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September 2006

Writing Well

Not long ago, as I write this, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to have blundered into the realm of ontology. Or perhaps it was epistemology. Or it could have been phytology for all I know.

Anyway, what he said was (in a rambling discussion of either why we stay in Iraq or what our next major national threat was or . . . something) – “We know what we know. We can call that the known. We know what we don’t know. We can call that the known unknown. But we don’t always know what we don’t know. We could call that the unknown unknown. And there the greatest danger lies.”

Way to go, Rummy! This reminds me of my philo-theo-psycho-historilogical discussions with the other guys at 3 a.m. as a Wabash College undergraduate lo those many decades ago, fueled by fervor and a half dozen beers. The unknown-unknown indeed. So much of life and experience fell into that category in those days.

Well, what unknown-unknowns are there standing (invisibly) between us and becoming a really good writer?

We know what we know about what it takes to be a decent writer. (We can call that “the known.”) To write well it takes more than a modicum of intelligence, a command of the English language (in our case, at least, on this continent), an understanding of basic prose protocols, an ability to tell a story, and a story to tell.

Then there are the unknowns that we may not have dived into yet, but which we know are out there and which we know will test us. (We can call these the known-unknowns.)

First there is the known unknown of whether we have the rather unusual ability to spend days, weeks, months, and literal years in the unusual state of disciplined isolation that being a professional novelist demands. It seemed easy enough during the brief, inspired wind sprints of our writing to date, but what about the long haul? Do we have what it takes for the marathon that is any professional writing career? (And “having what it takes” here may not be all that flattering, since it must include the inclination as well as the ability to subordinate many human relationships and experiences to the dubious priority of just planting your butt in a chair and working alone.)

Then there is the known unknown of whether we can maintain that disciplined isolation and writing regimen for years under the absolutely guaranteed pressures – financial, social, financial, domestic, financial, psychological, and financial.

Then there is the known unknown of how we may react under quite different kinds of pressure. . . pressure not unique to a writer’s life but at the very least rare in a non-writer’s life and work: the pressure of bad reviews, of so many opportunities to embarrass yourself at public readings and media interviews, of annual book tours that break your health and ruin your schedules, and of always having to be “creative” less you starve.
Finally, there’s the huge known unknown of whether you’d enjoy being a full-time writer. The only way to answer that is to be good enough to get published and then to stick with it for a few years.

But now we enter the realm of the unknown-unknowns.

In this case, I’m going to discuss elements of writing itself that tend to separate the great writers from the mediocre, those authors we find on the “Literature” shelves at Borders, separated by quality – or at least longevity -- from the rest of us lurking in genre aisles. More importantly, I’d like to look at the rarely discussed aspects of what is unique about the work of writers who really have changed lives and deepened our understanding of ourselves, even while entertaining us. These factors are the unknown-unknowns in the craft of writing and they separate the sheep from the goats.

As the Cowardly Lion said – “What have they got that I ain’t got?”


This is a term and concept I first encountered in Harold Bloom’s critical writings. “Strangeness”, he suggests, is the single common element to be found in all literary works that should be herded into that most dreaded, cursed, and secretly coveted corral – the Canon of Western Literature.

Strangeness in this context does not mean weirdness or experimental style or deliberate Catch-22 wackiness (although there is a wonderful strangeness about Heller’s Catch-22 that alerts us to something new and dangerous.) Strangeness can be clad in a spinster’s life-drabness and lack of direct experience – witness the almost frightening strangeness from the Brontes and a Dickinson named Emily – or it can crow its aggressive life story from the rooftops, adding its barbaric yawp to our endless literary dialogue in the form of leaves of grass hurled like glass daggers. Strangeness can arise from the staccato bursts of cutting-edge minimalist Carveresque prose or be found deep within labrynthine Proustian sentences that never seem to end.

Shakespeare’s work is the epitomy of strangeness. Hitting on all cylinders – from the bawdy popular to the linguistically brilliant to its surgical ability of probing so dangerously near the heart of being human – Shakespeare’s writing, while sometimes hasty and sloppy and derived, held a consistent strangeness that guaranteed its immortality.

