I am not a successful write by any stretch of the imagination. I have no published work that attests to my ability as a writer, though if one must be published to show any skill what ever then a great many of us must be considered cretins on the matter. And this blog is definitely not the same as being published. There are a great many individuals who belong to various writer’s groups and they, through the courtesy of Amazon get their pathetic scores of pages published electronically. That is, they encourage each other to pay a couple of dollars for the privilege of reading what may only be described in the most charitable terms as crap. Yes, it is writing, but literature it ain’t. Thank god they at least spared an innocent tree from an inglorious death.
And, of course we have all the groups that sit around and critique each others work. Of course one can only offer positive criticism such as “I like that part where….” and other such encouragements. Most individuals do not have even the most modest talent for writing fiction and fewer still for creating that art called poetry. If you’ve ever noticed, most individuals have a hard time telling a good story, so why would you think they could write a novel? And not everyone who can tell a good story can transform it into a written one with any degree of skill. Besides, we have so many individuals who are possessed of the proper pieces of paper such as degrees in English and Literature, some with advanced degrees, and they all need some form of work because the world’s supply is over filled with them. And a degree in English and literature and other arts and social sciences, although sociology is not a science and never will be, are very easy to obtain. Most of it is memory work. Simply memorize your way through life. It is not like obtaining a degree in engineering or better yet, one in physics and mathematics. Did you ever notice how most graduates in the Arts can never do quadratic equations or wouldn’t know how to compute the speed of a falling object? Yet many scientists can write very well, what irony. Kurt Vonnegut obtained his degree in chemical engineering. Now that is insult to injury. So avoid those individuals who want to hold seminars and structured group writing classes, they will not teach you much. And avoid the writers croup confessions where every novel is written by committee. Imagine Shakespeare sitting around with the other playwrights of his day critiquing each other’s work, we might had had the Merchant of Toledo Ohio, a story about a general store owner who wanted his daughter to marry a haberdasher next door.
There are really only four things you need to be a good writer. And this applies to non fiction as well as fiction and most particularity poetry. You must find your own voice. Well, you might say, what’s so hard about that? Did you ever have to read articles in a psychology journal? My god, that is the most passive voiced writing I have ever read, and yet it is taught and desired by proper format used in psychology. That is not how real humans talk. That is not how you exchange conversation with your friends. This thing called voice is the real you, not some put up job with an expanded vocabulary and a choice of words that sound right out of Roget’s Thesaurus. If you are used to using short choppy sentences in speaking then switching to overly long and complex utterances will sound false. So if you want to write like William Faulkner then you had better practice speaking like him from a very early age and continue to do so the rest of your life. So lesson one is find your own voice, and your friends and family will let you know if your practice writing sounds like you and not some pretend person. Note, this has little to do with dialogue.
Second, find your own rhythm. That very lush sound that Faulkner gives to his writing cannot come in a New York minute. No one born in New York City could ever write that way. If you were born somewhere in the midwest there are speech patterns you have learned, assuming you grew up there. This is the speed of your life, your living of life. Fannie Flagg could never have written Little Women for it would have been quite impossible for Jo to speak with a southern drawl and dawdle among her words. Willa Cather marches across that prairie of pages like an immigrant seeking a homestead. And william Faulkner languishes on the porch gently sipping a mint julep in the shade as the hot and humid air with that fetid reek of tobacco hangs about his cigar, reminding us that haste is not in gracious living nor the growing of cotton, for it is all in god’s own good time that the south shall be revealed. I can do much better Faulkner than that, but you get the idea. How does the region where you were born and raised and now live alter your speech rhythms? Listen to the people around you and discover how they talk, understand their sense of time.
