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Dillard's How-To
January 10, 2005 6:35 AM   Subscribe

Do you want to be a writer? "Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon?... Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays and poems have this problem, too -- the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that." Luminous and wise writing advice from Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, one of the most beautiful books written in the last hundred years (published when Dillard was 29). As a writer myself, I am often asked by younger folk how to become one. Dillard says best what I would tell them.
posted by digaman (67 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Writing as though one is dying should be easy, as we're all dying...albeit at different rates.

Great essay.
posted by Stonewall Jackson at 6:57 AM on January 10, 2005


Excellent.
Tinker Creek was a favorite in the late 70s.
::heads out to the library::
posted by kamylyon at 7:07 AM on January 10, 2005


"In the Tibetan philosophy, Sylvia Plath sense of the word, we're all dying. But you're not dying the way Chloe is dying."
-- Fight Club
posted by NickDouglas at 7:12 AM on January 10, 2005


"Everywhere I go I'm asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them."
— Flannery O'Connor

I've always approached the task the way Dillard advocates (well, since my late teens), but I think it's insufficient: It may take you to the place of not being one of those writers O'Connor would rather see stifled; but it won't get you to the point of telling your stories to a wider audience.

Then again, it may not get you past the O'Connor test. So maybe this is just another level of screening....

Not that I disagree. [/g]
posted by lodurr at 7:21 AM on January 10, 2005


Well, lodurr, in my mind, Dillard's essay is about what being a writer is, not a how-to on getting published. But it amazes me how many young would-be writers seem to care most about getting published, and less how to be worthy of getting published.

One of my favorite parts of the essay is this:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ''Do you think I could be a writer?''

''Well,'' the writer said, ''I don't know. . . . Do you like sentences?''

The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ''I liked the smell of the paint.''


I'll ask a young writer who is favorite author is, and s/he'll reply, "Well I don't read that many books -- I don't want to be influenced too much."

Wrong answer!

What I look for as a sign of promise in a young writer's writing is an evident love of words themselves, a sensuous delight in phonemes and the weighting of phrases and sentences.

You can become a successful hack if you don't have this, but you can't become a writer whose work will outlast the present moment.
posted by digaman at 7:38 AM on January 10, 2005


sorry, *his (or her) favorite author. Still sleepy here.
posted by digaman at 7:39 AM on January 10, 2005


a sensuous delight in phonemes and the weighting of phrases and sentences.

My favorite poet [no links, sorry] has this delight and conveys it well. It's always a thrill for me to explore a new work.
posted by kamylyon at 7:46 AM on January 10, 2005


What I look for as a sign of promise in a young writer's writing is an evident love of words themselves, a sensuous delight in phonemes and the weighting of phrases and sentences.

posted by digaman at 10:38 AM EST on January 10


digaman: That phrase alone got my blood pumping!

Excellent essay, and one that resonates exactly with how I feel about writing. I have had classmates in writing workshops that say "I don't read." When I hear this my head spins. I read voraciously-- I have a list right now that's probably 40 books long, and that's the short list.

If you asked me my favorite writers-poets, I could list thirty off the top of my head.

Thanks for this, though- this is the sort of thing that gives me some hope that I can be successful at some point. I mean, I'll write whether I'm published or not- I must write.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:57 AM on January 10, 2005


Oh my hell, Dillard's bit about spending it all is the golden nugget of writing advice:
spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.
That is the devil's worst trick, to make you think the piece you're getting down is not a good enough host for the fantastic bit that was just conjured in your mind. Better to put that fantastic bit on a post-it note in your box of good ideas.
That way your grandchildren will find that post-it, and it will be useless and senseless, floating completely out of context, and the beauty it had for that one moment in your stream of thought will be forever pissed away because you fell victim to the fool notion that "you'll do this justice later on."
Just. write.

...and the "getting published" angle is the setup to the karmic joke. If you try and strive to get published, then you will fail. Whiff of desperation and all that. If you write because it pains you not to, you will find readers arrive in small bunches, and if you keep on and find your groove, they arrive in bunches larger and larger each time. And the reason is always the same: the writing.
posted by Pliskie at 7:57 AM on January 10, 2005


"The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

- William Saroyan
posted by iamck at 7:58 AM on January 10, 2005


Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but I can't imagine taking on a project as heavy as writing as if I were dying. I write best when it's no big deal. When it's just a story. I can verb a few nouns, I can kill off a character, I can use ridiculous metaphors. I can do anything because it's just a story.

