Category Archives: Literary Life

31 Prescriptions for Serious Writers

“Writing a novel is a painful and bloody process that takes up all your free time, haunts you in the darkest hours of night, and generally culminates in a lot of weeping over an ever-growing pile of rejection letters. Every novelist will have to go through this at least once and in some cases many times before they are published, and since publication itself brings no guarantee of riches or plaudits, it’s not unreasonable to ask what sort of a person would subject himself to such a thing” (Alice Adams).

Prescriptions:

Have a strong belief in and respect and enthusiasm for writing. To many serious writers writing is the central activity of their lives: no other activity compares. It is probably true that the majority of people, young or old or in between, don’t like to write. But there is just something about the act of writing that people struck by the writing bug find irresistible. Many aspiring writers wait all day for the half hour between putting a child to bed and sleep when at last they are free to pound away at a keyboard.

Be patient because all writers who reach high excellence in their craft will have done so via a long, sustained period of learning and application. P.G. Wodehouse wrote that “Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed.” “If the promising writer keeps on writing—writes day after day, month after month…he will begin to catch on” (John Gardner.)

Fountain pen on an open book Have a need for self-expression and self-disclosure. Good writers reveal themselves in their work. Readers want writers to reveal themselves. A novel, for example, enables authors to convey a wealth of information that expresses them.  Your writing, even the way you turn a phrase and the metaphors you use (why did you use an image of a fish then instead of a train?) and your vocabulary and points of view, tell the reader what you’re like. Writers have a need to discover exactly what they are thinking by writing it out, and then to artfully communicate it to the reader who wants to know.

Be more self-disciplined in matters concerning your work than most people in other fields .Success in writing is largely a matter of discipline.

Learn to overcome boredom and fatigue, particularly through positive self-talk and physical conditioning. .

Sacrifice for the sake of your writing. Anton Chekhov said, “It is difficult to combine the desire to live with the desire to write.” In A Moveable Feast Hemingway wrote, “On Thursday I was…feeling virtuous because I had worked well and hard on a day when I wanted to go to the races very badly.” For some writers writing is more important than their family.  The family goes to the zoo; they stay home and write. “Generally (Eugene) O’Neill elected to lead an existence completely removed from what the great majority of people would call life, It was centered on, was focused on, organized around work” (Malcolm Cowley). Toni Morrison didn’t do anything but write, to the exclusion of everything else.

Take pride in your extraordinary writer’s memory nature has equipped you with. Your writer’s imagination depends so much on remembering what you’ve heard about, read about, or seen. Whatever happens to writers they never forget it, but store it for future use. Katherine Anne Porter said, “We spend our lives making sense of the memories of the past.” Writers must have a gift to remember sensations and images that were experienced at times many years earlier and to relive them in their original freshness and vividness. Not just memories, but detailed memories: “Thus the greatest poets are those with memories so great that they extend beyond their strongest experiences to their minutest observations of people and things” (English poet Stephen Spender). A writer may not be able to remember a telephone number or to pick up a dozen eggs at the store, but will never all his life forget the expression on his mother’s face as she came in the door that particular day. He has a perfect memory for that. Memory is a writer’s workshop.

drawing of a hand with a penPossess extraordinary energy. No outstanding writing achievement has ever been produced without hard work. One of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels had 5,000 pages of notes. When writers are functioning at their best they work at white heat for an hour, a month, or years. Creative people don’t run out of steam.  Their enthusiasm doesn’t wane very long.

Don’t spend your time working on easy problems. Good serious writers work on problems that are hard for them because they’re stimulated by things that are difficult. They not only solve problems, they create them because when they solve those they make progress and become better writers. That’s how they create work that no one has seen the likes of before and expands their abilities at the same time. A major intuitive skill effective problem-solving writers have developed is being able to identify the specific point to approach the crux of the problem.

Be resilient and able to overcome obstacles and to persevere. Many writers persist however difficult the physical and mental effort of pursuing their goal might be. “Creative people are those who are more willing to redefine the ways in which they look at problems, to take risks, to seek to overcome daunting obstacles, and to tolerate ambiguity even when its existence becomes psychologically painful.” (Scott Barry Kaufman and James Kaufman)

Enjoy writing’s sweat factor and be able to produce tremendous amounts of work. Writers–creatives–love to work. Production is the writer’s main goal. Usually the greatest writers are also the most prolific.  Cynthia Ozick said, “There is a definite relationship between being major and having a profusion of work to show. You could write one exquisite thing, but you would never be considered more than a minor writer.”  Thomas Wolfe sometimes wrote 5,000 words in a night. Georges Simenon who was capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day, produced 200 novels, 150 novellas, autobiographical works, numerous articles and scores of pulp novels under two dozen pseudonyms. Ray Bradbury took two hours to write a poem, half a day to finish a short story, and nine days to write a novel.

