On Writing

I’m not sure exactly why it is, but I love to read what writers have to say about writing.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books ever, and I love it more than any of her other work.  Stephen King’s On Writing is another favorite…although when he tells us “adverbs suck,” it makes me cringe. I live for my adverbs; they say things nothing else can say. Or rather, they say things I can’t manage to make anything else say. Stephen King doesn’t seem to have a problem with it, though. That may be why he’s an eccentric multi-millionaire with that rarest of combinations: genuine artistic ability and huge popular following.  (Yes. He does. Genuine artist, that guy. Just because his subject matter tends toward the gross and scatological, don’t dismiss him to the pulp pile. Amazing writer, and one of my favorite theologians to boot. :-))

My senior year in high school, my English teacher gave me the best writing lesson ever: whatever I handed him, he’d hand back and say, “cut it by a third.” Used to drive me crazy. But man, when you are faced with needing to choose which sixty-seven percent of your work gets to stay and what goes, you know that even if some good stuff might get cut, only the best stuff gets to stay.

I just ran across two blog entries, on the same blog, with “writing tips.” One batch from Jonathan Franzen, another from George Orwell.  (Orwell is one of those writers whose work I hate, but whose skill I bow to in great humility. It was for that same English teacher’s class that I found myself, having procrastinated too long, needing to read 1984 and Brave New World over a single weekend. The almost mirror-like contrast between dystopias was striking and has never left me, but by the time I was done I wanted to jump off a tall building. The world is too depressing to so vividly envision more depressing possibilities–I need redemption in my dystopian adventures, or I wonder why I bother.) (Vividly. Great adverb.)

(But, as usual, I digress.  If Mr. King, my English teacher, were ever to read any of my blog entries, he would shake his head at the sloppy and rambly construction.  And tell me to cut them by a third.)

Where was I? Ah yes. Lists. Writing tips. Franzen. Orwell.

My favorite of Franzen’s tips: “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” (followed closely by “You see more sitting still than chasing after.” Hell, just go read them all; they are gems.)

Orwell’s tips remind me more of my English teacher’s: stuff like “Never use a long word where a short one will do” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Also really good advice.

I love to write. I also, appearances to the contrary, love the process of sharpening, carving, pruning, shaping, honing the writing after the fact. I groan as I begin, but when I take an essay or a chapter or whatever it is, and go over it several times with a fine-toothed comb and a reader’s eye, find the bumps and seams and random detritus, and smooth it into a coherent piece of work, the satisfaction is immense.

I did that with my more difficult admission essay…as I continue to stalk the mailbox I find myself reading it again and again, panicking, wondering if it actually maybe sucks and is a piece of crap and they won’t let me in because of it.  But it’s a tight piece of writing.  It says what I needed to say, and it stops when I’m done saying it. It is my voice. Who I am is all over the page. Anyone from any school who reads it will be able to tell exactly who I am and what I’m about, and if they don’t hear in it the voice of someone who could succeed in their department, then it’s probably not a department I’d be happy in. I keep telling myself that…and I keep stalking the mailbox.


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