(The third in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get, such is my otherworldly generosity.)
Writing Tip #3
Get [to the] Naked [Truth}
The old workshop saw is that you should write what you know. I don’t much care whether you agree with that. But at least in one sense it’s true: only you know what you’re passionate about, and only you will be able to figure out how to turn that passion into good writing.
Not long ago, a young writer whose dad is a scientist I much admire, came to me for advice, as most of us do when we’re utterly clueless how to get started (oversimplified advice: Start.) and what kind of writer we want to be. My response to his questions were pretty practical, and about as basic as ‘Paper or plastic?’ Fiction or nonfiction? The latter. Journalism? Probably. I’m into sports, and have done some college sports writing. Do you want to do broader journalism or focus on sports?
A few questions and he was pretty certain what he was passionate about. I tend to be passionate about larger and more complex ideas. Every writer should be the best writer he or she can be, and sometimes it just takes a lot of writing to figure that out. When I was in my late teens or early twenties, I was passionate about Nabokov. I loved (and still do) the simultaneous density and clarity of his prose. I loved his word play and his general playfulness, but also his seriousness. I also loved Kurt Vonnegut, the good stuff. His book of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, and especially the story “The Euphio Question,” strike me as some of the best examples of the form out there. Still.
But I could’t be Kurt Vonnegut. Nor could I be Vladimir Nabokov. I had only one choice, and I was the only one who could make it—be Stephen Stark. I have no idea whether that realization sounds so plain as to be less self-evident than just dumb, but it was just one of a number of weird little epiphanies I’ve had about writing over the years.
So I had to get to what that meant. A professor I had once recommended that when you’re in your imitative phase, imitate writers in translation. That way, you’ll be imitating a style that doesn’t really exist. I’d say it takes some imitation and modeling of writer personae to figure out what you want to do and be.
What that meant—for me—was getting at the things that scared me. The naked truth about stuff I didn’t necessarily want to talk about, but sure as hell wanted to understand. For example why I had been such a crappy buttface to my parents when I was 15. That was easy, in one sense—I was 15. But the difficulties between parents and children, particularly fathers and sons, still fascinates me. Why, in my case, the man I loved more than I’ve loved anyone also just completely frustrated and irritated me sometimes.
But the more I learned how to write, the more I started getting into questions that really could only be answered through metaphor. What it means to be alive in this particular era, how self is defined by the individual versus the definition of the social community, what it means to be successful, what ambition can cost, what it means to be intimate, how we deal with grief and trauma. But I never wanted to write a book on grief. I wanted to mash ambition together with success and see where the grief squeezed out.
And, to be frank, a lot of times I had no idea what I was really writing about. It never struck me that in one novel I was really writing about the two sides of my own ambitions as a writer—the dangers of success and the terror of always coming within inches but never quite getting there. If I’d known that, in part, I was writing about that, I doubt I would have done it. I was getting at a naked truth, it seems to me, that I never realized I was getting at. In my case, it comes in part from a desire to write characters who are faithful to their own realities, and those realities can mirror my own. In that case, I was likely just not looking at the reflection.
What learning how to be Stephen Stark the writer was also about being ambitious for my work, but also being satisfied with my own work, and understanding that I might not win the Nobel Prize or make a Hemingway-sized mark. There’s a great piece of advice in one of Salinger’s story, in which (if I recall) Seymour says to Buddy: ‘You were a reader long before you were a writer. So write the thing you’d most want to read.’ I’d say that was pretty good advice.