Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stopped in my tracks

I like to read the headlines occasionally from the UK. The Guardian has a great literary section and recently ran a piece entitled "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction." They interviewed numerous authors and asked for their ten pieces of writing advice.

We're talking authors like Nail Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Prouix, and Elmore Leonard. I couldn't stop reading. One note by Anne Enright, a Booker Prize-winning Irish author of The Gathering, stopped me in my tracks.

It shook my faith in my own writing.

"Imagine you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? This thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book."

What would I write if I were dying? My mysteries are fun and entertaining, but do they warrant using up my last ten weeks of life? My mind answered no before I could consciously try to justify my latest work-in-progress. You could hear the air leaving my balloon.

I sat looking at my screen, at the numerous windows open, at the pending emails, at the novel chapter being edited yet again because the book hasn't sold. And I wondered if I was fooling myself by bothering to write at all.

The shadows of classics, bestsellers and literary giants left me chilled, frozen as if already dead and planted in the ground. How could I ever expect to be that good?

Then I thought about it. How would I ever become that good if I didn't rise and fall, write and fail, edit and delete? If I felt everything spewing from my fingers had to be worthy of a hundred-year posterity, I'd never write. I have to write the bad to find the good. I have to write a LOT of bad to find the good.
I just have to be selective of what I publish!

I agree there's too much fluff writing in the world. It's too easy to publish. But I don' t believe setting a time limit in terms of remaining time on earth will do much to deter that. Frankly, I think more people would scribble down anything in order to meet the deadline. Practice makes perfect, and if fate yanks away our life, then we write the best we can, polished or not. Heck, we wouldn't have time to edit it anyway.

If I were dying in ten weeks, I'd be outside enjoying nature, cherishing the company of family and friends and writing in a journal. Who'd publish the words of a dying unknown writer anyway?

By now I was snickering at myself. Then I read the rest of the quote.

"So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. See? Easy. And no one had to die."

Then I came to the best part: "You can also do all that with whiskey."

That threw me into another world altogether, and I thought of the bourbon in my cereal cabinet. (Yes, we keep the frequented booze in the same cabinet as the Cheerios because of the size of the shelves.) In college and for a few good years after, some of my best philosophizing came out of a bottle. No, I wasn't a drunk - just a twenty-something in a room of other twenty-somethings waxing about the world's issues after a couple of drinks each weekend. Our minds ran free and loose under the influence, something we don't often let ourselves do past age thirty. Something we should do more of when we write . . . run free, I mean.

Wait, what if we wrote as if our time was limited and our minds lubricated with drink -untethered and pressured at the same time. Now THAT would make for meaningful prose. I'd just need someone to write it all down for me before I forgot it in the morning.

So I returned to the screen and my edits. No, my story isn't a Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird, but it might be a story readers enjoy investing a few hours in, to escape a bad day or enjoy a laugh. I'm not a saint or a scholar, a CEO or a president, but I can do what I can with what I have for the time I've been granted on this earth.

Now that's worth a drink!


lexcade said...

wonderful (and for me, timely) post! i've been putting off finishing my edits b/c i'm sick of looking at my manuscript, but i think that you've given me a little more resolve to finish editing (and treat myself to a little whiskey ;-) )


BECKY said...

Hope, I really needed to read this today. You said volumes, and yes, I would say you are as "important" a writer as any of the "famous" ones. My husband and I were just discussing buying some red wine, too, because we're always hearing about the benefits of having a small glass every day. I think maybe now, I may actually have an even better reason to buy some! :)

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

I devoured that article too. I like your insights. One thing I do, even if it is a bit naught of me, is I have a beer or glass of wine when I am writing (in the evening!). It allows me to get out of my head and just write write write.

Anthony J Langford said...

Nicely said.. I 'reward' myself at night with one or two beers if I have done enough writing during the day..not every day as i have to work too, but there's something nice about rewarding yourself for work that's well earned.. It does loosen the mind a little, in which case i might write a poem..but anymore drinks and the writing turns to rubbish..Moderation..