LESSONS ABOUT WRITING I HAVE LEARNED AND UNLEARNED

I thought it might be useful to jot down a few of the lessons I have learned over a writing career which is now approaching forty years in length.  Probably it is arrogant of me to imagine my own experience is any kind of a paradigm, but writers need arrogance.  That was unquestionably the first thing I learned in this business—arrogance is an absolute requirement.  It is your suit of armor.  The literary world is full of people whose only object in life appears to be to make you feel that you have no business thinking of yourself as a writer:  agents, reviewers, publishers, even readers are all eager to dismiss you with what Orwell once described as “the fine scorn of the unpublished.”  You have to believe in yourself, even if nobody else does.  Particularly if nobody else does.

So I will steam ahead and try to distill for you a little of what experience has taught me.

The first thing is to take your time and know when to stop.  Learn to pace yourself.  There is only so much you can do in one day.  The concentration that writing requires is always in short supply and it is easy to grow numb.  Over the years I have developed a rule of thumb:  if every word I write down is like having my teeth drawn and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to read such tripe, it might strike me as not too terrible when I read it the next day, or the following week, or ten years hence.  However, if it is just flowing out of me and I can hardly believe how beautiful it all is—when I want to phone the National Book Award Committee because this year’s search is all over and I am the sure winner—then it’s time to stop because I’m writing drivel.  When I reread it tomorrow I will be embarrassed.

Another thing is to stop thinking like a student.

When we were in high school we were all taught to look for the “meaning” in a poem or story, but I have learned from bitter experience that, if you know what a story is going to “mean” before you start writing it, that story is better left unwritten.  You are better off starting with a bare outline of events and then creating characters who are psychologically structured to make those events plausible.  As you do scene after scene, try to make each one as real as you can—the object is to create an alternative reality that will live in the reader’s imagination right next to the actual events of his or her life.  If you strive for that sense of reality, eventually your story will begin to reveal to you what it means, but the meaning should be something that can’t be expressed in any terms except those of the story itself.  I once heard someone say, “a poem doesn’t mean—it is.”  If a story is any good, the same distinction should apply.

The point is, if you start a story knowing what it is going to “mean,” you begin hammering the plot and characters into a shape that conforms to that meaning, and novels aren’t sermons.  Readers don’t read them for moral enlightenment.  They read them for the pleasure of spending a little time with people and events that are as real as those of their own lives.  There is nothing in the world duller than a didactic novel.

As a matter of fact, it’s probably not a bad idea to forget most of the things you learned in all those high school and college literature classes, and for several different reasons.  One is that the way literature is taught is, obviously, based on the way it is understood critically, and that way is based on poetry.  Poetry, as a self conscious art form, constitutes the earliest literature we have, and the terms in which is discussed have changed hardly at all since antiquity.  On the other hand, the novel is a relatively new literary genre.  Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is generally considered the first novel in English, and it was published in 1740—less than three hundred years ago.  Critical discussion of fiction didn’t really get going until the early decades of the 20th Century, and the academics have only begun to take fiction seriously since around the end of World War II.  Thus the frame of reference for fiction criticism is still, pretty much reflexively, poetry.  Academics tend to value fiction to the degree that it mirrors the techniques of poetry.  What is prized are still things like polished, arresting language and clever allusions.  I strongly suspect that this is what is behind the distinction between “literary” and “popular” fiction, a pernicious dichotomy which I have dealt with elsewhere, but which, it is worth pointing out again, virtually didn’t exist before the college professors—late as always—finally figured out that fiction really could be properly considered an art form at all.

Why does this matter?  It matters because the task the fiction writer sets himself is different in kind from the task of the poet.  Nobody has any trouble with the idea that poetry is art.  The poet, if he or she is any good, tries to achieve that moment in which language transcends itself.  Poetry is beautiful in itself.  It is not required to be anything more.  Virgil’s Eclogues are exquisite and have remained among the treasured possessions of Western Civilization in spite of the fact that they aren’t about anything of any inherent interest.  When poets try to tell stories they frequently produce arresting works of art, but the actual stories they tell aren’t very successful.  Who would bother to read either the Aeneid or Paradise Lost in a prose version?