The essay does have some good inspiring messages, though. I especially like the "I like the smell of paint" comment. I studied math because I liked drawing all those the crazy symbols.
posted by booth at 8:00 AM on January 10, 2005


Ugo would love this, Ugo Foscolo,
everything outline,
Crepuscular, still undewed,
Ugo, it's said, who never uttered a commonplace,
His soul transfixed by a cypress tree,
The twilight twisted into his heart,
Ugo, immortal, unleavened, when death gave him fame and rest.

-- Charles Wright
posted by matteo at 8:20 AM on January 10, 2005


Saroyan's advice reminds me of a radio interview I once did with Allen Ginsberg. When asked what advice he'd give to budding writers, he immediately offered one word: "Meditate."
posted by mediareport at 8:21 AM on January 10, 2005


I don't know how someone can attempt to write without already being an obsessed reader. They seem to go hand in hand to me. The latter seems like a prerequisite to the former, even.
posted by xmutex at 8:31 AM on January 10, 2005


Do you have the text of that interview, mediareport? I'd love to read it.

"Meditate" was Allen's all-purpose good advice; he would have said the same thing to a stockbroker, the President of the United States, an elephant, or a supernova. (I was Allen's teaching assistant at Naropa University for a time.)

He did, however, formulate a list of cosmic suggestions specifically for writers, which he called Mind Writing Slogans. It's a little cryptic outside of the context of the things Allen would say about each item in the list, but worth a look. (For the kind of background reading that Allen taught in his Beat Generation classes at Naropa, see Ginsberg's Celestial Homework, which is a site of mine -- sorry for the self-link!-- that has been FPP'd on MeFi already.)
posted by digaman at 8:38 AM on January 10, 2005


Dillard's For The Time Being is also incredible. I should read the rest of her stuff right now.
posted by kindall at 8:39 AM on January 10, 2005


My thoughts on writing:

I think that often when writers are asked the question "how can I be a writer?" they answer the question "how can I be alive?". Or, more specifically, they expound on their philosophy of life. It isn’t that writers are unique in this, just that they are better able to express themselves.

”Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive.”

The truth is that advice could apply to anyone, any life. Having a happy, fulfilling life can be good or bad for a writer, depending on what they’re trying to write. (side note, when I’m happier in my life, I’m less likely to think about writing).

I love books with words that sound cool, and of course I enjoy writing that way, but I don’t think it’s needed to write an interesting story and, as a quick browse through the pulp section of your local bookstore will illustrate, it certainly isn’t necessary to love words to achieve anything so haughty as a being a “published author”.

I’m confident that the most important part of being a ‘writer’ is being able to come up with good stories and sit down and type them out. That other stuff is good advice, I suppose, if you want to go down in the ages as a literary master, but I doubt that people worry too much about that when they’re trying to put food on the table.
posted by delmoi at 8:47 AM on January 10, 2005


Kindall: I was just about to recommend that bok. I second the "incredible". She's always been one of my favorite essayists, but this piece is stellar and really haunting.

your grandchildren will find that post-it, and it will be useless and senseless, floating completely out of context, and the beauty it had for that one moment in your stream of thought will be forever pissed away because you fell victim to the fool notion

This is the wisest thing I have read in quite some time. Thank you. I'm going to start eradicating my pile of post-its right now. What are we saving it for?

And finally -- sometimes I regret that I do so much of my writing on blogs and forums like this. It keeps the fingers in good typing shape, but it's a lot of energy to pour into ephemera. Do you think the data archaeologists of the future will be mining old discussion boards for the off-the-cuff comments of people who have become major literary figures?
posted by Miko at 8:52 AM on January 10, 2005


Do you think the data archaeologists of the future will be mining old discussion boards for the off-the-cuff comments of people who have become major literary figures?


Absolutely.

