(The fourth in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get, such is my insanely selfless altruism.)
Writing Tip #4
Many years ago, I went through a state of Salinger addiction. Anyone who has ever been a fan of the late stylist at an impressionable age likely goes through something like that with reading Salinger. His sentences are just so good. Can’t say I much re-read him these days, but there’s a moment in one of the Glass family books when he offers some really good writing advice.
The writer of the stories is allegedly Buddy Glass. His older brother, Seymour, is a saint too good for this world. In (I think) a note to Buddy about one of his early stories, Seymour (I’m paraphrasing, here) tells Buddy something to the effect that he’s trying too hard. He tells him that he was a reader long before he was a writer, and so he should write that thing that he most wants to read.
I think it’s exceptionally good advice, and I got similar advice from my professors over the years. I remember going to Richard Bausch, one of the earliest of my teachers, who (unbelievably) may have been unpublished at the time and asking how to end a story.
At the time I was maybe 18 or 19 and wanted to write more than I knew what it was I wanted to write about. The real problem was that I had no idea how to set up a conflict so that it could be resolved. (I was kind of hooked on Kerouac at the time, and just wrote, figuring that by doing so, I’d get something worthwhile.
He said something like read other writers. See how they end stories. I also needed to see how they began them, but the real point was reading.
Several years later, I taught an undergrad fiction class at the University of Houston. It was an evening class, at one of the satellite campuses, and it was pretty full, the first night. I handed out the syllabus, assigned the book (Burroway’s)
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft), and stood hopefully in front of the class and asked what these hopeful young writers were reading. Few of them actually were, aside from the books they were assigned to read for their other classes.
I won’t say that I was shocked but I sure as heck was chagrinned. But the reality is that a whole lot of folks who take undergrad creative writing courses just plain aren’t interested in the idiotic life that being a fiction writer can be. They just needed an agreeable elective.
Read poetry. One of my professors when I was an undergrad, Peter Klappert, said something to the effect that fiction writers ought to read poetry, and lots of it, to get the latest news on what language can do. I could not agree more.