Writers should not be seen or heard…

If you’ve been following this year’s Tournament of Books, you may have noticed a mild controversy flare up there. Not only did underdog Hill William beat out Booker Prize winner The Luminaries, but its author, Scott McClanahan, apparently tried to pull out of the Tournament via Facebook post with a derogatory comment aimed at soccer moms. I’m not sure of the reasoning there, but McClanahan becomes yet another in a long line of writers who would have been better off keeping his mouth shut.

My father, who was a great reader, often said that you shouldn’t try to find out too much about what your favorite authors or musicians are like as people, because while it’s possible to enjoy someone’s art if you know nothing about them, it may be impossible to enjoy it once you do know something about them. Reminds me of a quote I read recently by Daphne Du Maurier:

“Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard.”

Everyday drinking…

Kingsley AmisIt seems like many of us avid readers have a fascination with what, and how much, some of our favorite authors could drink. There have been some wonderful love letters written to alcohol by some of our greatest literary talents.

Kingsley Amis was a prodigious drinker. We might almost call him a professional. His words on drinking have been gathered up in a little book: Everyday Drinking.

This is not a book for reading straight through as much as tippling from at odd times. But if you are at all fond of alcohol, it is a must-read.

There are actually three short books in this volume. The first, and best, section is Amis’s treatise on drink. It is quite funny, and some practical tips are scattered here and there. The second section reprints Amis’s newspaper columns on the subject of drink, and there is some repetition here. The final section contains several alcohol-related quizzes, which might be fun after having a few.

Keep this book by your bar, and remember to nip from it every now and then. It’s probably the only book on the subject you’ll need.

I guess these days we’re too health-conscious to drink like the masters did. Too many calories! The jury is out on whether this is a good thing for literature. But it sure doesn’t seem like being a writer is as much fun.

Stephen King on writer’s notebooks…

A writer’s notebook is the best way in the world to immortalize bad ideas. My idea about a good idea is one that sticks around and sticks around and sticks around. — Stephen King

Stephen King doesn’t think writers should keep notebooks. I find that when something is niggling at my brain, and I write it down in a notebook, I immediately forget all about it and sleep soundly. Maybe this is why I am not a best-selling mega-writer like Mr. King?

via Explore – A writer’s notebook is the best way in the world….

Writers do make a difference…

This is such a moving essay: Stephen King: An Unlikely Lifeline In Turbulent Waters | Tor.com. Even if you are predisposed not to like Stephen King, he is undeniably an author who tells the truth. And an author who tells the truth is an author who can make a difference, especially in the lives of young readers.

I also discovered Stephen King when I was a pre-teen reader, and I have always strongly connected with his books. It’s not the horror and gore that draw me, but the characters, who always seem like very real people, and how they react when the uncontrollable and unfathomable occur in their lives. King shows his readers the horrors of the world and the horrors that live deep in the souls of our fellow humans, but he also shows us what humanity can strive to be.

Currently reading Doctor Sleep.

Profile of George Saunders offers insights for writers…

There was a terrific profile of short-story writer George Saunders in The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday, which I recommend to anyone who is interested in writers or writing. Saunders offers many insightful observations of the writing process, such as this one:

In an interview several years ago with Ben Marcus for The Believer, Saunders defended the time spent in an M.F.A. program by saying, “The chances of a person breaking through their own habits and sloth and limited mind to actually write something that gets out there and matters to people are slim.” But it’s a mistake, he added, to think of writing programs in terms that are “too narrowly careerist. . . . Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one — the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building, and, God forbid, everything we do should have concrete career results. I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”

I recently reviewed George Saunders’ new book of short stories, Tenth of Decemberon my book review blog. I also highly recommend that collection, or if you want to sample some Saunders, the title story can be read for free online.

Another way for writers to make a living…

Here’s an interesting first-person account in  The Chronicle of Higher Education from a writer who makes his living writing papers for college and university students. Not just undergraduate essays but graduate school theses and semester-long projects; he’s even completed online courses for students and participated in class discussions.

I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created. Granted, as a writer, I could earn more; certainly there are ways to earn less. But I never struggle to find work.

This essay really brings home how much of a game it all is. Stack up the extracurriculars and pump up the SATs in high school to get into a good college. Fake your way through the coursework to win the appropriate degree. Get a job in which that degree will have absolutely no bearing but for which it is required. Work until you die.

The writer almost makes a case for becoming a freelance cheater instead. Except it sounds like so much work.

