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Writing Is Lonely Business, Part I

Posted on Wednesday, September 28, 2016 at 1:41 AM

Writing is difficult, but think what your accomplishment can mean for those you reach with your words.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I share with you a stream of advice uttered by writers who know the business and how to express their thoughts in a manner that's not only understandable but graphic. In total, the quotes are meant to offer you a reminder of writer opportunities and responsibilities. They're for you to use as editor and writer and for your writers to use as they go about their lonely task.

Fail Better

The American writer of novels, memoir, and criticisms Mary Gordon tells us: "There may be some writers who contemplate a day's work without dread, but I don't know them. Beckett had, posted to the wall beside his desk, a card on which were written the words: 'Fail. Fail again. Fail better.' It's a bad business, this writing.'" But apparently, Mary Gordon can't let it go. She's caught in writing's net, as are, most likely, you.

Secret Chamber

Egypt-born American author André Aciman -- novelist, memoirist, and teacher at City University of New York -- ponders: "Don't all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics? A hidden nerve is what every writer is ultimately about." It's what distinguishes your gift for the task of writing from that of others. Be happy for the chamber's, the nerve's, existence.

Unmistakable Signature

The late short story writer and poet Raymond Carver addressed that chamber and the issue of voice: "It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There's plenty of that around.... Talent is an element that is all around us and arrives daily through the hole in the ozone layer just above Canada. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time."

Get Out of Your Own Way

The late writer, teacher, filmmaker, and social activist Susan Sontag viewed what we do a bit differently, at least in how she expressed it: "Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting: that is, to find your own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stopping too often to reread.... Allowing yourself, when you dare to think it's going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration's shove." That tends to be my approach to the process of writing: not to get in my own way.

Clarity and Brevity

Novelist and short story writer James Salter speaks of language, the verbal substance with which we work: "In the richness of language, its grace, breadth, dexterity, lies its power. To speak with clarity, brevity, and wit is like holding a lightning rod. We are drawn to people who know things and are able to express them." Yes, clarity. Yes, brevity. Wit depends on what is your subject, but it can be persuasive.


I need not identify Anton Chekhov, or so I choose to believe. That Russian giant of literature advised a correspondent: "You are making great progress, but allow me to repeat my advice: write with more self-restraint. The more emotionally charged a situation, the more emotional restraint one must use in writing, and then the result will be emotionally powerful. There is no need for laying it on thick." Moderation helps, but be careful, lest you lay restraint on too thick.

Maximum Attentiveness

The late Paul West, British-born American novelist, poet, and essayist, argued for his approach to writing: "Of course, the writer cannot always burn with a hard gemlike flame or a white heat, but it should be possible to be a chubby hot-water bottle, rendering maximum attentiveness in the most enterprising sentences."

More advice in Part II...

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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