By Jack Canfora
- Know what you want to say.
- Say it is honestly as you can.
- Find a quiet, comfortable place to write.
- Have some music on softly in the background.
- Is that Three Dog Night?
- Or maybe it’s…no, it’s definitely Three Dog Night.
- Wait, what’s the other band I’m thinking? With that guy?
- You what I’d LOVE right now? An egg roll. Or two. Two.
- (Rifles through desk drawer for Chinese menu, comes across a scorecard from a 2004 Yankees-Twins game, spends rest of day googling old Yankee player stats).
Ok, my list obviously demonstrates my overt suspicion of “How To” books about writing. Or, most “How To” books, actually. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there are many that are actually helpful to many people, and, as John Lennon wisely counseled, “Whatever gets you thru the night.” Suffice to say, I would never write one (Full disclosure: no one, absolutely no one. has ever asked me to do so. And while I’d still say no, it would feel nice to be asked. for God’s sake).
I believe manuals that purport to teach one how to write, or undertake any artistic endeavor, by definition erase the one thing that makes actual art: the artist’s unique mind, shaped by his/her/their unique chemistry, life-experience, etc. I do think some of these books (and courses) can teach one the basics: the nuts and bolts, the carpentry, the technical aspects. And that’s not nothing.
But I’d also argue that those lessons are better absorbed by doing vast, diversified, steaming great, heaping piles of reading. Read and read and read, or listen to the equivalent amounts of music, or looking at paintings, or whatever you’re trying to pursue). I’m also an immense fan of re-reading, especially stuff you adore and stuff you abhor to try to figure out why you do.
If you read enough, a lot of those answers about the basics will seep into your brain through osmosis, into your subconscious. I’d argue that’s ultimately far more valuable, and that seeking out a formula is not only a cheat code, it’s bound to make your art, well, rather formulaic.
Hmmm…for a guy who is openly cynical about anyone telling people how to write, I’ve spent a lot of time the last two paragraphs telling people how to go about doing things. But I’m not. I’m just telling you what’s worked (sorta, to varying degrees) for me. In art, like life, others can help, but you’ve got to figure it out, I think, for yourself.
Malcolm Gladwell has famously argued that it takes 10,000 hours to master any craft. I generally find myself agreeing. But that’s not all it takes. Let’s use one of his most well-known examples: The Beatles. While still young (George Harrison, was in fact, underage), they were not held in high esteem by their fellow Liverpool rock musicians to say the least.
Then they gigged in Hamburg. And gigged and gigged and gigged. Six nights a week, usually eight hour sets. It not only forced them to hone their craft, but the sheer number of stage time to fill forced them to turn to broaden their minds and look to other genres to fill the hours: show tunes, improvisations, Country & Western, comedy songs, standards. And when they came back to Liverpool, the town went crazy for them, and well…you know the rest.
But here’s the thing: Lots of bands gigged like that in Hamburg. Tons. Only one came back as THE BEATLES. Also bear in mind, John and Paul had been writing songs at a steady pace and the best they had to offer for their first release was “Love Me Do” (I’m not knocking it, but that was the highlight of their five years of writing).
The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, saw Lennon-McCartney literally sit in a corner of a studio and write the Stones their first hit (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” for you trivia fans). After that, Stones’ manager Andrew Oldham locked Jagger and Richards in a room and basically said: “Right: you two do that.” And that worked out OK.
My point is there no magical formula. It’s not like building a stool (like I have ANY idea how to do that. The sight off me trying to build stood, if recorded, would be part physical comedy routine worthy of adulation from the French, and part searing commentary on the futility of human existence). But my guess is, once you’ve learned how to build one, you can practice and get progressively better, You can even get fancy, but you’re still building a stool, because it’s a skill you’ve learned.
Writing, for me anyway, isn’t like that. Every time I start to write a new play, TV script, or blog post, I feel as if I’m starting from scratch. I haven’t clue one what to do first: the legs or seat (metaphorically, although, I have to admit, sometimes literally, too). Moreover, I have no idea if my writing will be better than the last effort or worse.
There are brilliant writers who outline every detail before they write a word. There are not so brilliant writers who do the same. There are brilliant writers who start off with a spark, or an idea, or sometimes even just a line (or sometimes not even that much) and see where it goes. Also, not so brilliant writers do that. As the great playwright Sir Tom Stoppard once observed, “If I knew how my plays were going to end, why would I bother finish writing them?” My point it there are NO universal rules (Which sounds suspiciously like a universal rule).
I know, I know. I’m writing a post whose thesis is not to listen to anything or anyone but your own experience, and yet posting this is, by definition, asking you to listen to me. I majored in irony and minored in hypocrisy in college, so believe me, I do get it. So disregard this post. Or don’t. Whatever you feel is best for you. Dammit, more advice. There seems no escaping.
So let me get out of this corner I’ve painted myself into by just saying my general approach, which may or very well may not work for you (and, sometimes, doesn’t even work for me).
I try not to confuse facts with truth. I try to write something I think I’d want to read. I often find myself writing in order to figure out what I feel/think about something, not to prove what I think is necessarily correct. The less I think I know to begin with, the less I have to let go of when it turns out I was wrong. I try to be utterly without judgment when I’m writing, and ruthless when editing. For me, my gut always maps out the way better than my head. I try to be prepared to discover, accept, and trust what I think I was writing about is actually not about that at all.
But, please, don’t take my word for it.
Til next time!
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