Joe Fassler on Seven of the Most Common Writing Tips
I once heard John Irving give a lecture on his process at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an in-depth account of the way his novels come to be. He kicked it off by writing a single sentence on the chalkboard—the last line of Last Night in Twisted River. All his books begin with the ending, Irving explained, a capstone he works and reworks until it’s ready. From there, he’ll generate a detailed summary that ultimately builds towards the finale. Only when he has the synopsis and last sentence in hand will he actually start writing. I remember being fascinated by this. The approach had clearly been successful, and made sense in theory, and yet was so unlike any creative strategy that had ever worked for me. Which is an important thing to keep in mind when trafficking in the familiar genre of writing advice: Just because John Irving does it that way doesn’t mean you should. Not only is every writer different, but each poem, each story and essay, each novel, has its own formal requirements. Advice might be a comfort in the moment, but the hard truth is that literary wisdom can be hard to systematize. There’s just no doing it the same way twice. And yet. In the five years I’ve spent interviewing authors for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series, it’s been impossible to ignore the way certain ideas tend to come up again and again. Between the column and the book I’ve engaged a diverse group of more than 150 writers, a large sample size, that nonetheless has some defining traits. Here are the recurring ideas, distilled from dozens of conversations, that I think will most help you—no matter how unorthodox your process, how singular your vision.
- Neglect everything else. It starts with a simple fact: If you’re not making the time to write, no other advice can help you.
- Beginnings matter. Everyone knows that the opening line is a crucial invitation, something that can make or break a reader’s interest in a book. But far less attention has been paid to the role first lines play for writers, leading them through the work’s dark, uncertain stages like a beacon.“The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text,” William Gibson told me, a radical, koan-like conviction that nonetheless seems to be commonplace. Stephen King described spending “weeks and months and even years” working on first sentences, each one an incantation with the power to unlock the finished book.
- Let Go and Follow the headlights. Give yourself some leeway in the early drafts. Throw out all your plans and assumptions, and make room to surprise yourself.
Andre Dubus calls this following the headlights: it’s like driving a car down a dark, unfamiliar road, simply describing as things become visible under the beam. “What’s on the side of the road?” he asked. “What’s the weather? What are the sounds? If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself. My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is just to follow the headlights—that’s how the architecture is revealed.”
Dozens of writers have told me some version of the same story. “The writing I tend to think of as ‘good’ is good because it’s mysterious,” Aimee Bender said. “It tends to happen when I get out of the way—when I let go a little bit, I surprise myself.”
- Sound it out. Of course, all this is easier said than done. In the absence of a concrete plan, how to know when you’re headed in the right direction? For many writers I’ve spoken with, the answer seems to lie in the sound of the words.
“Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm,” the late Jim Harrison said. “It’s like taking dictation, when you’re really attuned to the rhythm of that voice.” George Saunders described a similar process, explaining that sound shows him where the energy is, revealing which aspects of the story are important, which lines to follow. It can help with revision, too. Many drafts in, when he can no longer see the work with fresh eyes, Jesse Ball told me that he turns to his ears. “Sound gives us clues about what is necessary and real,” he said. “When you read [your work] aloud, there are parts you might skip over—you find yourself not wanting to speak them. Those are the weak parts. It’s hard to find them otherwise, just reading along.”
- It’s supposed to be difficult. One of the things that’s surprised me most is how much the process—even for best-selling and critically acclaimed writers—never seems to get any easier. Khaled Hosseini’s piece in Light the Dark is one especially poignant testament to this: material success doesn’t blunt the pain an author feels when the words just come up short. But writers seem to be masters of deflecting existential despair, the malaise that takes hold in the middle of a taxing enterprise. I’ve covered this in more detail in an essay for The Atlantic, so one example in particular will suffice here: Elizabeth Gilbert’s concept of “stubborn gladness,” a term she borrows from the poet Jack Gilbert. It’s a promise to take things in stride, to remain cheerfully engaged no matter how difficult things get. “My path as a writer became much more smooth,” she said, “when I learned, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.”
- Find the joy.Ultimately, the writers I speak to seem committed to finding the joy within their work, even if that means looking in the most unexpected places. “One of the things that aids me, and which he helped teach me, is this: fundamentally, I do not believe in despair as a real aspect of the human condition,” says Ayana Mathis. “There is great confusion, there is great pain, there is suffering, all of those things, yes. But despair? I don’t believe in despair, and I don’t write from despair. I write from difficulty, absolutely. I write about people who are in great pain, who are desperate and sometimes even miserable. But despair, to me, means an absolute absence of hope. It is a nothing. There is always hope for betterment.”
But it’s not just leaving room for hope and levity on the page. It’s about retaining one’s own capacity to find joy within the process, making sure the work’s difficulty never fully squeezes out delight.
“The joy of being an author is the joy of feeling I can do anything,” says Neil Gaiman. “There are no rules. Only: can you do this with confidence? Can you do it with aplomb? Can you do it with style? Can you do it with joy?”.
Find the joy, and when you do, there are no rules.
[Comment: I came across these ‘rules’ and found myself agreeing with them all in part, especially ‘Find the Joy’. However, finding the joy takes discipline and courage; it only comes after completing another 500 or 1000 words, and then finishing and editing and then editing again and again; and then being dissatisfied with the end result and starting again in utter frustration when you discovered a better way to order the plot. As Tip #3 says, “follow the headlights”. However, I have discovered that this is rather awkward when the headlights are coming at you! I have left out the 7th writing tip. Why? I don’t use it 🙂 ]