Heck With Those Guys
In high school I don’t remember anyone giving me instructions on how to write. They probably did and I just wasn’t paying attention. So in later life, when I became interested in words and how they were used, I naturally gravitated to a trial and error style of writing that suited me best.
In 2011, when my book, The Thrill of the Chase, co-won an award for best independently published book of the year, I received a letter from the judges. It said my entry was among other things, childish, which they must have thought was pretty good because otherwise how could I have won the award? It started me thinking about how different people write.
William F. Buckley Jr. was one of my heroes. I saw him once in an airport in Newark and he looked straight at me, so I’ll call him Bill. Bill had a daily column in the NY Times. When he got on the commuter train in Connecticut each morning he didn’t know what he would write about, but when he alit an hour later in New York City, his creation was finished. He rarely rewrote, he said, and no one ever dared to edit him. While his method is on the Technicolor end of the writing spectrum, mine is on the black and white. That’s okay with me because our composing modes are diabolically opposed to each other.
My habit when writing something short, is to decide on a subject, then start gathering sentences together with some kind of focus, but not much direction. They need to stay close to the topic and carry my theme or plot to the end of the story. Often, the thoughts come rushing out as I think along. One notion propagates the next. Sometimes I can’t type fast enough.
Then I retreat to the beginning and try to reorganize my words into some kind of acceptable cohesive unit. How can I say a line better and keep it in the same flavor as the others? Is this sentence too predictable? Do I want to misspell a word to make the reader stop and look it up, and maybe feel a need to respond? It’s okay if the reader wants to work with me. I use other techniques too, like corrupting a word or idea. In my Thrill book I wrote about courting my wife. “Everyone knew she was too good for me, but tenacity was never one of my shortcomings.” That sort of thing causes the kind of word-of-mouth publicity that I need because I self-publish and don’t have any distribution. And it’s my way of keeping a reader’s attention fresh. If one knows exactly what I mean then who cares what the word is, or how it’s used. Educated editors disapprove of me en-masse, but they don’t have a Pulitzer either.
I am frequently criticized for where I put commas. My reply is that I don’t want to use anybody’s book-writing rules. It is my prerogative as the writer to decide when I want the reader to pause, not the reader’s, and certainly not the critic’s. Cormac McCarthy was known to write a story and then go back and remove all of the commas.
The hardest part of writing for me is sitting down and getting started. Some of my techniques develop themselves as I write along. For instance, I learned when researching my J. H. Sharp biography that the elderly Taos Indian models wouldn’t answer my questions about the artist. I quickly discovered that if I said something to them that I knew was wrong, they would correct me, on and on, and tell me things I wanted to know. Success sometimes hides in squinting wrappings, but a delicate new bow, if tied correctly, can widen eyes.
I wrote this someplace a few years ago and maybe you’ll think it’s worth remembering, Imagination isn’t a technique, it’s a key. f