Thursday, August 25, 2005

No One Can Help Me Write

We stayed home last New Year’s Eve, as we do most holidays of the sort. We chose a quiet celebration without the company of amateurs. My husband turned on a rerun of an interview with Hunter S. Thompson. . . .

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. That someone says something so profound. So true. That it’s your own truth. Even though you’ve never put the words together, you’ve known their meaning deeply for what seems all of your life. I can’t tell you anything about the interview with Mr. Thompson, except one question and his answer.

The interviewer, who sat off camera, asked the reporter/writer which he thought was easier writing or researching. Thompson, sitting on the back porch in what was his work area and speaking in a writer’s frugality with words, said without hesitation, “Researching is much easier, because no one can help you write.”

I’ve spent years working with young writers. I could coach them. I could say what wasn’t working. I could make suggestions on how to approach the problem. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t help them write. I had to stand back and watch them struggle.

A writer is a batter standing at home plate waiting for the pitch, a tennis player waiting for serve to come over the net. A coach can watch and report, but the coach can’t hit the ball. Comments marked in whatever color I choose are meaningless if a writer can’t interpret or internalize them. I can suggest technique, but I can’t teach heart. I can’t fix the writing. If I do, I become the writer.

It takes heart, soul, intuition, understanding, and flexibility to be a writer. It takes practice, persistence, and patience. It takes years. It takes an artistic ability to blend structure with expression in the way a composer brings notes together to move people to feeling. It takes years. Writing is hearing the music of the language and the nuance of how words come together to make meaning. Writing is talent teamed with trial and error. Writing is more than putting words on paper. It is experience and problem solving. It takes years to make a writer.

I wonder at how we have the same experience with so many things, yet we reach a faulty conclusion about writing. We drew in school, yet few of us say we are artists. We played ball, yet few of us say we are athletes. We did mathematics, yet few of us say we are mathematicians. Still so many of us say we are writers.

It’s no wonder that I am so aware of my differences.

I know that no one can help me write.
—me strauss Letting me be


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more Liz.

It does cheapen the craft, especially when every Bill & Betty with an Internet connection can throw up a blog and dub themselves a writer, or a journalist.

On the other hand, what is a writer or a journalist? Maybe the question should be what is a hack and what is a pro? Because there are both, online and off.

As you know, my weapon of choice is poetry. I sometimes feel uncomfortable dubbing myself a writer. I consider myself a hack. I've not been published, I'm not trying to get published, it's simply my avocation.

So what is the criterion that moves one from hack to pro? From someone who writes to a writer?

Stimulating column today Liz.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

I choose to call art something I know that I could put it on my wall and look at for 10 years, still finding it fresh and appealing, mysterious and worth exploring, inspiring and invigorating. Art must in some way move me with its structutre and expression. I look for elegance of simplicity--for all elegant things are simple.

I knew I was a writer long before I was published. It happened when I wrote a poem that I knew was a poem that could stand the test of time. I knew I could show that poem to anyone and not care if they called it jibberish, because the response would be opinion not analysis. That's how I knew I was a writer.

Slowly, more and more of what I wrote met that standard and finally I found my voice. Now my voice has flexibility. Within my poetry alone I use about four distinctly different voices.

Self-doubt and ego are both part of being a writer. Without the first a writer wouldn't learn the craft, and he wouldn't care enough about his audience to write anything worth reading. Without the second a writer wouldn't write or at least wouldn't let anyone read what he has written.

I think the fact that you worry on this question is proof you are a writer. A hack would already think he was and be planning how he would spend the millions he wwas going to make, blaming the publishers and the audience when they did not praise his work to the highest degree.

Anonymous said...

There's more wisdom in what you say here than in a hundred seminars on how to write.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Wow, Gone, I'm blown away. Thank you. I've thought deeply about writing. I developed an entire writing and grammar program for kids (ages 8-13). I wanted to give them the benefit of what my fingers had learned from making books.

Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Liz, for pointing out that while so few say they are artists, athletes, or mathematicians, many unqualified people say they are writers. I would be very grateful if you would forward this piece to all of the publishers who continue to publish children’s books by celebrities who think they are writers.

I think the reason why so few of us say we are artists, athletes, or mathematicians is because we don’t do those activities in our daily life. But most of us write in daily life. You have to read and write in order to function in the world. So many people think it is easy to be a writer. Then who is a writer in the sense of an artist? Someone once told me that if I write, whether or not I’m published, then I’m a writer. I like that definition, and I would add that if you *have to* write, if you write because the words come and you *have to* arrange them on paper, then you’re a writer, whether or not you’re published.

Your description of what it takes to be a writer and of what writing is, is accurate, insightful, and beautifully expressed. And although I understand what you and Mr. Thompson mean when you say that no one can help you write, to a certain extent I disagree. Please forgive me, but being an editor as well as a writer, I need to clarify that statement. :) Many writers belong to critique groups in order to have someone help them write. Writers are some of the most generous people I know. They are happy to help fellow writers perfect their work in the hope they’ll be published. Critique group members or a writer friend can help you write by offering constructive comments and suggestions about plot and character development, word choice, and organization. Hopefully, they understand and respect, as you and I do, Liz, that they can’t fix your writing, they can only offer suggestions for you to choose from. And fellow writers also offer praise and encouragement, and celebrate your successes. I’ve never seen any jealousy expressed when a fellow writer finally is published. When a writer we’ve helped write gets published, we rejoice with them. Their success gives us all hope that someday we, too, will be published with the help of our writer friends.

But I do know what you mean when you say that no one can help you write. No one can help you know what to write. That comes from your own mind, heart, and soul. No one can help you choose exactly the right words and arrange them exactly in the right order. That comes from your own voice. No one can help you write when you’re stuck and a piece just isn’t working. That comes from your own intuition and inspiration. So yes, in these ways, no one can help you write, and in the end, you write alone.

And yes, it’s no wonder that you and I and all writers are so aware of our differences. That’s what makes us write.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Welcome back, Moonshell. :)
Your post alone shows that you are indeed a writer and that you know what it is to write. It speaks from every word that you put on the page.

I have also worked as an editor, as you know, and I agree with what you say about writers and writers' groups. You are lucky that the writers in your groups have all been writers--knowing that what is on the page is not their ego.

All things creative are paradoxical in the end asking us to be adult and childlike at the same time, pulling us to be responsible while throwing caution to the wind. That is part of the reason that no one can help me write, because no one can explain to me how to do those paradoxical things without making a mess and a contradiction rather than something layered, yet simple.


Anonymous said...

Ah, but that paradox is exactly what the creative process is all about---first you throw caution to the wind and make a mess, then you take responsibility for your mess and create your layered, yet simple work of art.

I have come to love the messy part, after many years of being ruled by my innate need to be organized (such is the way of us Virgos). But an interesting thing happened that freed me up. As I began writing the novel I'm working on, I found that while I knew the beginning and the ending, I had no idea what happens in the middle. So I wrote the beginning and the ending and gave up worrying about the middle. Now I seem to be writing from both the beginning and ending into the middle. It's been a messy process, not knowing exactly where what I write is going to end up, but I'm finding it's a lot of fun to continually rearrange the pieces as I write more.

So enjoy being a free-spirited child and make as much of a mess as you need to. You'll know when the adult needs to take over and organize the mess into the masterpiece.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

I understand what you are saying. Sometimes when the mess is your mess, it's okay. But a writer knows that.

In the same way, I must make my own kind of mess and play with the mess in my own way. That is why no one can help me write. :)

Anonymous said...

It's the same exact way with songwriting.
Either you can do it or you can't.
Sadly, most people these days can't...
Long story.


"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Yes Michael,
It is the same and it is sad. I wish that we all had writing and music to share. If we could I be we would get along better.

Anonymous said...

pretty good bet, Liz...


"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Yeah, Michael,
That's why I decided to write about it tonight.
I meant what I wrote when I said you're inspiring.