When I heard that Brian Eno had been a member of The WELL for a little bit, one of the first things I did when I became a member was to use a Unix command to scour the conferences for Eno's posts. Oh, the charming things I discovered about his sex life [grin].
posted by digaman at 9:08 AM on January 10, 2005


Some of the best writing advice I ever read was in Kenneth Koch's long poem "The Art of Poetry", where, in a section about evaluating your own work, he suggests (and I'm paraphrasing - it's been a while) that you shouldn't try and publish anything you wouldn't be willing to have pinned to your lapel when you arrive at the gates of heaven. And for the record, Koch was no prude or fundy.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 9:09 AM on January 10, 2005


Miko: Why not? Even now, there's a big hullabaloo when someone finds a famous writers' musty fragment of a fragment in their attic when cleaning for a garage sale. It's perhaps an insight into their thought process, or valued just for the uniqueness.... I don't see why that would change, and indeed, you may find the same thing in a different form. Of course, the value of pencil-scrawl on blue lined paper might be higher than the ghostly digital remainder of an authors musings on a digital forum, but you never know. On preview, what digaman said.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:15 AM on January 10, 2005


Write as if you were dying

See this recent MeFi post about Boethius, described as perhaps the worlds most interesting prison (death row) literature. It was on the Medieval best sellers list for over a thousand years.
posted by stbalbach at 9:21 AM on January 10, 2005


I saw Molly Giles, head of the Univ. of Arkansas's MFA in Creative Writing program (also friend/editor/mentor to Amy Tan and a Pulitzer prize-winner in her own right) on a writing panel at the Arkansas Literary Festival last year. When asked what her definition of a writer was, she said, "The person who doesn't leave the room -- the one who has to stay and just write, no matter how scary it feels or what other "real life" things need to get done."

It's a bad paraphrase, but something that filled me with some well-deserved guilt for letting everyday, meaningless crap get in the way of my writing.
posted by lemoncello at 9:42 AM on January 10, 2005


Thanks for the wonderful essay and all the great comments. I keep a journal, but haven't written much for public consumption for a long time. I wrote a poem last week, which I haven't done in ages. I used to love writing all the time, but seem to have lost the ability over the last few years. It's as though I've forgotten how. This post is helping me to remember!
posted by apis mellifera at 9:55 AM on January 10, 2005


I detest how-to advice in all matters requiring creative originality. It's incongruous doubletalk. George Burns put it well though, "The secret of acting [writing] is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
posted by semmi at 9:59 AM on January 10, 2005


That's nonsense, semmi, but feel free to email me a pointer to whatever it is you do artistically without guidance from those who have worked in that craft before, and I promise to be impressed if it's good.
posted by digaman at 10:05 AM on January 10, 2005


Also, if you want some really funny writing advice, Kaye Gibbons' new column in the Oxford American is a hoot.
posted by lemoncello at 10:10 AM on January 10, 2005


This whole "write as if you were dying"... "PUNCH the keys!" thing has always rubbed me the wrong way. Whenever somebody starts talking like that, I usually say something terse and leave the room.
posted by Hildago at 10:10 AM on January 10, 2005


This is a wonderful post with tons of choice elements to the essay. Some of my favorite bits: the notion of the young poet who does not love poetry, but merely loves the idea of him/herself in a hat. So true.

Also:

Further, writing sentences is difficult whatever their subject. It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in ''Moby-Dick.'' So you might as well write ''Moby-Dick.''

A great attitude for any writer.

Once, I had the privilege of interviewing Russell Banks, and I asked the prerequisite "Got any advice for writers?" question. He gave a wonderful answer. The piece is not on-line any longer, so this is a paraphrase, but it went something like this:

"I won't give any advice to people who have just started writing, since the natural process weeds out a good many of them. But for people who have shown a bit of commitment to the craft, here is the best advice I have. There will come a time in your career when the stuff you are writing is as good as anyone's, as good as much of that which is getting published in major outlets. And your work is not being published. And this is very frustrating.

This period, I would suggest, lasts about 10 years.

