1 Some Ideas on Writing

Since you’ve fallen upon this website, I assume you’re interested in reading and writing and maybe even enjoy them.

I intend to add some thoughts here periodically, practices I’ve learned of and tried or realizations that have hit me, hoping they may have some value for you, too.

Let’s start with some of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever run across for writers, some public secrets that you may or may not have read or heard.

First, the main secret to successful writing (or any writing at all):  make pages.  As a painter must make paintings and a song writer must produce musical compositions, a writer must make pages.  Years ago I was reading Ray Bradbury, and he advised that a person who wants to write should compose three pages a day–every day, no excuses.  As I recall, Hemingway said something very like that.  Three makes a nice choice, but I’d say:  any number you like, even one, just so you do something regularly.  If not three pages a day, try ten per week, or fifteen per month, or whatever you can do.  But make those pages.

Second, on a tv talk show I once heard an interviewer ask Mickey Spillane, writer of noir detective stories, why he wrote what he wrote.  He answered, “I write what I want to read but can’t find.”  There’s a pretty good chance that, unless you have the great misfortune of horrendous taste, if you’d like to read something that you can’t find, someone else is looking for the same thing.  That means you already have an audience.  That’s secret 2.5:  write for that audience.

Third, read, read, read.  You probably want to write because you’ve liked things you read.  Read so you don’t repeat what someone else has written, and read so that you know how good writers put words together.

Fourth, and here’s another powerful one.  I was going through notices in an old copy of one of the many useful Writer’s Digest publications, I think it was the Poet’s Market.  The editor for one of magazines listed there gave this advice:  when you submit something to this magazine, reward me for the irreplaceable living time I’ll spend reading it.  Yes:  spot on.  Always reward your reader for the kindness he or she shows you in reading your work, whether it’s published or not.

I hope you’ve found something rewarding here.  If not, I’ll try to do better next time.  And thanks for sharing your living-time.


2  The World of the Text

Theorist Paul Ricoeur wrote about what he called “the world of the text,” the space between the text of a book or story and the reader.  The imaginative space in between isn’t quite exactly the book, and it isn’t exactly the same as the person doing the reading, either.  The reader negotiates that space as a place to experience and interpret the text.

I’ve always liked the term, but I like to use it in a different way.  The world of the text is the world that the text creates and into which the reader or viewer can step:  the deep, old, intricate world of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the dangerous but darkly scintillating world of a Raymond Chandler detective novel, or the icy, ambi-gendered world of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

I believe that, not just for fiction writers and movie makers, but also for poets and often for non-fiction prose writers (such as biographers and essayists), creating a textual world where a reader wants to stay for a time may be the single most important skill.  Yes, characters and style have great importance, and they may seem to many readers to be the most important components of writing, but if a reader enjoys the world of the text, he or she will return to a book again and again even knowing the plot (and maybe even having almost memorized the book).  That’s true for adults as well as for children–if you read children their favorite books, they want you to get every word just right, because every word helps make up and fill out the world of that book.

In the world of The Lord of the Rings readers can tolerate orcs because they also get to meet elves.  In The Left Hand of Darkness one can tolerate all the difficulties Ai experiences mingling with a different species of humans because of the friendship he and Estraven build.  The masterful peculiarities of the world and how the author weaves them all together into a believable place win readers’ fascination and loyalty.  And we often hope that the writers will go back to our favorite worlds to build more stories into the spaces they’ve created.

My wife says the experience can be much the same for “reading” a work of art!

3  Senses and Metaphor

Last week some students and I were talking about what I like to call the “tools of the trade,” that is, the technical things a writer must know to write well, everything from grammar and punctuation to manuscript format to basic narrative structure.

John Skelton, the Tudor poet laureate, called the collection of things he knew how to do his “conning bag,” the ideas and strategies he understand and could use any time he needed them.  Writers should always keep filling our conning bags, and every now and then we should dump them out and clean up everything we keep there.

Aristotle wrote that of all writing techniques, metaphor has the greatest power:  odd and fascinating that the most moving item is the one that isn’t there, the one to which we compare something that is there.

Metaphors and every sensory detail we can think of, we start with them:  they bring abstract ideas to breathing life.  Years ago I participated in an evening poetry reading at the university.  I had stuffed my poem full of all kinds of detail, making sure I hit every sense at least twice.  After the reading, another of the poets came up to me and said how much he had enjoyed the poem, but that he couldn’t remember anything after the line about bacon frying in the skillet.  It had made him hungry, and he couldn’t hold on to any of the lines after that, though they had been pleasant enough as they floated by.  Hunger wins out over poetry most of the time, and olfactory images may be the strongest of all.

