Octopuses and Ink, Lightning and Lightning Bugs
Or, What Every Writer Needs to Know
Anyone who takes writing seriously knows it’s like making laws or making sausage: we know too much about what goes into it.
There is no such thing as a writer who has not faced his or her job with a mixture of fear and loathing. As the great sportswriter Red Smith put it, “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
It gets worse.
Consider the nature writer Annie Dillard: “I do not so much as write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend…I hold its hand and hope it will get better.”
Or the novelist Joseph Conrad: “I sit here religiously every morning – I sit down for eight hours every day – and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of 8 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair…sometimes it takes all of my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall.”
On the day one of his novels was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his editor, Max Perkins, “I am overcome with fears and forebodings…in fact all my confidence is gone.” The novel was The Great Gatsby.
Yes, these writers all faced the same questions you do:
Where to start it? How to organize it? How to end it? What is the best tone to use? What am I really trying to say? Can I put into words all that I feel?
As those questions come up, you might feel irresistible urges to check your email, visit YouTube, call your mother, change your ink cartridge, and tidy up your desk.
Hang on. Ultimately you have access to the same weapons – words, sentences and paragraphs – that every other writer does. So you take mouse in hand – and forge ahead, shaping words, sentences and paragraphs on the lathe of your imagination and insight. (Block-That-Metaphor!)
But learning to master writing is more than the matter of learning to use the right tools. From where I sit – and I often sit in front of a keyboard and monitor – writing is its own reward. As I have learned from writing my own books, it is far too rewarding to let fear of it deprive you from enjoying it.
The practice of writing takes you into other worlds. And the process of writing toughens your mind. The truth is that just as clear thinking leads to good writing, the reverse is also true: good writing produces clear thinking. Good, clear style forces you to work through the fog of uncertainties in your mind because there is no place to hide.
So how can you get from feeling anxiety about writing to the place where writing is the vehicle that liberates your thoughts, clarifies your voice, and helps you tell your story?
To help, I thought I might borrow a device – or rather, seven devices – from the world of self-help literature. So, with apologies to Stephen Covey who wrote a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Managers, I propose…
THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE WRITERS
HABIT #1: MAKE A MESS.
I mean it. The first stage of writing is the messiest – and should be. You need to gather up all the raw material you can find – your own research, notes from books, your observations, opinions, stuff you find on Google, on Facebook, things your friends said, quotes you remember from something you read when you were 6, laundry lists, all the most specific facts and details you can possibly get your hands on. Write it all down. You do not need to do this in an orderly fashion. Dump your thoughts into your notebook, and type up your notes. Your writing is only as good as the information and insights you have gathered. Order comes later. Be willing to embarrass yourself. No one but you will see this mess.
HABIT #2: ORGANIZE! ORGANIZE!
That used to be a labor-union rallying cry, but it works for writers, too. After you’ve dumped your thoughts and research on the table, then sort through the mess and try to make little piles of the same things in the same places. If you are working on a biography of the explorer William Clark, as I was not long ago, you put everything about Clark’s family in one pile, you put everything about his relationship with Lewis in another pile, you put everything about his relations with Native Americans in another pile.
Then you look at the piles and make sure you have enough of them. Sometimes there is something missing. When I was writing my biography of Clark, I realized that I had written nothing about the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited European settlement west of the Appalachians. I did not understand its implications and know only that I could not write about Western expansion unless I explained it. I remember that this moment threw me into a head-clutching tailspin because I knew I was going to have to go back and fill up my notebook again.
Or, as I used to say as the managing editor of People magazine, our job was like mopping a floor: once a week we soaked up a lot of information and squeezed it out again.
Then comes the bullfighter’s moment of truth. You have these piles of information, all stacked and sorted. You look them in the eye. But you need to find your theme, your sharp point of view, the one deft stroke that will hold everything else together.
How to do this? One way is to think of your piles of notes as if they were piles of clothespins. If you put the clothespins on the table in front of you, you could pick up a clothesline and thread it through each of the piles. Then hold both ends of the line in your hands and lift it up. Every clothespin that comes up hanging to your clothesline is the stuff you need to keep: it’s relevant. But if it stays on the table, throw it out. It’s the same thing with your theme. Keep everything that clings to it; throw out everything that does not.
Around this point it also helps to find your last sentence. I always think it’s a good idea to write your last sentence first. Then you have an exit strategy. Think of it as driving. If you know where you are going, you can just drive straight to that point. There are no wasted turns. But if you don’t know where you are going, how do you know when you’ve gotten there? Or if you’re on the wrong road? So while I am gathering notes, in the back of my mind I am also looking out for that first sentence, a last sentence, and the route that will get me from the first sentence to the last sentence as directly as I can. The last sentence may change, or just become a concept, but now you are on your way.
