It’s a question the big-time interviewers ask writers all the time, usually rockstar-writers: “So where did the idea for (insert newest NYT best-selling book title HERE) come from, and why write about it now?”
These writers have whatever the answer is down to a tagline:
“Well, Oprah, I went to Alaska in 1988 and there were only five hotels in the whole town, but when I went back almost 30-years later, there were four more, and I wondered why that was, along with the weird local epidemic of mouth herpes. And so, Glory Hole: A Novel, was born.”
Whenever writers are asked about their “process,” some have it down to a quip or brief summary. Here are some of my favorites, even though I can’t (read don’t want to) directly quote anyone:
“I doubt anyone with an internet connection is writing good fiction.” (Jon Franzen…maybe.)
I’ve heard that you must have total privacy, you must write, every day, I’ve heard you must write down everything, no matter what, because it belongs somewhere.
I met a woman on an author panel once who said she must write with a hot pot of tea nearby. Another wrote while drinking and didn’t stop until drunk.
I think it’s fair to say there are no right ways to write fiction or other kinds of books. There is your way, and if it works, and if you’re working, then it works. But if you’re not writing, and you’re clinging to “your way,” maybe it’s time to re-think how you approach your writing, and why you’re writing what you’re writing.
I have a friend who is writing a novel—hoping to get it published as a genre fiction in fantasy/sci-fi, the new money-making career move if you’re a writer, along with YA. Blend the two and if you get it hit, you could be set for life and own a castle.
I want a castle… *sigh*
But that’s not the kind of writer I am, nor is it the kind of books I write. It’s also not the kind of book I read, not that a best-selling stamp turns me off forever or anything—it’s just that I’m not especially concerned with sales. And just because something gets touted in the New Yorker or an award-winner doesn’t mean it’s a book I’ll like, either.
I’m more concerned with writing a story that feeds my inner hunger for exploring the deepest parts of the human experience and condition in ways that satisfies both me and my audience. I’ve said it before: my books aren’t for everyone and when I die, if there isn’t someone out there cheering, I did it wrong.
It’s a subjective, personal thing. It’s not snobbery or competition or elitism or anything like that. I just like my books to dig in, deep. If you contrast that with my movie-viewing? I’ll be the first to admit I lean toward pure, unadulterated entertainment: suspense, mystery, “foreign intrigue” ( as my dad used to call them), or action/adventure à la Marvel or DC, because when my brain hurts and my heart hurts, I sometimes need to see someone “win,” no questions asked. I do like films on occasion, don’t worry.
But I’m a lot pickier with fiction and books.
As a writer, you need to know why you write.
Be brutally honest with yourself. You can take any public tagline you want about what you’re writing, why you’re writing it and how. But you need to know, deep down, why you write.
Do you want to create a “sob in the spine” of the artist-writer, as Nabokov said? Do you want to “melt the stars,” like Flaubert? Or, as David Foster Wallace once said for his writing motivation, is it your “way out of loneliness?”
Maybe you write to make sense of the world. Or maybe you have worlds you want to exist and it’s an escape. Maybe you write because you realized, like me, that doing anything else was a waste of time. Maybe you write to offer a unique perspective on an old theme. Maybe you write the books you wish someone had written for you to read as a child or teen. Perhaps you write to gain some kind of social cred, academic kudos, or authority over certain realms. Maybe you want a castle.
Maybe it’s a big ol’ mixture of all the above, even. It’s okay, all of it.
When I first found it, Medium.com was a site for writers and readers but now that it’s monetized, guess what it’s all about.
Every day I get dozens of “articles” in my inbox about everything from “life hacks” (that’s “code” for skipping the hard stuff and going right to the sweet stuff, because that’s always how it works) to “writing tips” in a 2-minute-or-less read—with graphics. Neat!
Who knew it could all be so simple.
So as I peruse writing experts on Medium, boasting thousands of followers and income to “do what they love” aka be a writer, at least, you know, “by night” or “part-time.”
I’m especially fascinated by how easy writing novels is, roughly 12 (counting the unpublished mss) soon to be 13 in.
According to several young writing experts, we need to disregard advice from the great writers of the past because they want us to believe writing is hard. They want to discourage us. Then she reassures me, her reader, that it doesn’t have to be that hard. That it isn’t a painful, dramatic process, at least not every, single time.
Yep. She’s right. When I write a less-than-two-minute read, it’s not hard, really. And today’s blog? Not much blood spilt on the keyboard, to be sure.
The writer went on to say that we especially don’t need to be tragic characters who drink, brood, and commit suicide (what a relief. I’ll unload my shotgun and buy an electric oven).
All you need to write great fiction? Check out their articles and read how (for only $5 a month…or year? No idea.) Also, make sure you check out their Amazon Author pages and books.
Here’s one from a medium writer who insists you don’t need to “open a vein” every time you write a novel:
I thought their names were pretty to-the-point and as “few words” as I could get.
After searching several Medium writers on Amazon, the folks giving writing advice liberally and conclusively and who all with the same results, above. There was one with a single, self-published title. So, I decided maybe I should stick with what I’ve learned as a writer–going on 20 years of doing nothing but–full time.