I’ve always liked the line from one of Keats’s letters:  “load every rift with ore.” That is, fill every line of poetry with as much life, energy, experience, truth, and power as you can.  One of the many astonishments I experience every time I read Paradise Lost is that Milton left hardly one toss-off line in the whole poem, as long as it is.  He filled every rift with ore, and my copy, which I’ve used for more than twenty-five years now, has nearly every line underlined and annotated–which makes the underlining no longer helpful, bu makes me laugh with wonder at what a great poet can do.

Now I feel like reading Milton and sizzling up some bacon, but I don’t eat that anymore.  Maybe a nice warm, cinnamony bagel with soft raisons and some melted butter, dripping yellow-gold onto the plate.  Tasty.  Or maybe just some crunchy celery, with bitter, savory leaves, to save some calories . . .

4  Working with a Net

Occasionally someone will ask me about pursuing a career as a writer:  is it possible, how should prepare for it, how should one do it?

Quick answers:  it’s possible, but not easy–a writer needs extraordinary drive and patience; read, read, read, and write, write, write; I don’t really know how to do that, since fortunately for me I don’t write for a living.  I write because sometimes I want to, and sometimes I must.

W. H. Auden told a story about a young would-be writer who asked him about being a poet.  Auden asked, “Why do you want to be a poet?”  The questioner thought for a moment and replied, “Because I love words.”  Auden followed, “If you had given me any other answer, I’d have suggested you spend your time otherwise.”  Auden’s is an interesting answer, but not the only answer, at least as I understand it.  A person could also say, “Because I love stories” or “Because I want to try to add something to the great storehouse of literature that I have always loved so much” or simply “Because I have to do it.  I can’t eat, sleep, or think clearly if I don’t.”

Often I’ll get a question about how or where I get ideas.  That’s a kind of embarrassing one, since I’ve never had trouble getting ideas.  I have more than enough.  My problem has been getting the confidence, focus, and time away from my employment life to practice enough and learn how to start, continue, and finish pieces of work.  The ancients used to say not “I think that” but “the thought came to me that”:  I suspect ideas come to most of us pretty often, but we brush them off as random thoughts of little use.

Sometimes the real issue behind that question, when it comes from younger persons, is simply that they haven’t yet lived long enough to have clarified for themselves what they really want to write about.  More living means more experiences, and more thinking means more ideas for writing.

Now, when I get an idea that seems to me to have promise, I start with list-making:  the blank page is my worst enemy.  Get it down, with as many details as possible, as quickly and clearly as possible, then go back to it later to see if it deserves more thought and more effort–that’s my main method.

For the young person who wants to write, I also suggest what I call working with a net.  If you want to work the trapeze of writing, find a reasonable and decent way to make a living.  Auden said to take up carpentry:  something very different that requires different skills and thought patterns so that one sits down to write, the mind isn’t already tired and clogged with word-business.  Then writing time is language-time and pleasure-time, not drudgery.  Carpentry is good, but anything that helps you gain experience and make and save money and puts you in a position where you have some leisure time to write will do.

Every writer must find his or her own methods through practice and persistence and an open mind to ideas that come from anywhere and everywhere.

Good luck, and best of success!

5  Exercises

Do you like doing writing exercises?

I have mixed feelings about them.   They can work pretty well, I think, if one tries them honestly but doesn’t take the results too seriously.

The best exercise I’ve ever found is still pastiche.  I did my first pastiche when I was still in my teens.  I spent Saturday afternoons attempting to write a chapter being Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, and Victor Hugo.  Hugo was the hardest:  I had read Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris, and they had blown me away.  But to read and feel moved by them and to write like them require completely different magnitudes of understanding.  I had no hope of succeeding and certainly no pretensions of genius.  Nonetheless, trying to get inside the thoughts of another writer and recreate his or her style–free of one’s own ideas and notions of style–teaches more than anything else I’ve ever tried, read, or heard about stylistics and storytelling.  We tend to think we have a style of our own long before we do, and getting inside another’s style shows just how hard it is to find one’s own way or ways.

I’m teaching a poetry writing course this spring for the first time, and I’ve tried a number of different exercises to help the students think about poetic style.  One day each of us picked a person who should have a poem written about him or her; we started with list-making, describing the person’s traits or qualities, then turning the list into a poem.  One day we talked about haiku, then wrote one–then rewrote it twice to think about other ways of trying to get at the same feeling.  One day we wrote two versions of a quatrain, one with rhyme and meter and one with free verse, trying to make each equally “good” and complete.  One day we wrote about place, again starting with list-making and turning the list into a descriptive piece that might then lead to something more than simple description: an understanding of its history, aesthetics, or personal importance.

