Why every writer should read Moby Dick, and some handy tips about how to enjoy getting through the whole thing.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I started Moby Dick three or four times before I actually finished it. That was in 2014, and since then, I’ve had this strange sort of longing for it, sort of like how, early on, Ishmael describes his longing for being on the water. I’ve never read another book that feels so much like an experience to read, and I think it’s an experience all writers can benefit from. [I would say all people, but I don’t like to take my generalizations too far–I’m a writer, so I’ll just stick to speaking for that section of the population.] I’m about 2/3 way through my second read and it’s better the second time, but you only need to read it once to be in the “Yeah, I’ve read Moby Dick,” club.
Why Read Moby Dick:
- Because it’s bold. Melville takes formulaic risks here that still read as courageous, even 160 years after it was published, even after post modernism. It’s amazing that anyone published this beast at all, and the fact that it will probably be read for all time could give writers a kind of boost to break the rules, to take readers in uncomfortable, stylistically forbidden places. No matter what we do, we probably won’t do anything as wacky as what Melville does in this book. So we might as well just try out whatever strange idea comes to us.
- Because it flopped when it came out. It’s like the “Starry Night” of literature, a reminder that you have to write honestly from your gut, write what you care about, and risk scathing criticism. It’s a 138 (including the preludes and epilogue) part reminder that fortune is not guaranteed, but we have to write what we believe in anyway.
- Because it’s a masterpiece. Now, I’m not really a big believer in “the canon,” and I get how we need to stop letting the white supremacist patriarchy tell us what’s good to read. Even so, part of why this is a masterpiece is because of its ahead-of-its-time critique of white supremacy/empire. Sure, there are some times Melville’s 1851 white male POV is showing, but for the most part, he challenges and deconstructs power a century before Derrida and Foucault ever thought to. So read this alongside your Toni Morrison novels and you might find out that they’re dialoguing more than you’d have predicted.
How to Read Moby Dick:
- Slowly. This novel is like a 500 page + Lydia Davis flash story, and every sentence needs to be savored as much as possible. Don’t pick this up and say, “I’ll give myself two weeks.” I think the best idea is to read it a chapter a day, which means, give yourself months. Read it while you’re reading other things. The faster you read, the more you’ll miss. And if you miss the wordplay and fascinating sentence construction, you’ve missed 95% of what’s good about it.
- Underline sentences that you’ll copy by hand later, and you’ll improve your ability to write a good sentence.
- Remember that it’s funny. It’s best read in a playful state of mind.
- There’s a lot of wisdom in this novel. Melville’s love and fascination for humans is apparent, and looking for it enhances the reading experience. It’s a spiritual text, delving into the deepest questions of why our lives are the way they are, who’s running things, and what motivates humans to do the things that they do.
- Trust the form. I’m not going to lie and say that this book is never tedious. It’s a book about whaling, and in many ways recreates both the boredom and excitement of being at sea. The form is useful because it makes reading the book a meditative practice. You’ll need to concentrate as hard as if you’re writing, and trust me, anything that builds concentration is handy for writers, especially writers of longer works.
After about a month of training, I am two days away from my first 5k race. I don’t remember what inspired me to start, but I am encouraged to know that for many writers, distance running is a part of their creative process. Nick Ripatrazone explores the phenomenon in November’s Atlantic article, “Why Writers Run.” Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, “eases writer’s block with an afternoon run.” Haruki Murakami says he “became a serious writer, ‘the day [he] first went jogging.'” I’ve only just started, but I can see the connection: it involves the same clock-checking doom (it’s better done without checking a clock); it’s got the same accomplishment relief/joy of putting pages and hours into a novel.
One thing I enjoy about introducing running into my writing life is that it dispels the myth I once believed of the unhealthy genius. In the past, my understanding of a serious writer involved a hungover, cranky artist enclosed in a small workspace, escaping to a porch or balcony to smoke through sticky sentences or plot points. Cigarette breaks were my writing process but these days, I’m able to work for longer durations without the help of any sort of substance. It took me a long while to get here, and some days are better than others (God, I miss smoking sometimes), but it’s the best way for me to persist on what I like to call “the horrible uphill climb of writing a first book.” Literally running up hills somehow equips us for literary hills, if I may drop some cheesy wordplay onto this blogpost. Pushing through discomfort and discouragement–that’s probably the thing that separates the real writers from the wannabes. Not publications, but persistence.
