The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation.
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.
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.
It’s Malcolm X’s birthday and I’ve been thinking about him since this morning. His life’s story has had a pretty big impact on my white-girl-growing-up-in-Detroit narrative. I think his words have a lot to teach us about writing and living. I mean, they have taught me a lot.
One of the greatest gifts anyone ever gave me was the assignment to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school. I think it was my senior year but I can’t remember. Could have been my junior year. I had the same teacher for both. I was one of a handful of white students in a predominately black school. We watched the Spike Lee film in that same English class and there’s this scene in the movie (and if I remember, in the book, too) where this white woman comes up to Malcolm and asks what she can do help his cause. He looks at her directly and says, flat-out, “Nothing,” and walks away from her. She is flabbergasted. Then a bunch of eyes fell on me for my reaction. Fell on me and on the other white girls in the class. I can’t speak for the other white girls, but I know I was devastated when I read and watched that.
That moment, and the book in general, has taught me a lot about compassion. It forced me to spend hours with words that challenged me and made me uncomfortable; and this is a big part of what compassion is, I think: the willingness to engage with a different perspective.
If you know the book, you know it is about transformation. Granted, I read it a long time ago, but I think I remember that Alex Haley met with Malcolm X at various points in his life for him to articulate the story. Between meetings, Malcolm’s opinions changed drastically. Each moment in the book is like a blazing light in a different color. Blazing, because Malcolm X is so convincing, so articulate, so courageous in his word choice. Each argument mesmerizes the reader.
The book ends up being a testament of a person who was always hungry for the truth, who was always ready to stand up and serve the truth as he knew it at various moments of his life. This dedicated search required that he learn new information from time to time. He never stopped looking for the truth and as a result, the truth changed for him.
Malcolm X’s story is the story of what happens when a person believes something as hard as he or she can believe it, gets more information, and actually has the rare courage to change that belief. Not only change the belief, but speak out for that new belief.
Okay, so here is where our writing comes in:
I already wrote an entry earlier this month about how a writer needs to be open to transformation, and so today’s writing thought takes it a step back from that to say that in order to be transformed, we have to allow ourselves to sit in the room and listen to people who disagree with us. We have to engage with our characters when their story makes us uncomfortable–goes to a place we don’t want be. This is more than tolerance—tolerance is sitting in the room with a different perspective without allowing that perspective to change us. Tolerance is cold and has little use for a writer.
Instead, we must learn to be uncomfortable, we must learn to acknowledge another person’s perspective in such a way that we let it transform our own perspective. Meanwhile, we also have to know when to speak up. It’s a hard balance. It’s probably the most challenging aspect of being an artist.
You might be asking, why? Why do we need to embrace discomfort? Because great writing, I believe, involves a lot of tension and transformation. You must have both of these things to tell a great story.