Memo to Writers: Don't Whine, Just Write  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   June 1997

Memo to Writers: Don't Whine, Just Write   

The Writer's Home Companion:
An Anthology of the World's
Best Writing Advice, from Keats
to Kunitz

Edited by Joan Bolker
Henry Holt

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


The Writer's Home Companion:
An Anthology of the World's
Best Writing Advice, from Keats
to Kunitz
Edited by Joan Bolker
Henry Holt
288 pages; $14.95 paperback

Think of this book as a good-writing pill. Swallow it, and you'll write better in the morning.

You'll probably feel better, too.

The book's editor, Joan Bolker, is a psychologist "specializing in work with blocked writers of all sorts," and she well understands "the ruthlessness, the terror and the power of writing."

So she has gathered an eclectic collection of advisers, from writing teachers like Peter Elbow and Helen Benedict to poets and novelists like Rita Dove to behaviorist B.F. Skinner.

They're full of friendly counsel, much of it focused on getting the writer relaxed and confident enough to take on the challenge.

Their many down-to-earth tips are helpful, of course, but what's especially inspiring is the depth of understanding that comes across, the collegial sensitivity to the writer's tender psyche. Like us, they appreciate that writing is hard, but not writing is harder.

"Writing is a solitary sport," Bolker points out, "but none of us can do it without good company at crucial moments."

ýo read that Gloria Naylor turned to reading and writing as a refuge during shy adolescence, or that car repairs and visits from in-laws bedeviled Anne Tyler's efforts to begin a novel, or that Hemingway redid the ending to "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times, is to feel a comforting kinship. Here are soulmates in a universal search, successful enough to offer wisdom but still reassuringly mortal.

Their advice begins with the sublimely practical: Get going.

"Just write. Just write. Just write," exhorts writer and teacher Natalie Goldberg.

The avuncular Donald Murray, whose refrain is "never a day without lines," warns that "there's no such thing as inspiration before writing; inspiration comes while writing."

"Scratch what itches," he writes companionably. "Write what you need to write... Enjoy the doing, not the done."

More specifically, Peter Elbow advocates freewriting. "Simply force yourself to write without stopping for 10 minutes," he says. "So much writing time and energy is spent not writing... Get on with it."

Even more concretely, poet Patricia Cumming offers more than 200 suggestions for getting started: make up some fortune-cookie fortunes; invent a sin, write a long and elaborate curse, issue an edict, describe the journey home.

In a wonderful piece on finding ideas, the prolific Ursula Le Guin proves both mystical and analytical. Mystical, in that she thinks that a good idea "arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious." But also analytical and pragmatic, in that she thinks "the 'secret' is skill," a product of method, hard work and repetition that involves looking for patterns in words, syntax, images, ideas and feelings.

Not surprisingly, the great ones preach revision. Bolker reprints fascinating copies of documents self-edited by John Keats, George Bernard Shaw and Henry James.

Fittingly, the book's pithiest passage comes from an interview with Hemingway. When the questioner asks how much rewriting he does, Hemingway says a lot and mentions "A Farewell to Arms." The questioner asks, "Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?" The master replies, in toto: "Getting the words right."

What about those barriers that always seem to be leaping between the writer and the keyboard?

Novelist Gail Godwin, in a piece Bolker rightly introduces as both "funny and poignant," writes of "The Watcher at the Gates," an inner critic always stomping on creativity, diverting the mind from work, discouraging risks and fretting over anticipated failure.

"Watchers are notorious pencil sharpeners, ribbon changers, plant waterers, home repairers and abhorrers of messy rooms or messy pages," she writes. "They are superstitious scaredy-cats. They cultivate self-important eccentricities they think are suitable for 'writers.' And they'd rather die..than risk making a fool of themselves."

Helpful like all her colleagues, Godwin has hints for how to "outsmart, pacify or coexist with your Watcher": write too fast for it, write at an unexpected time and place, write when you're very tired, or fool it by pretending you're merely writing a letter.

There's a lot of zen and zeitgeist here, all to be taken seriously, but these authors don't tolerate whining or excuse-making. They demand work. "It is odd," writes Goldberg, "that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice."

So she delivers the most functional advice of all, the one thing that every writer can, and eventually must, do: "Keep your hand moving."



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