Writers on writing

Ask anyone who practices a craft, and they will tell you that the learning process never ends. It doesn’t matter how advanced your career is, how many works you’ve completed, how many prizes you’ve won, each new project brings its own challenges, and these challenges are not necessarily easier to overcome just because you’ve put years into sharpening your skills.

Where fiction is concerned the issue is compounded because, as long as the writing doesn’t follow a formula, a writer doesn’t take very much from one project to the next. Other than the confidence one gains from completing a manuscript and (maybe) getting it published, the writer confronts the challenge of the blank page with an idea or two and no safety net. Ideas are capricious and untrustworthy traveling companions. They can take you a long way or they can push you out of the car in the middle of nowhere–you never know where you’ll end up until you set out on the journey. After a while the writer learns to accept that most ideas don’t pan out. Failure is a huge part of the writing process (as are second-guessing and procrastination). The bitter truth is that writers throw out most of what they write.

All of which makes it worth asking if established writers have anything useful to say to aspiring writers. What advice or instruction can they pass along that will make a difference: that will hasten the journey toward publication and perhaps save the inexperienced writer a bit of heartache along the way? If writing is a subjective process–as we believe–it means that writing can’t be taught. The teacher of writing can talk all he (or she) wants about style and structure and plot and character and setting and tone, but the student of writing still has to come up with an idea that works and get her (or his) hands dirty (so to speak) through a personal encounter with the page and the word. There’s no other way to do it.

Of course, this does not stop writers from teaching writing. I’ve done it myself and have discovered it to be a profound and enriching experience. Despite the subjective nature of the craft there is value in teaching creative writing. The thing to remember is that anyone who can hold a pen or navigate their way around a keyboard knows how to “write.” The real skill you are teaching is how to tap into a mode of thinking: about language and its relation to the world around us, and about words and how they combine on the page and act upon the mind. Things get murky at this point because we’re dealing with an alchemical and largely inexplicable process: that transformative moment that the successful writer learns to harness and prolong in order to conjure up convincing characters whose words and actions and ultimate fate matter to the reader.

The tradition of writers commenting on writing is long and fascinating. We can probably take it on faith that anyone who goes to the trouble to formulate and record their advice to young writers is genuinely trying to be helpful. But part of being a writer is learning to tell the difference between advice that’s worth taking to heart and advice that’s simply not right for you. And sometimes we should just let ourselves be amused, especially when a great writer cloaks his advice behind a curmudgeonly persona and tells a story about how he did it himself, a case in point being this New York Times piece from 1999 by Ed McBain (born Salvatore Albert Lombino in 1926) who wrote crime and detective fiction under several names for more than fifty years. He’s describing a world that no longer exists and sounds a bit cynical about it, but he’s actually saying some wise things about character and motivation and literary form.

This blog will address writing and related topics: my own writing activities and, more generally, books and creativity and words. Elsewhere on this site you will find reviews and links to other sites that I’ve found useful, informative and/or entertaining. Take what you want and leave the rest. Thanks for reading.