( Saturday, March 01, 2008 )

On Writing Well

I've rediscovered my love of words.

It's not that I'd ever completely lost it, really, but over the past little while I'd let myself become distracted, lazy even, so that it was always easier to pick up the remote and look at pretty pictures than try to focus my failing brain long enough to comprehend a book.

What might come as a shock to you – more so than that I actually have qualitative brain activity, I mean – is that the cause of my rediscovery wasn’t a slick, exceptionally written thriller like The Da Vinci Code (*cough*), nor a heart-warming, fun-filled, silly adventure story like Curious George Takes A Train. In fact, the reason for my renewed love of paper and prose is the inspirational and exciting book On Writing Well by William Zinsser (and no, I’m not being sarcastic).

In my long-attempted-and-often-forgotten quest to learn to write better (there ain’t no harm in it, I says), I've been taking a writing course through the United States of America, via the state of Connecticut. Part of my duties as a student was to read On Writing Well. After taking several leisurely months to read through the introduction and then retire it to the bookshelf, I finally decided, a couple of weeks ago, to pick it up again and see what was what. Well, I was, needless to say, overwhelmed: the introduction wasn’t the best part after all. I ended up spending the weekend reading the entire thing; I couldn't put it down. That might seem strange, considering not only that it wasn’t written by Dan Brown, but there was also no mention of murder/suicide/murder-suicide, alien abductions, or well-proportioned women. What it did have was some talk of grammar and a lot more about clear thinking being equal to clear writing. Perfect ingredients for the perfect weekend.

Yet there was something about it, something that really affected me. I suppose part of it was the author's obvious passion for his craft, his honesty about what it takes to do what he does, and his uncanny ability to say everything I needed to hear in very clear, concise and compelling English (The Triple C's -- ™ pending). I can’t think of another book so full of useful information that was so easy to understand and comprehend at the same time. As I read, I started getting more and more excited. I could relate to it and I could use it; I was reading about something directly applicable to my life. By the time I finished, it seemed as if someone had stuck a couple of defibrillator paddles to my chest and restarted something I'd let slip away. Without cracking my ribs in the process.

It's strange, you know, how complicated the inside of my brain can be. Nothing ever really makes sense. On the one hand I feel like I have this deep need to write. It's as if I can't picture myself doing anything else (realistically I don't think there is much else I could do, legally or otherwise). When I'm actually committing the act itself, putting thoughts down and then reworking them, trying to get the sound and shape and message right, there is little else in life that comes close to being as satisfying, as exciting to me. It’s one of the few things that can keep me up at night, and make me anxious to wake up in the morning (a miracle in and of itself). It's also one of the only things I know that can make me equal parts frustrated and content, both in a shared moment.

And yet getting myself to begin the process can be incredibly difficult. Everything else inside of me tries to prevent me from starting. Self-doubt, laziness, disbelief, indigestion. Fear. Fear of failing, of not being all that I want to be (like a depressed Uncle Sam), of never being genuinely satisfied with what I produce. Fear of wasting my life and disappointing everyone who has ever believed in me, disappointing myself, disappointing God. But mostly disappointing myself, I think. I have never written anything in my life that I was unequivocally happy with. I have never reproduced an idea completely faithful to its original spark of imagination. Somewhere in the process it gets mucked up and smothered with empty words and painful English. (Of course, if melodrama was a genre, I think I’d have my niche.)

Which brings me back to the book of the hour, On Writing Well. Not only did it give me substance as far as usable instruction goes, it also reminded me how incredibly difficult it is to produce meaningful writing. That encouraged me. It made me realize and appreciate that I’m starting out at the bottom of a very large and intimidating mountain, one that requires every ounce of effort to even seriously attempt. Reaching the summit (if there even is such a thing) is not a short—or cheap—expedition. To be truly good at writing, to be good at anything, in fact, comes with a cost most economists would scoff at. Devotion, practice, discipline, sacrifice, unfaltering purpose—all to an uncertain outcome. The great writers of history didn't pick up a pen one day and write flawless, brilliant works of literature. It took time, effort, heart -- blood, sweat, and tears, right?

The question I've had to ask myself is, am I willing to give up everything to learn to do this well? Am I willing to devote myself to a small, incalculable chance I could one day have something decent to show for my effort, something I’ll be happy with? And it is a chance, with very certain risk. I could well spend every waking moment from now until the day I die and have accomplished little else but collect a large pile of unreadable nonsense.

And yet, for some reason, I kind of like chance endeavours. They make the outcome much more appreciable. What great event in history, what small but powerful moment, what meaningful relationship ever happened without risk, without surrender to the unknown, without abandon to chance? What is worth pursuing with conviction if it doesn't come with an embarrassingly steep price tag?

