Thursday, June 04, 2009

Rules of the Road

A friend of mine with four adult children says there are a hundred ways to raise a child, and they're all wrong.  The same thing is probably true of writing, except I'd say, they're all right.  If it works for you, it's the right way to write.
Still, I think there are some basics that help or hinder.
If you want to write, you need to read.  Rapper Kanye West doesn't read, and despises people who do, but he just signed a "book" deal to give the world his philosophy of life.  "I have a childlike purity" brought about by not cluttering my mind with other people's words.  Couldn't have said it better--he has the purity of a 2-day-old infant, mind uncluttered.  The interesting conundrum here is that if his fans read his book, he will actually have done a mitzvah by getting someone who (probably) doesn't read to open a book.
Still, for you and me, other people's words are what drew us to the writing world to begin with.  Caught in the Web of Words--that's the title James A H Murray's granddaughter gave to her memoir of the the man who created the Oxford English Dictionary.  And here we all are, caught in the web of words.  We come to books because they open doors into other worlds, other experiences.  All writers need to keep reading: it's step one of how we learn to hone our craft.  We read for delight, for escape.  We read to see what we wish we could do and what we hope we won't do. 
Rule 2, of course, is writing.  You can only learn to write by writing.  And rewriting.
Rule 3, Nothing dates as fast as slang.  Authentic  speech comes more from considering the attitudes and behaviors of characters more than nailing today's slang--whether it's from the street or the courtroom.  Many of us, including me, get our speech patterns from TV.  Something slick that works in ad copy doesn't make the best writing.
Rule 4, you have to be willing to take the big risks: the risks of exposing yourself.  And you can only do that by cultivating the gift of empathy.  The more you understand yourself, the better you'll understand the people you live with--the ones in your head, the ones in your actual kitchen or bar.
You need quiet, you need what Melville called "the silent grass-growing mode," in order to create.  When you're using the foreground of your brain, answering e-mails, cruising the Net==posting to the blog, or Twitter, you're interrupting the grass-growing mode and it's hard to get back to it.  You can't do them both at once.
Nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble do we retire than into our own souls, Marcus Aurelius wrote some 1800 years ago.  And that's where our stories live.  It's where we need to spend most of our time.  And it's where I seldom find myself these days.  Every morning starts for me with a vow that today will be the day my writing is the most important thing in my life--but so far, the dog, the bills, the this, the that, keep pushing it to the rear of the line.  I hope today will be that golden day for me, and for you as well.

Sara Paretsky

19 comments:

Laura Caldwell said...

Sara - what a beautifully written piece! Last night I was reading Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis, a book about a year spent with Cook County public defenders on the Homicide Task Force. I'd read the book before. Twice. But I wanted to read it again because I liked how Kevin wove in, along with the tales of the public defenders, the stories of the victims families, the state's attorneys, the judges and the defendant himself. How had he done that so seamlessly, I wondered? And so last night I was reading/studying it again.

The other side of the coin is, as you mentioned, reading pieces that remind you what you DON'T want to be doing in your own writing. A few of my author friends won't pick up anything like that during the time they're writing a book, too afraid that the style they want to avoid will somehow seep into their brain and later overtake their fingers as they type into their laptops. But I like to read those books I'm not shooting to emulate. Often, I don't think the book is bad, per se, it's just that I don't want to write mine in the same way--maybe it's because of the tone, the pacing, whatever--and reviewing those books reminds me why (and exactly what to avoid).

Anyway, thanks for the blog. In the way a good writer (or a good comedian or a good songwriter does) you crystallized a concept that I didn't know was floating in my mind. Thanks!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

That's really lovely Sara. Thanks.

Sara Paretsky said...

Laura, KEvin, I'm glad this resonated with you. Thanks for commenting.

Sean Chercover said...

Thanks for that, Sara. A great piece and an important reminder.

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