How To Write In 700 Easy Lessons
The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction. Every day books are published that contain no real artfulness in the lines, books made up of clichés and limp prose, stupid stories offering nothing but high concept and plot—or supra-literary books that shut out even a serious reader in the name of assertions about the right of an author to be dull for a good cause. (No matter how serious a book is, if it is not entertaining, it is a failure.) I’m not talking about the books we write or publish in the attempt to answer the need for entertainment at whatever level one chooses. And I have no quarrel with the genres, because to help people escape from life is harmless, and honorable enough, and in its way just as valuable as helping them escape into it. (Though I am a bit weary of the stream of stories from undergraduate students about the undead that I’m lately getting. I sometimes think all the zombie stories were written by one stupendously energetic fellow with a serious skin problem and not the slightest lick of talent—they are all so much alike, and so cloyingly adolescent.)
My quarrel is with the implication in the how-to books market that one can merely read them to find the magic secret for writing well enough to publish. Recently, at a college where I was lecturing, a student told me, with great pride, that he had “over a hundred books” in his library—I could see that I was meant to be impressed by the number, and that he considered himself a vastly well-read type of guy. He went on to say that many in his collection are how-to books. This person wants to be a writer, but he doesn’t want to do the work. Being a writer is a stance he wants to take. He did not come to writing from reading books, good or bad. He came to it from deciding it might be cool to walk around in that role. I meet this kind of “writer” far too often now in my travels around the country—even, occasionally, in the writing programs.
I can hear the argument coming back: “Yeah, well, what about the writing programs? Don’t they promise the same thing? Don’t they encourage the same kind of thinking?” And the answer to that is quite simple: no, they do not. All of the writing programs, and most of the writers’ conferences—I have taught at Bread Loaf and Sewanee, and elsewhere—read manuscripts in advance before accepting students. A person has to demonstrate talent to be accepted into a program of study. And while at times one wonders how this or that student got by the screening, in all instances the emphasis is on reading, and the workshops are not about writing as something like steam-fitting or the construction of an engine, but about the matters of craft that can be discussed as they come up, story by story.Writing is not taught in these places; it is encouraged, given room to take place, and students in them always end up being better readers, whether they go on to produce books or not.
With a frequency that is dismaying, I run into people who are widely versed in the manuals, and quasi-literate in all other ways. They have no sense of the love of the art they wish to practice, because they have very seldom or never been in the thrall of a work of fiction as practiced by the great artists in their own literary heritage, or even the good craftsmen in the genres. They may have had some exposure to the great writers, or some anthology-exposure to a fraction of someone, little pieces of the treasure that is there. Or their reading is so deficient that in fact the only books they’ve read that might be called fiction are the few best sellers that achieve some literary merit or cachet. Which is to say that these people, many of them college students, want to be considered serious writers; they seek literary excellence; but they have come to believe that they can accomplish this by means of the convenient shortcut. And the industry that produces the how-to manuals plays to them, makes money from their hope of finding a way to be a writer, rather than doing the work, rather than actually spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.
My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.
This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing. Well, let me paraphrase William Carlos Williams, American poet: literature has no practical function, but every day people die for lack of what is found there.