Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

advice for writers (1)

Say, here are “Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 22 Brilliant Authors”. Some good advice may be found there; also some ridiculous stuff. I have always been annoyed by the tendency some writers have to make writing a book sound like hard labor in Siberia. Thus an anonymous “author of notable books on science and psychology”:

[I didn’t know] how hard writing a book would be on my body — two major illnesses and two surgeries in two years, a health record unprecedented in my life, and unrepeated in the two years since. No idea what to do differently, other than maybe make sure I have good health insurance. (But you shoulda seen me revising my last draft as they wheeled me into the OR for an appendectomy.)

You think writing a book caused your appendicitis? Seriously? Or Joshua Wolf Shenk: “Writing a book is a crushingly lonely experience in ways that no one who hasn’t been through it can really imagine.” Give me a break. Many millions of people have jobs that require them to work alone, and at the end of the day they go home to family, or out for a beer with friends, without turning it into a serial melodrama. Writers can do the same.

Why do writers say stuff like this? Writing is hard work — it’s damned hard work if you want to do it well, and there is much truth in Thomas Mann's comment that a writer is someone who finds writing harder than other people do — but it’s not some uniquely gruesome or debilitating grind. If you find writing that horrifying you should probably do something else. But I think writers know that people envy them (there are countless would-be writers out there) so they project this blood-sweat-and-tears image as a way of deflecting the envy. And, probably, simultaneously sending the message, “I am one of the few with the sheer will and stamina to hold up under the oppressive weight of it all.”

Maybe I’m being too hard on people. At times over the years I’ve also had to insist on how difficult it is to write books: non-writers don't see the work that goes into it, and some of them assume that it’s just a matter of sitting down and typing until you’re done. (I can barely count the number of people who have told me, "Well, it comes easily to you.") But you can say it’s hard work without claiming that to write is to court personal destruction.

More on “advice for writers” in another post.

6 comments:

  • There's also James Altucher's 33 Unusual Tips to Being a Better Writer. Some novel ideas, and not too much boo-hooing about the grind.

  • I remember the day Richard Hays told me that writing was difficult for him. We were walking on Duke's west campus, and I just stopped in my tracks. This, from the one biblical scholar whose prose is both intelligible and beautiful.

  • Hmm... this is interesting. I really don't think it's as bad as these guys are making it out to be.
    I haven't written a book before... at least not a completed, published one. But I've been working on a few drafts. Should I blame my health problems and surgeries on my writing? Uh, no. They are not related in the least.

  • Speaking of advice for writers:

    http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Heavy-sentences-7053

    Epstein is one of the masters.

  • I've written a few drafts of books before, and while it does have it's difficult spots, everyone hits a speedbump in the story every now and then, it isn't as bad as those quotes. I see your point, but writing is a lot of fun in the end, and it has it's fun parts and hard parts like anything else. Thanks for posting, will be looking forward to some more advice on writing.

  • I read Stephen King's On Writing, and it made me wary of which writing advice to take, or which writing course to sign up for.
    I suppose writing's like any other job. You have the good bits, and you have the not-so-good bits.

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