October 13, 2013

I’ve been brooding more than usual lately because I’m sailing in that Dead Sea of having a book about to come out and facing the daunting prospect of starting another. (“Some things in life get easier,” William Kennedy once told me, “but novel writing isn’t one of them.”) The more I think about it, the more I want to take a nap.

How, I wonder, did writing ever acquire an aura of romance and adventure? It’s lonely, isolating exasperating, a commitment of several years with no sure payoff (indeed, maybe a rejection) at the end. Yet for me the only thing more painful than writing is not writing.

“The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959,” which was bestowed me through the blessed benevolence of Joe Goodrich and Honor Molloy, is helping me navigate these troubled waters.

To a teacher in New Jersey who wrote him in 1946 asking for advice to give his pupils, Chandler sent this terse reply: “The people whom God intended to be writers find their own answers, and those who have to ask are impossible to help. They are merely people who think they want to be writers.”

Chandler is the enemy of illusions. He constantly stresses the hard work involved in writing. The writer’s job, as he makes clear, is to show up: “The important thing is that there be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try … But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing …Two simple rules, a. you don’t have to write; b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”

I had just read this when I stumbled on the late Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing.” Leonard was a terrific writer, and I agree with his rules (mostly). Yet if you follow them strictly, the danger is you’ll end up sounding like Leonard, and if you can’t develop a distinctive voice–a signature style–why try to be a writer in the first place?

I was once on a panel with a writing teacher who pontificated on his “10 Pillars (no mere rules for this professor) of Good Writing.” I listened with silent skepticism to the first few–“good writers write in complete sentences” (tell that to Joyce, Faulkner, et al.); “good writers know their audience” (writers can never be sure of who their audience is/will be. Á la Socrates, all they can they can know is themselves). I completely tuned out when he admonished that “good writers always start with an outline of what they want to say.”

I first ran into that rule in high school, and in 30-plus years as a speechwriter/novelist I’ve found it to be less a pillar than a brick wall. Devising and adhering to an outline is like trying to diagram a sentence before you write it. Writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, is storytelling. A story grows out of itself, reveals itself in the telling, unfolds truths and nuances that are invisible until, in his or her wandering and wondering, the writer discovers, unearths, stumbles upon them. Writing is exploration–finding, losing, re-finding your way–and not mere map reading.

When it came my turn to speak, I said that I didn’t know much about pillars but as a devotee of naps, I’d suggest four pillows for writers to sleep on: 1.) Write badly. Don’t let the editor in your head take over until you first get down on paper some version of what you want to say. All good writing is re-writing. 2.) Write on schedule. Have a set time when you show up at your desk/laptop to write. 3.) Be a fanatic. Never give up. When you reach what seems a dead end, brood on it. Yes, a mixed metaphor: brooding on dead ends. Yet in my experience, if you persist the egg will hatch and the dead end prove to be a pathway. The writing will reveal what you need to keep writing. 4.) If these rules don’t work for you, invent your own.

This morning I showed up dutifully at my desk. I tried to begin the new novel. I fiddled around, stared out the window, sighed, penned a sentence or two, crossed them out, pet the dog, fretted that maybe I don’t have another novel in me or–if I do–lack the stamina and drive to get it out, then I went for a jog and took a nap.

In the end, to paraphrase a writer who broke all the strictures, to thine own rules be true. A writer must rule over his/her own material, not be ruled by someone else’s rules.

For my part, I’ve found no rules or commandments or laws worth a damn other than this: do what you can today and get up tomorrow and try all over again.

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