The best advice I have: get through that period."
posted by jeffmshaw at 10:16 AM on January 10, 2005


Wonderful essay. Thanks, digaman.
posted by The God Complex at 10:19 AM on January 10, 2005


People who want to be writers don't read? Wow. Stiffle on.
posted by absalom at 10:24 AM on January 10, 2005


I detest how-to advice in all matters requiring creative originality. It's incongruous doubletalk.


That's a bit sweeping, semmi. I would argue that there are a number of matters requiring creative originality that someone can offer how-to advice on, without said advice being incongruous doubletalk. Programmers, carpenters, chefs; practically anyone who creates can offer valuable how-to advice.

Perhaps you meant that it is difficult to advise someone on how to be creative. This is true, to a point. There are several methods, however, that can be employed to spur creativity. Also, there are ways to build an environment that is more conducive to creative work.

You cannot 'teach' the engine of imagination to someone; but, you can teach someone about the processes and tools that can be implemented to fine-tune their engine into a powerful machine.

All IMO, of course.
posted by Darkman at 10:26 AM on January 10, 2005


Oh, and I should toss some of my puzzlement into the fire: any would-be writer that professes not to read is doing one of two things (I would think): 1) is ashamed to tell the writer what they read, or 2) as Dillard says, is far more concerned with taking on the role of a writer than actually being a writer. For example, my semster of classes started last week and in one class I was sitting beside a young man who was maybe a year younger than me. He was strange--I found out later he threw a fit at the prof before I showed up (late, as always. At one point, we were supposed to discuss something related to the course, and he immediately brought up that he was "writing a quartet of historically-based novels about Canada." Intrigued more by why he would bring this up than what his novels were about, I nonetheless satisfied his obvious attempt to garner by interest and asked, "Oh, really. What are they about?"

"A quartet is four novels. That's what I'm writing."

"I'm well aware what 'quartet' means. What are your novels about though?"

"The idea came to me in my late teens. They're historically based."

"Are they about anything?"

"I'm not sure yet."

"Oh. I see. Have you started them?" (I assume he's probably twenty-one or twenty-two, so he's had a few years to flesh out his I'm-going-to-write-a-quartet-of-novels idea)

"Yes! I've written a lot."

"How much?"

"Several chapters."

I suppose in recalling this that perhaps he was just afraid I would steal his idea for the Great Canadian (quartet of) Novel(s). However, it seems far more likely that he's in love with the idea of writing a quartet of novels, not with actually writing them. I suppose I used to be the same way when I entertained ideas of writing; it's clawing self-assurance of a dilettante, really, and nothing more--but that's what most students are at such a young age, so it's not much of a surprise.
posted by The God Complex at 10:32 AM on January 10, 2005


I detest how-to advice in all matters requiring creative originality. It's incongruous doubletalk.

*exaggerated yawn*
posted by The God Complex at 10:33 AM on January 10, 2005


(excuse the typos. i'm in a hurry and hadn't planned on writing more that a cursory comment. and now i've gone and written another comment and wasted more time--must. stop. self.)
posted by The God Complex at 10:36 AM on January 10, 2005


Nicely put, Darkman.
posted by digaman at 10:39 AM on January 10, 2005


Darkman: You cannot 'teach' the engine of imagination to someone; but, you can teach someone about the processes and tools that can be implemented to fine-tune their engine into a powerful machine.

On my to-read list is Twyla Tharp's book on creativity. She makes the argument that there is really not much magical or supernatural to being creative. Her "creativity" comes from the high level of hard work she puts into organizing, refining, and developing her ideas. Which is one of the things that I think is true about the arts in general. Most people have a good imagination, few people are willing to put in the large quantity of work required to transform an "idea" into something worth sharing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:40 AM on January 10, 2005


Olympia Vernon is one critically acclaimed writer who says she doesn't read.
posted by lemoncello at 10:49 AM on January 10, 2005


Dillard. Just. Never. Been...able to swoon like that. But: her advice in this piece is good. For those who would hoard their ideas, note that you will find plenty enough on the scrap heap when your book is done.

