Writers as Readers 2: The Electric Boogaloo

It isn't all you need, but yeah. Almost there.

Yesterday, I mentioned starting some hoopla on my Tumblr on account of my stance of writers are readers. I also promised a list of things that I felt were necessary in decent writing. I also stated that I wouldn’t wing the post because something of this gravity needed careful thinking. Besides, I owe you all something in which thought was carefully taken. What I forgot to mention is that I’m an incredibly lazy person and something of this gravity would take me ages to write and by then, none of this would be fresh – considering the sell-by-date of these tips have expired (meaning they’re old, not irrelevant).

So what you’re stating is you’re going to wing this post and it’s going to suck and be riddled with incorrectness, why should we bothered to read it? No. I’m not winging it per se, but I am gonna just list five things because five things was all I can think of without searching my notes and using most of my time – time which I could use to read or write – to write a shitty rough draft of this post in a notebook that I’ve had for years and still haven’t  managed to fill up. (This is to suggest that I suck at keeping journals of any kind because I like writing and I’ll write on whatever is at hand, promising myself to transfer said writing to aforementioned journal but never quite getting around to it.)

Ennui Prayer’s 5 Essential Things to become a great pretty decent an okay writer:

(1.) This one’s tricky because some writers will say that constant writing is most important to writing well. Others say that constant reading is more valuable to learning how to write. I say they’re both as important. Therefore, Constant Reading/Writing (Wreading?) is my number one.

One can automatically understand why writing every day – or constant writing – is important. Just like with anything, constant practice makes perfect. Even Hubert Selby, Jr. – author of great novels like Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream (both adapted into films) – stated that he didn’t know how to write lick of spit when he started. What he did, however, was kept at it. Ernest Hemingway stated that all a person needs to do to write is go away and write. Of course, Hemingway was a well read man and, as John Gardner pointed out in his book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, “went away for free “tutorials” to two of the finest teachers then living, Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein.”

With Gardner in mind, he stated that there are two elements to the great writer’s authority:

  1. “[H]is sane humanness”
  2. “[T]he writer’s absolute trust (not blind faith) in his own aesthetic judgments and instincts”

“What this means, in practical terms for the student writer, is that in order to achieve mastery he must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for a writer as for a pianist, is the heart of the matter. Though a literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become, as it is for the pianist, second nature.” (Gardner, 8-9)

Several other instructional books will state similar things. However, my argument – and this has always been about my argument – is that reading is just as essential to writing when it comes to the writer. In his book, 2004-2006 U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (whom I had the pleasure listening to one of his lectures back in 2005), The Poetry Home Repair Manual, writes: “The best way to learn the art of poetry is to read as much of it as possible – contemporary poems, ancient poems, folk poems, poems in translation, light verse, nonsense verse, song lyrics, jingles, poems of every kind. Every successful poem acknowledges the influence of other poems. Every unsuccessful poem illustrates by its failures what might have been better if its author had read a little more poetry.” (8-9) Les Edgerton lends his opinion in his book, Finding Your Voice: “Reading lots and lots of books and stories that have attained actual print is how published writers learn their craft. The more you read, the more you’ll learn that what you’re reading breaks just about every “rule” and goes against just about every example you were exposed to back in P.S. 101.” (23) “Because you’re a writer and that means you’re a reader. That’s where you’ve learned to write. By reading and reading and reading. All that reading hasn’t been a waste of time. It’s taught you your inner intelligence what works and what doesn’t. Learn to trust it more.” (50) And in Writers [on Writing]: Volume 2, Chitra Divakaruni proudly announces, in her essay cleverly titled “New Insights into the Novel? Try Reading Three Hundred,” “I love to read, that was one of the reasons why I was a writer.”

So to better one’s writing, not only do you have to continually have to write, you have to continually read.

And with Les Edgerton in mind, let’s move to the second thing…

(2.) Conventions. Conventions exist for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons is to never piss off the reader. For example, you never create a protagonist that the reader feels nothing for. You don’t want your main guy – hero or otherwise – to have no deeming traits whatsoever. Even if he’s a terrorist or anything more despicable than that – if there is indeed anything – you have to at least make him human. Don’t rationalize what he’s about to do, but give him reason that the writers will feel for him.

The other reason conventions were set up was so they could be broken. Make sense, right? We pour into movie theaters every time a zombie flick comes on to watch a movie about the undead snacking on the living while the living try not to get killed – either by the undead or the living gone mad. However, these zombies run. Thirty years ago, they did no such thing. And several decades ago, they weren’t even undead creatures, but people placed under spells. If writers continued to follow outdated conventions, then reading would simply decline. Les Edgerton states the importance of reading and reading and more reading isn’t just to learn how the structure of a story should be, but find your own voice. “The trick is to figure out what’s good for you and what’s not. The key words in the sentence are “for you.” How do you figure this out? As I said earlier, by trusting your own instincts. If if “feels” wrong, chances are it is. Your instincts are trying to warn you not to follow that rule or custom. How do you know your instincts know to do this? Because you’re a writer and that means you’re a reader.” (50)

It’s important to find your voice – not a borrowed voice – but your own. You can imitate other writers, if it suits your story, but in the long run, yours is the best to go by.

(3.) Revision.  Revision literally means to “re-see.” It isn’t enough to just edit your work, it’s also to make sure you’re telling it right. Revision is probably one of the hardest things I have, just ask the creative writing professors of my past – Rene Saldana, Jr., Emmy Perez, Jose Skinner and Richard Yanez. Sometimes retelling the story through another character’s eyes might better the way it’s read.

(4.) Edit. And after you got the story down right, edit your work. Check for commonly misspelled words and grammatical errors. Note: One sentence paragraphs and fragment sentences aren’t necessarily a bad thing. If you suck at this – and I know I am, just look at this post and those of the past – have a friend who’s better at this read through the story.

(5.) Don’t just write what you know – write what you want to know. If your character likes cheese fries and eats cheese fries every day, you probably already know that he’ll go to great lengths to get cheese fries. But what if cheese fries suddenly become illegal? What exactly would your character do? Chances are, you haven’t thought that far – why should you? It’s not like cheese fries are ever going to be illegal.

Okay, that was a bad example and it’s probably because I’m thinking about food. Let’s take one from a creative writing course I took in college with Jose Skinner. Every spring break, an old man – this aging hipster who still wears in the fashion clothing – goes to South Padre Island to hang out with the college kids. Most of his retired friends think it’s because he still feels he has a shot with hooking up with a college co-ed, but what’s the real reason. You already know that the old hipster goes to the beach every spring break, but you don’t know why. It’s the why you want to know. Some students went off to state that the old man was really a drug trafficker, which is why he was able to afford the clothes he was wearing and still manage to pay the bills.

There are more, way more than five, but five’s all you’re getting. I’ve already passed the marker of the average blog post word limit. Maybe, I’ll take more time to come up with other “essential” rules/tips. Who knows. I don’t. Write about it.

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