Everyone Lies about Writing (Part II): No, Thank You

In my last post, I included a quote from Amy Poehler’s book Yes Please about the writing process. In her preface, Ms. Poehler brought out that universal broom for the ages, the everyone broom that seems to sweep the entire population of mankind into a single category. We all do it from time to time in conversation, though mostly as innocuous hyperbole: “Everyone knows who President Obama is.” Actually, not true. “Everyone loves chocolate.” Definitely not true. “Everyone loves Raymond!” Okay, now you’re just being balmy, slightly dippy, and most definitely inane.

For this post, I would like to scratch the whole “everyone” thing and instead offer my thoughts based on my own experience as a writer over the last 15 years, tempered with the sage wisdom of writers far more deft at the craft than myself and who have had some thought-provoking quotes on the subject over the years.

Ms. Poehler wrote in her preface that “[writers] perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea.” While that is true for some people, I would like to counter with what Ernest Hemingway once said, something I believe in far more:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Forgive the disturbing metaphor, but meaningful writing is a spiritual enema. It is a holistic process to those who practice the craft out of necessity and love – the emotional oxygen by which the soul blooms – and not for reasons concerning money, fame, anger or boredom.

Ms. Poehler then wrote, “[Writing this book] has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.” I can most certainly relate to this sentiment. There have been moments in my own experience, especially in the editing process, when you seem to go over the same page or the same sentence over and over until you want to tear your face off and self-immolate before jumping off a building into a field of broken glass. Okay, maybe not that bad, but it can suck the bag big time.

That being said, I will once again turn the floor over to someone who said it much better than I could. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her Unabridged Journals:

Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

So true. How often do we complain as writers before we even attempt the challenge of getting down a story or reworking a chapter or listening prudently to constructive advice? Sadly, I, for one, am guilty of this. But as funny as Ms. Poehler’s simile is, the situation has to be approached not with a screwdriver but with several kilograms of that wonderful fairy dust called patience if you’re to make the story come out in Dolby. That may sound flighty and exactly what Ms. Poehler was referring to when she said writers romanticize the process or make it into something “mighty and macho,” but it’s a simple truth. You need time to examine, re-examine, and then re-examine what has just been looked over 20 times. You need to discover beauty for beauty’s sake, or as Oscar Wilde once mused:

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

You need to keep things simple. You need to avoid adverbs whenever possible. You need to use the active verb tense over the passive and you need to show, not tell, your readers what you’re trying to get across. Or, as Chekhov once famously wrote:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

And for those who write novels, you have to realize what Stephen King has long known:

Fiction is the truth inside the lie.

But most of all, beyond any metaphor or simile you can come up with, if you’re going to write well you have to write because you love it, because your soul hemorrhages when you don’t have the craft as an outlet, and because you miss the other half of your soul which Plato said was separated at birth and which you only find when you sit down to produce the written word.

Ms. Poehler stated that writing “…is a small, slow crawl to the finish line.” Indeed it is. However, there is nothing or no one to say that is a bad thing in and of itself. Reading a great book is also a small, slow crawl to the finish line, but I, for one, love that.

I’m currently reading Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and I’ve been reading it for what feels like the length of a war. Some nights I read only two pages. And that’s okay because it’s not a race. The writing is exquisite and the story is captivating. I imagine it took Mr. Doerr quite a long time to research and write and edit the book, but every word he has chosen, every chapter he was penned, sings off the page with a harmony that makes the “small, slow crawl” so worth it, most definitely as a reader, and – I hope – for the writer himself.

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