Several Secrets to Becoming a Serious Writer

I’m in the mid­dle of writ­ing a piece for the ter­rific blog that got me think­ing about all the writ­ers I’ve had the priv­i­lege to encounter, and so I thought I’d offer some of the things I’ve learned from them over the years. None of these are in any par­tic­u­lar order, nor is this list complete.

At Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity, where I got my M.F.A., I had the good for­tune to study with Regi­nald McK­night, author of the short-story col­lec­tion The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas (the title story is widely anthol­o­gized and deservedly so) as well as the novel, I Get on the Bus. If you get a chance, go hear him read, because he’s a born per­former and mimic, and when you sit down with his work after­ward, his spo­ken voice ani­mates the prose in ways that only add to the expe­ri­ence. Any­how, one evening the Eng­lish depart­ment took McK­night and the cre­ative writ­ing stu­dents out for din­ner; it was a big group, and dur­ing the meal, some­one said some­thing par­tic­u­larly funny, upon which McK­night busted out a pen and note­book from his back­pack to write it down, which brings me to my First Secret: Bring a pen and note­book with you everywhere.

William Gad­dis, the leg­endary mod­ernist author of The Recog­ni­tions, JR, and Carpenter’s Gothic, also spoke at Wash U, a guest of William Gass’s Inter­na­tional Writ­ers Cen­ter, and before a huge audi­ence, gave a talk about his life and career that was tinged with bit­ter­ness. Mostly he bemoaned his lack of read­er­ship, claim­ing that for years he could count on one hand the peo­ple who’d read The Recog­ni­tions. I con­fess I haven’t helped the cause, but it brings up Num­ber Two: Don’t become a writer if you want to be famous. He went on to dis­cuss a sem­i­nar he’d given dur­ing his one year teach­ing (he made his liv­ing pri­mar­ily as a cor­po­rate speech­writer, which gives truth to Secret Num­ber Three: Don’t write to pay the rent), a course he called “Fail­ure in Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture,” and his cur­ricu­lum, which he grumpily enu­mer­ated for the audi­ence, got quite a few laughs (Ahab: fail­ure; Gatsby: fail­ure; Jake Barnes; fail­ure), prov­ing Samuel Beckett’s obser­va­tion that noth­ing is fun­nier than unhap­pi­ness. The depart­ment took Gad­dis out to lunch after­ward, with me in tow. I jumped every free meal I could back then (adden­dum to Num­ber Three: Don’t write to eat). We went to Dressel’s, which serves great hot but­tered rum and home­made chips, and I asked him if there was some­thing he was cur­rently work­ing on. He con­sid­ered the ques­tion and then said, “I’m work­ing on work­ing on some­thing.” Secret Num­ber Four: Trust idle­ness.

The great Car­los Fuentes, Mex­i­can author of The Death of Artemio Cruz and Christo­pher Unborn, also spoke at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity (not a bad place to be a young writer, huh?). I have the date of his talk in my jour­nal, Octo­ber 6, 1993, and its title: Cul­ture and Cri­sis in Latin Amer­ica, dur­ing which he offered his Ten Com­mand­ments for the Novel. Let’s make these a set and call them Secret Num­ber Five:

1. The novel does not inform.

2. The novel imagines.

3. The novel imag­ines every­thing that is invisible.

4. The novel trans­forms the unsaid part of the world into the said part of the world.

5. The novel reflects and cre­ates reality.

6. The novel’s cre­ation affects the future and antic­i­pates unre­al­ized possibilities.

7. The novel depends on the future and the past. Cre­ativ­ity gives new life and nov­elty to the past.

8. The novel cre­ates a new time, one of read­ing assim­i­lated into life. It brings the mem­ory of the past and desire for the future together in the present.

9. The novel is an area where real­i­ties that might not meet actu­ally shake hands.

10. The novel is a pre­cise parabola of an unfin­ished world.

They’re pretty incred­i­ble and bring me to Num­ber Six: Go hear writ­ers speak when­ever pos­si­ble. Or at least go here them read.

At Vas­sar Col­lege, where I received my B.A., I heard Mary McCarthy do just that. She read from The Group, it was the spring of my junior year, and McCarthy was very near the end of her life (she would die sev­eral months later). A desk and chair were set up for her on stage, and she strug­gled to get through the chap­ter she’d picked because she kept chuck­ling at the scene. Some­times it even dou­bled her over, as if she hadn’t been its author or, like Kafka, found some­thing secretly funny in work that, to me at least, seemed any­thing but. That brings me to Num­bers Seven and Eight: Be will­ing to laugh at your­self (Lee Smith, who spoke at my wife’s grad­u­a­tion, is good at this too) and Don’t be afraid to like your own work, although I’ll tack on to these Num­ber Nine: Don’t like your work too much (Faulkner’s ver­sion of this: Be will­ing to kill your dar­lings).

Num­ber Ten may go with­out say­ing: Know­ing the secrets to seri­ous writ­ing won’t guar­an­tee you’ll get published.

