tin House.


At 8:41 PM, Anonymous KLR Literary said...

Everyone has their own methods, their own tools. I'll concede that exercises from workshops can prove useful in combating writer's block or working through a difficult draft. But in the end, struggling with and ultimately placing your words on the page is the only way to write.

At 8:49 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for adding this thought, Kirsten. I found your literary agency website interesting. Glad you've stumbled over this blog, and here's hoping you'll return often.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

In my experience, great ideas and great characters alike appear on the screen of one's mind, and then one has to learn how to write in order to get them out. I could be the exception, of course; I also have a rich dream life, always dream in color, etc. When I was 16 I had a dream that I wrote down in the morning; it's the basis for an SF novel I still toy with writing some day.

I think Montgomery is exactly right about this:

"The only real way to learn how to do it is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write--a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful--and interesting--to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers."

At 9:19 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Emphasis on the "write a lot." In this craft as in all others, there's simply no replacement for lots of experimentation and trial by error.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Erin O'Brien said...

I am killing myself trying to get this kernel of a column idea to start taking shape.

if it is interesting to me, I can make it interesting for my readerI had a "Knit Magic" machine as a kid. You threaded in a skein of yarn, turned the crank, and a perfect knitted tube came out the bottom.

Thar shore ain't no Knit Magic macheenie for the writin' folk!

At 11:07 AM, Blogger Erin O'Brien said...

There was supposed to be a line space between my italicized "reader" and the word "I" in my previous comment.

There are always evil powers at work! Beware, I tell you! Beware!

At 11:08 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You said it, Erin. I'm wondering how often you write the lead after the entire piece is written. For me, it happens fairly frequently. Love to hear anyone else's experience on this as well, from newbie to veteran. Don't be shy--you're among friends.

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Erin O'Brien said...

It goes both ways for me. Sometimes a column springs from a single word or idea. I think of that as a wire frame beneath layers of papier-mache.

Other times, I start out with a monolith--a big piece of marble from which I carve out the piece.

This column sprouted from a bowl of chowder.

This one was hidden within the elusive concept of "Sexy."

I guess I'm always trying to make small things grand and grand things small.

to whom it may concer: The word verification for this comment is "invise." Now that should be a word!

At 12:12 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Interesting. You're precisely right that some ideas build from just a word/headline or other small bit of an idea, while others are big slabs of marble that have to be whittled down into a piece (who was that artist who famously observed that the way he carved a masterpiece was by taking out all the pieces that didn't look like a horse? That nicely captures the exercise).

But your genius sentence is your last. "I guess I'm always trying to make small things grand and grand things small." That's inspired. I'll try to remember crediting you when using that in the future. It really is a lovely sentence, and dead-on direction for good writing (though of course it's far harder to do than say).

At 6:16 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

You're getting into what triggers a piece of writing now. It can be anything. I've said before that my only discipline as a writer—unlike those who insist on writing for an hour a day, even if they throw it all away—is to be prepared for inspiration to strike. So I always carry on a notebook

I tend to write non-linear, non-sequential. Whatever section is in my mind gets my attention for writing it down. I'll right from wherever the seed starts, or from whatever triggers it. It can be conclusion, which I have to work back from. It can be the middle; in fact it's often the middle, which is an observation that sets the whole thing off. Sometimes that opens the floodgates, and the rest comes out, including its internal shape and form.

Finishing up the form, writing the lead and/or conclusion, that's often done during final stage revision. The last polishing touches to clarify the shape and form. Essays do have form, too. As do poems and fictions. I think a lot of people assume that essays are just written linearly, as though having a conversation. Not at all! In fact, the essay form is far more subtle and complex that that.

And then there's the prose-poem . . . .

At 6:31 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You've nicely described how non-linear most writing really is in the creation stage. There's a familiar saying about how no one should want to see legislation or sausages being made. I'd add pieces of writing to that. It's often messy, but as long as the result is good, who cares?

The intuitive sense of how to move from a small snatch of something to a finished piece does get steadily better with age and practice, wouldn't you say, Art?

But it all begins with two things: attention to what's going on around you (as well as in your head), and the discipline to somehow capture it for later use. So a good reporterly eye and instincts come in handy in every form of writing, including fiction and poetry.