HABIT #3: DON’T GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME
Don’t even think about getting it right on the first draft. All good writing is actually rewriting. The biggest mistake a writer can make is not to revise.
Rewriting does not mean you have failed.
Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times and used to brag about it. As the French novelist Gustav Flaubert said, “Prose is like hair; it shines with combing.”
I often think rewriting is also like spit-shining a shoe…You have to keep adding polish, rubbing it in, adding more polish, again and again, until you begin to see your reflection in it. That moment – when you see yourself coming back the other way – is a happy moment because you know you are through.
What are you actually doing when you are rewriting? You are putting things in the right order. You are putting the same things in the same place. You are cutting out jargon, and clichés or any phrases that are familiar and overused, like a “hail of bullets” or describing little towns as being “nestled” in the hills. I would like to take a hail of bullets to all towns nestled in the hills. As Mark Twain said, in a phrase I borrowed for half of the title of this article, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
The other thing cutting does is build compression and energy into your writing. The biggest payoff from compression is at the very beginning of a piece of writing, when you have to draw in the reader — or else. Consider these first sentences and how modest, unadorned, compressed and direct the language is:
- “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
- “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams and found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
- “All children, except one, grow.”)
- “In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon.”
I suspect you recognized most of these opening sentences of A River Runs Through It, The Metaporphosis, Peter Pan and Goodnight, Moon. If you did, it’s because they are simply stated. Good writing is not fancy writing.
HABIT #4: SIMPLIFY! SIMPLIFY!
If you have read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (and, believe me, you should) you already know what this habit is all about. When you are revising, the first rabbits in your cross-hairs are unnecessary words. And while you’re at it, you might consider getting rid of the adjective key on your keyboard. Nouns and verbs can usually do the job just fine.
Efficient writing is elegant writing. The French philosopher Pascal once apologized for the length of a long letter by telling his friend that, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
Michelangelo reputedly explained that the way he made a sculpture of an angel was to look at a block of marble and imagine the beautiful angel within it. Then, he explained, he just carved away everything that was not the angel.
To see this in practice, consider the famous first sentence of George Orwell’s novel,Nineteen Eighty-Four:
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
It’s an amazing sentence… The surprise twist of the clocks striking thirteen, of course. But also, in this sentence of 14 words, 12 have just one syllable. It sounds as crisp and hard as dropping a handful of pebbles on a tin roof.
Orwell was the master of the simply stated lead sentence with devastating effects. Here is Orwell again, in the first sentence of his autobiographical essay, Shooting an Elephant:
“In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”
This is the high plain style, which aspires to be, as Orwell put it, “as clear as a windowpane.”
Here is what Orwell said once about the craft of writing – and rewriting:
“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence, will ask at least four questions:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”
And he or she will probably ask herself two more:
Could I put it more shortly? (If it is possible to cut a word, always cut it.)
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Habit #5. FIND YOUR NATURAL VOICE – AND STICK TO IT
What do we mean by “voice” in writing?
Literally, the idea of voice doesn’t make sense: we do not literally “hear” when we read. Voice is not the same thing as style. Rather, “voice” is a quality that underlies a writer’s prose – really more like the “personality” the writing reveals or, in musical terms, it is more like the melody than the lyrics.
Any good piece of writing is not a monologue but rather is a conversation. The writer is looking over the reader’s shoulder, watching and wooing, anticipating his or her questions, or reactions, and making sure the reader is neither too far behind or too far ahead.
What you want to do is find a writing voice that is uniquely yours. It is not George Orwell’s – and it is not Toni Morrison’s or Annie Proux’s – although you can profit from reading all of them. When I am stuck at a place in my writing, I sometimes will read a writer I admire just to listen to their voice… It seems to help me the same way it helps Michael Phelps to put on his iPod and listen to his pump-music before a race. You can absorb one writer’s rhythms and voice in order to unlock your own. For me, the idea is not to borrow their style but to learn from their way of addressing the reader. Voice is the inner dialogue between a writer and his or her deepest self.
Ultimately, you have to develop your own voice – one that is reliable enough to give you confidence in all situations. Trying to slavishly imitate another writer’s style, or voice, can get you into trouble because it breaks down the connection between what you have to say and the way you say it.
Orwell wrote that “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
That’s the other half of the title of this piece.
You cannot write clearly and honestly unless you have done the hard job of thinking clearly and honestly. The beauty of clear writing style is that you have listened to your own reasoning, settled your doubts, and puzzled out what you really think.
If I try to write about something without understanding it, I create clouds of ink.
