Monday, March 05, 2007

Why a Writer's Inner Conviction
Counts For More than Technique

Ohio-based writer Ralph Keyes has written several books in his long career. But his latest is perhaps his best yet. In The Courage To Write--How Writers Transcend Fear, he wonderfully slices through all the layers of BS that tend to accumulate about the act of writing, instead getting to the core matters. Below is a brief sample of some of what I considered the book's highlights.

The more I read and write, the more convinced I am that good writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers' attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, 'You've got to listen to what I'm about to tell you.' It's hard to be that passionate. It means you must put your whole poke on the table. Yet this very go-for-broke quality grabs and holds a reader far more surely than any mastery of technique.

* * * * * * * * * *

Over time, productive writers develop work habits that would make an accountant gasp with admiration. After wasting too many years waiting for genius to strike, Stendahl finally settled on a regimen of 'twenty lines a day, genius or not.' Like Stendahl, many writers--including Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene--assigned themselves production quotas to meet as if they were Soviet workers fulfilling five-year plans. Arthur Hailey wrote his daily quota--six hundred words--at the top of a pad, then wouldn't allow himself to put the pad down until he'd fulfilled it. Anthony Trollope assigned himself not only a quota of words but a time limit in which to produce them. with his watch tickign away before him, the British novelist routinely wrote 250 words every quarter hour...The quota approach to writing sounds compulsive: the writer as word counter. But quotas serve an important psychic function. they keep writers workign despite the normal, almost irresistible urge to quit. Writers need some gimmick--often many gimmicks--to keep themselves going despite their anxiety...But don't gimmicks produce drivel? Sometimes. Even drivel can be fixed, however.

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Unlike what nonwriters often believe, good writing does not require a big vocabulary. E.B. White thought one of his blessings as a writer was the fact that his limited vocabulary didn't permit him to use obscure words. Mark Twain had a similar perspective...Insecure writers want to show off their vocabulary from fear of sounding ignorant. If I don't use obscure words, they seem to wonder, how will readers know that I have a college degree? If I do use simple words, won't people think I'm a simpleton? Such attitudes make for deadly writing.

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Writers' gatherings of all kinds are, or at least ought to be, settings where we learn not so much how to write but how to dare to write. No single task is more important to the process of becoming a writer.


At 2:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the notion of writers needing gimmicks, even at the risk of producing drivel----is that an inadvertent reference to blogs? no offense meant to yours, of course. i'm sure you're a fine writer. but that was really funny. and grabbing people by the lapels, well yeah, ideally, you want people to be engaged. but that desire certainly doesn't impart skill with written words. It doesn’t confer the art of storytelling. It doesn’t channel the ability to choose words for your thoughts and organize them on the page. I do believe there are plenty would-be scribes out there who are passionate about writing, but that doesn’t mean they have anything substantial to say, nor the ability to do it. On vocabulary---I just recently learned that Theodor Geisel chose from just 200-225 words to create his masterpiece The Cat in the Hat. Now that’s a good lesson in writing discipline, skill and creativity. (on the other hand, I’m not sure if I even know 200 words myself. so maybe it wasn’t so hard…)

At 4:06 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

What that passage said to me is that when you really have something urgent to say, you'll somehow find the words to say it and a place in which to say it, even if it takes time to develop the writing and storytelling skills to communicate it well. The intensity of your urge to share these ideas with others will keep you at the process through rejection and heartbreak, long after less driven people have given up. I think that's quite true.

His comment about producing drivel, in the full context of that chapter, was really not at all about the finished product, but instead about not being married to getting things right in the first draft. He meant that you should just get the idea down, even if it's drivel in the first draft, because drivel can be improved in subsequent drafts. It's a variation on an observation I quoted earlier from Annie Lamott, about how one should "just write a shitty first draft," because you can always go back and improve it.

