Hello one and all,
It’s been a while!
I thought I’d kick off a new series, called three-by-five. Raymond Carver wrote that he put writing advice he liked on three-by-five cards, and recently I wondered, what would I put on my three-by-five cards? Slowly, I’ve been accruing writing advice that I loved and admired. I’ve always been enamoured with books detailing the nuts and bolts of literary creation; the how, when and where. As a teenager, I often haunted the Paris Review site, reading their Writers at Work series (the series, which used to be free for all, is now regretfully paywalled). Many of my favourite books belong to the nuts and bolts category, such as Stepping Stones: Conversations with Seamus Heaney, Conversations with Czeslaw Milosz and Conversations with Joseph Brodsky to name a few. Over the past few months, without realising it, I’ve accumulated more and more of these books, as I’d been feeling particularly deflated as a prose-writer, after a myriad of articles had been met with a fate worse than rejection – indifference.
I’d always been suspicious of guidebooks. I suppose my suspicion came from a romantic conception of the creator as being struck by the muse and writing in a white heat of pure inspiration, nary correcting a single line. Of course, this almost never happens. Creating something that was not there before, whether on the page, the canvas, or from clay, is work. Hard, gruelling work. But it’s one of the most rewarding types of work. Why else would you keep coming back to the desk everyday, spending days, weeks, or even years on a poem? Getting over my suspicion, I started getting the books slowly, building lists of books that would be interesting to read in of themselves. Whittling the list down to what seemed essential, I waited anxiously for the postman.
Reading a mixture of books ranging from essays, conversations, and guidebooks was instructive and humbling, a great lesson in humility in passion. Here were writers who’d won international acclaim, not having a clue what they were going to do at the desk that day; writers who always saw room for improvement, even after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Here were writers who gave themselves the freedom and permission to write badly (as Philip Levine noted, Whitman and Dickinson allowed themselves to write badly). Guiding every book of critical essays and guidebook prose was a profound passion for literature and for the act of creation itself. Over the last few months, I’ve kept the best advice and wisdom on a pinboard above my desk. I wanted to share the wisdom that’s helped me over the last few weeks and months, and thus this series was born, taking its title from Raymond Carver. This series will be irregular, and I’ll post advice as I come across it.
Here’s the first piece of advice, from John Steinbeck. The advice comes from a 1962 letter, written to the actor and writer Robert Wallsten. The letter is collected in the great Life in Letters.
1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person–a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it–bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
6. If you are using dialogue–say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
From Steinbeck, Life in Letters, Ed. Elaine Steinbeck & Robert Wallsten (London: Minerva: 1994), PP.736-7
P.S. The anthology of depression will continue in the summer!