Good readers – in every generation -- sense strangeness the way a shark is said to smell blood from miles away. It is, in a real sense, our sustenance as readers. It is the first indication that we, as readers, are about to put ourselves in the hands of a new guiding intelligence that will reveal things about us to ourselves.

I have no idea how great writers attain strangeness or how we might try. I know it’s not something that you can acquire in courses for writers or in workshops. It’s not even something a writer acquires simply through reading other writers gifted with strangeness. In that sense, strangeness may be like that other elusive aspect of a human being which we admire, encourage, and wish to emulate but can rarely summon at will . . . character.

Narrative Power:

In visiting workshops for writers in recent years, I’ve become aware of a great and growing confusion about what constitutes narrative energy and power.

Instructors at these workshops – and even some editors and agents who should know better – talk about things such as “elevator pitches” and “the power of the pitch,” while barely published writers just at the beginning of their writing careers, (and who knows if they’ll even have a career,) sagely counsel beginners just one step below them that to be published one must have a killer narrative hook and dynamite non-stop-action for the first few pages. The idea is to hook the reader or agent in immediately by slam-bang action, they explain, or your book will go unread.

Well, I understand how some weary – or putridly lazy – agents or slushpile readers might counsel such nonsense to beginners. What they’re really saying is “put everything you have on the first page, preferably in the first two paragraphs, to show you’re commercially viable because I’m too jaded and lazy to read your whole book.” That’s hardly a description of narrative power.

Think of all the great and rewarding books from A Portrait of a Lady to In Search of Lost Time to The Grapes of Wrath to Light in August to Joyce’s Ulysses that would go unread and unpurchased if this idiot definition of “everything up front and fast” were the real definition of narrative power.

Nor is the Da Vinci Code narrative style of breathless rushing to and fro without allowing time for one’s characters to sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom what I mean by narrative power. If there’s a phrase for that, it might be “bestselleroid attention deficit disordered hyperactivity.”

Here, in an essay titled “To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics,” writer William H. Gass talks about sentences and narrative and harmony and good books:

“No, the good books don’t sing harmony,” he writes. “They cannot be good because of that.

“But in them, comprising them – as the atom the molecule, the molecule the compound – there are more sentences than people alive in this world, sentences that exhibit a range of savors surpassing your spice rack. Anyone who looks with care into the good books shall find in them sentences of every length, on every imaginable subject, expressing the entire range of thoughts and feelings possible, in styles both as unified and various as the colors of the spectrum; and sentences that take such notice of the world that the world seems visible in their pages, palpable, too, so a reader might fear to touch those paragraphs concerned with conflagrations or disease or chicanery lest they be victimized, infected, or burned; yet such sentences as make the taste of sweet earth and fresh air – things that seem ordinarily without an odor or at all attractive to the tongue – as desirable as wine to sip or lip to kiss or bloom to smell; for instance this observation from a poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s: ‘Greenish-white dogwood infiltrated the wood, each petal burned, apparently, by a cigarette butt’ – well, she’s right; go look – or this simile for style, composed by Marianne Moore: ‘It is as though the equidistant three tiny arcs of seeds in a banana had been conjoined by Palestrina’ – peel the fruit, make the cut, scan the score, hear the harpsichord transform these seeds into music (you can eat the banana later); yet also, as you read these innumerable compositions, to find there lines that take such flight from the world that the sight of it is totally lost, and, as Plato and Plotinus urge, that reach a height where only the features of the spirit of the mind and its dreams, the pure formations of an algebraic absolute, can be made out; for the o’s in the phrase ‘good books’ are like owl’s eyes, watchful and piercing and wise.”

Who says that one has to write in “short, punchy sentences?”

Remember our T-unit analysis from an earlier discussion? T-unit as in “thought unit,” which with most literate adult’s writing amounts to the number of words in a sentence? Do a T-unit analysis of Gass’s second sentence, the one beginning “Anyone who looks . . .” and then study the punctuation he uses to make such a sentence work. Challenge his excerpts of poetry, or the verity of the images, or even his selection of poets for you to consider – Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore (rather than, say, Adrienne Rich) – and see if his commitment to excellence is held to there.

