Can anyone really explain the secret of writing?

Elegant woman in black at the table with the old typewriter

WE KNOW WHAT WANDERS through our own minds whether we happen to be writing, thinking, dreaming, scheming, or taking a walk along the pine-shadowed banks of a little creek, which I do often.

And sooner or later, most of us wonder what thoughts other writers have about writing, what secrets to they possess, and what advice they could give us about the chore of collecting enough words to tell a story.

I was at a Writers Conference not long ago, and one young lady listened to one of our esteemed speakers and walked away, sadly shaking her head.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I attend a lot of Writers Conferences,” she said.

“Nothing wrong with that.”

“And I hear a lot of authors speak or hold workshops,” she said. “I leave thinking that they’ve made it in the publishing world, and they could tell us how they did it so we could do it, too, but they’re keeping those secrets to themselves. They don’t want to share. They prefer keeping us in the dark.”

She’s not alone in her thoughts.

But the reality is this: I doubt if any of those writers can really tell you how they write the way they do.

They simply sit down at a computer.

They have a particular idea percolating in their brains.

They have a scene or two playing out in their imagination.

And they put it all on paper.

They can’t explain their style.

They can’t define it.

They just write it.

However, I did run across some interesting comments made by noted authors on the subject of writing. I’ll run the quote, and then include a brief writing sample.

Personally, I prefer the advice of Richard Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Awards for fiction for his novel, Independence Day. He suggested to writers: “Don’t have children. Don’t read your reviews. Don’t write reviews. Don’t drink and write at the same time. Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.) Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.”

Others have their own advice for writers:

Annie Prouix –  Proceed slowly and take care. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand. Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you. Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter.

Excerpt from That Old Ace in the Hole (2002): “It was a roaring spring morning with green in the sky, the air spiced with sand sagebrush and aromatic sumac. NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to shit-kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home.”

Roddy Doyle — Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse,” “ran,” “said”.

Excerpt from Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993): “Kevin was waiting. He’d told some other fella’s. They were waiting I didn’t care. I wasn’t scared. He’d beaten me every other time. They were different; I hadn’t wanted to win. Now I didn’t care. He hurt me I’d hurt him. It didn’t matter who won.”

Esther Freud — Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.

Excerpt from Freud’s Love Falls (2007): “They smiled at each other — a seal on their pact, and then spirals of alarm, of dread, of delirious excitement shot through her body with such force that her appetite disappeared and finishing her breakfast seemed suddenly as arduous a task as being asked to plough a field.”

Joyce Carol Oates — Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

Excerpt from Oats’s A Fair Maiden (2010): “And that striking white hair, soft-floating white, lifting in two wings from his high forehead. His skin was creased like a glove lightly crushed in the hand and was slightly recessed beneath the eyes, yet no more, Katya thought, than her own bruised-looking eyes when she had to push herself out of bed at an early hour after an insomniac night.”

Jonathan Franzen — Never use the word “then” as a ­conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

Excerpt from Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone (2006): “Our friend Kirby, it turned out, had charmed the owner of the Florida house, and the beer keg was fully operational, and so our last week of living like rich people unfolded amicably. I spent morbid, delicious amounts of time by myself, driven by the sort of hormonal instinct that I imagine leads cats to eat grass.”

Geoff Dyer — Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.

Excerpt from Dyer’s But Beautiful (1991): “Everything had to form right angles and sharp edges. The sheets of his bed were folded hard as the metal angles of his locker. They shaved your head like a carpenter planing a block of wood, trying to make it absolutely square. Even the uniforms were designed to remould the body, to make square people. Nothing curved or soft, no colors, no silence. It seemed almost unbelievable that in the space of a fortnight the same person could suddenly find himself in so totally different a world.”

 

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  • Emma Calin

    I’ve not sufficient stature in this game to explain any secrets. I don’t know any. My own writing is simply a process of creating a couple of characters. Once they are alive in my mind, I’m just working for them in the capacity of narrator. The actual story is merely how these characters collide with or avoid the life we all know. Sub characters grow as seeds from the soil trodden by the main guys. I’m a hedonistic OTT type of person so if I want a big fat self indulgent metaphor I whisk one in with cream and even some simile sunset sauce bleeding from the heart like a tide of spilled ketchup on a roadside diner table. A bottle of red wine has never hindered a love scene for me. I’m there with my lovers and they’re letting go with a drink. I’d be a sour old cow for not joining in. Now you know everything I know and it’s not a lot. Emma x

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Emma, it’s a lot more than I knew before you wrote it. I like the thought of “characters colliding with or avoiding life.” That really describes who we are what we write about. We avoid life by writing novels about people who, sooner or later, collide with it.

  • I don’t know all your authors, but most of them are literary writers – I don’t want to write like a literary writer because I don’t like reading them. One paragraph is lovely – but a whole book of it, with no story, drives me nuts.

    I read for story and character – ‘beautifully-written’ is great on top of that, and poorly-written drek makes it impossible for me to find the story and characters – but without those basics, all the lovely language in the world is dressing up a corpse.

    Excuse me – I sound grumpy today. Must go work it out by giving my problem to a character, and writing it out.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Writing it out solves a lot of problems and washes away a lot of sins.

  • jack43

    My most recent blog was about luck. I was speaking to entrepreneurs, but could have said the same to authors. The simple truth is that there are just too many variables to success or luck. It’s explained in chaos theory which means, in other words, it’s unexplainable

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You nailed it, Jack. Good writing and hard work doesn’t always cut it. And no one knows who Lady Luck will smile on next, so we keep writing and hope that it’s us.

  • Everyone wants the “easy” form. I thinking living some, writing a lot, making mistakes along the way and writing more… or live a lot, write some, screw up and start over 🙂

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Leslie, I got my bachelor’s degree in screwing up, and my Masters in starting over.

  • Caleb,
    I guess I am more in the Geoff Dyer camp. Write what you feel. Do it as best you can. Don’t worry about how it stacks up against the work of some iconic writer, present or past. That’s the best anyone can do.
    I thought this was a truly great blog, the sort of writing to which many of us aspire, but few attain.
    And, by the way, I wrote this comment with one hand with a six-month old granddaughter perched on one knee. That adds a level of complexity to the whole gig. lol, sw

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Stephen, the granddaughter adds a level of complexity, but she’s expecting you to write some books she can read someday – but when she is much, much older.

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