The novelist is playing an entirely different game from the poet.  The novelist tries to create an alternative reality, so the last thing he wants to do is remind you that you are reading a work of art.  I know I have said it elsewhere, but the highest art of the novelist is the art which conceals art.  Fiction is a conjuring trick.  If the poet is like a jeweler, the novelist is like a magician.

So forget the stuff you learned from your teachers and approach fiction on its own terms.  Learn how the conjuring tricks are done.

The first conjuring trick I learned was about dialogue.

There is a story attached to my introduction to the art of dialogue, since it was also the moment when I found my vocation.  I was fifteen, the age at which most of us discover what it is to think, and I was in love with the life of the mind.  I wanted to be Descartes and Milton and Hemingway all rolled up into one, without the faintest notion of how philosophy or poetry or fiction worked.  Things became a little more defined when I read Conrad’s Lord Jim, and most particularly the scene where Marlow encounters the French lieutenant who first went aboard the Patna after it was discovered deserted by its crew.  Here is a small part of that scene:

At the end of the period he inclined his body slightly towards me, and, pursing his shaved lips, allowed the air to escape with a gentle hiss. "Luckily," he continued, "the sea was level like this table, and there was no more wind than there is here." . . . The place struck me as indeed intolerably stuffy, and very hot; my face burned as though I had been young enough to be embarrassed and blushing. They had directed their course, he pursued, to the nearest English port "naturellement," where their responsibility ceased, "Dieu merci." . . . He blew out his flat cheeks a little. . . . "Because, mind you (notez bien), all the time of towing we had two quartermasters stationed with axes by the hawsers, to cut us clear of our tow in case she . . ." He fluttered downwards his heavy eyelids, making his meaning as plain as possible. . . . "What would you!  One does what one can (on fait ce qu'on peut)," and for a moment he managed to invest his ponderous immobility with an air of resignation. "Two quartermasters—thirty hours—always there. Two!" he repeated, lifting up his right hand a little, and exhibiting two fingers.  This was absolutely the first gesture I saw him make.  It gave me the opportunity to "note" a starred scar on the back of his hand—effect of a gunshot clearly; and, as if my sight had been made more acute by this discovery, I perceived also the seam of an old wound, beginning a little below the temple and going out of sight under the short grey hair at the side of his head—the graze of a spear or the cut of a sabre.

Reading this passage skinned my eyes.  For the first time I was conscious of the way description and dialogue worked together to achieve the scene’s peculiarly powerful effect.  Notice how the Lieutenant’s words play off against his apparent physical inertia to create the impression that for this man courage is strictly business as usual.  And what he did demanded courage, for he stayed aboard the Patna for thirty hours—thirty hours during which, at any time, from one instant to the next, it could have sunk like a stone.  Notice also the way Conrad uses the descriptions of the Lieutenant’s scars to heighten our impression of him as a man accustomed to danger.  It is a masterful piece of narrative, and when I had finished it I knew I wanted to be a writer.

But I was fifteen at the time and could not see beyond the externals.  It was years before I came to appreciate the subtlety with which Conrad worked the narrative elements into the dialogue.

Consider the difference between a novel and a play.  I once saw Anthony Hopkins on Broadway in a performance of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. Hopkins played Dr. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist charged with treating a seventeen year old boy who has blinded six horses in a stable where he works.  For our purposes the details of the play are unimportant, but what I will always remember is Hopkins standing on a darkened stage, all alone, describing his struggle in coming to terms with the work he does.  He was holding a lit cigarette, and the use he made of that cigarette as he spoke was the most brilliant piece of stage business I have ever seen—when he was finished, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.

