Why not be a “Writer”?

Good article by Philip Martin in the 4/10/16 Arkansas Democrat Gazette on the “Write Club” – These are rules I (and everyone) should keep in mind if I ever think of being serious about “Writing”.

Following the 10 rules of Write Club

By Philip Martin

This article was published April 10, 2016 at 1:46 a.m.

I was the keynote speaker at the Arkansas College Media Conference and Awards Ceremony held at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway last week. Because the 11th rule of Write Club is “don’t waste anything,” this is an abridged version of my talk.

Hi, my name is Philip. I’m a writer.

I am a newspaper columnist and film critic. I have done this work for more than 30 years; before that I played baseball and in punk rock bands and worked strange jobs that sound more romantic in hindsight than they were. I am a product of a land grant university who disappointed his family by walking away from a perfectly good law school after two years.

I have written songs and stories, and now a book of poems. That you can buy.

When I am asked to talk to students about “my writing life,” I tell them I was as unlikely as anyone to have a career, and some days I consider myself fraudulent and inadequate to produce a few cogent lines of English.

Maybe it goes back to the insecurities inherent in our chosen profession. The first rule of Write Club is never turn down work.

And the second rule? It’s if you can resist the urge to write, please do. For your own sake, and the sake of those who might read you. Really, it’s like Clayton Delaney said to Tom T. Hall, “There ain’t no money in it. It’ll lead you to an early grave.”

Or maybe you’d prefer Rainer Maria Rilke, who in his Letters to a Young Poet wrote:

[A]sk yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

The third rule of Write Club is never underestimate the role luck plays in getting published or being read. Bad writers flourish–just look at the best-seller lists.

I got my second job in the newspaper business–at the now defunct Shreveport Journal, one of those colorful afternoon dailies that used to flourish in this country before the possibilities of newspaper work were diminished by consolidation and corporate efficiency schemes–because they needed a third baseman for their company softball team and I was a ballplayer.

I’ve written for a living for 35 years. And I’ve never felt like I was in a position of safety. I’ve always felt like everything could go away tomorrow. And it absolutely could. Which brings us back to rule No. 2 of Write Club.

If you can be an engineer, or make things with your hands, or sell useful things, please do that. Because, frankly, I don’t need the competition. And you don’t need the heartbreak.

Still here, huh? OK, let me tell you something you should already know. The fourth rule of Write Club is writing is hard. If you don’t know that already, you’ve been doing it wrong. And it’s harder for writers than it is for other people. Thomas Mann said something like that, in German probably, but he’s right. It’s usually cited as: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

That sounds counterintuitive. A musician is someone who is musical, a mathematician is someone who sees around the sides of numbers and equations easier than most people. Presumably basketball is easier for professional basketball players than it is the rest of us.

But it’s true. Writing is harder for me than it is, for instance, for my mother. My mother is a perfectly intelligent woman–she was an engineer who learned her trade on the job rather than in a classroom–and she has absolutely no trouble writing. Her letters, notes, what have you, flow directly from her brain to her hand to the page. She doesn’t fret about it.

This is the kind of writing that Bobby Knight, the famous basketball coach, was talking about when he dissed sportswriters. Knight’s attitude is reading and writing are fundamental skills, of considerable benefit in some lines of work, but nothing that serious people ought to think too much about. You master a vocabulary, you ought not be too enthralled by mere words. There is too much real work to be done. Skyscrapers and investment portfolios to build, give-and-go backdoor screen plays to diagram.

That’s probably my mother’s attitude too, though she’s too polite to express it. And it’s probably the attitude of a lot of your friends and family. Even the people who love you fail to understand you sometimes.

That’s the fifth rule of Write Club.

This attitude–that anyone can write–is pervasive. It’s even the attitude of some people who work in my business. I’ve heard it said that there was a sign in the old Arkansas Democrat newsroom that informed the reporters: “It ain’t art and you ain’t Hemingway.” That’s the sixth rule: you’re not as good as you want to be.

But if you’re a real writer, you already know that. And it hurts that you’re not Hemingway. Or Scott Fitzgerald. Or Eudora Welty. Or Donald Harington.

Because if you’re a writer, your taste can’t help but outrun your grasp. To be a writer is to be humble, to understand you don’t measure up. You can’t help but be conscious of the imperfectness of your work. Real writers know every clumsy word, every sputtery rhythm, every banal expression, every unfunny joke they make.

But you have to try hard. That’s the seventh rule of Write Club. You have to stand up and be brave sometimes, to suspend your modesty and shout over all those voices you believe sweeter and stronger than your own. When you are writing you must believe in the primacy of your vision, in the obliterating quality of your thought. You have to aspire, to strive, to be not just good but extraordinary.

And, if we’re lucky (see rule three) we run into people–teachers, mentors, critics, editors–who will tell us the truth about what we do. Who will confirm our worst fears. Cherish these people. Love and listen to your critics. This is the eighth rule of Write Club.

The ninth rule is that all writing is a war upon cliche. Cliches are not acceptable, they are symptoms of secondhand thinking, ways of non-thinking. They are criminal offenses for which–if you abide by rule eight–you will have to answer. (By the way, The War Against Cliche is the title of a collection of Martin Amis essays which you would be well served to read.)

And the 10th and final rule of Write Club is the most important and difficult to follow: Cultivate a merciless honesty with yourself. Do not pretend to knowledge you do not have because the readers have psychic powers and will find you out. Try not to lie to them or to yourself.

And be kind. Be gentle when you can. Be alert and curious. Marry the best editor you can find.

And like Elmore Leonard advised, “never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.”




Editorial on 04/10/2016

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