Strive for the fullest development of your skills. Developing skills leads to competence, then to expertise, then excellence, then greatness. If you feel you have the skills, you’re less likely to be haunted by self-doubt and your writing will flow more freely.

Young man typing on a laptopHave a strong concern for your technique and style. The reader isn’t meant to notice a writer’s technique, but other writers are aware of it immediately. The first thing you notice about writers is their style. Toni Morrison said that “getting a style is about all there is to writing fiction.” An appealing style is so important to a writer that writers joke about it:, ”If you are getting the worst of it in an argument with a literary man, always attack his style. That’ll touch him if nothing else will” (J.A. Spender).

Maintain an artistic vision and heightened perception. To writers the world is inexhaustibly rich with aesthetic potential. There are dimensions of reality they are sensitive to that other people overlook, perceptions of what might be called “hidden reality.” It’s the business of the writer, who has the creator’s faith that they are seeing a true reality, to find, collect, and communicate that reality in their work. Eugene O’Neill: “I am a dramatist…What I see everywhere in life is drama.”

Have a capacity for self-criticism and objectivity about your work and your abilities. Writers must learn to lay their egos aside as they would any other impediment.

Be sensitive to life and open to experience. Insatiably curious, writers plumb what is outside them in the world and their own thoughts, sensations, and emotions.  They are not afraid of what ogres they might discover in the world they write about or in themselves.

Be what you are: more self-confident, rebellious than the vast majority of people. Writers who lose their youthful rebelliousness are in danger of losing their talent as well.

Have a large tolerance for ambiguity–larger than the great majority of people. That’s one reason writers are generally such effective problem-solvers.

Be restless because you can’t help but be. Writers often move on to other projects just when what they’ve accomplished becomes clear. (Months may pass, years may pass, but be sure to get back to your project and finish it.) The first stanza of a poem by Wordsworth may have been written 28 years before the last stanza was written.

Strive for competence and constant improvement. Writers are never content very long. They are guided by a persistent willingness to write with more expressive power.

Value independence. Writers must be allowed to move unrestrained in their own direction under their own power. No voice should be more persuasive than the writer’s internal voice saying “X is the truth I must pursue.”

Spend a lot of your time alone. Most successful writers would agree with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger that “everything that matters in our intellectual and moral life begins with an individual confronting his own mind and conscience in a room by himself.” Writers often prefer solitude over socializing.

Have the ability to focus. Creative people often learn at an early age that they will achieve more if they focus their efforts on one area rather than dividing them among a variety of pursuits. Writers are capable of intense concentration, losing all sense of time and place, conscious only of the work before them. They will let nothing divert them from accomplishing it. Gustave Flaubert said that only writing mattered to him, and that he kept all his other passions locked up in a cage, visiting them now and then for diversion. Focusing is intense. Emily Dickinson said that if she felt physically as if the top of her head was taken off, she knew that was poetry.

Be playful and value the simple and the unaffected. Writers are in love with simplicity and bring to mind a Chinese proverb: “A truly great man never puts away the simplicity of a child.”

Computer, cup of coffee, and woman's hands writing in a notebookBe able to muster an abundance of physical strength and stamina. Often it’s the end of writers’ endurance that stops their working day. Novelist Thomas Wolfe would turn in manuscripts a million words long . He claimed that the physical demands on the writer made the writer’s life seem to him to be the hardest life man has ever known.

Adapt and make adjustments. An experienced writer has learned when to stop and begin again when something isn’t working.

Be studious in the sense of studying to develop your craft. All writers study and all are self-taught to a greater or lesser degree. Composers and fine artists are likely to have been taught by masters; writers are likely to have taught themselves.

Establish rapport with readers. Your writing is always for someone–yourself certainly. But also the audience, the reader. Skilled writers are aware of whom they are writing for and establish rapport with them within the first few sentences of the work.

Take luck, the breaks, and good or bad fortune into account. Good luck often follows persistence. A failure or wrong direction or bad luck may lead to something fruitful later on. A “wrong” word in a sentence may prove to be the perfect word.

Pencils, pens, markers and other writing toolsHave or develop a business sense. You have a career to manage and responsibilities and expenses. Study marketing and salesmanship–read. Take business classes.

