27 Clues into Writing Your Heart Out
Things I wish I had known
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
Write your heart out.
Everybody has at least one story to tell.
Read, observe, listen intensely! as if your life depended upon it.
If you can “interview” an older relative, in a context in which this person is not playing the role of your relative, and you are not playing the role of their relative, you may be astonished at what you learn. Within our own families there are untold stories—mysteries never explained—rich, fertile possibilities for your writing to which you will have a special access available to no one else. (Yes, I had this extraordinary experience with my own mother who was about 84 at the time, for a feature in Oprah’s Magazine. It was Oprah’s suggestion for several women writers to interview their own mothers with no one else around. I did this, speaking with my mother on the telephone, at a time when my dear father could not interrupt and was not listening.)
Crucial for the writer: seclusion, quiet, NO INTERRUPTIONS. This may sound simple but it is not simply acquired, especially for women with families or, indeed, needy husbands. (Or needy pets.) (Or can we make exceptions for needy pets? Otherwise they will scratch at your door and make woebegone sounds to break your heart.) You will need to be imaginative to retreat somewhere that is special for you, as Emily Dickinson, after a long day of overseeing a household, retreated at nighttime to her own room and shut the door behind her.
You are writing for your contemporaries not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
Never try to envision an “ideal” reader, He/she might exist but may be reading someone else. Ideally, you are your own “first reader”—it helps immeasurably if you read your work aloud, to a close friend, fellow/sister writers, or just to yourself. Hearing your prose aloud you will be more acutely aware of redundancies—repetitions—clichés—vague or unconvincing language. And if your listener—yourself—begins to nod off it will be particularly embarrassing!
There's only one rule of show business, or writing. And that's don't be boring.
When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler's advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
If you can tell a story as briefly as possible, it's more dramatic. If it's too long, then it has the problems of pacing, it could get a little slow. But the shorter you can make a story, the better.
It's very important to project your own imagination into someone else—for instance, if you're a fairly young person, to write from the point of view of an older person. It's so much more interesting.
I would say almost dogmatically that you can't be a writer unless you're reading all the time and reading with purpose.
Writers resemble cooks: we create imaginative dishes out of what’s in the refrigerator, or on the shelf, or acquired from a market or our own garden. We toss together disparate things and make of them something new and (we hope) unexpected. Like the cook, we are attuned to others— we do want our creations to be shared; in a sense, our creations do not exist unless they are shared.
Writing is a matter of experimentation. And all writers do a lot of revision. So, first you might write a paragraph, and then you might rewrite it, and you might rewrite it again, and then you might write a page. And then basically you keep rewriting to find the rhythm and the voice that's suitable for that story.
Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
I think it's very important for writers, whether young or older, to have an audience—to have people who are sympathetic and supportive, but also fellow writers who have critical ideas and constructive suggestions.
One of the main things to remember when you're writing is that writing should be pleasurable. It should be fun. It should be exploratory. You should be writing about things that surprise you.
Writing is a spiritual manifestation of something deep within us which we cannot name but know it is there. I have thought of our inner, most private essence as a kind of Mobiüs strip—there is no end to it, it is like a riddle, or a serpent biting its own tail: the infinite, insatiable quest to create something that is at least semi-permanent.
Another strong motive through literary history is "bearing witness," particularly for people who can't speak for themselves—telling the stories of people who have been muted or silenced or exterminated; being the way in which their lives and stories are not lost but commemorated.
Essentially I am a formalist—the “forms” of fiction and poetry intrigue me. I am drawn to experimenting with odd, idiosyncratic ways of storytelling. The “old verities of the human heart” (to quote William Faulkner) can be enshrined in new forms that may be challenging to the reader because they represent an unusual perspective, like entering a house not by its front door but by a rear door or a cellar door or even a window.
Keeping a journal sharpens our senses. It's like physical exercise through language. Otherwise, precious thoughts that drift into your mind, unexpected revelations and recollections may just evaporate and be lost. (This is one of the motives for writing fiction, especially novels: the fiction becomes a container for much that might be otherwise lost.)
Productivity is a relative matter. And it’s really insignificant: What is ultimately important is a writer’s strongest books. It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones—just as a young writer or poet might have to write hundreds of poems before writing his first significant one.
I envy my younger self because in a rush of ecstatic energy I used to write an entire draft of a novel within a few months—then go back and rewrite it—virtually every sentence. (This was in the era of typewriters—very labor intensive. The expression “pounding keys” may not be comprehensible today but that is what we did—“pound” keys. Today, I am snarled in near-constant revision so that I move very slowly from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, dramatic unit to dramatic unit; the revision can be ecstatic in itself but is often arduous and frustrating. My writing process now more resembles the assemblage of a mosaic than it does the rapid forward-motion of a story; not like the exuberant galloping of a Thoroughbred but rather more like the methodical treading of a gardener with a machete hacking through underbrush. (We can see the path ahead of us in our imaginations— we can “see” the top of the hill— this keeps us going through miserable/ “challenging” times.)
Read widely, deeply—intensely—read many books by the same writer, ideally in the order in which they were written— this will be uplifting to you as well as instructive. You see how other writers made their way through the underbrush when they were your age and had no idea that they would ever become “writers”—let alone “famous.” The more challenging the classic, like Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the more rewarding, as Zanche has discovered.
And again: Write your heart out.