There isn’t a “wrong” reason to write, despite the hardline Bukowski and I both take. But there is a “wrong” for you, personally, as a writer, especially if you don’t know what kind of writer you want to be. And only you can know what “wrong” looks, feels, tastes, smells like. Believe it or not, some writers view “wrong” as something other writers only dream of in terms of end results.
I fell in love with a writer, but first, I fell in love with his words. Then, I fell in love with how he read and spoke his words. I fell in love with his love of words, and his love of my words helped things along and soon, I fell for the whole package.
It was, to say the least, an inconvenient predicament, one we solved by getting married.
After almost 12 years of supporting my writing life in every conceivable way, he’s finally started his own realized, long-form writing project—one he’s been writing in his head his whole life. I was beyond happy because, as you recall…
I fell in love with a writer.
We both worked yesterday, me on my various artistic and writing projects, him, on his book. I walked in as he was ordering groceries online, his writing day at an end. He looked haggard and tired. We went to bed.
No, it wasn’t bedtime. We often take breaks in the middle of a weekend day or early a.m. to lie down and hold each other close and talk. We settled into the comfort of each other’s entangled limbs and he exhaled a breath that felt like a katabatic wind. Now, even if you live in the mountains like we do, you may not know what a katabatic wind is.
Let me tell you. It’s a high-density wind that originates from a greater elevation under the force of gravity. Yada yada, so? And what does that have to do with writing, my husband or anything at all?
I’ll show you.
When we’re traveling back home, heading north, we enter a crossroads of highway on-and-off ramps at the base of the canyon. Each driver on that stretch of highway grips their steering wheel, white-knuckled, at odds with that katabatic wind. Drivers lean forward slightly, slowing and reminding our vehicles “who’s boss,” as the wind threatens to carry us up and off the ground and to the west.
The wind isn’t malicious, nor is it friendly. It doesn’t mean to cause high-profile vehicles to shudder dangerously and it doesn’t mean to permanently sway trees. It just is.
But that short stretch of highway is a story, because if one turns north, one drives into the mountains via a canyon, into pastures, into the northeastern parts of Utah, and if one turns west, the wind is at your back as you head toward salt flats and a dead, salt-infused lake.
While most everyone drives by thinking nothing of it other than both hands on the wheel, always, I look at the effects of the wind (Image 1, above) because if poets and writers don’t pay attention to such things, what will happen to them? They disappear into the annals of nothingness.
There is no right or wrong way on that stretch. There is only home or where it is you want to go. Either way, you don’t underestimate that wind. There are no driving “hacks” to get through that passage.
Now, if you can drive the car with one knee and a fingertip on the wheel, it’s likely you’re on a familiar stretch of road, one that’s been traveled so often, you don’t need to pay much time, energy or attention to it at all. Those roads are a lovely thing in between the treacherous stretches of highway found, say, at the mouth of a canyon.
But when I write a book, or read one, I want to feel that katabatic breath on me, the breath my husband released as he melted into me, frame shuddering, small myoclonic jerks in his limbs. The breaths he took were deep and slow, yet erratic. His breaths told me how the writing had gone that day.
I kissed his forehead and said, “You know, when Hemingway said, ‘There’s nothing to writing—all you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed’? That… really doesn’t do it justice, does it?”
Then my giant, strong, rugby-playing mountain-of-a husband broke down a little and held me closer, shaking his head. He clung to me as if we would blow away.
That’s the kind of book he’s writing because that’s the kind of writer he chooses to be. That’s the kind of writers we are. There’s nothing dramatic or tragic about it. Later, we watched Arrested Development and ate store-bought rotisserie chicken and sweet potatoes ’cause that’s how we roll.
We mused on the whole “tragic writer” archetype later, as if Hemingway, Camus, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anaïs Nin, or even writers who did writing as a side-note to their main passion, like C.G. Jung, Hugo Ball, Nietzsche et. al. didn’t have days when they just vegged-out and drank beer.
What do the new purveyors of writing-wisdom think goes on in an everyday life of someone like Erica Jong, Joshua Ferris, Jennifer Egan, Howard Jacobsen? Or me, my husband or tons of other greats who simply write, work, do it, do it, all the way?
They can’t be held responsible for would-be writers, those who take the hard-earned words of wisdom, (the operative word there is earned) about writing from genuinely great, gifted writers, with the same reductive understanding as their less-than-2-minute writing “hacks.” The irony of that ought to be screamingly obvious.
Look, what kind of writer do you want to be and what kind of writer are you, right now? If they don’t match, you can’t force the world to make them match. Only you can be in integrity with you. Taking advice from a writer like Stephen King is a good idea if you want to be a writer like Stephen King, and yes, based on his net worth, he could have a castle, too.
If you want to write blogs or articles on Medium, then do it. The only requirement to being a writer is being one, and if that sounds discouraging or elitist? Don’t do it. But I’m never, ever going to tell you writing a book is easy. Not my kind of book. Your kind might be, and that’s okay, too.
Bottom line is this: not everything is worthy of a book.
But what separates genuinely great writers out is when they write about anything, it’s book-worthy because that’s how they wrote it. It has nothing to do with how tragic or dramatically their real lives were lived.
It’s simply what kind of writer you choose to be. And whether you want to bend trees, melt stars, own a franchise, blog, or write for Medium…
I swear, it’s not romantic or tragic and the only life-that-imitates-art should be yours.
Je t’vois, and as always–