Writing techniques of famous authors–my experiences copying them. And thoughts on Blue Valentine.

Posted on January 31, 2011

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Sir Kingsley Amis (1922-1995)

Kingsley Amis. A greater writer. A great drinker.

The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog reposted its excellent article “Write Like a Pro” a few days ago. It discusses some of the writing quirks of famous authors. I hope Adrienne Crezo doesn’t mind if I block quote most of her piece here. I can’t resist commenting on some of these habits.

#1:  Be out of order. Who says you have to write by the page? Write your scenes on notecards, the way Vladimir Nabokov did…

I was half-way to a mental hospital trying to write my memoir like this. When I drew up my original outline I listed a series of events that occurred in chronological order.  As I started writing, there were a few times when I got more excited to talk about one event more than another because the one seemed funnier and more outlandish. I rolled with this natural inclination only to go back to my last writing point and realize that the two events had no relationship to each other whatsoever in terms of the overall story I wanted to tell. Or, the reason I even bothered to write a book in the first place.  The more exciting event seemed hilarious in and of itself. But when I thought deeper on why that event happened and all the causes that led up to it, it took on a different meaning altogether.

By starting at Event #1 in the chronology and working my way up to Event #2, I discovered the true meaning of it all (my own personal truth, anyway), and then both became equally interesting to write about because I was actually discovering something new about myself as opposed to cherry picking what seemed the most titilating. It actually took me a few months to figure this out. I spent much of that time knowing that something was wrong with my book because it didn’t seem to be ringing true. And yet I still felt excited to write about certain periods of my life more than others. It didn’t help that I was switching from handwritten notebooks to typed MSWord documents. I eventually looked at my original outline again and decided to put these events in proper chronological order–printing the computer pages and pasting them into the notebook pages so I had my story straight.  I still have to re-write all of this stuff–and who knows, maybe I’ll still skip around with the timeline in the finished product. But for now, I feel like writing in the chronological order in which things actually occurred is giving me a better understanding of the overall story, and I feel more confidant about where it’s going.

I may try the Nabokov method on a different project that doesn’t require me to write about a specific time frame. I’m already getting ideas for that book, and I think it will be a totally different reading experience.

Lie to yourself. David Sedaris claims he’s only able to write when he “abandons all hope.” Assuming no one will read the piece, he writes fearlessly, trying new ideas sentence after sentence assured that he won’t have to show them to anyone…

This is the only way to write. But I also think there’s a difference between writing from the gut, and writing from your feelings. Feelings change on a dime. They aren’t rational. In my experience, they’ve rarely guided me on making an intelligent and healthy choice. The gut is your inner voice that isn’t afraid to call your feelings out on their bullshit. I say write fearlessly from the gut. And I know that’s not always an easy thing to do. But if it was easy, what would be the point?

Go to bed. Truman Capote only wrote lying down, either in longhand or with a typewriter balanced on his knees…

I write sitting down, standing-up, laying on my side, and hanging upside down (I want to get my full money’s worth from my chin-up bar).

Walk it off. Philip Roth paces, thinking, as he writes, stopping at his lectern to add a few words or lines before taking another turn about the room…

I do this somewhat, but I try to take breaks every few paragraphs as opposed to sentences. I can’t help but feel my time is limited for some reason.

Be terrible. Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers—her book, Bird by Bird, has an entire chapter devoted to assuring the reader/writer that it’s ok to suck (hilariously titled “Sh!tty First Drafts”). Write it down, get it on paper, and clean it up later…

This is only way I’ve been able to get as far as I have with this book. I’ve tried writing books in the past and always became discouraged and quit because I knew what I was starting wasn’t good. But I never understood then that it was okay to write badly. I just want to get the damn things out now. There’s a reason why we have the term “second draft.”

Go hungry. Joyce Carol Oates writes first thing in the morning. She doesn’t have breakfast until she’s finished with her day’s work; sometimes, that’s as late as mid-afternoon…

It depends on what I’m working on. I think some of my most engaging music criticism was written from the POV of having not eaten or slept or showered in days. To me that’s part of rock ‘n’ roll, and therefore part of rock journalism. But I don’t know if I’d be able to write a tender love scene under those conditions.

Wake up when the sun also rises. Hemingway woke up early and wrote in the morning—and purportedly sober, at that. Stephen King also wakes up early, writing ten pages a day, even on holidays.

Lately when I try to wake up early to write I’m just pissed off over the lack of sleep and it shows up in the work. Maybe I should one-up Papa Hemingway and do it drunk.

…  or wait until later. Kingsley Amis allows himself time to read the paper, have some food, dawdle around in his pajamas. Then he gets to work, writing a couple hours to the radio before he breaks for lunch…

I have a day job and an immense sense of guilt if I’m not working on something with every free minute I have outside of it. So this option is just out of the question. Sounds fun, though. Maybe when I’m retired.

Crunch it in. Got a day job? I’m right there with you—and so was T.S. Eliot. He worked as a banker, writing poetry and reviews at night until he made his break eight years later… all while taking care of an ailing wife. If a guy with this much on his plate can go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, odds are you can squeeze in some time between errands and work, too.

I feel ya, Adrienne. We do what we have to do, and for us that means paying the bills and satisfying creative urges that don’t pay… yet?

On a completely different note, I can’t stop thinking about Blue Valentine since watching it for the first time yesterday. I think it’s my favorite film in a long time. The images are haunting. The feelings it forces me to experience are both beautifully and painfully real. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are brilliant, though I think Williams’ character was a bit more mysterious and nuanced–maybe the more difficult one to play. I might form a blog later on for people who’ve seen it and want to talk about it.

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Posted in: Film