My own personal favorite anecdote on writing comes from John Barth, who once said "Every one of my M.A. candidates who has finished a book has had it published." Whenever I tell this at readings and workshops, I let a long pause elapse--just long enough for anger to set in--and then say, "Makes you re-evaluate meaning of 'finished,' doesn't it?"
posted by minnesotaj at 10:50 AM on January 10, 2005


Hearing that a writer doesn't read annoys me as much as television actors who don't watch television. Why should you expect people to read your works if you don't take the time to read others. In addition, it's hard to become a master of your craft if you don't expose yourself to the works of those more talented than you.
posted by drezdn at 11:39 AM on January 10, 2005


Kurt Vonnegut anecdote, vaguely apropos.

A woman wandered up to Mr Vonnegut and expressed joy at meeting him - saying she loved his style and they way it made her feel. He asked her if she was a writer, and she replied "No. A reader." He smiled, shook her hand and said "Delighted. I meet so few of those."
posted by Sparx at 12:43 PM on January 10, 2005


digaman: I'm content without your evaluation, which is not to < !--say--> I don't appreciate your opinion, but you have to admit that teaching originality is as incongruous as a fat man without a sense of humor --not that there is anything wrong with that.
posted by semmi at 12:50 PM on January 10, 2005


you have to admit that teaching originality is as incongruous as a fat man without a sense of humor --not that there is anything wrong with that.

Not to be contrary, semmi, because I really do want to reach common ground with you, but in fact I spent many years of my life studying with poets and writers (and cooks and Zen masters, for that matter) precisely so I could learn how to be original.

That's precisely the problem with young wannabe writers and musicians who say they don't read widely or listen deeply because they want to be "original" and don't want to be contaminated with others' work -- they never are original. They end up writing or sounding exactly like the superficial crapola of their time that they soak up by osmosis from TV and the radio.

In fact, the best thing about working closely, in person, with a real living artist -- as opposed to, say, taking a survey course -- is that you learn how to be yourself by both positive and negative example.

Thinking that all fat men should be funny isn't the kind of perception from which art is made; that's the kind of perception from which TV sitcoms are made. I studied with poets and other artists so I could cleanse the doors of perception.
posted by digaman at 1:51 PM on January 10, 2005


I want to add, by the way, that I find all the quotes in your user profile to be excellent and provocative. I assume you learned how to be semmi, the flaneur, in part by reading those guys. Good role models!
posted by digaman at 1:58 PM on January 10, 2005


I studied fiction and memoir writing with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan as a freshman in 1992. It was a lovely class and she had many useful things to offer young writers. When I think of her, I remember the first evening, with the eight or nine visibly intimidated college kids around the long oak table and Annie at the head, asking, "Why are you here?" Someone of course pipes up with "all of us want to learn how to write." Annie scowls and shakes her head and says, "Well, I can't teach you that. Nobody can teach you how to write. All I can do--and I'm going to try very hard to do this--is teach you how to have taste." Ultimately, the class was as much about reading as writing.

The other deeply valuable thing she taught me was to do my best never to employ the word but in a written sentence.
posted by damehex at 2:06 PM on January 10, 2005


That's nonsense, semmi, but feel free to email me a pointer to whatever it is you do artistically without guidance from those who have worked in that craft before, and I promise to be impressed if it's good.

When someone says they want to be a musician, if you explain to them things like chords, harmony, etc it will help. If you give them palbum like “play your heart out” it isn’t going to do any good, other then making yourself feel cool. Same with writing, or any other craft.

people need to learn the craft, but beyond that the rest is palbum.
posted by delmoi at 2:38 PM on January 10, 2005


Dillard's a dullard. She wrote some book "Living with Fiction" (?) about her stay in a cabin in British Columbia (?), and the birds, and the weather, and literature, and it was boring.

I'm no writer but it seems that people who we read today (dead authors -- classics) wrote to pay the bills. Like Dickens. And wrote well.

But they wrote to entertain, not to excrete the fuzzy I-don't-know-what that prevales among unpublished author wannabes at countless workshops and creative writing classes around the country. Stuff that just isn't interesting.

Love of words? Pfft. Love of humans and humanity is more like it.

I've just had a bottle of wine and I know what I'm writing about.
posted by Panfilo at 3:01 PM on January 10, 2005


I used to work at a phone center. Calling people up and asking them who they wanted to vote for president, for commissioner of bumblefuck county, USA, asking them if they wanted a free estimate on lawn care and so forth.

