It is more important to be interesting than brilliant. Before a written work can be uplifting, edifying, important, or remembered, it must first be read by someone. When a reader puts your work down without reading it, it ceases to exist. First, it must entertain.
Note: This laptop dictionary defines entertain first and foremost as to provide (someone) with amusement or enjoyment. That’s the word’s most common contemporary use. But the two creaky old ink and paper dictionaries on my shelves define it differently. My old Webster’sCollege Dictionary defines it first as to hold together, to maintain: And The fifteen pound four inch thick Random House Standard Dictionary defines the word “entertain” as to hold the interest of. That’s the way I’m using it here.
Hemingway said to write the truest sentence you can. And although pretentious writing is often rewarded in our society, that doesn’t make it any better. For an interesting essay on this subject Google B. R. Myers, A Reader’s Manifesto, published first in part as an essay in The Atlantic Monthly, July 2001, and then as a book of the same title. To give you an idea about the tone of this piece Myers says, “Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, is now considered to be 'literary fiction'--not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.”
There was a good example of this, in my opinion, in a quote I read from an essay in which one of our most famous living writers posits that in writing memoirs or personal essays we act on a longing to revisit parts of our past in the way that rivers, she said, seek to return to their old, former channels, now dry and overgrown with brush and trees. It’s a lovely metaphor, but anyone with a knowledge of riparian hydrology--or for that matter, anyone who ever took earth science in high school--knows that just the opposite is true: as rivers age they leave those oxbows behind because their singular intent (if I may continue the pathetic fallacy of personification and intentionality here) is to run straight to the sea by carving the shortest and most direct route there from their sources.
“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” (Robert Frost)
Eudora Welty says: “If you haven’t surprised yourself you haven’t yet written.”
My way of saying the same thing is “write what you wonder about; use what you know.”
But my favorite quote on the subject comes from Grace Paley, who says, “Write from what you know into what you don’t yet know.”
5) I believe as I’ve heard said, that writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned. --mostly by example: by teaching students to read like writers, by saying “Look at how this writer did this. Look at the effect and look how it was produced.”
I’m far from the first to say that you will learn more from reading good writers than from writing workshops. But I’ll also add that HOW you read is more important than WHAT you read. There is something to be learned from almost any successful piece of writing. Again, The DaVinci Code might be “horrible,” as my student put it. But the guy knows something about compelling plot writing. Once more, what can be taught is reading like a writer.
On Monday: Five Things I Believe About Fiction in Particular