Great Writers (and me) on Writing

Tony - Writing

I have some great news for which I am very thankful.  I have accepted a position as a writing instructor at a local community college.  The course is called “Introduction to Academic Writing” and it is primarily designed to teach beginning students to construct well written, persuasive essays.

To make the most of this educational opportunity, however, I want to share my passion for writing as well as the mechanics of how to do it well.  To prepare, I have pulled out part of a post (below) I wrote on writing.

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. ― Maya Angelou

The primary purpose of good writing is not to fix a problem, but to make it more meaningful and beautiful to live in a world filled with problems.  This is one reason I don’t read more Charles Dickens and why I haven’t even started Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  I’m thinking more of fiction here, but even good non-fiction should steer clear of one-dimensional moralism if it is to be effective.  The song must be sung, not explained or advocated or shouted out.  Which leads to my next quote –

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov

Again, while this is true for any writing, I find it especially true for songs and poems.  Don’t say you’re depressed because your girlfriend broke up with you and then go on for 500 words telling me the symptoms of your depression.  Pay a therapist to do that.  Instead,  paint a picture of your sadness, like John Prine in the chorus of  “The Blue Umbrella” –

Blue umbrella
rest upon my shoulder
hide the pain
while the rain
makes up my mind
well, my feet are wet
from thinking this thing over
and it’s been so long
since I felt the warm sunshine
just give me one good reason
and I promise I won’t ask you any more
just give me one extra season
so I can figure out the other four.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ― Mark TwainThe Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Here is where I’m going to put in a plug for self-editing. I read a lot of blogs about writing and I notice that many writers mark their progress by their word count.  Some even set goals of writing 1,000 or 2,000 words a day (or some such amount).  I believe if your goal is good writing, you should lo0k instead at how many words you delete.  I knew of a college professor who set page limits to essays.  If you exceeded the number, he would rip off the extra pages, throw them away and write across the paper, “It seemed a little incomplete.  Try again.”  One right word yields far greater power than two (or three, or one hundred) wrong ones.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. ― Jack KerouacThe Dharma Bums

I like this quote both for its humility and wisdom.  The truth is, we never really get it “right” in this writing life.  Becoming better writers should always be our goal for some distant “one day.”  The direction we should be headed to get there, however, clearly should not involve complex formulas but simple methods of telling it like it is better than we told it the last time, possibly even better than anyone has told it before

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. ― Flannery O’Connor

In terms of writing material, we have a lot within us into which we often fail to tap.  It’s true if you are writing on any subject, you should do good research and not just sit back in your writing chair (mine is a recliner) and write what is on your mind.  Still, if we just pay enough attention to our lives (and the world around us), we will have plenty to start writing every time.

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody. ― Oscar Wilde

What may have been witty hyperbole in Wilde’s day has become almost literal truth today.  I visit many blogs that have few (if any hits).  E-books are being published that sell almost no copies.  You can’t even give them away.  We could debate what is worthy to be read, but I believe three of my primary obligations as a writer are to read, read, read.  Read what others are writing on their blogs.  Read new books being published by known and unknown authors.  And then, to relax before bed, read (or listen to) the classics (including the Bible) to let my mind be refreshed by the gifted wordsmiths of days gone by.

What are your thoughts on writing?  What quote sums up what you believe most true for you as a writer?

10 thoughts on “Great Writers (and me) on Writing

  1. I look at some of my posts and worry that it isn’t a good story since I didn’t use very many words. I look at posts from others and instantly think they must be so wise because their posts are so wordy. It would take me a week to write what they do in one post. I find it hard to get out of my head and worry more about the message instead of the words. Great post today!

    • Thank you so much for the encouraging words.

      I appreciate what you say about word count. But some of the best writing is brief. Think of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

  2. I especially enjoy the idea about counting your deleted words. Very nice!

    This may be apocryphal (or about the wrong writer), but I recall a story about Flaubert meeting friends for an evening dinner, and they asked how his day’s writing had gone. He looked pleased, and answered that it had been excellent. He had been troubled all morning by a semi-colon that he had used a few days before. He gazed at it, turning it over in his mind all morning. At noon, he decided it really should be a period, and made the change. An afternoon of further reflection, though, instructed him that he had been correct from the start. He re-inserted the semi-colon, whereupon he joind his friends at a well-earned meal.

    Congratulations on your teaching position. You and your students will thrive together!

  3. Congratulations, Tony! Your students will be lucky to have a teacher with such passion for writing! I loved when you said “good writing is not to fix a problem , but to make it more meaningful and beautiful to live in a world filled with problems.”

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Outstanding insight, Tony. I’ve never been one to write by word count. Many people ask me, “How long should my chapters be?” or “How many words should be my book be?”– my answer is always the same: “However long it takes to tell the story well.” There is much implication behind “well.” 😉

    Of course, reading reading reading. The good, the bad, the worse. Read what’s good to learn ways of writing well; read what’s not so good to learn how to write better. In the end, it’s all about staying teachable because, as you say, we never truly get it “right” in this writing life.

    My favorite writing quote that sums up the truth for me as a writer: “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~Arthur Plotnik

    • I share your sentiments on counting words. Write until the story has been conveyed, then re-write until it is ready.

      A quote I could have included from Faulkner on reading is “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it”

      I really like the Plotnik quote as well. I may use it in class.

      Thanks for weighing in.

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