This post and the next will be the sage advice of multiple writers regarding “On Becoming a Writer.” My strategy in commentating on this book is to merely read each short piece, annotate the takeaways, and share the most vital portions of gold I can pan from the riverbed.
Francine Du Plessix Gray: The Seduction of the Text
Gray begins by explaining her opinion that the word “creative” should be banned when talking about writing. It’s an overused concept that does more harm than good to those who venture down the path of becoming a writer.
She focuses on the “nuts-and-bolts” of writing, “the sound-bytes of diction” used to allure and seduce readers.
Urging writers to keep their sentences erotic, she advises them to “Think of each word as a potential spouse or lover.” Do they work well together? Are there stronger relationships out there? What is the ONE word that could pair with the next?
Writers must create a pact of trust with the reader by venturing away from the comfort of predictability and inject “uncertainty, mystery, and surprise” to freshen up the relationship. She compares this idea to that of “verbal foreplay.”
She asks us to strive for muscle, avoiding cautious phrases that are timid and ‘pissless’ (William Gass). And finally, this leads into rebelling against the tyranny of genre where she encourages writers to be subtle in their writing instead of simply falling back upon every single technical trick of the trade.
Her parting words to her writing students are to “read voraciously, keep the reader seduced and never worry about the ‘category’ your texts might fall into. The world, alas, will pigeonhole you before you know it, griping and caviling when you stray from the niche into which they’ve glued you. For the time being each of you is free to gambol and frolic in the delectable, Lord-given fields of human language. How we envy you.”
Seduction. Trust. Mystery. Muscle. Rebellion. Subtlety.
Joyce Carol Oates: The Importance of Childhood
Oates cannot “imagine a mental life, a spiritual existence, not inextricably bound up with language of a formal, mediated nature. Telling stories, choosing an appropriate language with which to express each story: This seems to me quintessentially human, one of the great adventures of our species.”
She describes her life in grades K through 8 in an old schoolhouse, worn and uninsulated, with only one room and a small fireplace. Stories were her “portals” to discovery–to other worlds filled with people unknown.
She remembers memorizing these lines from a Charles Kingsley poem:
Be good, sweet maid, And let those who will, be clever. Do lovely things, not dream them all day long. And so make Life, Death, and that For Ever One Grand, sweet song.
She realizes that she likely grew up more clever than good. Falling in love with words, she became a writer.
However, her understanding of life is jaded by the harassment she received by her older peers in her school years. She gleaned the wisdom that others’ ill-will is simply life and that no one will help when being treated poorly.
Writing became her gateway to fighting back against this harsh reality of life. It became her weapon. Her defense. Her stronghold.
Joanna Trollope: Looking for the Spark
Everything that can be said has already been said. All the greats have already expounded upon the truths we invariably keep yapping about. SO why write? What’s the point?
Trollope argues that “the novelist’s task is not…to shrink from the well-trodden, time-worn path of human hopes and terrors but to re-interpret those old hopes and terrors for his or her own time.“
A writer has a second form of imagination to accomplish this. Most people simply have one form: the capacity to perceive and notice things around them. A writer has “the capacity to select, and then translate and illuminate, everything that has been observed so that it seems to the audience something entirely new, something entirely true, something exciting or wonderful.”
Writers must take those mundane human acts that happen all of the time and make them deeply personal as if it were the first time the event is happening in all of human history.
Trollope falls back upon the following quote to inspire her writing:
“My task is to chronicle those little daily lacerations upon the spirit.”
The things that happen to us matter and we need to share our unique way through them. She comments on the reason for fiction, to prove we are not alone in our trials and to serve as a handrail as we bumble through the dark.
We should all strive to leave this monument of ourselves for the world to remember us by. We may not have a monopoly on Truth– that’s God’s deal– but we as writers can do our best to translate the bits of Truth we fumble to grasp.
James Michener: How to Identify and Nurture Young Writers
Michener begins his short commentary on writing by explaining just how much the landscape has changed over the years. It is far more difficult to be noticed and make a penny on writing now than it previously was; therefore, he follows up with the suggestions he has for his students as they begin their writing journey.
Have fortitude. Accept rejection and move on. Have a liberal amount of sheer brass.
Master the English sentence.
Individualize in the area of vocabulary on at least three different social levels.
Be familiarized in the flow of modern fiction. Where has it been and where is it going? Tap into that river.
Network and meet other writers and professors who can lead you to other valuable connections.
Try a writing program, not only to learn more about writing, but to develop even more relationships and connections in the field.
Don’t simply wait and bugger about asking questions about publishing and the rules of the game. Find the story. Catch that plane. Write it before someone else does!
His final advice paraphrased: Life is short and can’t be wasted on dawdling. Commit to mastering the craft, daring to grapple with difficult subject matter, and developing a burning vision to express old truths in new forms.
I’ve enjoyed the advice from each writer so far, but this is the one I can relate to the most. He has a bit of that Halter software code…
Mary Higgins Clark: Touched by an Angel
Time is finite and there are many stories to tell.
Clark never decided to become a writer. In fact, she believes wholeheartedly in the existence of beings that are bigger than us and bestow their gifts upon us. She was gifted with writing and had no choice in the matter.
Handling rejection with ease, “Just wait and see,” she thinks to herself with each returned manuscript. And that is what has made her such a great writer.
She sticks with an idea until it becomes real through her writing. Some are better than others, but she strikes gold far more often than the normal mortals among us.
With success, she smiles. With rejection, she knows she had done her best and moves on.
Simple, but there is something to it. I suppose we should just hope that we figure out what the beings above have gifted us with!