Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The best writing advice I've read in a long time

Age 49: Day 3

What does being 49 have to do with writing? For me, everything. I've wanted to write for as long as I've known how to form letters, yet instead of making my writing a daily, weekly, or even a monthly practice, I spend 99.9 percent of my time helping other people write. Don't get me wrong. I love working with writers and editing, and helping someone get to the heart of a story. But often I find myself doing this at the expense of my own writing. This blog is an attempt to write every single damn day. For some reason, I find it easier to write on a blog--it feels less mannered and self conscious than a diary (which I've never been able to manage; whenever I've tried it, I find myself writing for an invisible reader, which makes the whole enterprise seem false). There's an audience, but it's a small one, a (generally) friendly one and the informality of the whole thing somehow gives me permission to type my thoughts off the top of my head. I'm hoping that doing some writing here every day, about what I'm feeling, experiencing, finding funny, odd, unfair, etc., about the whole process of time--and my age--marching inexorably forward will help me make writing more of a priority in general, and lead to actual decent ideas that lead to actually written essays.

So, here's the part where I share the best writing advice I've gotten in a long time. I'm on a Hilary Mantel kick. If you don't know her, she is the unbelievably amazing author of the Man-Booker prize winning Wolf Hall (if you're intimidated, don't be--it's a much easier version of War & Peace--as good, but more fun, and the names are easier to pronounce) and Bring Up the Bodies (both  chronicle the adventures of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from being the poor son of a blacksmith to being the most powerful adviser to King Henry the VIII, engineering, among other things, the banishment of Henry's first wife (Queen Catherine), the legitimizing of  Henry's second wife, the sexually voracious Anne Boleyn and so on and so forth. Cromwell is generally viewed as an evil man by history, but Mantel tells these stories from his point of view--and he comes off as someone you would absolutely want to sit next to at a dinner party. In any case, she is beyond brilliant and I am now reading everything she has ever written, including her memoir. Where I came across this not-to-be-ignored writing advice:

This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don't think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage.

Now here's one of my favorite parts:  
But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don't use foreign expressions; it's elitist.)

I think it's time to stop teaching and just hand those words over to my students, writers and myself.


  1. very good.
    49 was a very tough year for me. i felt an absolute dread of 50. it hit me way harder than 40.
    like gloria steinem says, "At 50, the map of how to be a woman ends." and it does feel like crossing the rubicon, in a way it might not for men since they don't lose their fertility and that sort of thing.
    (but then glo goes on to say--"Sixty is much better. By then you realize there's something else—a free, uncharted country.")

  2. Wow, love this. Thanks for sharing the Gloria wisdom.

  3. I was reading Bringing Up The Bodies last night when I came across this: "Grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman." Plain words on plain paper only if it's butcher's paper. I'm grateful that she doesn't take her own advice. Gralloched, an appallingly onomatopoetic word, not that I've ever gutted a deer.

    She does offer advice generously - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/22/hilary-mantel-rules-for-writers - but I've always liked Somerset Maugham's: "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

    But it's always a pleasure to hear your voice, Paula, where persiflage knows no sanctuary.

  4. And yours, too, Jim. Love this. And I'm trying to use persiflage as much as possible.