Habit #6. GET AN IRON BUTT
Woody Allen said that “90% of life is showing up”. Writers need to show up, too. By that I mean that you need to show up and sit down – and sit down long enough to put in the time it takes to get it done.
Don’t worry about your frame of mind. It does not need to be perfect. As a friend of mine said, you can write on good days, and you can write on bad days, and afterwards you can’t tell the difference.
What do you do if you are sitting down and inspiration is just not there?
Gustave Flaubert wrote that “Sometimes when I am empty, when words don’t come, when I find I haven’t written a single sentence after scribbling whole pages, I collapse on my couch and lie there dazed, bogged in a swamp of despair.”
The novelist Somerset Maugham confessed that, when he was stuck, “Sometimes I just write my name until an idea occurs.”
There are more tips for curing writer’s block than there are for curing hangovers. They include:
- Take a break – but focus on something else – distraction leads to inspiration
- Take a shower or bath – your synapses really fire when your brain is in relaxed or distracted state
- Listen to Mozart (or Hip-Hop)
- Never stop for the day until you know the next thing you want to write. Hemingway used to say that he never felt good about stopping until he was in the flow enough to know what would be his next sentence.
Habit #7. READ
I became a writer because I love to read. For me, reading was something like a childhood disease from which I never recovered. But, as Tom Robbins says, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Reading is to writing as cooking is to eating; the pleasure depends on the preparation.
Reading of course gives us understanding and insight and helps us understand our world. But words also give us sheer pleasure. Writers should savor well-made sentences the way a chef tastes pasta: al dente. There is a sensual texture in good writing we can take with us everywhere.
Here is the protagonist Isaac of Saul Bellow’s short story, “The Old System,” rushing to a plane at the Newark Airport. Listen to how Saul Bellow arranges the short, plain words into figures of speech with beautiful rhythms.
“On the airport bus, he opened his father’s copy of the Psalms. The black Hebrew letters only gaped at him like open mouths with tongues hanging down, pointing upward, flaming but dumb. He tried — forcing. It did no good. The tunnel, the swamps, the auto skeletons, machine entrails, dumps, gulls, sketchy Newark trembling in fiery summer, held his attention minutely…
Then, in the jet running with concentrated fury to take off – the power to pull away from the magnetic earth; and more:When he saw the ground tilt backward, the machine rising from the runway…
On the right New York leaned gigantically seaward, and the plane with a jolt of retracted wheels turned toward the river.
The Hudson green within green, and rough with tide and wind.
Isaac released the breath he had been holding, but sat belted tight.
Above the marvelous bridges, over clouds, sailing in atmosphere, you know better than ever that you are no angel.”
BONUS POINT #1: KEEP AN OPEN MIND – AND BE PREPARED TO BE SURPRISED
Editors and writers need to keep an open mind – about life and, in my case, especially about celebrities. I met and interviewed many celebrities in the course of my career at PEOPLE Magazine – Chuck Berry and Elizabeth Taylor would be on my personal top ten list. I heard speeches by Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and interviewed both Presidents Reagan and Bush 41, and both Bill and Hillary Clinton, several times.
But, all of those notwithstanding, my most memorable interview ever was in college, when as a student I was assigned to interview Malcolm X during his visit to Princeton University. I was a little anxious, anticipating that this fiery, militant, ex-convict might have thought that the idea of meeting a privileged Ivy Leaguer was not his cup of tea.
I could not have been more wrong. Malcolm may have thought that we were not his cup of tea, but he was considerate, open, thoughtful, and receptive. How little I knew!
Another time, while working for TIME magazine, I was assigned to interview an actor shooting a movie in New York. The movie was Midnight Cowboy. The big star in the movie was Jon Voight. While waiting to interview Voight, I whiled away the time talking to his co-star – a little-known actor whom no one seemed interested in and who seemed eager to please. His name, as it turned out, was Dustin Hoffman. How many people know Jon Voigt now except as Angelina Jolie’s father?
FINAL BONUS POINT#2: BE PREPARED TO BE HUMBLED
Just over a decade ago, PEOPLE hosted Princess Diana at a Chicago event. I was to be her dinner partner. Even better, there would be dancing. Who would get the first dance? I thought that I had a pretty good shot at it.
But Kensington Palace had other ideas about a suitable dancing partner for the Princess. He – and it would be a he – had to be:
- A good dancer – check
- Married – check
- Happily married check … and …
- Had to be six-feet tall — whoops!
Well, three out of four ain’t bad.
Landon Y. Jones is the former editor of People and Money magazines and the author of Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation, which coined the phrase, “baby boomer.” His most recent book is William Clark and the Shaping of the West (New York, 2004).