Since reading On Writing Well, I've been obsessing over the people who have taken a chance at being writers and succeeded. I found a book at the library called On Being A Writer, (which seemed to fit a trend in recently read titles; next in queue: On Picking More Diverse Books) a collection of essays on 31 famous writers -- people like Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, William Faulkner, Madeleine L'Engle, Joseph Heller, Truman Capote, Erica Jong, Norman Mailer, Red Smith, etc. It's amazing to read about these people and see how different they all are and how they all came to do what they do (or did). But what's really hit me is how they all started – from the bottom. None of them were born clutching their first masterpiece in their tiny fists (I mean, really, a masterpiece in nine months? Seriously, people). Over and over again, they all say the same thing: it's a process. Of course, people are born with a penchant for different things, and some of the authors had an innate ability to write well earlier and quicker than others. But they each had to devote themselves to their craft, without reservation, before they could really produce something beautiful, something worth sharing.

So, with that, I'm posting some of my favourite quotes on the topic of writing. While they might seem specific to the subject, I think the principals behind them—and this entire post, for that matter—are relevant to any passion. If something feeds your heart, if you obsess about it and find an overwhelming sense of joy and satisfaction in that obsession, and most of all, if you can imagine doing nothing else with yourself, don't ignore it. Don't let laziness or fear or doubt or money or fame or pride seduce you. In the words of Matthew Arnold, “Produce, produce, produce...for I tell you the night is coming.”

Anyone can become a writer. The trick is not in becoming a writer, it is in staying a writer. Day after week after month after year. Staying in there for the long haul. Because, at final moments, when they plant us, and Posterity takes a scrinch-eyed look at what we've done before deciding to remember us, it is not a single book or story or play that wins or loses the day, it is the totality of what has been produced. Not a single hill, but a mountain range that stretches and rises and dips, and has sweep that can be judged. Through all the fads and successes and times when the critics ignore a writer, it is the work that goes on unabated. And, finally, it is all that sustains us.


Write for the most intelligent, wittiest, wisest audience in the universe: write to please yourself.
(Harlan Ellison)

Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark place where it leads.
(Erica Jong)

The average young person you meet today seems to have the motto, "If at first you don't succeed, stop right there." They want to start at the top of their profession and not to learn their art on the way up. That way they miss all the fun. If you write a hundred short stories and they're all bad, that doesn't mean you've failed. You fail only if you stop writing.


Money is not important. The material things are not important. Getting the work done beautifully and proudly is important. [...]A tape recorder, an automobile, they don't really belong to you. What really belongs to you? Yourself, you. That's all you'll ever have.
(Ray Bradbury)

Writing...is like opening a vein and letting the words bleed out, drip by drip.
(Red Smith)

There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn't been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.
(Ernest Hemingway)

In the final analysis of our lives, as well as our writing, what else do we really have to listen to but the messages from our own souls, psyches, guts, instincts, muses, whatever you call it? This is where our personal truth, our themes, our creativity lies. The writers who fearlessly kept writing what they truly believed, in my experience, are the ones who have gone on to the greater glory—not merely money or fame, but something far more basic: inner peace and genuine fulfillment.
(William Froug)

Our admiration of fine writing will always be in proportion to its real difficulty and its apparent ease.
(Charles Caleb Colton)

I get a great high from writing.
(Walter Hill)

[Poetry] may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper,
unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being,
to which we rarely penetrate;
for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.
(T.S. Eliot)

There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.
(William Makepeace Thackeray)

Writing stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad and, even more terrifying, the difference between it and true art. And after that, the whip came down.
(Truman Capote)

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
(Thomas Mann)

The fact that writers will go through so much to remain writers says something, perhaps everything. It would be far easier (and nearly always more profitable) to become a real estate agent.
(Maria Lenhart)

The writer who loses his self-doubt, who gives way as he grows old to a sudden euphoria, to prolixity, should stop writing immediately: the time has come for him to lay aside his pen.
(Sidonie Gabrielle Colette)

One should never meet an artist whose work one admires; the artist is always so much less than the work.
(Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)

The great moments of joy do not come, as many believe, when the plaudits of the crowd are heard. They come when, in a moment of revelation, the writer discovers that the child of her creation is not stillborn but will live. These final hours of gestation are the most rapturous the writer knows.
(Pierre Berton)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pursue your passion, and inspire others as you do. Dont'stop - climb the mountain - go for it!!


1:31 PM  
Anonymous Kelsey said...

Kyle Stewart, you've found the answer! You are a writer. Are you willing to discipline yourself to stay one?

I, for one, believe that if you choose to stay a writer for the long haul, you will not be disappointed. I know I certainly won't be. Not that that matters, though. The work of the writer is far more arduous than any work of physical strength. You will have to dive deep, very deep. You may lose yourself in this.

Just make sure, then, that your goal isn't to write well and consistently, but that it is to know and understand God more each and every time you set your pen to a page. Pour your blood, sweat and tears into that, and you will have left your mark and lived well.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Geoff said...

Kyle just so you know that quote about bleeding out is to be taken figuratively not literally...hoping to see you alive when I get home...

Your loving roommate


11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have a question for the webmaster/admin here at www.blogger.com.

May I use some of the information from this post right above if I give a link back to your website?


8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey - I am certainly glad to find this. Good job!

7:18 PM  

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