Flashbacks August 2006

So You Want to Be a Writer

Wallace Stegner, Francine Prose, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others offer advice to aspiring wordsmiths.

Two decades later, in "Writing, Typing, and Economics" (March 1978) economist John Kenneth Galbraith weighed in with more pragmatic writing advice. Though a professor of economics, he was also recognized as a prolific and talented writer. He had been an editor of Fortune magazine and was the author of numerous essays, reviews, and books.

Galbraith's first suggestion was to resist the fantasy that good writing can only be accomplished during moments of inspiration:

All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand—are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. I have experienced those moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It's a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments. Such is the horror of having to face the typewriter that you will spend all your time waiting. I am persuaded that most writers, like most shoemakers, are about as good one day as the next (a point which Trollope made), hangovers apart. The difference is the result of euphoria, alcohol, or imagination. The meaning is that one had better go to his or her typewriter every morning and stay there regardless of the seeming result. It will be much the same.

He also emphasized the importance of revision. "Anyone who is not certifiably a Milton," he wrote, "had better assume that the first draft is a very primitive thing. The reason is simple: writing is difficult work."  This difficulty, he warned, is enough to drive many a writer to drink. He therefore advised against relying on alcohol as a crutch. "It is, quite literally, very sobering," he pointed out, "to reflect upon how many good American writers have been destroyed by this solace—by the sauce. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner—the list goes on and on." He offered a rule of thumb:  "Any writer who wants to do his best against a deadline should stick to Coca-Cola. If he doesn't have a deadline, he can risk Seven-Up."

In "A Writing Woman" (October 1979), novelist Gail Godwin took a personal approach to the question of the writing life, structuring her essay as a memoir. She began by discussing her writer mother's lifetime struggle to balance her home and romantic life with her quest for literary success. She then went on to consider how her own life had ended up mirroring those same struggles and considered the questions raised in translating such experiences into fiction.

Fact and fiction, fiction and fact. Which stops where, and how much to put in of each? At what point does regurgitated autobiography graduate into memory shaped by art? How do you know when to stop telling it as it is, or was, and make it into what it ought to be—or what would make a better story?

She appreciatively recalled a writing instructor she once had at the City Literary Institute of London, who had forthrightly clarified for her why her fiction wasn't working, and assigned her a series of assignments to help. "That she was able to tell me, moreover to prescribe exercises to correct my faults," Godwin wrote, "was my good fortune."

But in her view, it was her brief marriage to a psychotherapist that finally put her on a path to success. Her husband, trained to analyze the motivations and emotions of others, was able to help her identify what he determined was the real obstacle hindering her career:  a fear of failure. Though her marriage to him didn't last, his insight was able to release her from her self-imposed restraints, allowing her at last to write compellingly and with freedom.

As for Francine Prose, she goes on to answer her own daunting question about whether great writing can be learned. It is close and thoughtful reading, she asserts, that is in fact most important to the apprentice writer. Prose herself uncovered this secret as a high school junior when an English teacher assigned her to write an essay on symbolism in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. The exercise seemed tedious at first. But to her surprise, Prose learned that poring over these works was like deciphering an ancient code. “I felt,” she recalls, “as if I were engaged in some intimate communication with the writer, as if the ghosts of Sophocles and Shakespeare had been waiting patiently all those centuries for a bookish sixteen-year-old to come along and find them.”

In fact, she points out, she was merely rediscovering the oldest known method for developing a writer’s own innate abilities. In days gone by, writers-in-training honed their craft not by soliciting advice from successful writers but by simply absorbing the greatness of those who came before them.

They studied meter with Ovid, plot construction with Homer, comedy with Aristophanes; they honed their prose style by absorbing the lucid sentences of Montaigne and Samuel Johnson. And who could have asked for better teachers: generous, uncritical, blessed with wisdom and genius, as endlessly forgiving as only the dead can be?
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Shan Wang is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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