A Quick Guide to Becoming a Better and Happier Writer

29 April 2005, Rue LeCourbe, Paris

[Advice to students in my study abroad course in Paris.]

As I write this, I am sitting in the Café LeCourbe, at my favorite table by the window. One block west on the Rue LeCourbe is a Monoprix store that once was the apartment of a leader of the French Resistance. Nazi troops came past this window to capture him. When she got word, his fiancée Hélène got on her bicycle and rode 200 miles, somehow caught up with the train carrying him to a prison camp and managed, during a transfer stop, to hold hands and walk with him one last time before the SS guard pulled them apart. I mention this because it reminds me that if you’re ever struggling to write, a great story may be just a few steps away.

It is 1915h and I’m having une bierre pression, a draft called Stella Artois. A little girl came in with her father and shouted to the back, “Maman, voila une bouquet!” and ran with a red rose in her hand to the back end of the bar, where her mother sat with two friends. Now the little girl, in a pink dress with a red heart on the front and matching pink sneakers—she’s even a redhead, honest—is going around offering men at the bar “un peu du chocolat?” She then holds out her lollipop to them and when they say non, merci, tucks it back in her mouth, the stick held in one corner like a cigarette, and smiles. The first person I’ve seen in almost two days wearing a beret just walked by. A black beret, a blonde in a black coat; she looks nothing like Monica Lewinsky. They all seem friends: when they leave, they kiss four times, twice on each cheek.

First things first

1. Definite, specific, concrete language is the essential element of good writing.

Nothing is more important. Replace the general, vague, abstract, or clichéd terms you may use at first drafting with more specific language. And cultivate the habit of dropping to deeper and deeper levels of specificity as you note the details. When you write that you saw a car, next to “car” write “silver, two-seater Smart car, as long as most cars are wide,” then note any other details worth noting. A poodle sticking its head out the right-side window, maybe. And you have just come from London so for a second you thought the poodle was driving.
Let me give you a reverse-engineered example. Imagine (try your best) that you are a writer in Paris writing in a café when you see an attractive person come in. You are prone to nostalgia, to self-doubt, to depression, and both these feelings and your suppression of them come to the surface when you write and in what you write. You might, if you were a talented student in a college writing course, make this first draft:

I was writing a story where the characters were drinking, and this inspired me to order a drink, which warmed me up and made me feel relaxed. A girl came in the café and sat down. She was very pretty and I got distracted looking closely at her face and hair. I felt a jumble of emotions as I looked at her, but it was easy to tell that she was waiting for somebody, so I went on writing. I really got into it, and I ordered another drink, but I still looked at her from time to time. Somehow the writing and the girl and being in Paris all blended together and made a strong impression on me. I’ll never forget it. Then I went back to writing and I got so involved in it that I forgot everything else in the room and didn’t even order another drink. When I finally looked up, the girl wasn’t there and I felt sad. I put away my notebook and gave the waiter my order. After writing a story I always had mixed emotions, but I felt pretty confident about this one. Eating dinner certainly improved my mood.

Notice that you get some idea of what’s going on, but the story is still not unique. Lots of people could have written it. Look now at the original and see how the writer replaces general words like “characters, drink, dinner,” and even “emotions” and “pretty” with specific words from a specific life. Well, with “pretty,” he leads us deliberately through an awkward cliché: new coins are round and shiny—hardly a complimentary way to describe a girl’s face—only to give us a memorable image and phrase, “rain-freshened skin,” and a hairstyle you can see. Yes, he breaks the rule by using “happy” and “sad,” but he knows what he’s doing. Rules are made to be practiced, mastered, and then masterfully broken.

Here’s the original, from A Moveable Feast:

It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story. I had already seen the end of fall come through boyhood, youth and young manhood, and in one place you could write about it better than in another. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and it could be as necessary with people as with other sorts of growing things. But in the story the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St. James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day. I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit.

A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.

I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.

The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.

I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.

Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it. I was writing it now and it was not writing itself and I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James. I was tired of rum St. James without thinking about it. Then the story was finished and I was very tired. I read the last paragraph and then I looked up and looked for the girl and she had gone. I hope she’s gone with a good man, I thought. But I felt sad.

I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen portugaises and a half-carafe of the dry white wine they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

2. Cultivate awakeness to what your senses bring to you, without judging.

I realize “cultivate awakeness” is pretty un-specific; practicing rule #1 will help you cultivate it. An eye for colors, shapes, juxtapositions—writers become more sensitive to these things, as well as to the sounds their words make. Good writers will have a preference between the word “began” and the word “started.” They are not interchangeable.
To see one circle and relate it to another circle requires first that you see the circles. An improv comic picks up a dinner plate and it’s a steering wheel. He drives too fast, crashes, dies. His partner picks up the plate; it is the halo of St. Peter, deciding whether the dead man gets into heaven.
A first step in writing is simply to begin—as Adam did—to name the things in your world with their unique names. Turn that purple flower into a wisteria, the French girl who will give me a coupe de cheveux tomorrow into Natalie, that “Oriental-sounding instrument” you heard in the metro station into a shakuhachi, that nice-smelling shampoo into cucumber-melon. When this becomes a priority for you and a habit, you begin to inhabit a world more rich and alive than what most people live in.
If tomorrow Natalie shampoos me with cucumber-melon shampooing before my haircut with shakuhachi music in the background, and if her perfume smells of wisteria, I’ll be really freaked out.
You’ll find that you never master this skill, but rather keep finding new ways to improve. Choosing and expressing the significant details may be the biggest writing challenge, bigger than the word-play. For a start, practice relaxing, giving up the need to control things, and staying with the discipline of just making lines of words and letting things be as they are.
I swear that the Beatles’ “Let It Be” started playing just after I wrote that last bit.