Commanding Intelligence:

This sounds bogus . . . even domineering or chauvinist . . . the idea of a “commanding intelligence” being one of the unknown unknowns that great writers have and writers aspiring to be great must seek. But think about it for a minute.

I don’t know whether it was in Norman Rush’s novel Mating or in a Michael Ondaatje novel that I encountered the question – “Is it really possible to fall in love with someone who is not smarter than you are . . . or at least with someone you don’t think is smarter than you?” It’s an intriguing question in terms of romantic relationships, but it also begs the question of the role of intelligence in the very intimate relationship between a reader and writer.

I would suggest that with the best books, we – as readers – fall in love with someone smarter, or at least surrender to the illusion that the writer is smarter than we are, within the confines of the world that is the author’s novel or play.

This is one reason that typos, continuity errrors, and mistakes in simple facts – geographical, technical, research-oriented, whatever – damage that illusion of competence, of a commanding intelligence we can trust implicitly. There is a strange element of submission when we surrender ourselves to the illusionary world of a novel and it’s actively irritating when our guide to that world turns out to be a mere mortal.

It’s obvious that one doesn’t have to be a genius or to be smarter than all possible readers of one’s book in order to write a book, but it should be equally obvious that smart people don’t want to spend hours, days, or weeks immersing themselves in a world created and maintained by someone demonstrably less intelligent and worldly and informed than they are.

At this point you may be saying – “I do that all the time” – to which I would reply that you’re an especially brilliant person, or a hard case, or that you read too much junk. Or perhaps all three.

Stupid people write and publish books, even novels, all the time. Each of us could provide a long list of names and titles (we might even agree to start with the enormously successful Left Behind series). But that fact is irrelevant to our efforts at writing well. From our own reader-experiences with the finest books we’ve read, culling out the shallow entertainments and bestseller buzzes, we know – we remember – that feel of commanding intelligence in a text, of trust through submission to the tale-teller being rewarded. How to achieve it in our own work may be an answer still residing in the realm of the unknown unknown, a quantum-mechanics probability wave just waiting to be observed before collapsing into one shell of reality or the other, but better the unknown unknown we think we know is waiting than the known unknown we don’t think we know we know.

I’ll get back to you later about that last sentence.

The Courage to Speak Just for Yourself:

Who else besides yourself could you possibly speak for, you might be asking yourself (or me).

The truth is that in the shallows of the wading pool part of the lagoon bordering this broad sea that will be the 21st Century, few people dare speak for themselves, even in fiction. It is the age of “communities.” At a time when fewer and fewer people even know their actual neighbors, much less speak to them regularly or socialize with them, the more theoretical and tendentious communities are popping up like bumps on a naked chicken.

In the old days, a community tended to be defined as a bunch of mostly disparate people who found themselves sharing the same geography, location, weather, economy, work, threats, dangers, and problems. Now communities seem to be dictated by DNA and vicissitudes, real or imagined.

There have always been writers of fiction who claim to speak for a larger group than the mass of shifting cells and atoms and opinions that make up him or her, but now “speaking for my people” is endemic . . . especially if “my people” can claim to be victimized. And which group on Earth can’t fairly make that claim at one time or another?

So writers of fiction now find it necessary to speak for the African-American community, or the Christian community, or the gay community, or the evangelical community, or the substance-abusing addicted community, or the physically challenged community, or the sexually abused community, or . . . . You know the chorus. Last night as I write this, I watched Billie Jean King giving a speech upon receiving the honor of having the Flushing Meadow tennis complex named after her – an honor she earned and well deserves – and in her rambling talk she announced that such a naming was a victory for the GLTB Community. How many out-of-it older folks, I wonder, who cheered Billie Jean on in the 1970’s, didn’t know that she was talking about the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered community?

It doesn’t matter. Public figures and writers of gritty, pathetic memoirs, no matter how fictionalized, can claim to belong to and can claim to speak for whatever communities they wish.

But writers of fiction, to be great, have to subordinate their memberships to a higher loyalty.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is full of atitudes and opinions, ranging from his white-hot thoughts about Christianity to his almost equally passionate interest in the problems of serfdom and modern farming practices – not to mention some opinions he may have had about the inverse relationship between adultery and happiness – but at no point in the novel does Tolstoy subordinate his author’s obligation to honesty in favor of the siren song of polemic. At no point does he forget that the purpose of fiction is to illuminate the eternal struggle of the human heart in conflict with itself . . . not merely to join in the political and social debates of his day. The problem of what to do with the Russian serfs has long since been resolved; the problem of Anna’s questing heart touches each of us anew in each succeeding generation.