At 5:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

just an fyi to your readers: you've written glowinglgy on this site of suspense novelist Richard Montanari. He was profiled in the March 5, 2007 Plain Dealer, by columnist Michael Heaton. It's an excellent piece about a very successful, extremely talented and probably undervalued Cleveland writer. Interested parties can catch the piece at this url:

At 5:29 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for being so on the ball, and for having such a good memory, because I haven't mentioned Rick in quite some time. I was going to post that link along with a full-blown profile I wrote of him some months ago in Northern Ohio Live. That piece is not online, so I'll have to get a geek friend to throw the PDF (which I do have) onto a server.

I have an especially soft spot in my heart for Rick Montanari, because in addition to being a wonderful writer, and far too little-known in his hometown, I happened to meet him when he took a writing class I used to teach quite a few years back. Do check out his website when you get a chance:

At 10:10 PM, Blogger steveg said...

From poets, I have heard the "gimmick" approach to writing as well as the "let it ripen till it bursts out" approach. I wonder if it is different in poetry than in fiction/non-fiction/journalism writing.

I have an unfinished poem on this topic where I too say that the need to have something to say is necessary, however I add, more than literary technique, but patience is necessary to refine and get just what is needed down to say exactly what that something is. But that is poetry.

At 10:11 PM, Blogger steveg said...

I really should finish that poem.

At 10:42 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I, for one, would love to read it when it's finished, Steve.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I cringe a little when reading my own words on the need to grab readers by the lapel and insist they hear what you have to say. It brings to mind some mumbler on a city street accosting me with important news about the world coming to an end. Yet I still believe that even more than writing style it is intensity and conviction that grabs readers and holds them. Martha Raddatz was recently on Fresh Air discussing her new book on a 2004 battle in Iraq. She's been over there 12 times for ABC News. Raddatz's words were not elegant, but her intensity in depicting a horrific conflict and her conviction that we needed to pay attention certainly kept me riveted. That's what I mean by the need to grab readers by the lapel and compel them to pay attention by the power of commitment to one's message.

At 1:23 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Ralph, thanks for stopping by, proving once more that everyone eventually Googles themself (or perhaps you have a Google alert set up to flag when your name is mentioned). Whatever the case, it gives me a chance to tell you directly how much I enjoyed your book, how useful and inspirational I found it, and (perhaps most importantly) how I'll be recommending it to writers for years to come. The world is swimming in books about writing, but I found yours among the dozen or so best I've ever come across in getting to the heart of the craft. It will have a valued place in my library--and be mentioned whenever I talk about writing--for many years. I look forward to your next book being even better. Do please let us know about any future projects as you care to. And since we're both in Ohio, I'll be sure to look you up sometime soon and figure out how we might share a meal and some conversation.

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks, John. Almost makes writing seem worth it.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Kristin Ohlson said...

Thanks for bringing my attention to Ralph's book, John. I'll have to to check it out.

Was he talking about fiction or nonfiction or both-- anything?

At 10:29 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for stopping by. As his website (link below) attests, he's clearly a nonfiction writer. But I would think everything he's writing about in that book I mentioned would apply to any writer, no matter what genre. Perhaps Ralph will stop back here again and answer your question directly.

At 11:32 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Coming at this from the experience of being a poet who frequently gets into clashes with those I could charitably label the neo-formalist zealots, I intend to go pick up Ralph's book as necessity reading. I get into clashes, and am often considered an experimental poet, whatever that means, because I do firmly believe that writing craft is in the service of the passionate need to write, to speak out—and never the other way around. Craft supports passion, or inspiration. Craft cannot substitute for, or stand in place of, passion. You'd be shocked, assuming you don't already know, how much contemporary poetry comes from the passionaless craft-dominant (dare one say left-grain intellectual?) viewpoint. Of course, that's also why so much contemporary poetry is so, well, boring. Did I mentiont that I often get into trouble speaking my mind on this topic? LOL

Another brilliant book I would recommend to anyone is Stephen Nachmanovitch's "Free Play." One of the half dozen best books I've ever read on the topic of creativity.

At 12:06 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, I'll check out that book. And you're right about the passion. But of course the ideal is when attention to craft is married to deep passion. That's when great things happen.


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