About Writing

Looking at Writers and Writing

By Jack Limpert

The Sunday New York Times Book Review has fun today with writers and writing. Some glimpses:

Colson Whitehead makes fun of any list of rules about writing with “How to Write.” He has 10 rules (among them “Don’t go searching for your subject, let your subject find you,” “Write what you know,” “Never use three words when one will do,” etc.) that he mostly laughs at. An example: “Rule No. 7: Writer’s block is a tool—use it. When asked why you haven’t produced anything lately, just say, ‘I’m blocked.’ Since most people think that writing is some mystical process where characters ‘talk to you’ and you can hear their voices in your head, being blocked is the perfect cover for when you just don’t feel like working. The gods of creativity bless you, it’s out of your hands, and what not.” Whitehead’s Rule No. 11 is “There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?”

Augusten Burroughs, who recently published the book, This Is How, writes about “How to Write How-To,” a subject that editors of city magazines know well. He begins: “In order to pass along the knowledge of how to succeed, first you must know how to fail. A great deal, if possible. This is essential because it’s far more common (and easier) to make mistakes than to enjoy success. Being aware of potential points of derailment helps to better and more accurately navigate your readers past your own missteps so they can succeed where perhaps you first failed quite miserably.” He goes on: “The writing process for my advice/self-help book, This Is How, was unlike my experience of writing a novel or memoir. I was less concerned with the craft of artful, attractive, witty sentences, and entirely concerned with clarity and specificity.” Amen.

Roger Rosenblatt, a wonderful and occasional contributor to The Washingtonian, looks at the subject of “How to Write Great.” An excerpt: “A curious line in Auden’s elegy to Yeats applies to writing great: ‘Teach the free man how to praise.’ Auden seems to be saying that freedom, used most typically for carping and revolt, might also acknowledge that the world is worth thinking well of. The writers we admire most are propelled by a mixture of innocence and chutzpah—the nerve to write big coupled with a childlike need to cultivate the virtues they have always believed in. They may surprise themselves by the insistence of their own higher motives and values. They may also believe that as readers, we will surprise ourselves for the same reasons.”

As it is on many Sundays, the Times Book Review is the best reading of the week.

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