Steve Almond Takes Us to Town
Most of the time, writing requires a lot of chugging along, and a lot of resistance towards hating other people. Especially people who do well in the field. It’s because we have this illusion that when other people get things, those things must have fallen in their laps without any effort. Of course we know deep down this isn’t true (more likely, we resent the fact that we haven’t made the time to work as hard as other people), but this ridiculous idea translates into our own entitlement and prohibits us from enjoying other people’s work. Even when that work is really, really good.
In a recent article from Poets and Writers, Steve Almond tells the truth about how jaded we’ve become as writers.
…entitlement is the enemy of artistic progress, which requires patience and gratitude and, above all, humility. You don’t grow as a writer by writing off other people’s efforts. You grow as a writer by respecting the process.
The more we write, the more we understand how hard that process actually is. The more we write, the harder it is to write. It’s so easy to get discouraged, and discouragement makes it hard to appreciate what other people are writing.
(I’m speaking for myself, anyway.)
Let’s just acknowledge that we’re discouraged and try not to take it out on other people.
Grace and peace to you, other hardworking writers…
Oil for the Writing Lamp
I’ve been listening to and enjoying a lot of New Yorker fiction podcasts lately. If you aren’t familiar with them, they work like this: an author who was published in the New Yorker at some point reads and discusses another author’s story, which was also published in the New Yorker at some point. Editor Deborah Treisman conducts wonderful interviews at the end of the stories. Most run about 30 minutes, which makes them great for dog walks or housework, or short commutes. For me, these have been a post-MFA staple.
I’m sharing this one, where Jennifer Egan reads Mary Gaitskill’s story, “The Other Place,” because I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m a big fan of Egan, ever since she came to Tallahassee and I heard her discuss her writing process, which was to write out the entire novel by hand on legal pads and then craft it while she typed it up. I’ve tried this. It doesn’t work for me at all, but I love the idea. Listening to her, though, makes the writing life seem “possible,” and that is always refreshing.
The story she reads forces the reader into dark and ugly spaces (surprise! if you are familiar with Gaitskill at all…), but it does so with a wild amount of understanding and compassion. Let me use the word “masterful” when I describe this story. And Egan’s insights are smart.
Here are some other stories/discussions I love:
Boyle Reading Barthelme
Erdich reading Oates
Oates reading Ozick
Bitterness and Writing
There is a lot of wisdom in this edition of “Fury”–VIDA’s advice column for concerned writers. In #15, Grateful VIDA-Lovin’ Lady complains about how her MFA program didn’t prepare her for the real world. I could sort of relate. We go to school hoping we’ll be a bit more prepared to be a writer, and that means, have insight into how to publish. Sometimes it seems like people are leaving us out so we won’t be successful (*seems* being the operative word here). Teachers are often hesitant to give details about this, and though the article guesses this is because teachers don’t want to be discouraging, I also think it’s because publishing has changed an awful lot since the early 90s, when many (most of my) professors were getting their MFAs. The writer complaining about her MFA program says she’s ditched writing poetry for Children’s books, and she expresses a lot of bitterness towards her program for not better bolstering her poetry career.
…complain about them all you want … populate forums with alarming anecdotes about your lazy teachers, but don’t stop writing. If you can give up writing poetry that easily, it was never going to be the thing you ended up doing. Writers write because they feel they must, not because they did or didn’t get a degree. Because poetry doesn’t need a time out; your feelings of resentment and frustration do! Just because you feel bitter about having wasted your time at a shitty MFA program, don’t take it out on the thing you love.
What a great reminder. I mean, why did we get degrees in the first place?
Here’s the thing about breaking into writing as a profession: there is not one path. Listen to interviews (Bookworms, especially), and you won’t hear the same story about how writers broke through. I asked each of my professors something about the writing profession and got widely different responses. Why? Because, again, there is not one path.
A huge part of being a writer, and I’ve probably said this before, is figuring out what you have control over and doing your best with that small portion of your career. Trust me, that small portion is a lot of work. Writing grants, submitting stories, working to pay for writing conferences, etc. Also, consistently trying to improve our craft.
Write your best, keep growing, and keep seeking. Maybe I’m too much of a mystic, but I think that if we put forth the effort, our work will find a way to reach people.
The Fury writer (response from VIDA) was correct in naming luck, talent, and perseverance as the magic ingredients for a writing-success-cocktail. If you are thinking of getting an MFA, remember that nobody is going to persevere for you. Nobody is obligated to make you famous or show you how to be famous. If we approach our writing and careers generously, we will probably have a better chance at laying out a path to publishing. Bitterness is probably the thing I’ve seen kill most writers. Not a realization or feeling that they aren’t good enough, but a feeling that someone else didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
Here’s what bitterness is: feeling bad because you didn’t get something you feel entitled to.
