Sep. 24, 2010

For Writers

A writer at work is about as isolated as it is possible to be. No matter if he is sitting in a crowded Starbucks, no matter how gregarious he may be at other times, when he is writing he is perfectly alone.

I have always welcomed the solitude. Most writers do, I think, otherwise we would not stick with the job very long.

At the same time, the writer’s isolation walls people out in an unhelpful way. Years ago, when I was unpublished and struggling to learn novel-writing (I never saw myself as any other sort of writer), I was eager to watch established novelists at work, to see what the job was all about. But of course the internal nature of the work makes that sort of access impossible. The real work of writing is invisible. Robert Olen Butler put the problem nicely in an interview once:

The one thing that other aspiring artists have over writers is that many of them can view their mentors at work. A painter can sit at the back of a studio and watch her mentor paint, a ballet dancer can watch his mentor rehearse and perform. But you can’t really observe the creative process of a fiction writer. It’s never been seen.

Even now, when every author has a blog and a Twitter feed, there are surprisingly few good peepholes into the daily working lives of writers.

I try to provide such a peephole on this blog. I discuss my writing process, some of the ups and downs of my writing life, the snags I run into as — slowly, slowly — I produce a novel. In conversation I am usually bashful on the subject, and on the blog too I weigh my words probably more than necessary. Still, I’ve been more forthcoming than most authors, I think.

I have gathered up some of that material from the blog in a new page called On Writing. It will appeal mostly to writers, I think, though anyone interested in books may find it worthwhile.

The page has two elements: a collection of quotations which I use as a commonplace book, a place to keep quotes I’ve run across that I like to refer back to; and an index of blog posts that have to do with writing. Both elements — the quotes and the links — are reshuffled every time the page loads, so On Writing will look a little different every time you visit. The idea is to browse at random, to stumble across things serendipitously.

Just to be clear: my purpose is not to teach anyone how to write. I am not so presumptuous. Even if I were willing, what works for me may not work for you. Hell, what works for me one day often does not work for me the next. In the theater, actors used to talk about The Method. For writers there is no such thing. There are as many methods as there are writers. Nobody can tell you what will work for you.

Nor do I think I have anything especially profound or insightful to say about writing. The truth is, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. No writer does. We are all just feeling our way along, trying to find the sentences that please us, that sound right to our ears. We all tinker constantly with schedules, environments, work habits — anything that seems to help. Believe me: nobody knows how to do this. Nobody has the secret, the one true way.

So the goal here is not to lecture, but to share some of my own thoughts and experiences. It is important for writers to support one another. Writing is not a zero sum game: one writer’s success does not diminish another’s chances. Hopefully this material will help someone out there.

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