I think the exercises are working pretty well and the students are enjoying them.  Last week we had about thirty minutes left in a class period and I asked them if they’d rather spend it working on their previous drafts or trying a new exercise.  I assumed they’d rather chat over and edit their drafts, which they would soon have to turn in, but nearly everyone immediately called out “Exercise!”  So you know what we did.

Another policy I keep in class:  if I ask them to try an exercise, I try it with them, on the chalkboard so they can watch as I work through it.  I try not to think about what I might do with the exercise beforehand, so that I don’t have an advantage; they can then see how I struggle with it and try things (some work, some don’t) just as they do.  I tell them not to use what I write on the board as an example; I do the exercise simply to show them that I value it enough to do it myself, that I would not want to assign it to them without finding out for myself if it has value.

Exercising together, I find, is good for the heart and the lungs and maybe even for the soul.  So far the practice has carried over into the students poems:  I can see them using what they’ve done in the exercises in their subsequent poems.

I don’t know yet if any of these class exercises will carry over into my own private writing.  Lately I’ve been in a stage where I’m so eager to write that I don’t need exercises:  I need ways to stop myself from writing so I can get myself to school to help the students.  Should we have “pause” as well as “play” buttons for writing?

6  Git’n ‘er Done

Stephen Crane wrote in one of his letters that he had figured out how to turn his writing on or off like a spigot.  He could write when he wanted to and stop when he needed to.

I haven’t learned quite that much control.  Once I get it going, the words will go and go.  I have enough things to write about that I don’t have to search for subjects, but getting over the inertia to start sometimes poses a problem.  I have a little computer game, and sometimes twenty minutes of that will get me going.  Sometimes I need to read a little first to get words going through my head.  A walk or some tai chi practice will nearly always work if I have enough time for them to get my brain waves working right.

Once I get ready to start, I have a few commandments–not Commandments, and they’re for me, so they may not work for you.  But they help me, so maybe they’re worth thinking about.

Get words down on a substrate, in print or on an electronic device, whatever, just so it’s on something–even if I have to borrow pen and note paper.  Then find a way to save or keep those words.  I’ve lost too many good thoughts by not writing things down in time or losing them after I did.

Try to spend more time writing what I’d like to write than what I must write, while always doing my best with both.  I can never know who will read what and what good it may do.

Edit as well as I can without going mad.  I’m the monarch of typos:  I fix every one I can find, but I’m always going to miss some.  I must live with that and not punish myself too much.  Also, a writer must know his or her bugaboos.  I write sentences that are too long.  I don’t stop myself as I’m composing, but when I edit, I try to cut long sentences into two.  Or three.  Or four.

Get work into somebody’s hands:  a piece of writing never matters to me until someone else reads it and likes it.  I don’t write for myself alone:  it’s too hard (I’m not saying that someone else shouldn’t).  Know that some pieces will get bad reviews just because some bad reviewers take great joy in writing them.  Keep writing anyway.

Don’t worry if a piece takes a long time to finish.  Some do regardless of how hard one works at them.  Lucky for me I don’t have to write for a living:  I have a job that requires writing, but as long as I’m working on something, that’s all right, and I will get it done.

Have more than one project to work on at once:  on any given day I may not want to work on one, so I can work on another.

Try to put something fun, funny, and interesting in everything, even in a (boring) prose report.

Keep working on bilocation.  Who knows?  One day it may work.

Remember that having time to write is a blessing.  I do.


7  Happy happy, joy joy

Most people have heard at least a few really good jokes, even if we can’t always remember them to tell them at parties.

How many really good comedies or happy stories can you think of, either in short stories or novels or plays or movies?  Compare that to how many good tragedies or sad stories you can remember in the same genres.  Most of the “greats” are more serious and troubling than light and happy, probably because we need them more to help us deal with human problems.  When we’re happy, we don’t want to write; we want to enjoy ourselves.

Funny bits can appear in sad stories as well as happy ones, but the sad tends to overwhelm the happy or funny.  I’ve never believed in the idea of “comic relief,” not in serious writing; I’m more in Thomas De Quincey’s camp:  comic elements place the tragic elements in greater relief to make them stand out and astonish us all the more.  Sad or tragic stories also seem to me easier to write:  we understand pain and describe it better than we can joy or pleasure, which may quickly become trite in print or on stage or screen.  Can we write comedies with “tragic relief”?  Or can we use the sad bits to make the comedic elements more powerful by contrast?  Krazy Kat may say “Happy happy, joy joy,” but Ignatz the mouse is usually waiting around the corner to fling a brick.

