John Updike occupies a position held by only a handful of writers in my life in that he created books that moved me to tears, to sweat, and laughter. It’s a rare facility. The Guardian has tributes. Richard Ford nails it:
John Updike has been central to the landscape I’ve looked at since I was a teenager – and I’m nearly 65. But for all of his brilliance, his immense curiosity and great “width” as a writer who virtually thought straight on to the page at an extremely high level, in America we seemed almost to take him for granted. It’s our way. He’d been around us all those years. As if there might be another writer like John come along in time. Well, there won’t be.
I’ve been trying to listen to the still, small voice over the last week or so, thinking about new projects and kick-starting the overdue.
Last week was a week of anniversaries. Edgar Allan Poe turned 200 on Monday and Nick Mamatas argues in The Smart Set that the way his works are taught leaves much to be desired:
Poe’s stories won’t lead to ersatz history lessons about the Puritans or any of the moral instruction that too often accompanies the reading of literature in schools. They don’t exist here, or anywhere else we could identify on a map as part of a dual language arts/social studies curriculum. Poe’s fictions exist in a no-place, in the interior of his own mind. And what’s in Poe’s mind isn’t pretty. [Link]
Meanwhile in the week of his 250th anniversary Robert Burns became a blogger via David Hope, curator of the Burns Cottage Museum and Robert Burns’ Letters.
It was also a week of Inauguration fever and amongst all the noise this nerdy little gem appeared in the New York Times blog, asking whether Abraham Lincoln could possibly have used an emoticon. [Via Readerville]
And finally, the always excellent Bookride has been ridiculing over-inflated online rare book prices for a while now. Here’s an extract from last week, which focuses on a 20-page pamphlet called Fundamentals of Fiddle Teaching by Barbara Chipper, apparently on sale at £1247.90 and described as ‘not falling apart’:
Not falling apart! –at this price one would expect Nigel Kennedy’s own pristine copy with two 500 Euro notes laid in and a long letter to him from Yehudi Menuhin loosely inserted! It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which someone might pay this price–possibly if If Barbara Chipper was a preudonym used by Sylvia Plath when she wrote violin teaching manuals or possibly Jean Rhys (aka Barbara Chipper) taught the violin in old age … [Bookride rant du jour]
Writing is one of those things that looks easy but isn’t. Or at least just about everyone can write, but few can write in ways that people actually want to read. This explains the huge number of writers, agents, and editors offering free advice about writing on their blogs and websites. Free advice is fine. It’s certainly interesting to hear how other people work. I think proper mentoring and good editing are probably more useful, but nothing will help if the student’s attitude is all wrong.
Writers are a strange group of people. It takes a certain arrogance to assume that people will want to spend their valuable time reading what you have written. On the other hand writers also need to be able to see where they are failing, realise their weaknesses, and understand when they need to change what they are doing. Arrogance with a topping of humility and self-doubt. Imagine strawberry and Marmite ice-cream and you get an idea of how that works in practice.
I’ve been re-reading Raymond Chandler over the past few weeks as I do more or less annually and I came across this great writing advice in a letter he wrote on December 3rd 1957 to Wesley Hartley, a schoolteacher in California. Chandler wrote thousands of letters, using them in much the same way as many writers in 2009 use their blogs. Here’s what he has to say about learning to write fiction anyway. By the time he wrote this Chandler was a highly successful and famous writer, but he published his first full-length novel in 1939, aged 51. The interesting part for me is what he has to say about the writers he had advised in the past:
“… [As a young man] I couldn’t write fiction to save my life. I couldn’t get a character in or out of a room. I couldn’t even get his hat off. I learned to write fiction by a method which I have recommended to other young struggling writers I tried to help, but no soap. Everything they did had to be for sale. What I did was take a novelette, I think it was by [Erle Stanley] Gardner, and make a detailed synopsis of it. From this synopsis I wrote the story, then compared it with the original to see where he, Gardner, had got an effect and I had got nothing. I did this over and over with the same story. I think I did learn a great deal that way. My first novelette for Black Mask took me five months to write and I got $180 for it. …”
Cory Doctorow has some great advice for distracted writers over at Locus Online:
We know that our readers are distracted and sometimes even overwhelmed by the myriad distractions that lie one click away on the Internet, but of course writers face the same glorious problem: the delirious world of information and communication and community that lurks behind your screen, one alt-tab away from your word-processor.
The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn’t help my writing. This advice was wrong creatively, professionally, artistically, and personally, but I know where the writer who doled it out was coming from. Every now and again, when I see a new website, game, or service, I sense the tug of an attention black hole: a time-sink that is just waiting to fill my every discretionary moment with distraction. As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.
The centrepiece of the argument, that doing a little every day is the best way to produce a whole lot of writing, is absolutely bang on. Of course having the talent of Cory Doctorow probably helps as well. Link.
Once upon a time in a land far, far away I wrote a PhD thesis on Raymond Chandler. Even so he can still surprise me. In this letter to H.N. Swanson, March 14, 1953, Chandler parodies science fiction writing and uses the word ‘Google’ (in more or less the right context too, unlike other curious examples):
Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It’s written like this: ‘I checked out with K19 on Adabaran III, and stepped out through the crummaliote hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timeprojector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Bryllis ran swiftly on five legs, using the other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was ice-cold against the rust-colored mountains. The Bryllis shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me round and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough.’ [emphasis mine].