At 7:59 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I do agree with you that simple observation and Paying Attention gets less press in teaching writing than it ought, in terms of writing and inspiration and sources of ideas. The only creative writing class I ever took was in 11th grade in Ann Arbor, and my teacher had us do lots of observational exercises. He thought I had a knack for it, but regardless the lesson was basic.

I think practice is a big part of moving from sketch to finished piece, yes. That's the practice of craft and technique that's true for any art, from writing to painting to music to dance, etc. One learns how to build on scraps and make full works. Sometimes one learns that a full work consists of nothing but scraps; that that IS its structure.

I think often of Basjo and his travel haibun, the most famous being "Narrow Road to the Interior." In fact, he revised that piece many times, to get it just right, even though some of it was written while traveling. (A practice in which I follow in his footsteps.) Haibun is dense, poetic prose interspersed with haiku or other actual poems. It's a "random composition" form in classical Japanese lit, but there is often a coherent thread behind the seeming randomness: a travel narrative; a series of sketches on a cluster of related topics; or something conceptual like that. It's a form that has very much influenced my own writing. I like circling around something, being apparently oblique, rather than preachy or obvious or in-your-face, most of the time. "Random" thoughts really are a form of ordered non-randomness, on a deeper level.

I think you're right about intuition, therefore. Although I think I would agree that practice improves this, but age doesn't necessarily. I have been reminded lately that a writer's real age is how long they've been writing, not how old they are in calendar years. Of course, that's not always the case, there are exceptions. But I think practice and experience are what counts. I know some "younger" writers who have that experience, even though they're half my age. You see?

Word verification: scrypti

At 9:06 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Never so much as heard of haibun. Feel free to point us to some good examples if you'd like to, Art.
I like that thought about how a writer's real age is how long they've been writing. A nice way to think about it.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Here's a link about haibun, from the leading contemporary online magazine concerned with them:

They've published one or two of mine, a couple of years ago.

It's the preferred form for me, along with haiku. I don't have a lot of use of fixed poetic forms, most of the time. Haibun is very open-ended.

You might also get a feel for the form by reading Basho, the master. Here's a couple of links:

What I like about haibun is that it combines prose and poetry, more like a prose-poem than formal verse. It's flexible, and it allows for a great deal of recorded observation.

You were talking about reportorial approaches even in fiction writing, or poetry. The haiku/haibun aesthetic is congenial to that idea, as the traditional haiku is an observation or two placed together in the short poem, which the reader must complete in their own minds, bringing their own experience to it, to "finish" the poem. I'm really oversimplifying here, but the point is that the style tends to be objective, not self-obsessed confessional emotional. It's more open. What haibun does is allow the writer to build even more context around the haiku, making the combination of prose and haiku much richer and more evocative.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for that educational overview, Art. I'll drill into this sometime soon, with interest. Here's hoping others might also, and we'd enjoy hearing your reactions.

When it comes to the subject of leveraging reporting for fiction, we should mention Tom Wolfe's famous essay about that subject (an essay which is now 20 years old), which I went into at some length a couple years ago. You'll find that here:

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Interesting thoughts on essay writing. The comment that one has to stop doing research at some point, and start writing, is a very good comment. There is a balance point, after which it does indeed become procrastination.

I actually find that too much research can kill the essay idea. Sometimes it's better to start writing the essay, get the basic ideas down, then go off and do some research. If it turns out your ideas are not supported by your research, or outright contradicted, then that might change the essay, but it's still an essay. If it turns out your research supports your original ideas, then you can go back to rewriting the essay, now with citations.

And here's a cusp at which the personal essay is no longer reporting. It can be based on observation and reporting, but it a personal response to what one has experienced, rather than a reportorial piece. The art of the personal essay has room for a lot of unverifiable subjectivity, opinion, and assertions founded on observing one's own internal weather and compass, and not just on research and reporting.

The overlap between reporting and writing a personal essay is that both require paying close attention, and careful observation. Ditto "realistic literary fiction." Ditto poetry, of course. And even more so in creative non-fiction (John McPhee, Barry Lopez, et al.). Nonetheless, an essay is more than just a news story, even if its based on solid research and reporting.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Right on with all of this. I heartily recommend balancing writing with researching, lest one never get around to actually writing. Essays are all about trying something new, fresh and different, as the word's French derivation makes clear.


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