Writing Like A Pro

November 7, 2020

Here are two things you can do with relatively little effort to look like a pro when you write: (a) learn punctuation, and (b) start using pronouns. I mention these two odd items (I’m sure you weren’t expecting them when you read the headline for this blog!) because people invariably overlook them, yet they each mark a boundary between amateur writers and serious ones.

For me, the word “professional” means simply that you are earning money from your writing or actively trying to. I once heard Ansel Adams give a talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. He was asked by someone in the audience whether he thought the difference between an amateur photographer and a professional had to do with making money. He pointed out that he and Edward Weston were both poor guys who needed to make a living with their cameras, while, by comparison, Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand had wealthy parents and didn’t need to. “Could anybody argue that Stieglitz and Strand were amateurs?” Adams replied. “A professional is a person with a serious interest in a craft.”

Amateurs don’t know squat about commas, semicolons, colons, and em-dashes. I’ve never met a serious writer who didn’t know. You can look up the rules and master them in an afternoon (maybe the comma will take two afternoons. And I do mean master them.

Pronouns are even easier to master. Unless you have problems with agreement errors that have lingered since junior high school, you already know all the pronouns there are. All you have to do is remember to use them whenever and wherever they won’t cause confusion for a reader. As Gertrude Stein put it, “Once you have named something, why go on naming it?”

If you have two guys talking in a scene, you will probably have to keep repeating their names (unless you do what Hemingway did—since he wrote mostly about men and had to avoid naming them over and over, he’d call Nick “the man in the checked shirt,” and then “the checked-shirted guy rolling a cigarette,” “the man with the cigarette, who was walking into the kitchen,” and so on).

But if you have a guy and a gal, “he” and “she”, “him” and “her”, “his” and her”, will do just fine.


July 30, 2020

I was hunting in a music store for stuff that might trigger some creative spark in college students I was teaching how to write. My eye was caught by a glint of metal coming from what looked like a zipper on a long-playing album (the precursor of the CD).  It had a black-and-white photograph of a man in jeans, from just above his waist to just above his knees, with one hip casually out-thrust on which were stamped The Rolling Stones and Sticky Fingers.

I glanced around and approached.  The zipper was real, and that the man-in-jeans photo wasn’t one piece of cardboard but two, so that, when you pulled the zipper down, the pants opened.

I glanced around again, grabbed the zipper, and pulled it down.  Behind it, I saw Jockey Jockey Jockey.  At this, I steeled myself—in a store with a crowd of customers who might pause to wonder why a man with long hair and blue-tinted glasses was investigating another man’s crotch—pulled the pants open, and stared in.  I saw a round red rubber stamp that read Copyright © 1970 Andy Warhol.

And there I was, surrounded by all kinds of people, staring at Andy Warhol.  It wasn’t the first time.

But—and here’s where we get to what I’m trying to tell you—that was it.  Warhol’s genius lay in showing us all how to grab an audience, period.  He was one of the first modern platform guys.

Writers are not platform people, though.  They’re content people.  Their first job is not to figure out how to attract their audience.  Their first job is to have something worth saying, and to say it. 

You’d be surprised how many writers don’t actually know this.

People (some of them well-meaning, some not) will inevitably ask you, “Oh, you’re a writer?  Get anything published?”  And, if you say you have, “Oh, yeah?  Make any money?”

Publishing and making money from it are platform matters.  They’re what happens after you write stuff.  But you must be a writer before you’re an author.  And to the extent that you allow yourself to think about how you will try to shop your work, or wonder whether it will ever be a best-seller, before it’s down on paper to the last crossed “t” and dotted “i”, you are sabotaging yourself.

Why? Because you hobble your creative process. Some writing projects can make money, and some can’t—because they’re too narrow in focus and the numbers aren’t there, or the subject has already been exhausted by others. You can’t afford to ask yourself whether this piece will fall into either of those categories, or any other. It’s like counting your money at the poker table before the dealing’s done. Always write first for the pleasure (and grief) it will give you. There will be plenty of time when you’re done to figure out how to peddle it.

When to Call It a Day

July 30, 2020

A very good friend called me many years ago to ask what my secret was for staying up to finish a piece of writing. “Stay up?” I said.

“Yeah. I can’t seem to manage it. I can’t write for more than fifteen hours or so before I conk out.”

He had a pretty severe case of hyperthyroid function, so he was a very energetic soul. “. . .Well,” I finally offered, “why don’t you just stop?”

“Then I won’t be able to finish the story.”

I was mystified. “Why not?”

It took my a while to figure out that he had never been assured that it usually takes more than one sitting to complete even the first draft of a piece—and I do have a secret for ending a session. Never get up from your keyboard unless you know what’s coming next—what scene, what idea, what temperature of the room. Or, to put it another way, never use up everything you know. Never, ever, leave yourself with nothing to return to but a blank wall.

I had a student once—a tiny woman with sharp blue eyes, a very slight build, and a nimbus of white hair—who was still writing books at ninety-seven. She never had a problem picking up where she had left off the day before. Her secret was leaving her last sentence unfinished.

“Really,” I said to her.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “That way, I know that I’ll at least finish one sentence the next time I sit down.”

Try it. You’ll like it.

How To Start Writing

July 30, 2020

Ernest Hemingway always began a writing session (so he writes in A Moveable Feast) by sharpening two pencils to a fine point with a pocket knife. He needed them sharpened in order to write, but if he didn’t concentrate when he was doing it, he said, he could’ve cut his thumb off. This forced him to slowly leave behind the busy world that he, like all of us, was living in, and enter the making space in which (as W.H. Auden put it), “silence is turned into objects.”

If you want to write, you too need first of all to leave the world behind and find that space. Become as inaccessible as you can. Mute your phone. Rearrange the stuff on your desk. Cut a cucumber into stalks to nibble on. Do some deep breathing exercises (start always by breathing out). Turn off the TV. Give yourself permission, way or another, to put everything else in your life on hold for—

For how long?

Start with fifteen minutes—seat of your pants to the seat of the chair. Allow yourself to sink into the strange extended moment that follows. Fifteen minutes may not seem like an awful lot of time, but you’ll be astonished by how long it actually is—and it marks the border crossing between the vita activa, the active, outer life, and the vita contemplativa, the contemplative, inner one. Notice what your shoulders feel like as you cross it. Notice how your breath changes.

Then start writing. Writing what? The first thing that comes to mind. Don’t correct anything. Don’t even spell-check it. If nothing comes to mind, do what one writer I know does: Type the word “and” over and over until you get so bored you start writing. When fifteen minutes have elapsed, stop.

Do the same thing the next day, and the next. By the fourth day, you’ll find it easier to start.