Now our first two laws of writing, these are ones that are rarely taught in college courses or writer’s groups for the simple fact that most individuals rarely think about what they do and say. We pay so little attention to the basics of writing that we are so consciously aware of what we do. It is these laws that will help you start to understand the process you wish to undertake. If one is writing non fiction, then voice and rhythm has a great deal to say. One can be very professional and distant or one can convey information in a manner that can be easily understood. Formal writing is just that, cold, sterile, and often sleep inducing. Conciseness is the heart of any non fiction writing. You and I know when the author is padding his word count and when he doesn’t really understand his subject. Fiction allows you far greater freedom and yet it gives you enough rope to hang yourself. Fiction is an art form. It is story telling. Just as there are those individuals who can tell great stories to any audience, so a writer needs to be able to tell a story to almost anyone. You know, for those of you who did not grow up attending church regularly, you missed a chance to listen to good and even great story tellers. That’s right, a sermon is a story and any minister who can captivate his flock when most have their minds on Sunday dinner, the oil change on the car that they were thinking of doing before work Monday, the cutting of the lawn, and any other of hundreds of stuff we all do, well, he has his work cut out for him. It is not just the sound of his voice that raises your attention level outside your head. It is the story he purports to tell, one about your everlasting soul, and your belief in god. Most of our political speeches are most mealy mouthed and delivered by soft sops who couldn’t command the attention of a fire hydrant. So you must conceive of the story and determine how you will keep our interest. There are a lot of books written on the subject but there are no formulas. I take that back, there are plenty of formulas and god knows that there are thousands of westerns and romance novels written every week according to such formulas. And yes, these stories are garbage, for those with limited imagination and even less vocabulary, let alone any real experience in the world, including Ronald Reagan.
Finally, there is the message, the moral, the reason you are telling a story. Without this element you might as well be ghost writing westerns and children’s novels. You might as well get use to retching over any thought that your name is associated with the writing of any number of romance novels. You must find something to say. Not just anything, but something about the general condition of mankind or a special application thereof. Was Les Miserables about poverty, about justice, or was it a tome about belief in god? Victor Hugo offered us no insight on how to render justice or what we might do about poverty. But he gave us some idea about his idea of god and the workings of that god-idea in the hearts of men. If you ever read the book, and there are some translations that are much better than others, Jean Val Jean changed over time with each new experience, with each new obstacle to his own happiness. Too many people only read injustice and that is all they take away from the novel. So many individuals have such a shallow understanding of live and can only grasp what they find obvious. Too much of modern writing is concentrated on the obvious. It focuses much too narrowly and feeds only to a group of individuals who have such a shallow understanding of humankind. And if your understanding is also that shallow you may become a successful writer in terms of money and fame, but your work will be so easily forgotten. People still read Victor Hugo and he has been dead several hundred years. Will anyone read your work several hundred years from now?
Finally, that unknown fifth law of writing, practice. If you want to write and write well you must write every day. Somerset Maugham thought the day was wasted when he failed to write any less that seven hundred and fifty words in the morning. This is my 105th blog post. You can go through my blogs and see that I seldom write less than a thousand words a day. Yes, I have missed a day or two at some point, but there are days that I have written two and even three posts in one day. You must write every day. That is difficult because most people have so little to say not only to themselves but to others. I don’t care what you write about. Scan the headlines, look at photographs, find something that you can expound a thousand words about even if you are boring as hell. Writing is a craft, not a formula. You learn by doing and if you are lucky to start when you are young then you will write some excellent works. I have started very late in life and yet look at what I am doing. The other part of this practice is read, read, read. Read authors of fiction, read authors of memoirs, read authors of non fiction. But read the good stuff. Don’t read crap for it only tells you how not to write. Go back to the 18th and seventh century authors and see how they put their thoughts down, find out what was important to them. Read those novels on which good films were based. Today’s fiction has been built on the older fiction, explore those foundations. Don’t approach this as some college literature class, learn from your own reading. Examine the structures the thoughts, questions their assumptions about life. This is the much that will grow your own talents. If you really want to create you own sense of authorship, then stay away from writer’s groups, stay away from professors who want you to write like everyone else. Mark twain wasn’t even a high school graduate, never went to college, and yet he is the greatest author America has ever produced. College is a place not where you learn to write but where you learn to grow up, become an adult, stand on your own two feet. It won’t teach you wisdom, only you can do that. And it won’t teach you haw to write great works of fiction, you have to learn that on your own. There are no shortcuts in life, no formulas that once followed with secure for you that fame and fortune that will settle you for life. Once you start writing there is no rest, no retirement, no end in sight. One becomes a writer, doesn’t matter how good or great and known you might be. Just know that there are many of us who will never be published, never be known, and yet will become and keep bing writers. It is a never ending journey. Be forewarned before you start.