The Craft of Writing

Always curious as to what another writer says about writing, I picked up Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks At His Craft by David Morrell of First Blood (Rambo) fame.  He offers up a lot of hard-earned wisdom—in categories like writer’s block and plotting and structure—if you’re interested.

He begins wit the question, “Why do you want to be a writer?”

The “right” answer?  “Because I have to be.”  It’s the only answer you can give, because nothing else should matter.  Morrell speaking…

That question is one of the most important challenges any would-be-writer will ever have to face in his or her creative life.  How honest are you prepared to be with yourself?  Earlier, I mentioned that, when I was a young man learning my craft, I met my first professional writer, an expert in science fiction whose pen name was William Tenn and whose real name is Philip Klass.  Klass didn’t like the earlier stories I showed him because their subject matter was familiar.  They weren’t any different from hundreds of other stories he’d read, he told me.  The writers who go the distance, he insisted, have a distinct subject matter, a particular approach that sets them apart from everyone else.  The mere mention of their names, Faulkner, for example, or Edith Wharton, conjures themes, settings, methods, tones, and attitudes that are unique to them.

How did they get to be so distinctive?  By responding to who they were and the forces that made them that way.  Everyone is unique, Klass told me.  No two lives are identical.  The writers who discover what sets them apart are the writers with the best chance of succeeding.  “Look inside yourself,” Klass said.  “Find out who you are.  In your case, I suspect that means find out what you’re most afraid of, and that will be your subject for your life or until your fear changes.”

What sets you apart?  What are you afraid of?

If you’re fearful you’ll never be able to live up to the grandiose vision in your head, rest assured, you’re in universal company.  Another snippet from Morrell:

My wife, Donna, was once in our front yard when a child from a nearby grade school walked past our house with a folder of his artwork.  He asked Donna if she’d like to see some of his paintings.  “Sure.”  So they spread the paintings on the lawn, and the boy explained each of them.  “This is the school, and this is the playground, and these are my friends.”  He stared at the paintings for a long time, and then shook his head in discouragement.  “In my mind, they were a whole lot better.”

Isn’t that the truth?

What’s the one thing only you can do (in art, in writing, in life)?

That’s your niche.  What are you waiting for?

While you figure that out, I’ll leave you with a gentle admonition from Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet.

You ask whether your verses are any good.  You ask me.  You have asked others before this.  You send them to magazines.  You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work.  Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing.  You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.  No one can advise or help you—no one.  There is only one thing you should do.  Go into yourself.  Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.  This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?  Dig into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.  Then come close to Nature.  Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.

A side note.  Can you believe it?  There are now 16 available Living the Questions podcasts.  Find the links below.  About six to seven minutes long, the podcasts are chockfull of personal anecdotes and other illustrations that seek to answer (or at least address) a very fundamental life-changing question.  There’s an option to download if you’re a portable-audio kind of person.  Enjoy!  [If you’d rather subscribe in iTunes, be my guest.  When you go to iTunes, you’ll see the last three podcasts, but know that when you sign up, you should receive all 16!]

Episode 1: Seeing Things Differently
Episode 2: Changing Your Mind
Episode 3: Are People Inherently Good or Bad?
Episode 4: Are You Trustworthy?
Episode 5: When Do You Feel Most Alive?
Episode 6: Are You Average or Exceptional?
Episode 7: What Is Your Wound?
Episode 8: Whom Do You Love?
Episode 9: What Takes Your Breath Away?
Episode 10: Why Do You Speak To Yourself That Way?
Episode 11: What One Character Trait Do You Want To Pass On To Your Child?
Episode 12: What Beliefs Do You Hold Currently?
Episode 13: Are You an Empathetic Person?
Episode 14: Does Everyone Feel Abandoned (Or Lonely) On Some Level?
Episode 15: How Will the World Be Different Because of Me?
Episode 16: How Will I Be Different By Being in the World?


[Post image: Antique by clix on stock.xchng]

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