The Mindful Writer
Dinty W. Moore
Moore has collected together here epigrams from fifty-eight writers, all having to do with writing. For instance, from Chuck Close,
The advice I like to give to young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.
This is followed by two pages of commentary by Moore, which emphasizes the old truth that inspiration doesn't come in the door and plop in your lap and suddenly you are inspired to forge ahead and write a Pulitzer prize-winning novel.
In other words, to get inspiration, you sit down and start writing, whatever it is that comes to mind, just let it pour out, no matter how dumb, no matter how redundant, no matter how weird. "Show up and get to work," Moore tells us - - - in a succinct expansion of of Close's original words - - - "and at the same time, listen to where the writing wants to take you. Understand that the writing itself will often provide far richer material than your logical, predictable mind."
Amen to that. Those of us who pretend to be writers - - - that is, I suggest, all of us putting down words - - - know that we just have to start pecking away, hoping, hoping that in the midst of all this mudflow of words there will be a diamond or two that will appear, sometimes not even appearing until a day or week or month later when we go back to wade through the muck and we find this gleam of an idea which we can then begin to shape, move around, until it becomes the jewel that might be the essence of what we are trying to say.
S. J. Perelman explained all this in a riotous interview he gave to The Paris Review many years ago, which not only showed how he worked, but, at the same time, the technique of that great crank, Raymond Chandler:
Q: How would you describe the form you work in? You've called it "the sportive essay" in a previous interview.
A: I classify myself as a writer of what the French call feuilletons --- that is, a writer of little leaves. They're comic essays of a particular type.
Q: Are there any devices you use to get yourself going on them?
A: No, I don't think so. Just anguish. Just sitting and staring at the typewriter and avoiding the issue as long as possible. Raymond Chandler and I discussed this once, and he admitted to the most bitter reluctance to commit anything to paper. He evolved the following scheme: he had a tape recorder into which he spoke the utmost nonsense --- a stream of consciousness which was then transcribed by a secretary and which he then used as a basis for his first rough draft. Very laborious. He strongly advised me to do the same ... in fact became so excited that he kept plying me with information for months about the machine that helped him.
§ § §
Dinty Moore - - - god, I do wish he would change his name; every time I read him I think of a big bowl of stew that tastes alarmingly of pure can - - - anyway, Moore chooses a broad spectrum of artists from which to quote, including William Faulkner, Roald Dahl, Tich Nhat Hanh, John Steinbeck, Marcel Proust, and Joan Baez - - - this last who reveals,
It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page . . .
to which Moore notes, "The poem wants to go where the poem wants to go, not where you want to take it."
The characters have a better idea of where this story goes next than you probably do.
This is as good as it gets. When we write, and write a lot, we quickly learn to trust this wondrous being that lives (I think) in all of us, Byron and his generation referred to the inner self as "The Muse," the one who actually does the writing, the one that, I think, is the one who takes over the machinery of our lives, like the driving of the car, me sitting behind the wheel pretending to drive while thinking about supper, or tomorrow's dread awaiting us, perhaps, with the doctor's follow-up visit, after all the tests --- while it does the hard work.
§ § §
The one thing that pops up in many of the comments of the fifty-eight authors here is the terrific experience of letting your fingers do the walking. After a short while of your getting out of the way, you're somewhere else, and you find that you have put down on the page some fairly interesting stuff (where did that come from?) and, even better, you find that several hours have slipped by while you thought you were supposed to be working. If this is work, let me at it.
Faulkner's words of admonishment are quite brief, by the way. He said Kill your darlings. God, do we know that one. As Moore explains, he's not talking about the writing; he is talking about the next stage, the edit. "He is saying that we should stand ready to execute our sentences, our words, our images, our phrases, even if we love them dearly."
Loyalty and unconditional love are best saved for your actual, flesh-and-blood progeny. Faulkner knows such devotion doesn't serve the writer or the writing.
It is fitting that this advice appears in a book published by Wisdom, renowned for its excellent and quite large library of books on Eastern religion. It's a discipline that has the temerity to tell those who seek to follow The Way, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."
§ § §
I got to be quite fond of this short but pithy volume. My only complaint is that it seems to be stuck in the past . . . like the 1980s. There are references aplenty to pen and paper and typewriters, but little I could find that tell of the all-consuming new art of writing on a computer, where your words appear before you dancing on the screen, which can be tricky when these very words are transferred to an actual page. The screen does something to our ideas. Like, sometimes, make them unrecognizable.
I spent the first fifty of my years of writing struggling with banged-up portables with their bent keys, or unwieldy Royal "desk" typewriters where our fingers sometimes got crammed between the keys, or the keys would jumble together when you were at your hottest. Then there were IBM Selectrics that didn't get wadded up, would let you steam ahead at full white-hot velocity to the point where, alas, you were pouring out absolute nonsense. Like my first novel which, thank the god, I managed to sacrifice just in time, in a blaze of hot flames, on a beach in Southern Spain.
The computer is another world, where one is constantly tempted to leave off working just to take a peek at the email, and then you find that you have wasted an hour in some foolish correspondence that has nothing to do with the novel that is going to change the world. What to do?
Of all the quotes that appear here, one of the ones that I favored the most - - - for its gentle irony - - - comes from Junot Díaz:
A writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway