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Writing Lessons From Some of the Greats

I recently found an old external hard drive of mine (or rather, my sister did). There are a lot of random stories, or at least parts of stories, and a plethora of essays I wrote throughout my college career. Since I don’t have as much time or concentration power between my new job and interviews, in order to keep up with my 2-3 posts per week goal I may publish some articles I find now and then, that may be pretty old. After all, they have nothing to do but sit in my external hard drive. Hopefully they’ll be interesting to some of you.

This first one was last edited June 1st, 2009. It was written for my Writing Fiction class. We all had to choose an author and give an oral report on them, and then write an essay on what we learned about the writing process from the presentations. It’s pretty interesting looking back on this now – at the time I hadn’t read Vonnegut yet, or even Gaiman, and maybe not Murakami. Or Kerouac! O’Connor I had – I don’t think you can get a degree in English without reading at least two of her short stories. Can you tell I resent authors that dismiss genre fiction? *coughTerryGoodkindcough*

Italics are by the current me, everything else is by the past me.

I break this rule within this very post. Sorry Mr. Vonnegut.


Writing is very subjective, like all the arts.  Different people often have very different ideas about what constitutes a good book or a good story.  Throughout the past few class periods we have talked quite a lot about several different authors and how they view their own work.  As many different views as there are from the audience perspective, there are certainly also many varying opinions from the authors themselves.

One of the authors we looked at in class was Haruhi Murakami.  A Japanese writer, he had a little bit of a unique perspective.  He wrote his first novel at age twenty-nine, inspired by watching his favorite baseball team.  He’s been criticized because he’s not representing his country or writing about the Japanese culture.  I find this to be an unfair judgment.  I’ve been to Japan and studied Japanese, and I think lately the whole Japanese culture has been gravitating to more western things.  The only place I could find shirts with Japanese written on them instead of English, were tourist places like Tokyo Tower.  Murakami is also a morning person and writes from four in the morning until ten.  He writes every day to become accustomed to writing and keep in shape.  He writes like a jazz musician, writing without knowing where it goes or what’s next.  Many of his themes are loss and suicide, individual and societal darkness.  He believes it takes talent, focus, and endurance to write, and mentions that he feels more like he’s dreaming instead of writing.

Another author we talked about was David Foster Wallace.  Vonnegut, the last author talked about, said that you had to be depressed in order to be a writer, and I would say that fits him fairly well.  He ended up killing himself (I meant Wallace, not Vonnegut. I used ‘He’  as the first word in sentences faaaar too much).  He believed the TV was a snorkel to the universe, an interesting metaphor.  He taught but hated it.  Wallace would also write every day, though only for an hour.  Then he would worry the rest of the day about not writing (I feel your pain, bro).  He had an interesting writing style, with footnotes and endnotes.  This he explained by saying that reality is fractured, so he fractures the text.  He also said that artists are themselves and can feel it in their nerve endings.  Some people say that poetry is being marginalized, but Wallace would argue that art is marginalized when it no longer reaches the people.  He makes a good point that good literature makes a reader confront issues but in a pleasurable way.  This is a very hard balance to achieve.  He worked on a lot but most didn’t get published, which he called the Darwinian struggle.  He also said writing is chaos, which from my experience, I certainly agree.

Flannery O’Connor was the third author we talked about.  She wanted to be considered a writer who was southern, not a southern writer. This I can understand; it’s always hard to fight against stereotypes.  It would be especially frustrating as a writer.  She was very religious and says that had a large role in her writings.  The style of her writing could be described as southern gothic.  There were often psycho killers that talked quietly, despite their profession.  She said to try arranging the novel backwards to see excess.  I thought this was a unique way of editing your own novel.  Still, she says that too much editing and being overly conscious is bad for the story.  She had at least a little bit of a rebel in her as she went into a workshop only for boys.  O’Connor would also agree that writing must be a habit if you want to be successful.  She writes two hours a day.

Irving Welsh was the fourth author we looked at.  He was an interesting character.  He was arrested, a heroin addict, had a handbag fetish, stood up David Bowie twice, and was a binge drinker.  He was a guitar player and vocalist and got into writing through music.  The music would tell a story which inspired him to continue that story with words.  Welsh would write until he got bored.  He would also suggest as little conscious interference as possible, and let the characters develop themselves. Welsh used a Scottish dialect for much of the dialogue, since he believed it was more realistic and appealed more to the Scottish people.  He was also fond of putting characters in extreme situations in a short time frame.  He was also lucky enough to never get writers block because he has too many ideas.

Another author we talked about was Neil Gaiman (You can tell from this paragraph that I wasn’t quite the fangirl I am now).  He began as a journalist and interviewed people and did book reviews.  He was twenty-three when his first short story was published.  His first novel was Neverwhere but soon he got into comics.  Sandman was the first comic he wrote, and still says he enjoys comics more because it’s uncovered territory.  He has a very good point.  It is interesting how varied his writing is, as he’s also written children’s books, as well as written with Terry Pratchett, another author talked about later on.

Jack Kerouac was the sixth author.  He was inspired by “The Shadow,” a radio station.  He dropped out of college and joined the navy and suffered seven years of rejection from publishers.  Finally he got his break.  He was a Buddhist and considered a conservative beatnik.  He also believe in leaving your work as untouched as possible, and not editing.  Kerouac believed that gave the audience your own ideas.  Unfortunately as he got older he started to hate writing, yet still managed to write eight thousand words every night.

