In the Blog-Inning: A Writer Writes About Writing

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David Stanley says: I am inquisitive. I want to know everything.

Your story.

My wife and son and parents and my family.

Music and food and wine and spirits and spirituality and literature and comedy. Soccer and bicycle racing and skiing and tennis and the wisdom of the weight room. Zoology and evolution and genetics and chemistry and physics and physiology. Malcolm Gladwell and Outside Magazine and Men’s Journal and Rolling Stone and Slate and the New York Times and Sherlock Holmes.

Myself.

Oh, and coffee. Definitely good coffee. Cream & one Splenda, please.

*****

Good writing is an art and a craft. Everyone has experienced good writing as art. Even when we don’t particularly like a writer’s work, we know the writer has mastered his/her art. We can’t say exactly how we know the writer is a master, but we know it. In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart said, “I can’t explain what pornography is, but I know it when I see it.” Good writing is like that, as is good porn.

The Talking Heads said “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?” Here’s how:
Influence number one: My HS English teacher Joan Ring. An incredible editor and  adult who was actually interested in what a seventeen year-old had to say. The best thing she ever said? “David, no one on Earth is as interested in you as you are.”

Influence number two: E.B. White, one of our greatest essayists and editors. A master of parsimony. From White, I learned to be ruthless. This, from his collaboration with Strunk in The Elements of Style:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no
unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,
for the same reason that a drawing should have no
unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This
requires not that the writer make all his sentences short,
or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in
outline, but that every word tell.


The best 63 words ever written on the art of the do-over. Writing is one of the few vocations that require you to make a lot of mistakes and then fix them. Neurosurgery and gas line repair, not so much.

About 30% of what we write is crap, anyway. Garrison Keillor tells the story of the time, early in the computer era, before autosave, when he sat down, wrote 2,000 words and got called to the phone. When he returned, his computer had crashed and his work was lost. He had to recreate it from memory, and he says that so much of what he had written was forgettable; the result was some of the best 1,200 words he’d ever written.

Influence number three: Prof. Tom Foster. The author of “How to Read Literature Like a Professor.” Tom is an extraordinary writer and professor at UM-Flint. I was fortunate enough to have him for three classes whilst doing grad work. I read him, listened to him speak, wrote papers and had him critique my work. Imagine! A guy on the NY Times bestseller list reading my paper comparing Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” to “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Here are my teachable moments:

Item One. We all hear voices in our heads. I doubt your voice says “This is wonderful. You have such command of the language.” I suspect your voice says “YOU SUCK! GARBAGE! GAACK! That voice is dangerous. It hates you. It hates your work. It hates creativity. STOP LISTENING. Just stop it. Right now.

How? Darned good question because that voice is not going away. Faulkner said all he did was start up his characters and follow them around with a notebook. Those of us less gifted might try meditation, a rubber band on the wrist, shouting “SHUT UP” at yourself like a crazy person, a prayer to St. Jude.

Me? I steal from the Buddhists. I acknowledge the voice and I tell myself I’ll deal with it later. Then, I get back to work. Like an annoying rattle in your new car, the voice can’t be silenced. Good writing is work. It. Takes. Practice.

Item Two. Master the basics. Learn to punctuate correctly. Learn to spell. That’s S-P-E-L-L. Spelling matters. Syntax matters. It takes discipline. Writing, just like a martial art, is a discipline. Master the tools of our craft. Every great artist, from Picasso and Rothko back to Da Vinci and Michelangelo, was a master draftsman. Every great pianist, whether classical or jazz, is a complete master of keyboard basics. The basic skills of writing are that critical. If you cannot, will not, master the basics? That voice in your head that says “You suck” is probably correct.

Item Three. Learn from the masters. Writing is art. Go to any museum and what do you see? People with sketchpads and easels copying the works of the greats.
I was at an excellent jazz concert not long ago. At the reception afterwards, I spoke with the pianist. I said, “Man, you got that McCoy Tyner thing going on.” He said, “Oh, yeah, baby, McCoy, he’s my main man.” The guy didn’t sound like McCoy Tyner, but I could feel the McCoy in there.

You must do the same thing. Take your favorite writers. Write just like them. Your words, your ideas, THEIR VOICE. Then, go back and write as yourself, in your voice. Something indefinably good will have happened to your writing.

Item Four. Precision & parsimony are good. Search for the exact word you need. Search for the word that means what you mean AND sounds like you want it to sound. The sounds that words make against each other are really important. So is the silence.
Get in. Say what you want to say. Exactly that much and no more. Shut up when you’re done. Get out.

 

find David on Twitter: @DStan58

find David on his blog: Rants & Mutters

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  • alma pacheco

    this was great advice! Great post

  • Casey

    Wow- this is such good advice, particularly for a student and blogger. :)

    Take care,

    Casey

  • http://www.vidyasury.com/ Vidya Sury

    I enjoyed reading this! Thank you, David and Erin!