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second letter

Dear friend,

You will forgive the inconstancy of these missives: I remain hesitant to give advice. But I think of how nice it would have been had someone pointed out some of these things to me when I was younger. Whenever I read James Joyce’s perfect collection of short stories, Dubliners, the little marching band of envy arrives outside my window, and I wish that I had had such genius in my early twenties. That dream is gone for me now. But for you, perhaps it isn’t too late. Of course, it isn’t my advice that will carry you from here to there. Your own talent and inner drive are what matter.

In any case, I was delighted to hear from you that you found some of the ideas in my letter helpful. Good! Of far greater importance than the specific technical matters, I was glad to know that this kind of conversation, between a young writer and an even younger one, is positive. I took pains, when I wrote you, to distinguish between suggestions and rules. Suggestions are there to be rejected, and you should reject any of them you wish to: my only plea to you is that you understand, as comprehensively as you are able, what it is that you are rejecting. It will not be difficult at all for you to find wonderful writers, wonderful artists of the written word, who disregard some of the suggestions I gave you.

All I will say to that is that you should consider those artists not only from the point of view of their perfected work but from the perspective of their apprenticeship. A pianist who plays angular, atonal, but nevertheless beautiful pieces must have started, at some point, with scales and chords. She must have learned to read music, and gotten a sense of how composers put their work together. But once that mastery was properly achieved, she was able to deliver herself into an interesting freedom.

This is the heart of the matter: not an untutored freedom, but  a freedom that contains something interesting. To imitate the gestures of the avant-garde, to write frantic prose, does not guarantee that one has the insight of the avant-garde. There’s much “radical” work done by uninteresting writers. But even for good writers, writing is mostly failure: it is rare for a writer to reach the mark she has set herself. The question is whether this failure is productive or not. Remember Beckett: “Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

If your writing is falsely experimental, then you haven’t given yourself a chance to learn from your mistakes. The mistakes, swallowed up by too brash a style, become opaque. Such mistakes can sit there immobile for years, like unexploded land mines. So try not to fail worse. Fail better.

But let me turn this around and share a story about doing things exactly the way you want to do them. It’s a story told by the now-forgotten Czech author Josef Kainar:

A boy and his grandmother go out for a walk in town. The grandmother is blind, and the boy leads her by the hand. But this boy is a little impish, he has a bit of Esu in him, and every now and again, he cries out (just for fun): “Watch out, Grandma! There’s a stone in the path.” Or “Careful about that root near your left foot.” And the poor old lady hops and skips, thinking she is on a forest trail. Passersby scold the boy for being wicked, but what does he say? “She’s my grandma, not yours, and I’ll treat her any way I want.”

Terrible! But what was Kainar’s point in telling this anecdote? That your independence as a writer is your own: do with it exactly what you want. Be fierce with it, and feel free to do things that might confuse others. Writing is your “grandma,” and you can treat her any way you want.

This is a freedom that is uniquely an artist’s. A policeman can’t, or at least shouldn’t, do anything he wants; an accountant can’t, or in any case shouldn’t, go breaking the rules. But having committed to such a radical idea of freedom, having declared that you’re no policeman or accountant, that you’re not stymied by procedural limits, you owe yourself an interesting result. Make sure your inner compass is functioning well, and there’s no better calibration for this than to spend time with those greats, past and present, who have trod the same lonely path as you have, who have, in a sense, been accused of being mean to their grandmas.

I was particularly pleased to hear that you’re currently reading Gabriel García Márquez. For me, he’s one of the most remarkable among living novelists. In fact, the depth of his creativity is such that he is almost worthless as a teacher. What can one learn from One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera? The great risk—a risk that many fall to—is that only the surface effect, the so-called “magical realism,” is retained by those who try to learn from him. In the past two decades we have had a surfeit of copycat magical realism books. Most of them are bad. These authors don’t understand that García Márquez’s real strength isn’t in the miraculous appearance of butterflies or levitating maidens. It is in his understanding of human nature. The beauty of his writing is like a tough husk that keeps me from the delicious kernel of his literary tactics, but I believe I might have snagged one small insight: he writes of human behaviour as though he had no interest in “wrong” or “right.”

Characters do shocking things, not because the author wishes to shock but because it is in the character of humans to misbehave (even when, in general, they are good people). García Márquez has the ability to write this in a way that makes it seem normal; this helps us trust him. He doesn’t judge his characters, and as such we feel that he won’t judge us, his readers, either.

As for your own story, which you generously sent to me, I think it is beautifully written. The prose is clean and direct. I will only ask, as though I were a police investigator, for more names, more addresses, more places, and even dates. I am disinclined to take my eba with only watery stew. I need to see some ponmo in there, some cow foot, and some liver if possible. In your fiction, give lots of meat, enliven things with proper nouns. “Town”—which town? “Market”—I want to know which market. “Their house” should be described in such a way that I will know what bus to take there, or that I will at least have the impression that I do.

This isn’t a rule for all stories, and there’s certainly a place for parable-like narratives, but I feel that the story you’re trying to tell will benefit from being made more precisely local. If you are withholding information, there should be a reason for it, not simply that you couldn’t be bothered to name the town or the market. The trick of it will be to give information, when you give it, in a way that feels organic. As far as this goes, what I often want to tell young writers is: there’s no need to tell us everything in the first paragraph, or even on the first page.

The facts should be worked into the texture of the story. That way, the reader feels not only that he has read a story “about” something but that he has been transported into a specific place; so specific, in fact, that he’s sure you must have been there yourself.

My aburo, I wish you continued insight. And I hope you and I will both continue to fail better—failure of a kind that might even be better than certain forms of success.




Filed under: letters to a young writer, literature

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