Here’s the way to avoid bitterness: Feel entitled to nothing.
Understand that if you’re writing because you feel entitled to have the world acknowledge your words, chances are, you’re probably not writing anything the world really needs. Write because you want to contribute to a conversation.
Ben Marcus on Reading Like a Writer
Ben Marcus say some good, practical things here in this interview from Knopf’s “Writers on Writing” series.
I appreciate, especially, his reminder to write what we’d want to read. It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to get bogged down with irrelevant /tension-killing information while we’re in the middle of a paragraph. It’s more than just thinking about communicating to an audience when we write; it’s about choosing phrases that captivate, challenge, and entertain appropriately according to the moment we’re writing.
Marcus also draws our attention to the fact that those of us who learned to write in college/university workshops are used to having audiences that must finish our work. I’m glad he mentioned this, because I am teaching a summer college workshop at the moment and I think it’s good to keep in mind what school-habits my curriculum formulates and propels. I’m teaching seniors, so they are about to go into the world and adjust to writing outside of the classroom.
Marcus reminded me to think about what happens when my audience becomes someone that doesn’t really like to read that much, but thought my book sounded interesting so they read the first paragraph in the bookstore? Or before that, I’m going to have to get that first paragraph (and entire book) past an agent and hopefully editor. The solution? I stated it yesterday but I’ll state it this way today: Learn to recognize what it is I’m reading, how it impacts me, what it can teach me about writing.
Books are the best teachers.
Writing Surprise (!)
If you’ve taken a writing class (especially one with me because I am obsessed with this idea), you’ve probably heard the Flannery O’Connor quote about how endings should be simultaneously surprising and inevitable. Tall order? Yes.
I once heard Ira Glass speak about how important the element of surprise is in the stories he and his crew choose to air on This American Life.* I don’t remember the exact quote, just that he alerted me to the fact that writing has to be surprising, at least on some level, to sustain interest. The worst thing a friend can say after reading a draft is, “the ending was too predictable.” (Clutch my heart and fall over.)
I’m thinking about how hard it is to write surprise in stories and essays. It’s just easy (and dare I say, lazy) to be predictable in our writing. I don’t know who said it to me, but I think surprise happens on the page when we explore options; when we don’t just go with the first idea. Sometimes our first idea is great, but often, our second idea is even better.
This is the opposite of taking a successful standardized test, by the way, because standardized tests are the opposite of art.
Exploring options means understanding what our options are, which means reading a lot. That is what it means to “read like a writer”–we’re picking up options, techniques, interesting ways of telling a story, from people who took those risks before us. Often that means we have to read things twice (once for plot, once for technique). It also means we have to read slowly, asking the question, “what is the writer doing right now with this sentence/paragraph/chapter?”
Surprise is harder to accomplish when writing creative non-fiction, because we’ve literally been there and done that and now we’re writing about it. I’m wondering if maybe surprise in a creative essay is more about what you do with what happened–how you reflect upon the facts–than writing the facts themselves. That is a major difference between fiction and non-fiction. The latter must not only tell a story but make meaning out of that story, and the quality of the essay, I think, has more to do with how the writer reflects than how the writer narrates.
In fiction, we need to sit back and let our characters do surprising things, often terrible, horrible, disturbing things, but not always. Mostly, things we don’t expect them to do but when they do them we say, “Ah. That makes sense.” Hence, inevitable surprise. Watch Mad Men or The Wire for example after great example of this.
*I take writers less seriously when they tell me they’ve never heard This American Life. If you love storytelling then you love this show. Period. (Ha. Feeling a little sassy this morning.)
If you do it every day…
Recently, my friend Paul and I started a super writing challenge. We both have books we want to finish by the end of summer, so we decided to meet at our favorite brewery once a week holding the chapter (15 pages min) we wrote that week. Whoever doesn’t finish the chapter has to buy the other a beer. We’re meeting tonight and happily purchasing just our own beers.
As someone who’s taken a lot of workshops, my biggest challenge as a writer has been getting out of binge-for-the-deadline mode. Basically, if the story was due Tuesday, I’d start working on Friday and put in 18 hours before Tuesday to finish it. This writing challenge with Paul has graced me with the blessed deadline, but I don’t have stretches of six hours to binge like I used to. Besides, I can’t really binge-write a novel. I have to write every day.
This reminds me of something I learned when I took a Tai Chi class in college (for credit!):
If you do it every day, you’ll be able to.
This applies to playing the guitar (calluses build), and running (lungs strengthen), but surprise! It also works really well for writing.
Added bonus of writing every day: we have the luxury of getting into it by going over the pages we wrote the day before.