On writing

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The writer was asked to speak to a creative writing class about what he does. He feels uncomfortable, because he does not much think about what he does; instead, he does it. For more than three decades, he’s been doing it.

But, because he was asked so nicely by the teacher of the class, he agreed to try to explain what he does. 

So, he gets up in front of the class of college-age students, each of whom probably intends to be the next Hemingway, or maybe the next Perez Hilton: It’s hard to know nowadays. 

He speaks:

I was flattered to be asked to speak to you, but I’m not really sure why you asked me, because I really don’t think that I am a very good writer. I am certainly a writer; I get paid for it. But, I’m certainly not a normal writer. I can name a dozen people at my newspaper, for instance, that I admire for being able to accept an assignment, do all the research and distill it into a readable and entertaining article.

I can’t do that, or at least not very well.

On the other hand, I must admit, I don’t find myself reading those stories all that often. I’m simply not that interested in what this week’s celebrity has to say about the vegan diet, or why red suspenders are making a comeback in men’s haberdashery. I’m proud to be a journalist, but I’m not really a journalist.

That could be said for a lot of people these days, especially those writing blogs online. Have you tried reading most of that stuff? It’s like trying to eat an old mattress. Indigestible, self-serving, and just outright bad writing. I don’t really care whether you like boiled eggs or not, and why do you think I care?

But in preparation for coming here, I did some thinking about what makes good writing. Or at least, what makes the kind of writing I want to read and the kind I attempt to do.

And the bottom line is this: What makes good writing is having something to say.

The world is full of “hired guns,” who can turn out PR with the surface lubricity of an eel. The world of journalism is full of such writing: Reporters gather their information, marshal it into rank and file and parade it past the reader in perfect order.

Such writing is found by the car load in the bottoms of parakeet cages.

And blogging has turned instead into public journal keeping, as if we needed to know your every movement. There are some great blogs out there (my favorite is “Think Denk” by pianist Jeremy Denk, who is about the best music writer out there. It is often comic, but it has substance, too. He says real things about the music). But the majority of blog writing is a waste of server space.

Writing that matters — and I cannot see why one would want to write otherwise — writing that matters happens when the writer has something to say, something he cares about, something he knows about.

And I don’t mean, knows about in the sense of having learned a few facts, but I mean knows about, the way you know how to ride a bicycle or the way you know how it feels when you’ve dug a garden: The feeling in the bone, under the muscle. That is knowledge. The population of the Detroit metro area is mere fact. The experience of living in Detroit is knowledge.

And then you must have the missionary zeal to want to broadcast this knowledge.

This needn’t be a soapbox that I’m talking about. Novelists of worth burn to tell us what it feels like to be alive.

But without the need to say something, you have journalism, you have blog-blather.

This is a problem not only in writing. I am an art critic by trade and I see it constantly in galleries: Someone has decided for whatever misguided reason that he or she wants to be an artist. So he learns how to make a painting and creates an art that looks just like art, feels just like art, but isn’t art, it is only the imitation of the way art looks.

The drive in such cases is not to say something but to be recognized as an artist, to be acknowledged as being a member of a certain job description. It is a bureaucratic ambition.

A child in the first grade, for instance, has no interest in being the next Picasso. The fame of art, the sex, the openings, the white wine — these simply aren’t why he makes art.

No, he has been given a bunny rabbit to hold and his eyes light up. The rabbit “kisses” his nose, he feels the fur under his fingers and he simply bursts with the need to express what he has experienced. You put paper and paint in front of him and he will find his “adequate means of expression.”

That phrase, from art education pioneer Viktor Lowenfeld, describes for me what good writing is.

Viktor Lowenfeld

Viktor Lowenfeld

You are burning to say something and you will find the best way possible to say it: its adequate means of expression.

The contrast is the writer who churns out news stories or magazine articles not because he has something to say, but because he thinks it would be neat to make a career out of being a writer.

That’s not to deny there can be a certain romance about being a writer. The exotic myth of downing gin with Hemingway or having sex with the jeunes filles of Paris with Henry Miller. “I admire such and such a person, so I want to be like him. He writes, so it must be cool.”

But Hemingway or Miller were not journalists. They wrote because they had something they were burning to say.

There is a related problem, which is the belief that writing is  somehow different from thinking, that writing is the clothing of thought. It is not, it is the thought itself.

Writing isn’t something applied to a subject, like peanut butter on a slice of bread. It is not how you express thinking: It is thinking.

One cannot think through a subject, come to a conclusion and then say, “Well, now, I guess I’ll write it down.”

No, the writing is how you find out what you think; it is how you come to a conclusion. It is also why you rewrite. If you don’t rewrite, you haven’t done your job: You always write and rewrite, think and rethink.

And again, style is not a fancy evening dress with sequins you put on before going to the dance: Style is that adequate means of expression and it flows naturally from your personality and your way of thinking.

Style is the sum total of your faults, is how Hemingway put it. It’s not your goal, it’s an accident you cannot prevent.

But today, more and more people, the result of years of reality TV and fashion magazines, believe style is the reason you’re in the business to begin with.

It is not. Style is the death of art, it is the death of writing.

You must be as direct as you can be, without distorting what you need to say.

If what you need to say is baroque, the style will naturally be baroque, also. If what you have to say is sophomoric, the style will follow suit.

There are things to look out for and chief among them is formula:

Journalism is full of formulas and many writers use nothing but. But good writing is always done fresh, from the ground up, each time. When you start doing formulas is when you know you are burned out and need a career change.

Each subject must generate its own form; it suggests what is important, what should be left out. There are writers who complain that  this is reinventing the wheel and my only answer is that it is vitally important that we do reinvent the wheel.

It is only when I invent the wheel for myself, and not borrow someone else’s wheel, that I understand the wheel.

To the extent that you use someone else’s words, or someone else’s form, to that extent, you don’t know what you are talking about.

And finally, I must say something about that old writers’ canard: Write what you know. I recall some great writer — I think it was John Updike — saying on the contrary: Write what you don’t know.

My synthesis of the two dicta is this: Write what you know about, but always on the level of what you don’t know. In other words: I write about art because I know something about art. But I try to write about art I don’t yet understand. Through writing about it, I come to understand it.

One should always work at the limits of your ability, at the edge of your knowledge. Writing only what you are thoroughly familiar with will make for academic writing. Writing only what you know nothing about at all will lead to saying really dumb things.

But take what you already know best and seek out the far corners of that universe and explore.

Then you will really have something to say.

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