Catherine Patterson was a children’s author and also had some insights on writing.  Her parents were missionaries in China, and she wrote the curriculum for Sunday school.  She thought that wanting to write and being able to were two different things.  However she still took a class and ended up publishing the book from it. One source of inspiration was that she was a foster parent but caught herself counting down the days until the child was gone.  This made her think about what it would be like to be that child.  That was where she got the idea for Gilly Hopkins.  She was a bit unusual in that she thought first drafts were awful but loved to rewrite.  When asked why she would use first or third person, she responded that the book refused to be told any other way and themes emerge while writing the story.  You don’t decide themes, you discover themes.  Patterson also said that you need to have thin and thick skin; thin to be a writer and thick to be published.

Richard Setzer was the eighth author we looked at.  He was also a surgeon.  He grew up knowing he wanted to be a doctor.  Setzer had a fixed schedule of when to sleep, when to write, and when to be a doctor.  He said as a doctor you walk in and out of a thousand short stories per day.  He said that writing is very personal, like a fingerprint.  Setzer said that it touches your heart and the more wounded the more beautiful it is.

Stephen King is probably the most popular of the writers we discussed.  His father left him when he was little, saying he was just getting cigarettes.  He may have witnessed his friend being hit by a train and some people say that is the source for his horror.  However he denies it.  It reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien; he had a near-fatal bite from a spider when he was little and people try to say it is because of that that he has so many evil spiders in his books.  He also denies it and doesn’t remember it.  When he was younger he saw an HP Lovecraft novel cover and then he realized what he wanted to do.  He was hired as a teacher.  He threw his first draft in garbage but his wife encouraged him to keep writing.  He had many addictions but managed to quit them.  King was also hit by a van, which later he beat with a baseball bat.  He says his best writing is from freewriting, and it’s better for not plotting it out.  He calls publishing the final act of creativity.  King is yet another author who recommends writing as a habit, and reads or writes himself about four to six hours.

Terry Pratchett is the author I gave my report on, so I feel a bit like I’m repeating myself.  He wrote with footnotes like Wallace, though usually they had no importance to the plot but were side notes, often comical.  His writing started out as a mockery of the fantasy movement in the sixties and grew to be a mockery of anything and everything.  He also usually didn’t write in chapters saying that life doesn’t happen in chapters (At this point during my presentation my teacher laughed and said life doesn’t happen in pages or paragraphs either. Touche).  Pratchett was also resentful of the stigma towards the fantasy genre.  He refused to let his work be called anything else and was angry when things that were fantasy were disguised with other labels (such as magical realism) to make them more acceptable.  I’d have to agree with this.  It seems to me that if a book I’m reading has a sword or a dragon on it, it’s taken less serious by others.  It’s sectioned off as fanciful writing that has no relevance and no deeper meaning, which I think is a mistake.   There is definitely more to fantasy than just escapism.  Pratchett’s own books are good examples.  They fight against not only the fantasy prejudice but also humor also gets categorized the same way.  His writing is both humorous and fantasy, but from the ones I’ve read, also deal with women’s rights, religion, political corruption, the futility of war, and race relations.

T. C. Boyle is one of the authors that would argue with Pratchett.  Boyle refused to read any genre novels because he believes that they have to go by conventions.  However, literary fiction is a genre and often follows certain conventions.  It’s a feeling of superiority that makes me not want to read his works.  He wants people to compare him to Mark Twain, which for someone who complains about the unoriginality in genre writing seems to be a little ironic, but onto other things.  He was also a teacher. Boyle said it wakes him up, and likes being a mentor to others. Music influenced his writing and its rhythm had an impact on his prose.  He alternates between short stories and novels to keep his interest.  He also doesn’t edit his writing; he writes the same draft over and over until he gets it right.

Andy Dillard was a writer influenced by poetry.  He loved Emerson, but hated school.  He was yet another teacher.  His novels started out as around as twenty volumes of journals before turning into note cards, until finally reaching the novel form.  He would write all night and was a recluse.  Dillard said write as if you were dying, and keeping it in is dangerous.  His advice for when you finish the book is to decide what the book is about and shave off what doesn’t belong there.

Despite all of Boyle’s efforts, another genre writer made it to the list: Robert Heinlein.  He was considered one of the big three of science fiction writing.  He didn’t hide it and proved that science fiction was worthy of being taken seriously.  Heinlein was in the navy and got kicked out.  He invented the water bed in one of his books.   He also helped design space suits for NASA.  A lot of his writing involves characters adjusting in society, what it means to be human and morals.  He said to never underestimate the power of human stupidity.  While advising to finish what you write, he also says not to rewrite except editorial.  Heinlein says to put your work on the market and keep it there until it’s sold.

Kurt Vonnegut was the last author we talked about.  He started out as an editor of a student newspaper before joining the army for medical engineering.  While in Germany he was captured and was one of the few survivors of the Dresden bombing.  He was made the leader of the POWs because he was German, but lost that privilege when he insulted his captors.  His mother committed suicide.  His brother was a scientist and helped him gain an interest in science.  He was married, divorced, and married again, resulting in seven kids.  In some stories he speaks as the author.  He also says to give one character to root for and give that character something to do.  Be a sadist towards them and make awful things happen. Vonnegut says that each sentence should do two things and not to use semi-colons.  He wrote page by page, editing each page when he was done with it, without much editing at the end.  He was also the one that said you can’t be a writer without depression.

So those were all the authors we talked about.  All of them had varying backgrounds and various styles, but there were still some things that most of them had in common or agreed upon.  Quite a lot of the authors had a back up career as a teacher.  A few others started their careers through journalism.  One thing almost all of them agreed upon was that writing needs to be a habit, and needs to be done for a certain amount of time every day.  Writing takes dedication and without that we wouldn’t have any of the wonderful work that these fourteen authors put forward.


What author would you have given a presentation on?

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