Feel deeply; be emotionally rich. Writing, like music, must convey emotion–from sorrow to joy and everything between. Writers have strong feelings. For example, they often have fiery tempers.

 

If I asked you what you think are the qualities that it’s most important for writers to possess, how would you answer?

I, myself, would begin with “hard worker.”

 

© 2021 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

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Advice and Other Odds and Ends on the Literary Life

Writers have a great deal to say about the literary life which may be of interest to aspiring writers reading this post and to veteran writers too.

 

Make a Bundle of Money–At Least Try (Why Not?)

Many agents and publishers told a friend of mine that his manuscript was unpublishable. He had faith in himself and didn’t believe them. He persevered. It was published. It sold 25 million copies Stack of hundred dollar billsand he suddenly was rich. On the other hand, when Ernest Hemingway was young and poor in Paris and unable to support his family with his stories he would catch pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens when the gendarme on duty went into a café during his break, and then take them home and cook them. Some writers, like painters such as Pablo Picasso, love being rich. Picasso said he wanted to work without material worries “like a pauper,” “but with a lot of money.”

Samuel Johnson said that no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Novelist Anthony Trollope said that what motivated him was what motivates lawyers and bakers—“to make an income on which I and those belonging to me might live in comfort. But poet Kenneth Rexroth said, “I’ve had it with these cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book.” Jules Renard said: “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”

Irvin S. Cobb wrote: “If writers were good businessmen they’d have too much sense to be writers.”  “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business” (John Steinbeck).

Blaise Pascal said that anything that is written just to please the author is worthless. William Faulkner (was usually out of money): He said “I began to think of books in terms of possible money. I took a little novel and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine and wrote it in about three weeks”–the financially successful Sanctuary.

Interfering with an author’s desire to be solvent if not rich is the difficulty of getting books published: commenting on the difficulties of getting his play Auntie Mame on the stage, Patrick Dennis said, “It circulated for five years through the halls of fifteen publishes and finally ended with Vanguard Press, which, as you can see, is rather deep into the alphabet.”

A consolation is that your book may be too good to be popular. It’s silly to think that most successful writer is necessarily the best writer: “A best-seller is the gilded tomb of mediocre talent” (Logan Smith.)

 

When At a Party of Artistic People, Talk Like a Genius

Two dogs looking like they are having a conversationWhat do geniuses talk about? Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, and Pablo Picasso attended the same Parisian party in May, 1922. Proust complained about his indigestion and Joyce about his headache. Picasso admired the women and Stravinsky snubbed them all.

 

Make Sure You’re Writing Has “Zing”

An agent told a writer-client that his books weren’t selling because there wasn’t enough sex in them. The writer said, “Are you kidding,” and opened his book and showed him the scene on the first page: the countess races out into the street naked with the hero also naked and in a state of arousal chasing her.

“Yes, yes” said the agent, “but look how far down the page.”

 

Take Criticism of Your Work and Yourself with Grace

Charles Lamb’s first play was hissed off the stage by the audience. Lamb was in the audience and hissed too because he didn’t want to be recognized.

White swan on smooth blue waterOne of the problems superb writers face is that they–and no one else–are the best judge of their work and yet they must endure sometimes ignorant, amateurish editors and critics. Henry Miller found himself being abused by editor after editor he submitted work to. He snarled, “Who are these shits? Where do they get off saying such things to me?”

What is a critic’s function? Screenwriter Wilson Mizener said that a drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him of what he meant.

The French critic Saint-Beave was challenged to a duel by an angry author and given the choice of weapons. “I choose spelling.” he said, “You’re dead.”

Writers want to be treated courteously, understandingly, and considerately, and why shouldn’t they be? But a literary critic burned Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and sent him the ashes. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce’s work are often compared, but she didn’t like his writing at all. She said Ulysses was “The work of a queasy underclassman scratching his pimples.”

 

Be Truthful and Accurate

English novelist Arnold Bennett bragged that his description of one of his character’s death couldn’t be topped for its accuracy because he had taken infinite pains over it, basing it on his father’s death. Bennet said that all the time his father was dying “I was at the bedside making copious notes.”

 

Be Prepared for Mishaps and Misjudgments (No one’s perfect)

Ernest Hemingway lost and never recovered a trunk full original manuscripts of his short stories he forgot on a train. John Steinbeck’s dog chewed up half of the first daft of Of Mice and Men. Cat with eyes wide openSherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick with a hors d’ oeuvre at a cocktail party.  Katherine Mansfield married a singing teacher eleven years older than herself and abandoned him the morning after their wedding night. George Bernard Shaw said, “Experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes.”