Dur­ing another great event at Vas­sar, the poets Joseph Brod­sky and Czes­law Milosz paid a visit, per­form­ing like a pair of Nobel-prize-winning duel­ing ban­joes. In their appear­ance and deliv­ery, they were a study in oppo­sites: Milosz was impos­ing, large, with a reced­ing hair­line that made his huge head look big­ger, and had a deep basso voice that rang out like the last ding-dong of doom (Num­ber Eleven: Allude to a Nobel-prize accep­tance speech if the oppor­tu­nity presents itself). Brod­sky, mean­while, was thin, ironic, and humor­ous; he had a ton­sure of curly hair and was light­ning to Milosz’s thun­der. Brod­sky said, and I quote: “The dif­fer­ence between the lan­guage of art and life is that the lan­guage of life is cliché.” Thus, Num­bers Twelve and Thir­teen: Mem­o­rize mem­o­rable say­ings and Avoid clichés (see “light­ning to Milosz’s thunder”).

Robert Coover vis­ited Wash U for a semes­ter and gave a lengthy talk on hyper-texts. This was back in 1994, and he used—I get nos­tal­gic just think­ing about it—an over­head pro­jec­tor dur­ing his lec­ture. His the­sis: hyper-texts are the future of the novel. (Secret Num­ber Four­teen: Hyper–texts are not the future of the novel.)

By the way, I’m guess­ing every­one read­ing this has prob­a­bly fig­ured out Num­ber Fif­teen: If you want to be a seri­ous writer, it cer­tainly doesn’t hurt to go to a writ­ing program.

The incom­pa­ra­ble Stan­ley Elkin, my pro­fes­sor at Wash U, was almost com­pletely crip­pled with MS when I arrived. I was fresh off an M.A. at Hollins Uni­ver­sity, and I’d had a mon­strously pro­duc­tive year at the lat­ter, due in large part to the gen­tle guid­ance of Richard Dil­lard, a writer and teacher of such prodi­gious gifts his brain needs to be cryo­geni­cally frozen and stud­ied upon his death. At the time, I was well into the mid­dle of a novel that had its moments but was alto­gether a fail­ure, a fact that would take me two years to real­ize (Num­ber Six­teen: Writ­ing is an inef­fi­cient process; see also Sev­en­teen: Writ­ers are self-deluded. Or quot­ing Stan­ley here (see Twelve above): “Don’t con­fuse your hope with your evi­dence”). A large man, he’d teach sem­i­nar in his liv­ing room, slumped in his wheel­chair. At the time, he was tak­ing heavy doses of pred­nisone, which puffed out his fea­tures, gave his skin a shiny, almost rep­til­ian appear­ance; his right arm, if mem­ory serves me, was the only limb over which he had any motor con­trol (this was soon lost too, so that by my final year there, he had only the use of his hand; he typed his last novel, Mrs. Ted Bliss, with one fin­ger; Secret Num­ber Eigh­teen: Writ­ers need a great deal of deter­mi­na­tion).

Elkin could be bru­tal to stu­dents, though he was never untruth­ful. My first day in work­shop, he brought two women to tears cri­tiquing their sto­ries and, of the four of us accepted into the pro­gram that year, two quit before the end of the term because they couldn’t han­dle work­ing with him. The third per­son stopped writ­ing alto­gether and fled to Stan­ford Law School, though that was for more prac­ti­cal rea­sons (Num­ber Nine­teen: The writ­ing life isn’t for every­one). I respected her for that, but the two quit­ters lost out. The gaunt­let you ran under Elkin’s tute­lage was sur­viv­ing his influ­ence because he was a writer who was great, first and fore­most, at teach­ing his own aes­thetic, which he summed up as fol­lows: “All com­edy is rooted in pow­er­less­ness” and is also Num­ber Twenty.

He was also about the fun­ni­est per­son I’ve ever had the plea­sure to be around. When Joyce Carol Oates came to speak on cam­pus, I hap­pened to be in the depart­ment lounge with Elkin when she poked her head in the door. She has a long, beau­ti­ful neck and a tiny voice; she said, “Hi, Stan­ley,” to which Elkin said “hi” back. She began to with­draw, but she was slow to do this (her neck was some­thing) and he stopped her and said, “Hey, Joyce, don’t ever get a cold in your throat. It’ll kill you.” Secret Num­ber Twenty One: To learn how to write great comic fic­tion, study Elkin’s “The Guest”, from Criers and Kib­itzers, Kib­itzers and Criers—my wife and I can crack each other up by utter­ing the words, “Camel shit!”—as well as his novella The Mak­ing of Ashen­den, in which a man must bring a female bear to orgasm in order to save his own life. Both will make you cough a lung.

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In more Mr. Peanut news, copies of the Knopf edi­tion arrived in the mail yes­ter­day, and as Hum­bert Hum­bert says in Lolita, “They are beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful.” My favorite thing about the cover: the pix­i­lated skull is so shiny you can see your reflec­tion in it. Form, as it’s said, goes hand in hand with content.