There was a poster in each cubicle that said something about "attitude", about how attitude mattered more in life then smarts or good looks or whatever else. And not only that, attitude was something you could change! Every day you could pick your attitude and thusly have a wonderful life.

The piece contained several ellipses. It was a daily reminder that I was working for illiterates. This article (now that I’ve read it. Initially I was complaining about the idea of the article) reminds me of that poster. It doesn’t say anything useful, it just makes people feel good about what they do.
posted by delmoi at 3:05 PM on January 10, 2005


I'm no writer but it seems that people who we read today (dead authors -- classics) wrote to pay the bills. Like Dickens. And wrote well.

You'd be surprised. Woolf didn't, for one. In fact, most of the greatest writing of the 20th century came from Modernists; you know why it was so good? Because they didn't have to write to pay the bills. The economic explosion of the early twentieth century meant many of them could live off money given to them my rich philanthropists and the like (in Woolf's case she came from a wealthy family).

Henry Miller lived job to job and made little if no money on his writings while he was alive (many of which were banned in America until decades later). Of course, I imagine that fact wouldn't escape anybody who has read anything he's written ;)

I would respectfully suggest that writers who write to "pay the bills" often fail to really experiment with form; it doesn't mean they're not as good--far from it. It does mean, however, that you won't find anything as formally challenging as Woolf's The Waves or even To the Lighthouse.



Love of words? Pfft. Love of humans and humanity is more like it.


Again, your sage advice is far from sage. First of all, those are certainly not mutually exclusive. Second of all, a good percentage--I will abstain from attempting to put an actual number on it--of literature has little to do with loving humanity and has far more to do with loathing it.

Go have another bottle of wine, friend. Perhaps there will be more wisdom at the bottom of that one ;)

This article (now that I’ve read it. Initially I was complaining about the idea of the article) reminds me of that poster. It doesn’t say anything useful, it just makes people feel good about what they do.

Delmoi, I disagree completely with that sentiment and fail to see how you draw that conclusion. Your logic is both baffling and, dare I say it, unimaginatively contrarian. You rebel, you!
posted by The God Complex at 3:27 PM on January 10, 2005


Tangentially, I should also note that some of history's greatest painters were loathed almost uniformly by the public at large when they lived and died penniless. Such is often the burden of being imaginatively contrarian.
posted by The God Complex at 3:29 PM on January 10, 2005


Also, to expand on my snark at Delmoi, I should explain my confusion: how, exactly, is Dillard's suggestion that many great writers actually, you know, work at their craft in some way meant to just make people feel good about what they do? I really don't see that. She talks about the effort it takes to learn the boundaries of your craft (and reading the body of work that requires does take effort), and she talks about the need to love writing, not being a writer. It seems like you read another article entirely.
posted by The God Complex at 3:33 PM on January 10, 2005


I recognized a good portion of that essay from her book The Writing Life. I love Dillard, I just finished For the Time Being and have read Holy the Firm countless times. She develops symbols in her books like few others that I've read -- symbols that grow deeper as you progress in the book and even deeper when you re-read it.
posted by heatherann at 3:50 PM on January 10, 2005


Dillard is a literary hero of mine. Tinker Creek certainly did'nt hold back, and I'm often reminded of a few minuets in that book out of the blue. That strange creature in the creek that digested the frog. So wonderfully stark and vivacious, simultaneously.

I think the "new" Dillard would have to be Jeanette Winterton. Her style is sleek, fleeting and subtle, and her imagery is at times wonderfully impossible. This essay comes at a vital time: I just completed a major project, and since then I've been out of words. I think they all just woke up. As always, my dear Digaman, you've posted a goody.
posted by moonbird at 3:51 PM on January 10, 2005


People paint watercolors, sing songs, play piano, throw pots, arrange flowers, fold paper, tie balloons, take photographs, make clothing, and so forth with rarely or never a thought of anything but the pleasure of the doing.

So why do people who write all seem to want to get published?

Discuss. And don't be difficult, you know what I'm getting at here. Many a flower and all that, ey?