 

You Must Focus on Writing Above All Else (Are you a writer or aren’t you?)

“The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for her living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art” (Playwright George Bernard Shaw.) “Everything goes by the book, honor, pride, decency–to get the book written.  If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies” (William Faulkner). At ten in the morning a writer friend of Shelley left him standing by the mantle in his study as he read. When the friend returned at 6:00 p.m. Shelley was standing in the same place reading and hadn’t moved an inch the entire day.

 

You Might Have to Work at Odd Jobs Before Hitting It Big

Novelist /teacher John Gardner said almost all full-time jobs are hard on writing. Henry Miller dug graves for a living. Vachel Lindsay traded poems for bread. Erich Maris Remarque sold tombstones. Novelist William Burroughs was an exterminator. Poet Carl Sandburg was a janitor. William Faulkner was a bootlegger and postmaster of a university post office. Raymond Carver worked in a morgue. George Bernard Shaw said, “You must never suppose, because I am a man of letters, that I never tried to earn an honest living.”

 

Like Athletes, You Must Warm Up Before You Get Started

While writing The Red and the Black, Stendah,l in order to acquire the right tone, read two or three pages of the Civil Code every morning. Willa Cather had to read from the Bible before she was Athlete stretchingready to start writing. Ernest Hemingway had to first sharpen all the pencils he anticipated using that day. Edgar Alan Poe petted his cat before he started. Thomas Wolfe took long walks to get ready.

Like most writers Honore Balzac had to have coffee first. He overdid it, though, drinking fifty cups a day, and eventually dying from coffee poisoning. Samuel Johnson drank twenty-five cups of tea before starting his writing day.

Rudyard Kipling couldn’t get started unless the pen’s ink was very dark. Alexandre Dumas, pere needed rose-colored paper to start if he was writing nonfiction, but for fiction he had to have blue paper and yellow paper for poetry.

 

Writing Is Not Easy so You Might Need Something to Motivate You

The great innovator Gustave Flaubert said it was a delicious thing to write. I’ve never known or heard about or can conceive of or imagine a writer who didn’t feel that way. There’s just something about the act of writing that is motivation enough for most writers. But Victor Hugo needed some other motivation too. So at the beginning of his work day he gave all his clothes to his servant who was ordered to return them only after Hugo had finished a day’s work of several hours.

 

You May or You May Not Need Solitude

Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, went a year without talking to anyone. Truman Capote’s advice to young writers was to socialize and not “go up to a pine cabin all alone,” because “You reach that stage soon enough.” Voltaire preferred the company of his mistress. He wrote in bed using her back as a desk.

 

Make It a Point To Please Your Publisher and the Book Buyer

Victor Hugo wanted to know if his publisher liked Les Miserables whose manuscript he was submitting. He wrote on its cover “?” His publisher answered “!”. That is the most succonct literary correspondence in history. A publisher’s salesman said, “I often think how shocked authors would be if they listened to the book store clerk selling their books. They’ve worked a year on their book, two years, three years, maybe longer, and there it is. A word or two and a decision is made.”

Your book must match the taste of the person who will buy it. The author of the sensationalist best-seller Peyton Place said, “I’m a lousy writer; a helluva lot of people have lousy taste.”

Popular W. Somerset Maugham said that he had never met an author who admitted that people didn’t buy his book because it was dull.

 

If You Have a Grudge Against a Fellow Writer, Here’s What to Do

“If you are getting the worst of it in an argument with a literary man, always attack his style. That’ll touch him if nothing else will” (J.A. Sender).

 

You May or May Not Have First Book Overwhelming Success, But Be Patient

Maurice Valency thought that failure is very difficult for a writer to bear, “but very few can manage the shock of early success.” P.G. Wodehouse said that success comes to a writer rather gradually, and that it is something of a shock to him or her to realize the heights to which they have risen.

Humorist Robert Benchley said, “It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

 

Your Main Goal Is Production of Text, so If You Write Very Fast, You Can Produce Lots of Books

In his life Alexandre Dumas, pere wrote 1,500 volumes. British author John Creasey and French author George Simenon each wrote more than 500 books. Earle Stanley Gardner wrote 140 books. He dictated 10,000 words of text a day and once worked on seven books at the same time.

 

As You Can See, Writers Lead Fascinating Lives. But Don’t Believe Them

Playwright Lillian Hellman said writers are “fancy talkers about themselves.” She said that if she had to give advice to young writers she would say, “Don’t listen to writers talk about writing or themselves.”

 

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers

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