Having said this, it should be noted that while anointing oneself as a spokesperson for an oppressed, victimized, or marginalized community is the death of honesty for a true novelist (and also one of the surest ways to win major awards and to get on “Oprah”), it is not the same as working within a tradition.

There are many traditions and many of them seem DNA-based, arising from culture, ethnicity, national origin, or what we call race in these days. When a young African-American writer such as Tananarive Due writes a classic ghost story from a uniquely southern black perspective, using the tropes and protocols of such oral ghost stories told for centuries, she is working within a proud tradition.

Similarly, many of our finest American writers of the 20th Century – including Saul Bellow and Philip Roth – work brilliantly within the Jewish tradition. (Although Bellow, a Nobel Prize Winner, always stressed that he was no spokesmen for Jews in general – he was, rather, an American Jew who wrote novels.)

Last week when I couldn’t sleep and had nothing to read, I wandered into the basement bookshelves and picked up a good book I hadn’t quite completed reading. It was Meyer Levin’s The Fanatic, published in 1963. I’d last opened the pages of that paperback in 1966. I don’t know what kept me from finishing it – perhaps it was the dislocation of going off to college – but last week I opened to the page where I’d left off 40 years ago and continued with no trouble at all remembering the first half of the novel.

In fact, some years ago I wrote a novel of my own called A Winter Haunting in which the narrator is the personality – not the ghost – of a boy who had died 40 years before the events of the novel begin. The boy, “Duane” from Summer of Night, had “survived” by being a “cyst of memory” in the mind of another character, his 11-year-old friend Dale Stewart in 1960, a middle-aged Dale Stewart in the novel. I knew when I wrote that novel that I’d borrowed the idea of a living narrator from the dead surviving in the mind of another character from Meyer Levin’s The Fanatic.

In The Fanatic, the narrator is an older man, a writer, residing in the mind and memory of his beloved, his fiancé from a decade earlier. He – the narrator – had been gassed at Auschwitz. His beloved had survived. Now she has come to America to wed another man, another Jew, but also a writer and researcher obsessed with the Holocaust who loves her – the narrator’s beloved – but who also needs, through her, to have and to publish the writings of the dead narrator, most specifically a play about the Holocaust that is the equivalent of The Diary of Anne Frank. The idea of the vestige of a soul – especially the soul of a righteous person -- surviving death primarily in the hearts and memory of those loved ones left behind is true to Judaic thought and belief, but it is also a powerful and unusual narrative device, and I knew when I wrote A Winter Haunting precisely where I had encountered it so many decades earlier.

The Fanatic is a powerful tale about Jews, about the Jewish experience before, during, and after the Holocaust, an event that was perhaps the clearest example of innocent victims suffering from evil in our recorded human history, but the book does not pretend to speak for Jews. Nor does Meyer Levin. Indeed, much of the conflict within the book is between Jews – intellectuals, survivors, writers and others with different perceptions of the message from the Holocaust, or different needs. And at the center of the novel, as it must be, is a chronicle of the human heart in conflict with itself.

Chaim Potok, author of The Chosen, is another example of a writer working within a proud, deep, and powerful tradition, but speaking for no one. In The Chosen we see the Hassidic culture and tradition that Potok knows so well, but we see it from the narrative point-of-view of a Jewish boy outside of that tradition, someone trying to understand it from the outside, and his problematic friend – the son of an Hassidic rabbi – eventually makes the choice to leave the faith, to leave the tightly bound culture, and to become a doctor and a secular man. Once again, it is the heart in conflict with itself that drives the novel to its substantial depths, not an attempt by an author “to speak for a community.”

Cynthia Ozick discusses this in her essay “Tradition and the Jewish Writer” –

“It is self-evident that any writer’s subject matter will emerge from that writer’s preoccupations; all writers are saturated, to one degree or another, in origins, in history. And for everyone alive in the century we have left behind, the cataclysm of murder and atrocity that we call the Holocaust is inescapable and indelible, and inevitably marks – stains – our moral nature; it is an event that excludes no one.

