Wednesday, March 7, 2007

On Writing Well

"You will never write a good book until you have written some bad ones.” George Bernard Shaw

I have an artist friend who says the same thing about painting. It’s about mileage. You’ve got to do a lot of work, gradually improving, until you begin to do truly good work. Doing a lot of work, generally in isolation, with little recognition and only small (but meaningful) intrinsic rewards, for a long time, years usually, is a pretty tall order. That’s why you meet so many people who “always wanted to write a book” or “want to write a book someday,” or sadly, who have given up.

Shaw’s quote brings up a couple of interrelated issues that all writers face: quality and time.

What’s good writing? What criteria can you use to judge whether a piece of writing is good or bad? For publishers, the answer is simple: what ever sells is good. There are lots of writing programs around the country who, we are to assume, will teach us these criteria. (Whether they actually do this is a matter for another posting. Let me say this: with whom did Faulkner “workshop” his writing? And can you imagine Hemingway sitting around a table listening to other people’s opinions about how he handled dialogue or characterization or “theme”?) There are also those who feel that any judgment about whether a book is “good” or not is extremely subjective. But I believe it is much more objective than people want to admit, even when it comes to fiction. Good writing says something important, reveals Truths about existence. So-so writing (and, of course, bad writing) may tell an exciting story, and it may even tell the story well, but that doesn’t make it good writing.

I’m not saying that good writing is didactic. Usually, stories that teach lessons fall into the category of “bad.” Good writing reveals, but doesn’t preach. It isn’t pushy or bombastic or egotistical. The best I can say is, while I can’t specifically define good writing (or bad writing), I know it when I see it.

This understanding of what’s good and what’s not comes from putting in the time. Time writing but also time reading, observing, and thinking. It is the rare writer who has success early on, and even those writers put in the time at some point, because there is no substitute for time. F. Scott Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise, to great acclaim, soon after graduating from Princeton. But he wrote and read a lot his entire life up to then. Plus, he was probably a genius. But his best work still lay ahead. Most writers hit their strides in their 30s and 40s, and some continue producing quality writing late into their lives, if they haven’t been poisoned by success. (That, too, is a topic for another time.)

Where does this time come from, especially for people who are forced to make a living doing other things, be it bartendering or proof reading or bureaucrating? That, actually, is a deceptively simple question: you make the time. You get up an hour earlier. You write on weekends. You write in the evening. You take days off to write. You do what ever it takes. It’s a simple solution, but extremely difficult to implement. These are the problems that every writer faces, especially when it’s easier to meet friends for drinks than face the blank screen again.

I’ve always been of the opinion that you can learn to write, but you can’t be taught how to write. That may seem counter-intuitive. But let’s face it, you learn to write well by writing, just like you learn to hit a tennis ball well by hitting lots and lots of tennis balls. And you have to write a lot. I’ve probably written a million words of fiction so far in my life, and I have one published story to show for it. But I keep going, for reasons unknown to me, ever trying to make “good” writing.


mandy said...

You keep going because you can't "not" keep going.

At least, that's how it is for me.

I just finished one of the best books on fiction writing (and I've read a lot of them) that I've ever found: The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne. I highly recommend it. And it doesn't read like a writing book.. if that's possible.

kwest said...

mandy: good writing books shouldn't read like "writing" books. Thanks, I'll check it out.

Priyanka said...

this post hit very close to home.

one of my favorite quotes on writing by anais nin: "If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it."

i always believed that in essence, you write because you have to. i agree with you that you have to continue writing and you can't worry about the quality, i think the quality will take care of itself.