A call from the writing wilderness … and an answer

Having been a writing teacher and acclaimed (ahem) author for nigh on 13 years now, sometimes a friend or former student comes to my a bit shyly and asks for help getting back on track when it comes to writing. I love the opportunity to talk shop and also to help build the confidence of other writers, especially since this was done for me many times as I tried to convince myself working at Kinko’s wasn’t enough. So my friend calls out from the verbiage hinterlands:

I’d like to ask your professional advice on writing. You see, I want to write. I even have a few good ideas. At least, I think they’re decent. I’m no longer a student, got kicked out middle of last year (that’s a hellava story, but not the point at the moment), and since then, I’ve wanted to write even more.

I haven’t read anything from this young man in a while and I don’t remember anything about either his preferred subject matter or his style. But to be honest, that’s not important — if I’m being asked for specific help rather than what this inquiry was, a general “writing life” question, I always ask to look at some of the person’s recent work.

I do know that this fellow — let’s call him DN — is very intelligent and curious about the world, two qualities I think most good writers share. He got kicked out of school, which I think is often a very good sign for a writer, if not for the comfort of his life for a while. There are several fiction writers out there who don’t even have MFAs and so are rankly unqualified to write.

But anyway, let’s see where this is going:

Yet, I find myself lost in where to go with anything. I can start an idea, but I can never seem to get anywhere with it. I used to type things out on a computer, but found myself hating how things could so instantly be changed, erased, deleted. Any edits on a computer replace original work, leaving no trace.

This is less true now than in years past, because Microsoft Word (and other equally powerful word processing programs) allow you to “track changes” and see exactly what was changed from draft to draft. This is a great improvement, although it’s nothing that’s going to rival Maxwell Perkins making novels out of the pages of Thomas Wolfe. One can hardly picture “the Hoade compendium of tracked changes” being perused in a library years from now.

I will say that having great ideas, or starting writing on said ideas, is without a doubt not enough to see you through to a finished short story most times, let alone a finished novel. I know, because I have so many goddamn great ideas, I can’t believe Oslo hasn’t called about a prize of some sort.

The problem here is that an idea — and that can mean anything from a visual image to a pithy one-liner to a concept about how alone we are in the universe — isn’t what people read fiction for. It is true, especially in speculative fiction, that there is very often an intriguing, even unique, “great idea” around which the book or story is written, but that isn’t what people read fiction for.

In my opinion — and, DN, you did ask for my opinion — people read fiction to experience a world more deeply than one non-Godlike person can experience, whether that means knowing the lust and guilt of Lady Chatterley from inside her mind; experiencing what it’s like to be a citizen of a dystopian planet; or visiting the afterlife and coming back again. Readers are after a narrative experience that real life just doesn’t offer. They are not after an idea.

Have you ever seen the 1982 movie Night Shift, with Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler? (You should — it’s very funny.) In that movie, Michael Keaton keeps a small tape recorder with him at all times in case he has a magnificent idea, so he can record it for later work. One of his ideas was as follows:

What if you mix the mayonnaise in the can, WITH the tunafish? Or … hold it! I got it! Take LIVE tuna fish, and FEED ’em mayonnaise! Oh this is great. [speaks into tape recorder] Call Starkist!

Great idea (and a great little joke that reveals character), but it’s a Twitter message, not a story. Similarly, if a writer’s idea never goes further than “It’s a society where people who can’t dance are surgically changed to have two left feet, literally!” then that writer is going to have a heck of a time writing anything of any length or interest.

Moving on:

Then I started writing by hand, and it seemed to go better. But I find myself never going back and retrieving what I’ve written, never actually getting to editing, only writing new things, with no continuity. Hell, the best writing I feel I’ve done was an essay on a typewriter a while ago, as I saw it being physically created, I scribbled notes over the printed font, then cut the paragraphs out with scissors and rearranged them till they fit together how I liked.

Okay, this is unfortunate, DN, but it makes sense. For you the artifact of the written piece — the feel of pencil on looseleaf paper or the smell of typewriter ribbon that remains on the page — is overwhelming in good and bad ways. Bad, because ultimately it is content that matters to readers; but good, because there are a lot of writers like you out there, more multimedia artist than pure wordsmith, perhaps, who want to have a carnal relationship with the medium of manipulable paper and ink.

Not that anyone should follow his pharmaceutical path, but Beat writer William S. Burroughs liked to work with way, with hundreds of small pieces of paper with a scene, or an image, or perhaps just an interesting phrase typed or written on it. He would accumulate hundreds of these crots and then assemble them into something approaching a narrative or at least a consistent mood. In fact, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg came to Tangiers where WSB was recuperating from some drug-induced nonsense and made it their project to make a book out of this mountain of material. Working with the physical pieces of paper (as, of course, one had to do before the computer), Kerouac and Burroughs put together WSB’s best known book, Naked Lunch.

There’s even a name for this: It’s called the pastiche method, and writers as diverse as Burroughs, John Dos Passos, and Vladimir Nabokov. The last had very neat boxes of index cards with scenes typed on them and would arrange them in the most novelistic way he could, and then he had a novel. (Of course, I imagine he then wrote transitional material as connective tissue, but WSB didn’t.) Maybe this is an approach that would work for you. It frees the writer completely from worries about flow and even about “making sense.” It is a high tactile experience that sounds like something you might be able to enjoy and create with.

So I guess I need to ask you a question now, DN — what kind of stories do you want to tell?