“And yet no writer should be expected to be a moral champion or a representative of ‘identity.’ That way lies tract and sermon and polemic, or, worse yet, syrup. When a thesis or framework – any kind of prescriptiveness or tendentiousness – is imposed on the writing of fiction, imagination flies out the door, and with it the freedom and volatility and irresponsibility that imagination both confers and commands. Writers as essayists, or polemicists, or pundits, may take on the concerns of a collectivity when they are moved to; but writers of fiction ought to be unwilling to stand for anything other than Story, however deeply they may be attached to a tradition. Tradition, to be sure, suggests a collectivity and a history, and invokes a kind of principled awareness; it carries with it a shade of teacherliness, of obligation.

“But tradition is useful to the writer only insofar as the writer is unconscious of its use; only insofar as it is invisible and inaudible; only insofar as the writer breathes it in with the air; only insofar as principled awareness and teacherliness are absent; only insofar as the writer is deaf to the pressure of the collectivity. What could be more treacherous to the genuine nature of the literary impulse than to mistake the writer for a communal leader, or for the sober avatar of a glorious heritage? No writer is trustworthy or steady enough for that. The aims of imaginative writers are the aims of fiction. Not of community service or community expectation.

“Writers are responsible only to the comely shape of a sentence, and to the unfettered imagination, which sometimes leads to wild places via wild routes. At the same time one must reserve one’s respect for writers who do not remain ignorant of history (a condition equal to autolobotomy), who do not choose to run after trivia, who recognize that ideas are emotions, and that emotions are ideas; and that this is what we mean when we speak of the insights of art.”

(from “Tradition and the Jewish Writer” collected in THE DIN IN THE HEAD, © 2006 by Cynthia Ozick)

I apologize to Ms. Ozick and to you for the long quotation there, but – what the hell – the lady said it better than I could.


This is a strange unknown unknown – and a strange trait to argue as a necessity for greatness as a writer or anything else – but if Ozick hadn’t mentioned it, I would have.

There is, by definition, an element of childishness, a certain deliberate and wilful shunning of all of our proper responsibility to grow up and become a true adult – to put away the things of childhood -- in choosing to sit home alone and to tell made-up stories for most of your life.

A writer never escapes – indeed, must will himself not to escape – from the fantasy-energy of a child’s play (no matter how “adult” or “serious” the subject matter of the work itself.) A writer must be irresponsible in the sense that he must answer only to himself and to his craft. This must not to be confused with a lack of discipline. Perhaps the highest praise I ever read of one writer giving to another was Henry James’s comment, after reading Kidnapped or Treasure Island (I forget which), of Robert Louis Stevenson – “He writes of childhood as a child would . . . if a child could.”

But a child cannot. For all our praise of children’s “creative energy,” a child cannot write about his or her own childhood. To write honestly and truthfully about anything takes a perspective from outside that experience. In a word, it takes maturity. (Not necessarily maturity born of age, but a profound maturity of sensibilities and skills nonetheless.)

But it is a maturity yoked most oddly with the volatility of unsurrendered youth and the pure energy of play.

The most powerful unknown unknown of great writers, their only true secret from the non-writing world, is that all through their lives they continue to tap into the primal, forceful energy of imaginative and joyous expression that was so much a part of their childhood.

All writing is play.

Those who know this, know. Those who do not, never will.

John Keats said –“That which is creative must create itself.”

That includes, I think, the creation of an artist or writer or poet out of the confused and all-too-mortal dross that is himself or herself. Those who create themselves – and who produce good writing – will do so, as Emerson said, through the grace of God. But also through the grace of play.

“Think of a pencil,” wrote John Updike in “Why Write?” “What a quiet, nimble, slender and then stubby wonder-worker he is! At his touch, worlds leap into being; a tiger with no danger, a steam-roller with no weight, a palace at no cost. All children are alive to the spell of a pencil and crayons, of making something, as it were, from nothing; a few children never move out from under this spell and try to become artists.”


(Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

 >>click here to go to the Forum and On Writing Well thread


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