Look again

The next two rules apply after the first draft is written, during revision. The word “re-vise” means to look at something again. So you have to first bring it into being before you can revise it.

3. Abhor the cliché.

Learn to spot and change or cut as many instances as you can of clichéd ideas, expressions, and words. Expressions are easiest to spot, and there are websites and books that collect all those well-worn, tried-and-true chestnuts. Words sometimes get so overused and misused, like “individual” for “person” or even “individuals” for “people,” that we forget they’re wrong.
Clichéd ideas are the most insidious, because they imply that we have already figured out what to think about a given situation. We like to think we know the truth, even when it’s not true. Incoming freshmen tell me they’re not “math and science people” as though it’s genetic. Once when an engineering major told me he “wasn’t an English person,” I told him I could tell from his accent. He just looked at me blankly.
Students begin essays with “I was a typical freshman with the typical experiences when one day I met…” and already they’ve lost me. I understand the impulse, but you can never be original this way. When someone tells me her mother’s “rags-to-riches story,” I ask her to tell me her mother’s story, not prove how her mother’s story fits a certain type.
I think we do it because we have a need to belong. We want to know what type or crowd we fit in with. We want identity and uniqueness and yet we don’t want to be alone.
Assume nothing. Let familiar things fascinate you again as they did when you were one and spent hours putting things in your mouth and taking them back out, feeling their corners and tastes without yet knowing the labels people put on them.
Take in mouthfuls of Paris the same way. The fact that you’re here means you’re already past the Fox News clichés of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” or lazy, socialist sex-maniacs, that you don’t expect a land of greasy-haired accordion players kissing their fingertips and saying, “Formidable!” at the drop of a hat, or beret. There’s an art to being both completely at home and completely in wonderment at the same time.
So what do we cliché-abhorrers have left to write if, as Mr. Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”? (He wrote a lot of clichés, Mr. Shakespeare did.) Arrive at those old truths by your own path. While it’s good to learn from and even imitate other people, let that imitation lead you to the place where you can add your unique view. Be humble enough to realize that you are unique and that God, being infinitely creative, makes no backup copies. If I’m sure of anything it’s that the Good Lord abhors the cliché.

4. And finally, omit needless words.

This advice from William Strunk, the original author of the classic Elements of Style, is about more than changing “due to the fact that” to “because,” though that’s a good start.
The rule also means that sometimes you will clear away a lot of vague clutter and make room for specific, concrete details. This can result in something like this:

“We proceeded along Rue LeCourbe, the street from which we had started out from the hotel, until we reached the metro station, Sevres-LeCourbe, after crossing the Rue Garibaldi. Then we entered the metro station, paying our 1,40 € and proceeded to the platform. Our professor, Vikram, began lecturing us on writing but it was difficult to concentrate on his commentary due to the plethora of Parisian sights, sounds, and smells with which our sense were being tantalized. I only remember a few fragments of his discourse,”

turning into something like this:

“Out the hotel, up its namesake the Rue LeCourbe, wait for the light, cross Garibaldi and after a short detour to see the top of the Eiffel Tower behind a building, descend into the metro station and pay 1, 40 euros to a man who is the spitting image of Victor Hugo. Vikram lectures all the while—you recognize the drone—but there is a bucherie with bright red meats you’ve never seen before, a charcuterie with terrines of salmon and little quiches and rows of cheeses wrapped in ham, and a salon called ModsHair with a large mirror outside, at which you all stopped.  The French girls all have scarves and you start mentally scarf shopping. You remember nothing of Vikram’s lecture but “Behold the Eiffel Tower. It is Gallic, phallic, and metallic.” You all groaned at once and wondered how much of that there would be all week.”

Yes, I know the latter is not actually shorter. But it does more per inch. If I kept just the parts that do what the first passage does, it would be half the length. But omitting needless words suddenly shows me how empty the original really was. It just seemed full because of all the words in it. The latter says more, implies more, and shows more of the writer’s personality.

But that advice is for later, as I said. The writing process is like pottery. First, you dig the clay. Master potters for millennia were known for their gift of looking at a hillside and knowing where the good clay was within, just as physicians traditionally were not just healers but farmers and botanists. The artist loves his materials and processes. Most great musicians love to play scales. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes of a painter who chose his job because, “I loved the smell of the paint.” So make this your practice while we are in Paris:

  1. Keep your hand moving. Don’t stop to think or judge or wonder what to say next. Thinking is of little use to writers. Let the writing come out of your hands, even if it means writing the same sentence a few times or writing “I don’t know what to write next.”
  2. Do not hurry. In fact, treat it at times like penmanship practice. You are not trying to write anything great. You are just putting pen to paper, making nice, pretty letters, and whatever words and sentences happen to come out, come out. You needn’t go too slowly, but when you find yourself racing to catch up to your mind, accept that you cannot, slow down, and go back to just writing nice, pretty letters.* Your hand will be too slow to write all the thoughts you can speak or think. This provides an elegant and natural filter once you’ve learned to use it.
    This way, even if I give you a difficult topic or writing task, or a difficult subject comes up as you’re writing, you have a strong, basic center to anchor you and give you control. If I ask you, for example, to write sentences beginning “I remember…” and painful memories come up and you want to cry…cry. Don’t stop writing. Someone will hand you a tissue. Try not to let the tears smear the ink. You’ll want to re-read it…it was probably worth writing.

Oh, and rule #3: remember to breathe. You’d be surprised how often you hold your breath. Once you get flowing, you’ll enter a relaxed, meditative state that is pleasurable and creative.

* Thank you to my teacher, Joyce Carol Oates, for the nice, pretty letters practice. She’s written over 80 books, all in longhand on yellow legal pads, all in nice, pretty letters.

Comments are Disabled