“Writing is Rewriting” – Ernest Hemingway
Second Hemingway reference in a week, and I’m not even a huge fan. Actually, a lot of writers have revealed this secret, if it ever needed revealing.
I’ll add my own: A writer who’s satisfied after a first draft probably isn’t a writer.
Hemingway also said he once rewrote an ending 39 times. The fact that he actually counted, well, either that was just an outright lie, or, back in the age of typewriters (see last blog), one actually did keep track. Nowadays, who can? It’s too damn easy to write, delete, repeat. Seems like every time I go back to a story, I end up rewriting the first paragraph. In some ways it’s the most important paragraph, the one that will keep a reader reading. Yet it seems like an endless task toward a perfection that never arrives, to say nothing of all the paragraphs that follow.
I always think of a story like a sculpture. You start with the stone, a sense of what the story might be, and then chip away until you find out what it actually is. This frequently ends up being nothing like you had imagined.
Lately, my revision process is a lot of fine-toothing. I can literally spend hours on a page, wrenching the words until they sound right. Of course, what’s “right” is a purely subjective idea, a decision made by me and only me, in a room alone (or sometimes in public, but still, alone). This is both a freedom and a burden. On the one hand, no one else can tell me what to write. On the other hand, no one else can tell me what to write.
In my theatrical past, writing was collaboration. Firstly, many pieces were co-written, discussed, and rewritten before we even cast the play. Then if lines weren’t working in rehearsal, we could rewrite them on the spot.
Story writing is a different beast altogether. All the elements must already be in place on the page: the characters, the setting, the plot, the rising action that drives the characters to a point of crisis, at least if I’m following traditional narrative structure. And then there’s the theme, what the story is saying, why it matters, the axis upon which every other element must in some way revolve.
While we’re at it, why not add that I’d also like my work to be hilarious, heartbreaking, and, oh yes, original!
It’s tough to judge this on my own, but I know I’m getting close when I read something over and don’t wince. The rewrites gradually lessen, and I feel I could be closing in on the finish line. Until someone gives me notes about how it’s not working. Then it’s back to the rewrite again.
I’m still growing. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon, so the way I write will evolve as well. When I come back to a story, I’m going to see it differently every time. The hope is that after years of revision, I will feel confident enough to send it out, and someone will like it enough to print it into book form. And then, even though I’m sure I’ll never feel finished, I will finally be able to move on. To the next rewrite. Of the next book. And on and on, and so forth, etc., etc. Ad infinitum. Hallelujah. Amen.
In honor of National Poetry Month meet Kioni "Popcorn" Marshall, an extraordinary 12-year-old poet from the Bronx. Follow Kioni's emotional journey as she prepares for her first featured performance at New York's famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Created and produced by @radical.media, THNKR gives you extraordinary access to the people, stories, places and thinking that will change your mind.
I recently re-read the chapter entitled "Don't Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do" in Jerome Stern's Making Shapely Fiction. What I like in this book is that the general tone is relatively informal and conversational, as the title of this chapter exemplifies. He's funny and shares specific, personal examples. Stern teaches that there are no completely firm rules in writing fiction. Instead there are some basic tenets for good writing, and there are always exceptions to every rule.
In "Don't Do This," Stern touches on a point that really sticks with me: Complication is not complexity.
"Don't try to tell too many stories at once," Stern writes.
As a young writer I find that sometimes I have the instinct to add to a circumstance in my fiction by simply including other events, people, or flashbacks. Stern's point, I think, really hits home. It's not about how many things we can make happen, or people we can make appear or, as is often in the case of my writing, memories we can make surface. In actuality, it's about the depth of a given conflict/desire. What makes this situation complex? How can we go deeper rather than adding on top of it? What is it beyond the surface that makes this person and their yearning real? What is human and identifiable about this situation? Why is it important that this desire is being thwarted?
As I revise my current chapters and continue to write toward the completion of my novel, I want to hold this in my mind. The best stories in all forms and genres are, I believe, complex and not complicated. They are not a web but a well; deep, and sometimes dark, and full of the stuff that gives life.
Eduardo Santiago and I were Emerging Voices Fellows the same year. After the fellowship, Eduardo went on to be a participant in the first year of The Mark Program. His book, Tomorrow They Will Kiss, was published by Little, Brown. He has another book coming out this July, Midnight Rumba. Eduardo also hosts the Idyllwild Authors Series, sponsored by PEN Center USA. We recently met up and talked about the upcoming season.
John Irving is an American novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter. Irving achieved critical and popular acclaim after the international success of The World According to Garp in 1978. Some of Irving's novels, such as The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, have been bestsellers. Five of his novels have been adapted to film including A Widow for One Year, pictured above. He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1999 for his script The Cider House Rules. We are sharing an interview that Irving did with the New York Times Book Review. He talks about his writing habits, and reveals what book made him want to be a writer.
Here is an excerpt:
New York Times: Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, but didn’t?
John Irving: Everything by Ernest Hemingway.
NYT: What don’t you like about Hemingway?
