Despite struggling to produce full sentences, I have been spoiling myself with the wisdom of some literary giants lately. I attended an online literary discussion between Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates earlier this autumn, and just finished Alexander Chee’s brilliant essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Herewith thoughts.
Writing for living is at par with being a ballet dancer or a poet as far as the (unfounded) romanticisation of the profession is concerned. Writing, alas, is not a lucrative business. Someone said that an average (published) author makes as about much money as people who half-professionally raid parks after rock concerts to collect and return cans and plastic bottles (only in the Nordics, mind, as we pay 10-20 cnt per each returned bottle). That is, unless one is among the 0.1% of the writers who happen to be exceptionally brilliant (or exceptionally commercial, see below).
The Atwood/Oates -conversation was a feast, although a journalist friend who’s interviewed many very famous and successful writers once said she’d prefer not having to meet authors she admires in real life. I can relate to this. I’ve attended a meet and greet with a couple of authors in the past, and while I do like to get a real face and hear their voice, it often becomes very clear why certain people are natural born communicators – on paper. Authors often appear almost startled when they are being asked questions about their novels. All of the above of course only applies to writers of literary fiction – I could imagine self-help writers to be more interested in sharing their advise in front of audiences than writing it down in the first place.
So the 1,5 hours with the grand dames of literary fiction was great because they have both reach the age and status to not give a toss, and also because they were very candid. Writing, of course, was discussed. Said Oates: “You can be barely literate and still write a bestselling novel. Like the 50 Shades of Grey. It’s hardly Jane Austen.” Ouch.
They were also discussing their upcoming projects, Oates opening up about working on “an erotic thriller, which at the moment is not much of a thriller and not very erotic, either”. Conversation about writing erotica and pornography followed. When Oates enquired what Atwood is working on, the latter quipped “Oh I never discuss my future projects”. Ha.
Alexander Chee is a new acquaintance (though by no means new to the literary world), as I happened upon his essay collection recently. Like Oates and Atwood, Chee keeps it very real in terms of how hard getting anything published actually is. He’s very open about the financial sacrifices that come with the territory – for him waiting tables was more lucrative than getting grants or his works published, therefore he continued doing that for years. Reading about such struggle inevitably raises the question of why pursue the crazy dream of becoming a published author at all. And that’s of course the whole point of everything.
Chee’s book is teeming with practical advise on writing:
If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel.
Don’t tell the reader someone was happy or sad. When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. She isn’t angry (…) she throws his clothes out of the window. Be specific.
Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science; it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me (…) and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between me and them is that I’m writing.
Talent might give you nothing. Without work, talent is only talent – promise, not product.
Citing Frank Conroy: You succeed, you celebrate, you stop writing. You don’t succeed, you despair, you stop writing. Just keep writing. Don’t let success or failure stop you. Just keep writing.
On writing workshop advise: Listen to your classmates’ comments and try to listen to them in the round. Someone will insist if you just fix X on page 6, all will be better, and someone else will say no, it’s page 13 that needs your attention, and then you will change something on page 10, give it back to them, and they’ll all say, “It’s so much better, that’s exactly what I meant.” The problems are not where they think they are.
For most, novels are accidents at their start. This is because the novel begun deliberately is so often terrible, with the worst qualities of a bad lie, or a political speech given during campaign. The writer turned into something like a senator.
On writing an autobiographical novel: The legal standard is that a stranger must be able to recognise the character in life from the description in the novel before the person can sue.
You cannot sue yourself.
On his writing teacher Annie’s advise: Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.
In class, the idea seemed ridiculous. But at some point after the class ended, I did it. I walked up to the shelf. Chabon, Cheever. I put my finger between them and made a space. Soon, I did it every time I went to a bookstore.
Years later, I tell my own students to do it. As Thoreau, someone Annie admired very much, once wrote, “In the long run, we only ever hit what we aim at.” She was pointing at us there.
In addition to writing tips, the essays offer touching insights about queer rights in San Francisco in the 90s, as well as activism and of course, love. And writing.