Myths We Live By, But Shouldn't: A Writer's Guide to Reality

David Galef

As writing is one of the desperate professions,” writes the copyright lawyer Richard Wincor in the opening of his book Literary Property, “it has universal appeal, especially for those who are not engaged in it.” To put it more cynically, as W. H. Auden does in The Prolific and the Devourer: “How often one hears a young man with no talent say when asked what he intends to do, ‘I want to write.’ What he really means is, ‘I don’t want to work.’”

Those committed to the craft realize that it does take work. And perhaps because many writers and their adherents are poorly paid and often go unrecognized, they cultivate a variety of myths—some about the creative process, others about the profession itself—to justify what they do, to cheer themselves up, to inhabit a mystique. Like certain well-traveled epigrams, many of the myths are half-true at best. Professional writers get tired of hearing them, even though some pay lip service to these bromides throughout long careers.

Don’t read—it’ll pollute the pure voice inside you. No serious writer or teacher believes this, but it’s a cherished credo among some budding scribblers. They want to write, but they don’t want to read other writers for fear of being influenced by them. They’ve heard of young writers aping Hemingway, perhaps, or T. S. Eliot. Not for them, the bookish route. Their voices will be all their own.

One could argue that the decision to avoid the practice of reading is compounded half of laziness and half of insolence, and, therefore, one only the novice tends to make. Serious writers understand the value of reading and are committed to it. Still, the choice not to read must be somewhat widespread, as many literary magazines complain that they have far more submitters than subscribers.

Rely solely on inspiration. Great art originates from some unknowable source: The idea will come to you if you wait for it. In practice, this belief is hard to keep if you’re writing anything over two pages long. An idea for a character or the opening line of a poem may indeed come to you, but sustained writing requires what the Germans call sitzfleisch, literally sit-flesh, the persistence to stay in the chair. A work of art is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration. (Adjust the ratio to suit your own methods.)

I once took an informal poll at an artists colony and found that most of the people there believed persistence to be almost as important as talent. Writers need a daily regimen—waiting for the thunderbolt is too uncertain. Good writers know how to cultivate in-the-zone concentration. They also know how to arrange their lives to enable them to write. Where does inspiration come in? Novelist Peter DeVries once noted that he wrote only when he was inspired, but that he made sure he was inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

A good poem has an inevitability about it, with all the right words in the right order. This assertion is tempting to believe, especially as a corrective to the kind of sloppy writing we see in many literary journals. It expresses the French idea of le mot juste, the precisely appropriate word. It also fits the organic model of art, in which each element is part of a unified whole. And good writing does have a deft, apt feel to it, though this quality comes mostly after the rigorous trial-and-error of composition. The best antidote to this bromide comes from Susan Sontag’s essay “On Style”: “Usually, critics who want to praise a work of art feel compelled to demonstrate that each part is justified, that it could not be other than it is. And every artist, when it comes to his own work, remembering the role of chance, fatigue, external distractions, knows what the critic says to be a lie, knows that it could well have been otherwise.”

The writing process takes over, so that your characters start creating their own situations and dialogue. This scenario is particularly attractive to neophyte novelists wondering if their writing will ever feel spontaneous again, or will at least take care of itself. Deliberation makes everything such a drag. But really, what the characters’ “taking over” means is that the writer is so immersed in the work that the mind is fully engaged, volunteering material from the unconscious that seems “given.” When an interviewer asked Nabokov whether his characters ever took over one of his novels, he ridiculed “that trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand” and added, “My characters are galley slaves.” To another interviewer asking him a similar question, he snapped, “What a preposterous experience.… I am the perfect dictator in that private world insofar as I alone am responsible for its stability and truth.”

Less is more. This precept has so many adherents that it seems a truism rather than a minimalist tenet. Those who embrace the notion remember it as the motto of the Bauhaus School, though in fact it appears earlier, in Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto.” But Browning applies it to the painter del Sarto’s late, spare style, not to all artistic creation. What about baroque art, with every bare spot filled in? What about the maximalism of Laurence Sterne or William Gass? To edit down isn’t a bad idea, but more apt editorial advice for a patch that isn’t working is “Cut—or expand.” That is, remove the problem, or else add to and flesh out the passage until it succeeds.

Write about what you know. This dictum has brought us countless student workshop stories about dormitory life and sick relatives. Interpreted literally, it restricts a writer’s scope to base-level particulars. When John Updike wanted his protagonist Rabbit Angstrom to run a car dealership, he sent a researcher to compile notes about the business, then artfully wove the details into his narrative. Maybe the full dictum should be “Write about what you know—or learn.” Of course, some writers point out that this precept has to do with emotional knowledge, not mere facts: what it’s like to kill a deer with a bow and arrow or how the disintegration of a twenty-year marriage resembles a crumbling house. But even here, a good writer can fake it, or project convincingly, just as an actor who’s a bachelor may play a fine King Lear. In Independence Day, Richard Ford convincingly writes of oedipal rage and teenage sullenness in the relationship between his protagonist, Frank Bascombe, and Bascombe’s adolescent son. Ford happens to be childless.

Show; don’t tell. This saying is attributed variously to Hemingway, Henry James, or your run-of-the-mill college writing instructor. As do some of the other directives, it contains a germ of worthwhile advice: Dramatize your points rather than turn your story or poem into an essay. But some of the most memorable lines in novels are essayistic, or are authorial voice-overs commenting on the action or the characters: Charlotte Brontë’s “Reader, I married him”; Rilke’s “You must change your life.” Different writers have different strengths. E.M. Forster’s perceptive commentary, running alongside his narration, is part of why people continue to read him.