Writers on Writing: Link

I hate to link to a “viral” type of website, but there is an amazing compendium of writers talking about writing here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/05/03/advice-on-writing/ 

It is well worth your time if you are at all interested in that sort of thing.

One that isn’t included in the above list is Robert Heinlein’s “5 Rules”, quoted and discussed on Dean Wesley Smith’s fascinating blog here: Heinlein’s 5 Rules

From the compendium first mentioned, one of my favorites is Neil Gaiman’s simple advice: Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing

Particularly interesting to me is Gaiman’s rule #5: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

In one way, this rule is incredibly insightful, but at the same time I disagree with it.

It is insightful because of the realization that when people tell you exactly what is wrong with a novel and how to fix it they are almost always wrong. This is counter-intuitive in some ways, but true. Why are they wrong? Because it takes an incredible amount of insight to specifically diagnose a particular problem with a novel and the remedy to the problem. Think of a symphony, for comparison — if you can listen to a symphony and tell the composer exactly what is wrong with it, and exactly how to make it good, then that would make you a pretty amazing composer of symphonies yourself, wouldn’t it? Yet how many amazing composers of symphonies are there in the world? Or, imagine telling another person exactly what is wrong with their life and what they need to do to fix it: those who presume to do so usually have little insight into the thing they are proposing to fix, which is why they think they understand it. So also with a novel, when people presume to make specific diagnoses and recommendations it is usually an indication that they don’t understand what they’re talking about.

But as I said, I also disagree with Gaiman’s rule. Specifically, I disagree with the idea that when people tell you something is wrong or that it doesn’t work for them they are almost always right. Of course if it doesn’t work for them then it doesn’t work for them (although, surprisingly, people are sometimes even wrong about that, as can be witnessed whenever someone is powerfully moved by a work of art, perhaps in a way that was not welcome, yet continues to insist that it is terrible), but does that mean that something is wrong with the work itself?

Many of the most beautiful and amazing things that I have encountered in art and literature, or especially in music, are or were felt to be ‘off’ by a lot of people. It is nearly a fact that any exceptional creative work finds many initial detractors. This has at least two obvious bases: the first being that creative brilliance is often lost on people who observe it, and the second being that truth is a quality people are often upset and offended by.

Many, many people cannot countenance truth, even though good art is always rooted in it. This is why Harry Potter is not art. That’s right, it really isn’t. It is wonderful storytelling, wonderfully wrought, the product of a brilliant mind… I have a deep admiration for JK Rowling and for several of the Harry Potter books, and loved reading them, but they never cross into the realm of art. They are fun for everyone, great yarns — removed from the foundation of truth which is inevitably uncomfortable for many. Real art can never be saccharine or innocuous. People are hated who speak the truth.

Jesus observed that, about the truth. Say what you want, he was one of history’s more insightful men. Art, however, tends to speak unclearly, so that the truth in art is hated more on an intuitive level — people don’t like the way a work of art makes them feel — than a conscious one.

Getting back to Gaiman, I have only read one of his books, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but based on this book alone he is a writer whom I admire. I certainly plan to read more of his work in the future. However, my impression when I read it, long before this essay and its particular train of thought, was that the book suffered from a kind of nerveless appeal to please all readers. Anything that one reader or another or another or another might find ‘off’ had been ruthlessly and impressively exterminated from the text, leaving it disappointingly sterile. Reading it was like hearing the echoes, but only the echoes, of a great aria, rather than the song itself.

As I recall, in the acknowledgements section of the book Gaiman thanks dozens (possibly hundreds) of people, mostly for reading the book and giving him feedback with which to work in revision. How could almost all of those people have been right when they felt that something in the draft they were reading was wrong? I wouldn’t presume to tell Neil Gaiman exactly what the book lacks or how to fix it, but as a reader I finished his book with a sense of loss. There had been nerves there, whose impression was still faintly visible; there had been the blood and substance of art there, which many readers are inevitably offended by. We could call those nerves and that blood the essence of life.

But don’t get me wrong, it is a very good book and I would recommend it without hesitation.

When you read advice from writers about writing you should always take it with a grain of salt. Different ways of thinking and working work best for different people. Our own insight into what we do is always imperfect, particularly when it comes to something as inscrutable as creating art. If you start reading through the compendium linked above you will notice that the advice or conclusions of some writers contradicts that of others. For example, many successful writers believe their work only really becomes work in the process of revision, while Heinlein in his “5 Rules” (linked at the top) suggests that the author should never re-write anything unless forced to do so. It’s not wrong to re-write, and it’s not wrong to not re-write, rather as an individual I think we have to assign our loyalty to the work itself, the piece in front of us at a given moment, and figure out whatever methods are necessary for us personally to realize that work in the best way that we can. It can be illuminating to read the conclusions drawn by other writers about their work, as long as we don’t become lost in them. At the end of the day we each have to find our own unique solution to the puzzle of the unique creative work that lies in front of us.