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How to write

I spent some time this morning happily browsing advice from famous writers on how to write, thanks to Maria Popova’s [twitter:BrainPickings] own writings on those writers writing about writing. Here’s Maria’s latest, which is about Anne Lamont’s Bird By Bird, an excellent (and excellently written!) piece that also contains links to famous writers on said topic.

Some of these pieces were familiar, some not, but all convinced me of one thing: writers should re-label their advice on how to write as “How I Write.” I find myself irked by every one of them into looking for counter-examples, even though I personally agree with much of what they say, and in many instances find their comments remarkably insightful.

Still, I want to push back when, for example, Susan Sontag says:

Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.

Yet you can’t throw a cat into a room full of writers without hitting someone wildly self-deceptive and unknowing. For example, Sontag’s own writing about writing ranges from breathtakingly perceptive to provocative to transparently self-aggrandizing.

Likewise, Elmore Leonard’s brilliant 10 rules of writing are clearly not rules for how to write, but rules for how to write like Elmore Leonard. (His ten rules are themselves a great example of his own style.) For instance, there’s #4:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”

Ok.

I even find myself pushing back against one of his rules that I greatly admire:

“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”

I love that…except that what do we do with Bernini? His Apollo and Daphne statue — the one where Daphne’s fingers sprout translucent leaves — is so realistic and yet so marble that one cannot look at it without thinking, “Holy crap! That’s marble!!!” (By the way, I just violated Leonard’s rule #5: “Keep your exclamation points under control.” He’s right about that.) Likewise, are we sure that no poetry is allowed to sound like writing?

Meanwhile, David Ogilvy — the model for Dan Draper in pitch-mode, and a writer I admire greatly — is stylistically in sync with Elmore Leonard, but disagrees with both Leonard’s and Sontag’s rules. (Note: That was a highly imperfect sentence. Welcome to my blog.) Agreeing with Leonard, Ogilvy demands simplicity and avoiding pretentious, abstract terms. But his second rule says:

Write the way you talk. Naturally.

What do you say to that, Elmore? If you write the way you talk, will it sound like writing? And, David, suppose you don’t talk so good?

And Ogilvy’s eighth rule says:

If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.

I’m not sure that Sontag’s insistence that writing requires something like personal authenticity allows for editing by colleagues. Why can’t “Hire yourself the best goddamn editor you can find” be an important Rule for Writers? And before you assume that such a needy writer must be a pathetic schlub who on her/his own is writing schlock, keep in mind that The New Yorker has a tradition of featuring truly superb writers in part because of the strength of its editors.

Maria Popova’s essays on writers advising writers (which, let me reiterate, I admire and enjoy) includes some pieces of advice that are incontestable, but in the bad sense that they are verge on being tautologies. For example, Lamont says:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

That’s certainly true if it perfectionism means a paralyzing perfectionism, i.e., the sort of perfectionism that keeps you cramped and insane, and that prevents you from doing a shitty first draft. (You have to love Lamont’s rule-violating use of “shitty.”) But there is also a type of perfectionism that makes an author worry over every broken rhythm and soft imprecision, and that ultimately results in lapidary works. Also, I’d venture that for most authors, the real obstacle to getting to that shitty first draft is not perfectionism but the fact that they’re just too damn tired when they get home from work.

The thing is, I agree with Lamont about perfectionism. It’s one reason I like blogging. I’m in favor of filling in the spaces between writing and speaking, between publishing and drafting. Even so, I find myself so insistently pushing back against advice from writers that it makes me wonder why. Maybe…

…Maybe it’s because I don’t think there’s such a thing as “writing” except in its most literal sense: putting marks on a rectangular surface. Beyond that, there is nothing that holds the concept of writing together.

This still makes it better than “communication,” an abstraction that gets wrong what it is an abstraction from. Still, communication provides a useful analogy. To give advice on how to communicate well, one will have to decide ahead of time what type of communication one is referring to. Wooing? Convincing a jury? Praying? Writing a murder mystery? Asking for change from strangers? Muttering imprecations at the fact of dusk? Yelling “Fie! Her!!” in a crowded theater? Even basic rules like “Speak clearly” assume that one is communicating orally and that one is not Marlon Brando auditioning for a part. And even within anyone one domain or task of communication, the best practices are really about maintaining a form of rhetoric, not about communicating well.

There are plenty of tips about how to write the thing one wants to write. These tips can be very helpful. For example, I have a friend who swears by Write Or Die to help her get her shitty first draft down on paper. (No, my friend, your first drafts really aren’t shitty. I was using a technique I recommend that everyone use because I use it: the callback.) That tip works for her, but not for me. Still, I’m in favor of tips! But tips are “How I write” or “How I’ve heard some other people write,” not “How to write.”

How to write? I dunno. Lots of ways, I guess.

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