JI: Everything, except for a few of the short stories. His write-what-you-know dictum has no place in imaginative literature; it’s advice for a journalist, not for a novelist or a playwright. Imagine if Sophocles or Shakespeare or Dickens had heeded that advice! And Hemingway’s sentences are short and simplistic enough for advertising copy. There is also the offensive tough-guy posturing — all those stiff-upper-lip, don’t-say-much men! I like Melville’s advice: “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall.” I love Melville. Can you love Melville and also like Hemingway? Maybe some readers can, but I can’t.
NYT: If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
JI: There’s nothing I need or want to know from the writers I admire that isn’t in their books. It’s better to read a good writer than meet one.
I’m writing on a laptop in bed. About as far from Hemingway as possible, but I have an excuse: a vegan restaurant food-poisoned me. If I move too much, I get sick. Even typing that last sentence made me a tad nauseous.
Like many book lovers, my parents read to me from an early age. I’d beg to read the same books again and again and then—like I’d read about kids in books doing—I’d sneak under the covers to read. During the summer, there were reading competitions at our local library. At five books, you received a pin. At twenty, you earned a gift certificate for the local ice cream shop, where your Polaroid would be taken and tacked onto the wall. At a hundred books, you won a free ferry ride to San Francisco. Along the way—and while enjoying my prizes—the program taught me about embarking and falling into new worlds, one book at a time. It also taught me, through exposure, that there is no formula for a good book; at least, there is no formula for what makes a book enjoyable to me.
In middle school, as punishment, a close friend’s mother would assign her book reports. I was envious and, also, prohibited from helping.
In college and then graduate school, I gained exposure to worlds of books I hadn’t known existed. I discovered vast collections of short stories and literary journals, books that’d received nominations for prizes. I will always feel like I’m behind on reading, like I should have read more, that I can’t believe I haven’t read X—and, while I wish and want to read it all, I’m also grateful that the world of quality literature is so vast.
As an adult, it’s easy for me to fill precious time with things other than reading. Like everybody, I can think of a million and one things that need to be taken care of. But I never, ever regret setting aside time for reading. It has always been and, I believe, always will be an activity of love. Certainly, reading is good for my writing and, even more, it is enlivening for my soul. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
So, here’s to more designated reading time. To my fellow book lovers, I ask: Any recommendations?
A Few Great Authors on the Merits of Reading
"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges
“We read to know that we are not alone.” — C.S. Lewis
“If one reads enough books one has a fighting chance. Or better, one’s chances of survival increase with each book one reads.” — Sherman Alexie
“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” — Anne Lamott
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.” — Ernest Hemingway
“Be awesome! Be a book nut!” — Dr. Seuss
Every writer has an inner critic. This is what Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird: "Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head."
In the spirit of killing your inner critic, we are sharing a clip from Family Guy.
Are you a writer? Are you sometimes not sure? Thought Catalog's Nico Lang compiled a list of traits belonging to the classic writer-type. If this describes you, you're on the right track:
1. You take a pen and paper with you everywhere, sometimes even into bed with you, just in case you have an idea at three in the morning that absolutely must be remembered. That idea never usually ends up good, but like everything you say when you’re stoned, it sounded very good at the time.
2. You really, really want to buy a typewriter, even though you never expect to actually use it. You just want a typewriter because you’re one of the 10 people in the world who still finds them romantic and sexy. All of those people are writers.
3. When you date someone and they say that they majored in “English” or “Poetry,” you’re instantly excited but then exceedingly nervous. Why? Because you’ll eventually be expected to read some of their poetry — something they really love and don’t show to a lot of people — and have an opinion on this much guarded poem. You can’t deal with this kind of pressure. This has gone badly before.
4. You buy a lot of books you never, ever end up reading — just out of the thought that you might find time to read it someday. I took my copy of Don DeLillo’s Underworld with me on a trip to Paris once — just in case I suddenly felt the urge to read a challenging 900-page opus by my favorite writer. When that book later got stolen out of by bag, I actually cried. It was like losing something I never knew I had. (Side note: I even have a copy of Americana in French, and my French isn’t even very good. Someday.)
5. You will use almost anything as a bookmark or a writing pad in a jam — like receipts, money, bank slips, old envelopes, newspapers, unopened mail or death threats from your bank. You can’t throw out anything in your apartment without checking to see if it has writing on it first. That bag of popcorn could be important.
6. When you hear the words “I’m on deadline,” you immediately burst into action, a Pavlovian response to a) always having something due and b) always being behind on it. You’re certain that if they were able to make your procrastination into an energy source, it will solve our nation’s fuel crisis. Or at least make gas cheaper.
7. Most people get tattoos of trees or pigeons or misspelled odes to their exes. You get tattoos of your favorite lines from Faulkner or Pablo Neruda’s face. Full disclosure: I currently have two poetry tattoos and I’m planning to get some lines from W.H. Auden, when I can figure out the placement. One day, I’m going to be the Guy Pearce in Memento of dead white dude verses.
8. You have more books than you have friends, by a large margin. You’re a little concerned that one day, you might become a hoarder. (Fact: I own two copies of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. One is a backup, just in case I happen to lose the other one. Insurance, my friend.)