Here’s something I’m trying now:  to write a happy story.  Not a story that goes only from one joyous moment to another, but one that mostly highlights joy and happiness and understanding rather than suffering and pain and violence.  One of my friends calls that the “nicey nicey” approach to writing.  For now, I’m willing to accept that term, derogatory though its intent, because I think it’s an exercise worth trying.  I’m not meaning a story with no tension at all, nor am I thinking of one where the characters go through all sorts of trouble to get to a happy ending, but one that focuses mostly throughout on characters finding reward or satisfaction in each others’ company and in what they do.

The attempt may fail.  If it does, that’s all right.  I think it’s an exercise worth trying.  What do you think?

8  Let It Become What It Wants

Lately I’ve been wanting to write poetry, but I’ve been able to get myself to write only fiction (oh yes:  and a few blogs).

More often than not I write nonfiction, but I haven’t felt in the mood for that any more than for poetry.

I’m teaching a poetry course right now, so I should be writing poems to keep myself in the right frame of mind to help the students.  In class, when the students do exercises, I do them, too, and I’ve been able to scare up something pretty quickly that fits the assignment and also has a bit of fun in it.  But I don’t save those:  they’re for practice, and I erase the chalkboard when class has ended.  About a week ago a colleague asked me for a new stanza for an old poem, and I was able to get back into the state of mind of that poem and write something pretty decent right away.  But for starting new poems:  my thoughts just aren’t moving in that direction right now.

I’ve long had this idea about a piece of writing:  we have to let it become what it wants to become.  We may feel in the mood to write a poem, but it may want to come out as a story.  We may want to compose an expository essay, but it may want to take the shape of a one-act play.  It works out better if we let it organically achieve the shape it wants to.  I suspect artists, composers, and choreographers have this issue, too.

Of course, that’s a problem for students.  We tend to ask them for something specific:  an argumentative essay, a brief autobiography, an annotated bibliography, a journal of their responses to readings.  We don’t–because of academic restrictions we often can’t–always consider that, like us, they may feel in the mood to produce something quite different.  And of course professional writers must complete what their editors ask of them, at least if they want to make a living.

But that doesn’t mean the intermediate product must be the final product.  Even something we write for now may yet reshape itself into something else, something better and more complete.  The imagination, I believe, will naturally lend the right form to an idea if we keep at it and let it become.

A friend recently told me:  “When I think of the word blog, your name isn’t the first one that comes to mind for something like that.  It probably isn’t even in the first million.”

I know.  I know.  I’m not a tech savvy type person.  But I’m glad that for now some thoughts are very much wanting to take that shape.

Do you think consciously about form, or does your subconscious take you right where you need to go?

9  Being a Writer

Once upon a time (yes, it does seem that long ago) I was attending the wedding of a friend, and at the rehearsal the father of the bride kindly came over to talk with me.  “I hear you’re a writer,” he said.

That was what he said, but not what I heard.  I heard, “I hear you’re a rider.”

Americans often do get mushy with our consonants, a trait not exclusive to dialects different from our own.

“No,” I said.  “I admire the animals, but I’ve had very little experience with horses.”

He gave me one of the strangest looks I’ve ever seen.

We had an awkward moment, with a few mutually unintelligible attempts on each side, until finally he made a sign of someone writing with a pen on paper.

“Oh!” I said.  “I beg your pardon.  Well, I write a bit, but I haven’t accomplished enough that I would call myself a writer.  Very kind of you to say so, though.”

We had a little more conversation, less awkward as we progressed, and then he went on to speak with other guests.

I’ve thought about that brief conversation periodically not only for its mixed embarrassment and humor, but also for the pertinent (where it isn’t impertinent) and difficult question it raises.

When can someone say–confidently, accurately, honestly, humbly–“Yes, I am a writer”?

Now and then I’ll encounter an indignant student (usually a teenager, and usually after getting a “B” or something even more intolerably horrible and insulting on a paper) who will argue, “But I’m a published author!”  Right:  not just a writer, but an author:  I certainly do beg your pardon.

To that person author is a term of honor that he or she has won by appearing in the high school’s annual creative publication or from having answered an add in the back of a magazine from a grocery store rack that invites, “Become a published author! Win cash prizes!”  The result brings a chance to buy an enormous book with hundreds of willy-nilly poems sent in by others who read the same magazine and couldn’t resist the call to fame and prize money.  I don’t condemn anyone for doing that, nor do I intend to make fun of them.  Figuring out how to write well and publish reasonably is as hard as or harder than it has ever been, and the only way I know to learn is to try.  The attitude is the problem.  I’ve worked also with students who have self-published their own books.  In a couple cases, the books have been pretty good.  I don’t at all blame them for that, and I admire their energy, commitment, and courage, especially if they have produced something fun to read.  But that doesn’t make them authors yet.  It does suggest to me the possibility that someday they may well become authors:  they have work ethic, drive, desire, and the hope to please a reader.

