Less than a week before Kurt Vonnegut died, I bought a signed, first edition copy of Bagombo Snuff Box, his Uncollected Short Fiction. I don’t know why I found it or decided to buy it then, but I’ve considered it a sign ever since. In his introduction, Mr. Vonnegut recounts his story as a writer and as a professor of writing. I like to refer to the following section from the book often, because these eight simple pieces of advice are succinct enough that I can keep them posted in front of me at all times:
“Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:
- Use the time of total strangers in such a way he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your reader as much information as soon as possible. Readers should have such complete understand of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”
Today, I’m thinking a lot about number seven.
Most successful writers will tell you that reading and reading and reading some more is just as important as writing and I happen to agree with them – happily, of course because I love to read.
One of my favorite things about the retreat I attended recently was that there were book discussions, led by our instructors. We read a collection of short stories, a memoir, a book of poetry and essays and a novel.
It was interesting to note that although there were twenty four retreat participants, the book discussions themselves were attended by only a handful of us. I was lucky. I read a pretty wide variety of books and so I didn’t mind reading any of them, although I might not have chosen them myself. The first discussion was an eye opener. We discussed the short story collection, Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. One of the discussion participants hadn’t read the book, but opened it, looked through it and then closed it. He said he’d seen all he needed to see. Another read it, but said he didn’t like it. He thought it glorified drug use. The truth is that the collection of stories are linked and they are about a period of time in the author’s life when he was mired in drug and alcohol use. The stories reminded me quite a bit of William S. Burroughs or Charles Bukowski, primarily because of the subject matter. What I got from the stories was that they didn’t glorify anything related to substance abuse. In fact, each story had moments of beauty, but we were helplessly on a ride with the author that we knew would not end well. By the last story, the author was in rehabilitation and was cautiously optimistic. There was hope. I read the stories, not as a casual reader, but as a writer and there was some incredible writing, but the participation in the discussion group drove home the point to me that even writers have a very difficult time reading like writers.
The hardest book for me to read, not literally, but from the standpoint of having to make myself read it, was the memoir by Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle. The writing is good, the narrative structure works, but my confession here is that I’m tired of memoir. So sue me. I’m in the minority because that was probably the most popular reading and it’s been on the New York Times Bestseller List for a very long time.
I also put off reading Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson until last, because I’d read Gilead just before getting the reading list and I rarely like to read two books in a row by the same author. Still, her writing is beautiful. It’s a challenge for me because books heavy on description of landscape are usually not my thing. But something happened when I read Housekeeping. I’d been reading critically for a while and although I initially found the description of the glacial lake, the isolated mountain town and the gloomy town somewhat heavy, I got into them as the story progressed. My last post has an excerpt from the book that is all description and through the reading and the discussion, I learned just how effective this can be, when done as well as Marilynne Robinson and to name one of many, Annie Proulx does it.
It had an impact on my writing. Until the retreat, I’d acknowledged the use of this type of description as something writers use to varying degrees, depending on their personal style. I tend to read novels heavy on character, with a lot of internal dialogue, so of course I tend to write in a similar style (I think). The night before I had to do my own reading at the retreat, I wrote a paragraph of description of place at the beginning of the scene I planned to read. It works (I like to think) and it is consistent with my voice and style.
Not every book I read is necessarily one that I’d choose myself, but the longer I read critically, the easier it is to evaluate work on how well it’s written and to admire how a writer handles scene or dialogue or plotting in a genre that’s not my personal favorite. Had I not been reading critically and studying the techniques and styles of writers I might not read for my own pleasure, I wouldn’t have discovered this and improved my own writing.
I know most people don’t read this way. I know that when I finish writing my story, no matter how well it's written, it won’t be one that most people will want to read; no story appeals to everyone. I may be consciously making a decision to write in a way that makes the already slim chances of publication even slimmer.
That’s OK. My eyes are open.Who do you write for? How wide or limited do you imagine your audience to be, and how does that make you feel?