“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” — Louis L’Amour
Few things in the world get me more angry than someone saying, “You mean you just write? What kind of job is that?” In one sense, they are correct. As Robert Wilensky observed, “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.” If all it took to be a writer is to throw words together, any idiot could do it, and as you can tell from various comments on various sites, an extraordinary number of idiots have done just that. Let’s talk a bit about how we, as writers, can do better than that.
Let’s get a definition here. Being a writer, an author, isn’t about stringing words together; it’s about daring to offer the essence if your Self, in words, to the rest of the world in hope that someone — or the world itself — will not destroy it utterly, or perhaps even (dare we hope?) appreciate it. There are those who do not offer their hearts but instead only offer their offal. To them, I quote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “The person who writes for fools is always sure of a large audience.” Sharing your writing is an act of sheer courage, but it’s not the first courageous act. The first act of courage is simply to write.
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” —Toni Morrison
Stephen King, with whose work I have a love-hate relationship (when he’s good, he’s unbeatable; when he’s bad, he’s unbearable), said something I very much agree with: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Granted, it can be difficult to find the time and inclination to read, but if you want to be a writer, it is absolutely essential. So if you haven’t done any reading lately, I strongly recommend that you start. To use words, we have to learn them; to create with words, we have to experience them. So your first exercise today is to start your reading list. Write down the titles and authors at least ten (more, if you wish) books that you’ve already read. (My list tops 1100; then again, I also have a PhD in Liberal Arts and can’t stand to be sitting around without good words to entertain me. I’ve also been kicking around for six decades, so I’ve probably got a jump on you.) Then write down the titles and authors of ten (or more) books that you want to read. Make a deal with yourself to read a book a month (like the famous club of the same name which is no more, in its original form and purpose). We’ll talk more about reading in future blogs, but start with this.
Stuck for some authors and books? You could do worse than to start with the famous Five-Foot Shelf of classic fiction. However, if you’re not up to the likes of Dickens, Austen, Bronte, and so forth, then look for modern “classic” authors. Allow me to suggest a few of my particular favorites.
- Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (classic gumshoe noir)
- Peter Straub, Ghost Story (creeping, relentless horror, without the blood and gore)
- Piers Anthony, On a Pale Horse (a man accidentally murders Death and must take his place)
- Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City (1970s Midwestern girl discovers San Francisco)
- D. James, Death of an Expert Witness (murder mystery with exceptionally deep characters for the genre)
- Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama (a sci-fi ethnography of an alien civilization seen through a space artifact heading for our sun)
- Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy (hilarious mystery parody, a “Nursery Crime” to determine if Humpty Dumpty fell or was pushed)
- Joan Didion, South and West (non-fiction; short, deeply insightful journals of a 1970s drive through the southern U.S. back to her native California)
- Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (vignettes of a young girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago)
- The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (it’s important to read poetry as well; this is a textbook and will be expensive, so find an earlier edition in the “used” section of your bookstore)
There’s a starter set, if you’d like one.
“You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.” —Ray Bradbury
There’s a brilliant line (one of many!) in Neil Simon’s screenplay The Goodbye Girl. Eliot Garfield, an actor, has been offered a part in a movie and is suddenly all but tongue-tied. “I’ve spent years developing my ego for this, and now when I really need it, it locks itself in the john.” The ego wants to look brilliant, all of the time, bar nothing, and if you start to question whether or not what you have to say is worth being listened to, you’ll never open yer trap. You must read, you must write, and you must get past that block trying to tell you that you “just can’t write.” Let me offer you something to help with that.
Ray Bradbury, who may well have been the greatest fantasist of the 20th century, was the man who made me want to write. You’ve already found me quoting him often (in fact, I just did), so I’ll give you one of his tricks for breaking up blocks: Write down a series of random words, perhaps five or six, and then bring in characters to talk about them. It’s for this reason that I love having a real, physical dictionary in my workroom; flip pages, pick words, feel the connection to language! (In his youth, on a bus trip from his Illinois home town to New York City, his companion was Roget’s Thesaurus — yes, he literally read the thesaurus!) However, the Internet has its uses too. Visit the Creative Random Word Generator and click on a button to generate up to eight random words at a time. Bring in some characters to start talking about them.
What characters? Well, let’s talk about that next time.