If they aren’t yet authors, they may well be writers–beginning writers, anyway.  To me author implies someone who has gained a readership and credibility by publishing over time substantial work that is at least pretty good–the person has probably supplemented his or her income if not made a living by writing.  Writer:  again that means commitment and practice over time, though it may not imply regular successes.  Is a person who writes only for his or her own pleasure, without sharing the work with others, a writer?  I don’t see anything at all wrong with that.  Writing can provide a means for self-reflection and development while helping a person clarify thoughts–how do I know what I think until I see what I say, E. M. Forster said.  To me writer implies commitment to craft, desire to do well, and the ability to make pages–and maybe at some point the intention to share that work.

I’m just now beginning to think of myself as a writer, and I don’t yet think of myself as an author–though I hope to get to that stage, after death if not before.  I’ve done many sorts of writing over many years with the aim of sharing that writing with readers, but it has served as part of my profession, not as a sole endeavor or means of making a living.  Many readers have said they’ve enjoyed the work; some have said they hated it and me.  As Kurt Vonnegut wrote:  so it goes.

If you are an author:  congratulations, and well done!  If you are a writer:  press on, and let’s do our best together to write well and find our audiences.  If you want to be a writer:  it takes lots of work, but we gotta do what we gotta do.

10  A Ghost Story

Over winter holiday I wrote a new book:  a ghost story.

I had never written one before, nor had I thought ever to write one.  I’ve read a fair number of them, but don’t especially like the genre.

If you’ve heard of ghostly possession:  this was a case of story possession.

On a fall evening, around midnight, I was standing in our sunroom (which also makes a very nice moonroom) looking outside.  The light was a strange silvery-white, the ground was beginning to frost over, and the moon hung lopsided over the fir trees.

Over the south fence crept the ghost.  It dropped down beside the garden and began looking around and sniffing.

I don’t think it saw me, but it sensed my presence.  I hunched down by the sofa to get a good look at it without giving too clear a view of myself.

The neighbors’ dog barked.  It barked again, and then it howled.  With two steps and a leap the ghost had disappeared over the west fence.

The image of the ghost took me back to a nightmare I had in childhood.  I must have been five or six years old at the time, and I woke up frozen and shaking from that dream.  I wonder if Mary Shelley felt that way when the monstrous image first struck her imagination.

Then the story hit me with as much surprise as had the vision of the ghost.  The story came nearly whole, minus only historical details, in an instant, and it insisted that I write it.

I held it off until after Christmas, when I had the opportunity to work, and then I could hold it off no longer.  I didn’t want to write that story, but it wanted to be written.

The research and outline took two days.

The story took twenty-two days and 64,000 words.  Not a long story, but long enough–long enough.

I took three more days to edit it and make sure I felt comfortable with it.

I thought of Horace’s entreaty that the poet should put a new poem away for nine years before showing it publicly.

Then I shrugged off Horace and sent the manuscript to an editor who had asked me to send my next book when I had it ready.

I don’t know if that editor will take it.  I hope so.  I hate the process of sending, rejection, sending, rejection, sending, rejecting . . . sending, half-hearted acceptance.  You know what goes in the ellipsis.

I’ve heard and read accounts of writers completing books in unbelievably short periods of time.  I’ve written one in a summer or in a sabbatical semester.  But this one dashed ahead at a nearly unearthly speed.  I held on and typed as quickly as I could.

I told a couple friends what had happened.  One said, “Don’t send it out yet.  Keeping reworking it, or even put it away for a while, and then go back to it.  You don’t want to feel embarrassed later about having sent out something unfinished.

But it does feel finished.  I told the whole story as well as I can, I think.

The other friend said, “Don’t worry.  This one will do well.  When they come that quickly and naturally, that will be your best work.  If not this editor, the next editor will take it.”

I don’t know.  Who does?

By the way:  the two friends weren’t named Justinus and Placebo.

I do wish you that experience.  To be taken over by a story that so eagerly wants you to tell it is a very strange and interesting experience.  Perhaps you’ve had it already.  It’s much easier and pleasanter than having to grind out and work up every small plot detail from scratch.  But I hope for you it’s something less unsettling than a ghost story.

Unless, unlike me, you really like ghost stories.  In that case:  have a good scare!