Chestnut

I’ve been thinking about that old chestnut – can writing be taught – since reading this article featuring UK writers who have good things to say about courses they’ve done. It seems pretty obvious, to anyone who spends time around kids, that everything, really, is taught. When you cover off the necessities of life, if the first is fuel (food and water) and the second is rest, then language is a very close third. We’re wired to communicate, even before we can speak. So language can certainly be taught, and even “play” which is very creative, is something you learn to be absorbed in. Which begs the question – what, after all, is writing if not language + play?

Perhaps the discomfort with this idea is an anxiety over talent: if you can be taught to write,  can you be taught to be a great writer? To write a best-seller, or a prize-winning book? Aren’t these reserved for the select few?

Part of my day job is helping other people write better. This can definitely be taught. You can teach someone who isn’t a very good writer, to be a better one, possibly even a good one. Probably not a great one though. Being great at anything involves mastery of your field, and that’s an immersive and lifelong pursuit that involves hours of practical experience. It’s not something you can acquire in a training session.

But even if you’re a great writer, does that mean you’ll write a best-seller or win prizes? The honest answer is no. There are no guarantees. The article reminded me that a lot of what it takes to write a book isn’t about being able to produce great writing, but about being able to finish writing a book. Skills around time management and motivation are much more likely to help you succeed than being capable of deathless prose. And these skills can be learned. For serious writers, the value of doing a course isn’t necessarily that it teaches them how to write (although hopefully they will learn some tricks to address particular weaknesses in their approach), but that it gives them a gold-plated reason to write: someone else is listening, someone else is expecting them to finish.

Starting is easy. Carrying on is hard. Finishing feels practically impossible most days. If courses help you get there, who can argue with that?

 

 

Beginnings

So much of our focus in writing favours beginnings. We’re told again and again you have to have a great first line, a great first paragraph, and that your first chapter has to lure (then arrest) your reader. The implication is that if you can’t win readers over in the first five pages, you’re sunk.

When you write poetry, you learn that the start and end of lines are equally important. A lot of your energy is spent choosing the right first and last words. And the first lines and last lines of a verse. I think of it like a set of scales where you have to toggle the weights to achieve equilibrium. At a poem’s close, you have to leave something behind for your readers, something emotionally satisfying that will continue to linger.

Good endings aren’t easy to do, in poems or novels. Great endings are incredibly rare; they need to simultaneously convince a reader that this particular piece has come to an end, at the right place, while also making them believe that the world it created continues to exist in some special literary realm of suspended disbelief.

As a Post-NaNoWriMo treat in December, I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I know the deep affection many people feel for this book but I honestly can’t remember if I’ve read it before. Chances are I did, many years ago, before I was the writer (or reader) I am today.

Reading it now, I enjoyed it mostly for Lee’s style rather than for its lessons. She writes in an elegant, spare style, punctuated with just enough wit to keep things interesting.

The final chapter is what impressed me most. It’s possibly the most perfect final chapter I’ve ever read. Lee’s writing becomes embued with poetry and metaphor as she distils the heart of the novel. We shift from the perspective of a child who is growing up to an adult who has watched her grow. The power of the chapter is less in its very final last line than in the art of the last chapter that propels us there.Here’s my favourite passage:

Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbours give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing and it made me sad.

I’m still some way off writing the end of my own novel, or choosing the right moment to end it. But reading Lee reminded me of the need to set the bar high.

Fresh start

A new year always brings the expectation of a fresh start. It’s almost mid-January, and I’ve been back at work a week, but I still don’t feel I’ve had much chance to take stock. Yet when I think of this time last year, I hadn’t even started this blog, let alone the novel I’m now trying to finish. I hadn’t met any of the characters that have come to feel like people I could (and do) run into on the street. Meanwhile, a year ago, my daughter had just started to crawl; nowadays I’m hard pressed to keep her from running everywhere. She’s become a fully-fledged person, and I hope I’m learning how to give that same gift to my characters.

So – aims for this year?

Number one has to be finish the novel (or FTF if you follow Betsy Lerner). Nested inside that one objective are many others: first, I have to finish writing it. Then I’ll need to revise it, probably many times. Finally, I’ll have to make a tough decision about when I’ve reached the point of doing all I can so that what remains is to close my eyes and send it sailing out into the world and see where it ends. Is all that possible in one year? Here’s hoping.

Number two is a bit broader. I want to become a better writer. Finishing my novel will help, but to write the novel I really want to write, I have to be a better writer than I am today. That means I have to be prepared to keep learning, and to keep trying different things. I have to channel my frustration at not being good enough into actions that will help me improve myself. This is a good problem to have; life would be boring if we already knew how to do everything.