The writer’s job…

The writer’s job is to entertain, but there is more. Writers can educate, enlighten, even corrupt. This is why books are often seen as dangerous.

Writers are observers. They want to figure out what makes us human. Why do we behave the way we do toward one another? What is our purpose here? Is there any meaning to all this? Are we in control of our destiny or at the mercy of fate, the environment, heredity or dumb luck?

Writers are always looking. They are constantly:

  • looking back — to understand who we are by understanding where we came from
  • looking around — at contemporary society, culture, institutions, values and beliefs
  • looking inward — revealing interior thoughts and psychology, trying to figure out what makes us tick
  • looking beyond — turning our fears into monsters; realizing our fantasies by making the impossible possible; traveling to the furthest reaches of space, other dimensions and parallel worlds
  • looking forward — extrapolating on the problems of today and following them through to their ultimate ends

A few words from writers about drinking…

“When I have one martini, I feel bigger, wiser, taller. When I have a second, I feel superlative. When I have more, there’s no holding me.” — William Faulkner


“Faulkner was a big drinker, went on wild binges, but he never wrote much while drunk. He and others drank to broaden their vision, their exaltation or despair, or to flee from the agony of the pure pain of creation.” — William Styron


“I’ve gone on the wagon, but my body doesn’t believe it. It’s waiting for the whiskey to get in there … to get me going. I never drink while I’m working, but after a few glasses, I get ideas that would never have occurred to me dead sober.” — Irwin Shaw


“Before I start to write, I always treat myself to a nice dry martini. Just one, to give me the courage to get started. After that, I am on my own.” — E.B. White


“After a few ounces, the old tunes wake up, the grandeur of jingling anguish, the lick and shimmer of language, the heartbreak at the core of things. … At a certain glow-level, my brilliancies assured me I was an angel writing in Paradise.” — Donald Newlove


“I can’t write without wine.” — Tennessee Williams

Write that novel or not, but treat readers right

So, this article over on Salon.com, prompted some thoughts: Better yet, DONT write that novel. The rant is a response to the annual write-a-thon, National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWrMo, as it’s known around the Interwebs, encourages writers and would-be writers to bang out a first draft in a month in an effort to just get it written.

I do take issue with Laura Miller’s tone in the Salon article. Let me paraphrase: “Hey, amateur writer, anything you produce during NaNoWrMo is going to be dreck, so why even bother?” Here’s why. Every person should feel free and encouraged to express themselves creatively in whatever medium works best for them, whether that’s writing, art, music, crocheting, cooking, ice sculpture, I don’t care what. It’s good for the soul, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re awful or not. Creative expression is something we all need to do more of, and I think it’s patronizing that Laura Miller feels like she has to tell NaNoWrMo participants not to bother their little heads with trying to write a novel.

But she doesn’t want to see that dreck foisted on the world, and I have to agree with that. Still, that’s why we have literary agents and publishers, isn’t it? They’re supposed to be our editorial gatekeepers. That’s why it’s so damn hard to get published. There’s a lot of competition, most of it is awful, and only the best of the best probably eke their way through. The flip side of that is that if you’re a choosy reader, you have a good chance of finding a more-than-decent novel to read on each trip to the bookstore.

Miller also makes an impassioned case for nurturing readers. As a reader myself, I’m on board. But I think the fault lies not with the legions of amateur writers out there, but with the publishers, who I think have gotten sloppy in recent years. It’s not that they’re publishing bad books; on the contrary, I’ve been reading a lot of great new books. But even hardbound literary fiction seems to be riddled with typos and other careless mistakes, which really distract a careful reader from the pleasure of reading. I don’t consider this the writer’s fault, although a writer who can’t grasp the basics of grammar and spelling probably shouldn’t make it far as a professional. Instead, I suspect that publishers are skimping on that lowly, often freelance, most definitely underpaid necessity: the copyeditor. And any publisher who can’t be bothered to pay someone a few bucks an hour to copyedit their books shouldn’t be in the business, in my opinion.

I’m not even going to get into the whole issue of e-books and gouging readers while not even letting them truly own the digital books they publish. I’ll only purchase an e-reader when there are no paper books left to read. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that any book I shell out my hard-earned money for be free of errors. These are professional editors, after all.

But amateur writers, please keep writing your hearts out. I wrote a novel once that’s completely unpublishable, but at least I wrote a novel. I get it. It’s about the feeling of accomplishing a goal, of creating something. It’s not about making Laura Miller read another bad book.

Better yet, don’t write that novel (Salon)
National Novel Writing Month