(PS- among my favorite writers on earth are a few friends and family who limit themselves to letters or email, albeit not enough of them.)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:13 PM on January 10, 2005


"You say you want to paint a perfect painting? Just make yourself perfect and then paint naturally. That's how all the experts do it." -- Robert M. Pirsig

One step toward such fleetingly perfect states is a heart-felt prehension of mortality, without denial, without escape through fairy tale. Let the unbroken chain binding you to your upcoming death weigh steady over, oh, say, your left shoulder...or down low, draped just behind your neck.

All great art arises from that weight, which lightens.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 6:38 PM on January 10, 2005


Indigo Jones: two words:

Emily Dickinson, who had but one or two poems published in her lifetime.

Case rests.
posted by digaman at 7:09 PM on January 10, 2005


What gets me going, personally, is just a nice glass of single malt Scotch.
posted by xmutex at 7:09 PM on January 10, 2005



People paint watercolors, sing songs, play piano, throw pots, arrange flowers, fold paper, tie balloons, take photographs, make clothing, and so forth with rarely or never a thought of anything but the pleasure of the doing.

So why do people who write all seem to want to get published?


Well, all of those things are useful in some (perhaps decorative) way. In the case of clothes, people who make them want other people to look at them and admire them, which is sort of like getting published.

Writing isn't necessarily always fun to do, even if you're good at it. It may be closer to computer programming in some ways than any of the things you've mentioned. And there are few computer programmers who write programs just for fun. Most of them expect to be paid, and the ones who do it for free are almost always interested in using the completed program, not just writing it for the sheer enjoyment of the process.
posted by transona5 at 9:44 PM on January 10, 2005


God Complex, your comment about loathing humanity rather than loving it is spot on. I stand corrected and should have written "have an interest in humanity". And you're probably right when you say that economic freedom enables freedom to experiment with form. But is experimental form necessarily a characteristic of "good" art? I quote playwright Tom Stoppard:

Surrealism, Dada, and that whole family of cruelties from previous generations seemed to me (and still seem) to be intrinsically worthless (though sometimes enlivening, as a fight in a pub might be enlivening)
posted by Panfilo at 11:35 PM on January 10, 2005


You poop what you eat. If you don't eat words, a lot of them, every day, you probably won't find yourself pooping very many of them.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:25 AM on January 11, 2005


God Complex, your comment about loathing humanity rather than loving it is spot on. I stand corrected and should have written "have an interest in humanity". And you're probably right when you say that economic freedom enables freedom to experiment with form. But is experimental form necessarily a characteristic of "good" art? I quote playwright Tom Stoppard:

Surrealism, Dada, and that whole family of cruelties from previous generations seemed to me (and still seem) to be intrinsically worthless (though sometimes enlivening, as a fight in a pub might be enlivening)


Not always, no. I was simply pointing out that economic freedom does allow for some interesting art. When you take the shackles off the writer, you get to see how brilliantly aware of the novel's form they are, how relentlessly they can deconstruct it and turn it on its ear. There's something awe-inspiring about reading a novel with so many layers it makes your head spin. Plus you were so strident in your dismissal that I had to make a point. Forcefully (perhaps too much so). I appreciate your reasoned response =)
posted by The God Complex at 1:39 AM on January 11, 2005


You'd be surprised. Woolf didn't, for one. In fact, most of the greatest writing of the 20th century came from Modernists; you know why it was so good? Because they didn't have to write to pay the bills.

Yeah, except for minor counterexamples like Joyce, Kafka, Conrad, Faulkner, and Sherwood Anderson, that generalization makes perfect sense. Or Hemingway, who insisted, even when he was a millionaire, of never spending more in a year than he could earn by writing. Or William Carlos Williams, who had money but continued to work as a small town doctor most of his life.