So those are my two goals for now. If you’re setting writing goals for yourself this year, best of luck achieving them.

 

Lessons from NaNoWriMo

Like all writing, NaNoWriMo teaches you things about yourself, and things about your book. This was my third NaNoWriMo, and each one has taught me something different. As a first-timer, I was fuelled by a fear of the unknown: could I really write 50,000 words in a month? Second time around was about testing if lightning could strike twice. This year, it was less about proving I could do it, and more about using it as a tool to reconnect with my novel-in-progress.

NaNoWriMo’s biggest lesson is its simplest: by writing every day, you become a better writer, and learn to finish what you start. To non-writers, that might seem obvious, but for writers, it takes faith, guts, and grit, to show up at the page every day instead of dealing with the dozen other things that also cry out for attention. For a whole month, NaNoWriMo helps put writing at the top of your ‘to do’ list.
Something I found helpful this time around was being much more open about my participation. Turns out that having workmates ask about your progress isn’t just a source of motivation, it can also be a source of pride. Writing is such a solitary process, and getting other people invested in your success can keep you moving on slow days.

During November, I learnt plenty about my characters that I didn’t know in advance. And having spent time with them again in such close quarters, more and more they feel like real people to me. That, rather than a daily word target, is what will continue to draw me back to the page for as long as it takes to do them justice.

In terms of what happens next, when NaNoWriMo finished, I carved out one part of my novel and started a high-level edit. It’s a sub-plot I really love, but come January, I’m going to have to make a big decision about whether or not it fits. Over the Christmas break, I plan to give myself one day free from distractions to print my manuscript and review it. I want to spread it out, Annie Dillard style, on my mother’s long oak dining table to try and see it whole. My aim is to have a reasonable first draft by March, a year after I began Sunlight, then polish it up and submit it to publishers. Wish me luck!

Thinking about John Cheever

Ever since I read this piece in the NYRB a few weeks back, I’ve been thinking about John Cheever. I came to his writing late, and knew very little about his personal life other than the world you imagine he had to occupy, to some degree, based on what he creates or recreates in his writing. I’m pretty sure I heard Cheever’s name when I was studying English Lit at University, a striking name if you think about it, the kind of name you might give to a character in a novel. Said aloud, “Cheever” has real possibilities in some modern day morality tale. And that’s almost what Cheever wrote, although the way he wrote them is what I find most dazzling.

With Cheever, I can carbon-date exactly when I really discovered him. Back when the internet and I were a lot younger, Salon.com ran a great series called “Personal Best” where writers nominated favourite stories or novels. Michael Chabon, who I was then in thrall to, nominated Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” and you can still find his original piece (from 1996) online. Chabon planted a seed and I remember scouring book stores and libraries to try and find Cheever, to no avail. This was in New Zealand, far away from the Eastern Seaboard, and although Amazon existed, I didn’t start buying books online until I was working full time (and in possession of my first credit card!) in 1999.

The trail goes cold for awhile after that. The inside cover of my big fat volume of Cheever’s Collected Stories (Vintage) is dated “March, 2005”, which means I bought it as a birthday gift for myself once I was living in Sydney, something I used to do more often pre-Kindle. It seems extraordinary now that I waited almost ten years to buy that collection and yet at the time I don’t remember it seeming odd. Even in 2005, things didn’t move as fast as they do now. Sometimes I miss the old-fashioned detective work you needed to do to find something obscure (or in the case of Cheever, from a previous era) and the satisfaction and delight it gave you when you finally succeeded.

The highest compliment I can pay to Cheever (or any artist) is that no one else does what he does. I’m sure he had imitators, but no one captures his precise cadence. To me, he is really more of a poet or a painter than a writer. He conjures up impossible phrases, indelible images, and weaves them together in a suburban fugue. I love the way he starts his stories, and I love the way he ends them. In my edition, the preface attempts to describe Cheever’s inexplicable process of inspiration:

“My favorite stories are those that were written in less than a week and that were often composed aloud. I remember exclaiming ‘My name is Johnny Hake!’ This was in the hallway of a house in Nantucket that we had been able to rent cheaply…Coming out of the maid’s room in another rented house I shouted to my wife: ‘This is a night when kings in golden mail ride their elephants over the mountains!’…It was under the canopy of a Fifty-ninth Street apartment house that I wrote, aloud, the closing of ‘Goodbye, My Brother.’ ‘Oh, what can you do with a man like that,’ I asked, and closed by saying,’I watched the naked women walk out of the sea!’.”

I’d love to hear your experiences of discovering certain authors – what memory sticks out the most for you?