Monday, March 1, 2010

sucking up to Nabokov

Hey Jeremy

Just thought I'd toss off a few reactions to the writing advice post from the Guardian. Like you, I don't take it too seriously, but that doesn't mean certain advices don't boggle or annoy or that I won't waste a couple hours thinking about them.

Such as: PD James beginning her exhortation to respect 'words' and the English Language with "Increase your word power." Jesus F-ing Christ. Bad writing IS contageous.

It occurs to me that the only interesting advice comes from people who are playing with the notion and form of advice-giving and are not taking themselves or the format too seriously. Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson being two favorites, and also, not surprisingly, two writers I admire (both of whom, however, I have some advice for: write less!). Atwood is wryly pragmatic:

"1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3 Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do."

Winterson is just friendly:

"8 Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.

9 Trust your creativity.

10 Enjoy this work!"

Everyone who seems really excited, or exaggeratedly unexcited, to tell us (presumably in need of their advice) how things work provides terrible advice in usually appalling language, like this from Hilary Mantel:

"Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that's the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don't notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they're trying too hard to instruct the reader."

As opposed to the spoon-feeding she suggests? Not to mention the devastating assertion that human beings are incapable of paying attention to the world around them, or the fact that she finds-- not duty-- but expediency in leaving this supposed blindness unchallenged.

Of course, she poisons her advice for me with her rule number 1, hateful in tone, content, and underlying socio-politi-aesthetic assumptions: "Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant." That and the fact that I hated Wolf Hall.

Or this from the extremely long-winded Sarah Waters who apparently ironically believes one should:

"Cut like crazy. Less is more. I've ­often read manuscripts – including my own – where I've got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: "This is where the novel should actually start." A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it. In fact . . ."

and also:

"Don't overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. Beginners, especially, seem to think that writing fiction needs a special kind of flowery prose, completely unlike any sort of language one might encounter in day-to-day life. This is a misapprehension about how the effects of fiction are produced, and can be dispelled by obeying Rule 1. To read some of the work of Colm Tóibín or Cormac McCarthy, for example, is to discover how a deliberately limited vocabulary can produce an astonishing emotional punch."

Or maybe Waters is only talking about fiction and not, of course, the writing of writing advice or writing generally. Has anyone written writing advice for writers of writing advice? Someone should (maybe I am?).

A surprising amount of name-dropping is going on (see Waters) as well, from the wonderful:

"Don't be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov." (Geoff Dyer)

to the disarming: "Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters." (the very unfortunately named Michael Moorcock)

to the obnoxious yet baffling: "If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard." (Helen Dunmore) who follows up with
"Don't worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed "What will survive of us is love"," which, aside from being extremely sentimental, is also plainly false. Luckily for us, we carry our love with us to the grave and leave behind, instead, words on paper and material goods.

Among the many simply unhelpful or too personal or simply silly pieces of advice, or non-advice such as:

"The first 12 years are the worst." (Anne Enright)

"Don't write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)" (Richard Ford)

"Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting." (Jonathan Franzen)

this, though charming, is my vote for LEAST helpful piece of advice as it requires use of a time machine and may result in a universe-destroying paradox: "When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else." (Zadie Smith) I would further like to point out that her advice, if able to be taken, means that your adult self (reading these sage words) should spend more time making sure your child-self is reading than doing anything else, including writing.

The invited writing rules from anonymous commenters were slightly less stupid than most online comments for a second before devolving into off-topic inanity. Things I liked...

"6. A celebratory cigarette after every really good passage is probably not a good idea."

Or this, which rightly calls attention to the fact that few people want writing advice that is not also publishing advice.

1. Learn to kiss gatekeeper arse; kiss it early and often
2. Pick the creative writing program best positioned in the school best positioned in the part of the country best positioned in the country best positioned in the hemisphere best positioned to maximize access to gatekeepers' arses
3. Identify your Target-Audience by matching your hypothetical jacket photo with the jacket photos of successful authors already catering to said Target Audience
4. Identify the needs of your Target-Audience by watching lots of the same Television programs your Target Audience watches (your "style" will flow naturally from total immersion in this resource)
5. Cater to the Target Audience's needs by A) giving the reader the impression that he/she is The Best and that B) everything, somehow, eventually, is Gonna Be Alright (if not for the characters in your Product, then certainly for The Reader)

Thanks for this-- a lively distraction from writing! I think I'm due for a celebratory cigarette!


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