There were a lot of independently wealthy Modernist writers, but there were a lot of independently wealthy Victorian writers before that, and so on for centuries. However, there isn't any art form more democratic than writing. Nobody has ever not written a novel because they couldn't afford paper. Don't generalize about which class can write and which can't, please.
posted by Hildago at 10:44 AM on January 11, 2005


That's clearly not what I did, nor can I understand in any way how you could miscontrue my words in that manner except willfully. My point was a simple one: even relatively poor writers in the 20's (roughly) in Britain were given money from wealthy members of society. There are countless examples of wonderful writers in this period writing (in magazines or journals or the like) about being free of writing to make a profit. That was clearly my point and it was rather obviously in response to Panfilo's suggestion that only people writing to "pay the bills" were good writers.

Moreover, one could probably argue that the economic freedom of the era (for some writers) created an art community that was far more accepting of these seeming oddities. I wasn't even making that argument, but I'm sure one could look into it given some time.

So you can kindly step off your highhorse now and join us back on the real world.
posted by The God Complex at 1:18 PM on January 11, 2005


Emily Dickinson, who had but one or two poems published in her lifetime.

Case rests


Not quite sure I understand your point, and anyway I wasn't making a case, I was musing. I probably should have excluded poetry from the discussion, as it does tend to be an amateur's form. Likewise diaries.

Possibly I shouldn't have listed examples at all, as they tend to distract from the point (e.g. clothing) Transona5 does make a good parallel to code writing- a lot of failed writing seems to me to be like failed software, aimless overloaded, more trouble than it's worth. But programmers I have known tend to get caught up in the process, frustrating though it be- surely that is a definition of fun? Regardless of whether it ends up funding their retirement or as freeware?

Again, bottom line question- how many people would by choice write an entire novel for the sheer pleasure of the exercise and with no thought ever to publication? And why so few? What does it say about writing and would be writers?

This does touch a bit on the artistic freedom argument, incidentally.

When you take the shackles off the writer, you get to see how brilliantly aware of the novel's form they are, how relentlessly they can deconstruct it and turn it on its ear

Which shackles would these be? Assuming a free country, one is always free to write what one wants. Need time? Real world, how many hours a day can you actually put into writing? That's why we have nights and weekends and coffee breaks. Really, it's only the publishing that gets sticky, but this is true for all ambitious writers.

Anyway, it probably would have done the independent writers of the past (and present for that matter) a world of good to have had day jobs.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:34 PM on January 11, 2005


What does it say about writing and would be writers?

One thing that strikes me as obvious is that writing evolved as a communication system in the human animal, as did spoken language. They're both tools designed by evolution to be used as interfaces between creatures. I'm not sure what else you think it says.

Real world, how many hours a day can you actually put into writing?

I put four to ten hours of almost every day into writing. I make a living from it, but I would probably write anyway. Limiting my writing to "nights and weekends and coffee breaks" would be a torment.

I waited on tables for 11 years before I could make it as a writer fulltime, by the way. I know what I'm not missing.
posted by digaman at 2:58 PM on January 11, 2005


Not to be contrary, semmi, because I really do want to reach common ground with you,

digaman: What I said was that "I detest how-to advice in all matters requiring creative originality." That is simply how I feel because I don't think there are shortcuts to originality, and I find it condescending to suggest otherwise. It is not to say that the mechanics of a craft (journalism, pottery, cooking, teaching, programming, proofreading, etc.) cannot be learned, or that one is not influenced by others. (I've recently come upon some of my old college notebooks and found that all my notes were only refutations or arguments on the material.)
Anyway, I didn't attempt to invalidate any of your experiences or views. Each to his/her own.
posted by semmi at 12:52 PM on January 12, 2005


writing evolved as a communication system in the human animal, as did spoken language

But so too drawing. My daughter, age four, can fill reams of paper with crayon and water color, and all for the sheer joy of creation. As does most writing, eventually. The point is, she doesn't care, she's in it for the action. An adult might do the same with paints, but probably not with a typewriter.

I applaud anyone who sticks it out to make a living from writing, and appreciate the tedium of the day job one does not enjoy, but really, the world does not owe anyone a readership, much less a paying audience. Nice work if you can get it, but if not, let the pleasure derived from the writing, acting, painting, whatever, compensate for the table waiting, paper pushing, or ditch digging that makes it possible. Most people do these things with no hope of escape other than early retirement or death. Kind of insensitive to complain about how hard it is to make a writerly living to such people.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:58 PM on January 13, 2005


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