Hopkins needed that cigarette.  Its movements constituted a separate emotional language, a kind of counterpoint to the spoken monologue.  It kept him from being simply a man standing on a stage reciting words.  Actors are the great advantage that playwrights have over novelists.  Novelists have to invent their own stage business to keep their dialogue from remaining just words on a page.

One can get away with three or four lines of straight dialogue, but after a certain point the dialogue simply isn’t strong enough to carry the story.  You need stage business—the French lieutenant holding up two fingers to draw attention to the fact that there were two quartermasters ready to cut the tow ropes to the Patna, and thus unintentionally displaying the scar from a bullet wound on his hand—you need it for characterization and to ground the dialogue in the real world of the story.

And you also need it to keep the reader off balance.  What do I mean by that?  I’ll give you a small sample of bad dialogue (one I am making up on the spot, so no one else is to blame):

“Well, are you going to take that job at the bank?” Henry asked.

“I don’t know.  I haven’t decided yet,” Jessica answered.

“Well, you’d better decide.  You’re not getting any younger,” Henry replied grimly.

“I’ll think about it some more,” Jessica said.

“Well, I hope so,” Henry said.

Why is this so bad?  What are the individual elements of its awfulness?  Well, for one thing it follows a syntactical pattern which is at once both obvious and boring.  Every line of dialogue is set up in essentially the same way, which is monotonous and serves to remind the reader that this is something he is reading—it is just words on a page.  To put it another way, the monotony, among other offenses, breaks the illusion that we are overhearing a real conversation between two people who are also, at least imaginatively, real.

Consider how little these five lines tell us about Henry and Jessica.  Are they married?  Are they having his conversation over breakfast?  All we can deduce from the dialogue itself is that Henry wants Jessica to take the job at the bank.  Otherwise, it has no emotional setting.

Stage business gives a novelist the chance to deepen the illusion he or she is trying to create, just as actors bring the playwright’s words to life.

But the other great point is that it is necessary to create sufficient variety in the syntactical structure of your dialogue.  Break a piece of dialogue in half, and drop in some little telling piece of action.  Follow dialogue with description.  Do almost anything to prevent the sense that the dialogue is patterned.  The goal is to keep your readers off balance, to keep distracting the poor darlings from the obvious fact that they are reading something instead of watching it unfold in the Little Theater Behind the Eyeballs.

And one must be constantly aware of this goal because writers, like the rest of the human race, tend to fall into habits and you cannot write a good story on automatic pilot.

We all do it, with dialogue and with smaller things, which brings me to another point.

Recently I have gone through the experience of preparing some of my earlier novels for reissue as ebooks, and I discovered that, at least thirty years ago, I had what amounted to a passion for hyphenated words.  Well, they are my books—I wrote the damn things—so I felt free to edit out my earlier bad habits.  But I have plenty more.  I also like dashes.  I’d probably use fifty dashes a page, except that I am conscious of this particular weakness and try to restrain myself.  (Sometimes not all that successfully.  If you’ve been keeping count, I’ve used fifteen of them so far in this essay.)

So watch yourself.  A quirk of style, once the reader notices it, again breaks the illusion.  Learn your own little stylistic quirks and guard against them.  And, since it seems that none of us can ever have enough bad habits, watch out for the new quirks that will arise spontaneously, like dandelions in your literary lawn.

Which brings me to my last point, which is also about style.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that it was difficult to catch Jane Austen in the act of genius, and I think that for once she was not being snide.  She intended it as a compliment.  Whatever could she have meant?  The answer is provided by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that a story should go through three editing stages:  the first for grammar, the second for style and the third to get out all the immortal stuff.  In other words, don’t overwrite.  Once again we are in the business of creating and sustaining an illusion, and the truly arresting turn of phrase just serves to remind the reader that he or she is reading something.  There shouldn’t be any showstoppers in fiction.

That doesn’t mean that your style is required to be bland.  Write well, but remember, yet again, that the highest art is that which conceals art.  You can be good—even brilliant, as Conrad was in the scene from Lord Jim (two more dashes, which makes seventeen)—but don’t be flashy.