Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Unauthorized Advice from Arthur Phillips

by Marcus Sakey

Six or seven years ago, my wife bought me a book called PRAGUE on a whim—she liked the cover and the flap copy, and knew that I harbored expatriate daydreams. The book turned out to be amazing, and I’ve been a big Arthur Phillips fan ever since.

Three books later, he hasn’t disappointed. The man is wicked smart, and writes emotionally sophisticated showpiece prose that’s also a pure joy to read. His latest, THE SONG IS YOU, came out this year, and I snatched it in hardcover but pleasure-delayed until the other day.

It’s wonderful. Each of his novels tread distinctly new ground; this one focuses on music, and the longing it can evoke, and how that longing effects the lives of those who love it, and which came first, the music or the longing or the love. I’m about halfway through, and spellbound.

The reason I bring it up is that there’s a section where the middle-aged protagonist is watching a woman sing, this rock-star-to-be who is just on the cusp of exploding, and he’s writing notes for her based on his experience as a commercial director. I thought the advice applied to writers as well:

(Arthur, if you’re out there and object, email me and I’ll take ‘em down, and, separately, offer to buy you a beer next time you’re in Chicago.)
  1. Indulge in no one’s taste but your own
  2. Never fear being loathed and broke
  3. Repeat only what is essential; discard mercilessly
  4. Sing only what you can feel, or less
  5. Hate us without trepidation
  6. All advice is wrong, even this; a little makeup would not go astray
  7. Never admit to your influences, not dear Mum or Da, nor the Virgin Mary (competition)
  8. Laugh when others think you should cry—we will gladly connect the dots
  9. Even now, cooing, swooning ghouls of goodwill scheme to destroy you
  10. Oh! Bleaker and obliquer.
Good stuff, huh? Of course, they’re aimed at a developing pop diva, at a woman trying to morph herself into a myth, so some apply more than others. But honestly, I got something from all of them.

“Repeat only what is essential; discard mercilessly” is a variation on some of the best writing advice you’ll ever get; Elmore Leonard puts it, “Don’t write the parts people skip,” Strunk & White say, “Omit unnecessary words,” but it comes to the same.

“Hate us without trepidation” sounds like it applies more to a punk rock girl, and does, but what if you apply it to free yourself to write what you want? Or to keep yourself from falling into a comfortable, safe place, where you’re begging for love instead of trying to tell honest stories?

“Never admit to your influences” is antithetical to my instincts—I tend to shout the names of the people whose work formed mine, as you all know—but is probably great advice. If your goal is to craft a public image, there’s some merit to the idea that it’s best to present yourself as a finished whole, the influencer instead of the influenced.

Anyway, while I wouldn’t take every word as gospel, I think there’s some damn good advice there. But what do you think? What about the later ones, which are a little more challenging, a little less comfortable—do think they apply? Do you like them?

20 comments:

Adam Bourgoin said...

Numbers 1 and 8 are my favorites. I think that those two pieces are priceless.

In order to honestly tell a story, it has to be something YOU indulge in. If written well the readership will follow because there is always someone out there who shares your interests.

As far as laughing when others want you to cry, I believe you yourself said something similar Marcus, when you state that "The audience should always be uncomfortable" on your website. This is something I have been striving for through my whole writing process.

Great post, Marcus!

Jared said...

Really interesting stuff, Marcus. Thanks for posting it.

What the words seem to be saying to me right now is that not only is writing a solitary act (as we all knew), but that that isolation should be fostered to keep the writing pure (Rules 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9).

I'll have to ruminate.

Steerpike said...

"Repeat only what is essential; discard mercilessly."

I... try... I... just... can't...

Seriously, it's a skill I need to learn but I just ramble when I'm at the keyboard. I like to think I ramble well.

Hey Marcus, isn't one of your despised adverbs in that sentence? It is completely, totally, incalculably, and profligately unnecessary! Strunk and White are spinning in their graves. ;)

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