How to be a writer

How will I know when I’m a for-real writer? Will I one day just stop giving a damn, start sewing a flask in my jacket pocket and slipping things like, “You must take risks!” and “Show, don’t tell!” into everyday conversation?

And why are stereotypical writers always drunk? Better yet, why am I NOT drunk?

Wait, am I drunk?

"How to be a writer" Comic by The Oatmeal

Source: The Oatmeal

So I’m sitting here, drinking (orange juice), reconsidering my technique, and I suddenly recalled a thing by James Parker I read a few years back that deconstructed the way society romanticizes the traditional “literary bad boy.”

“It’s the question every writer faces, every morning of his or her life:

… Do I sit down with my pumpkin latte and start Googling, or do I fire a couple of shots into the ceiling and then stick my head in a bucket of absinthe?

… in the end, who cares? Drink, divorce, insanity, firearms: all beside the point. The work is what counts. Who was badder than Emily Dickinson, housebound and life-abstemious in Amherst, Mass., but kicking open the doors of perception with every poem? The real mischief is on the inside. Get it down on the page. Break on through, but don’t forget to click “save.”

… Hone your disciplinary habits, in other words, labor fiercely and in grim sobriety to create the imaginative space, and then let that bad boy run wild.”

So I guess I can skip the bad acid trip and high-stakes cock fight I had planned for tonight.

But, right? I mean, everyone’s turmoil manifests differently. For some it seethes quietly below the surface, and for others it’s all breaking dishes and chain smoking on a stranger’s stoop until you’re shooed away with a broom. In the end, you just have to do the work. Or at least, that’s what I hear.

Still, I can’t help but wonder whether I’m digging in deep enough, if the hours of writing I squeeze in while standing on the subway, tapping out one-handed lines with my thumb, count as writing like a motherfucker or just make me the MTA’s most irritating strap-hanger?

So okay fine. Pour me another.

Related: Sentences I Wrote While Trying to Write Like a Motherfucker

How to be a writer via The Oatmeal


The Art of Jim


Jim Harrison, photographed by Andy Anderson

Andy Anderson Photography

The great loss of Jim Harrison this past Saturday has had me rooting for words. I dug through his old interviews and pored over passages from The Raw and the Cooked and The Beast God Forgot to Invent, whetting my appetite to write often and write well.

But more than that, reading Jim aroused in me what lately feels like my most primal need — to find fulfillment in a good day’s labor. I don’t know about you, but for me, as a manager, producer, coordinator for the corporate machine, some days it seems impossible to find meaning.

Not for Jim. He wrote every word, performed every task with pure purpose. You can’t mistake the career goals of a fisherman, a well-digger or a slow-cooked goose cassoulet, is all I’m saying.

This interview from The Paris Review in 1986 had me transfixed. Captured over five intoxicating days at Jim’s lush farm in Leelanau County, Michigan, the lengthy exchange touches playfully yet purposefully on Jim’s technique, philosophy and history.

It’s a long but worthwhile read. If you can’t sit down to the whole thing, here are a few choice bits that spoke to me. Continue reading

Cat in the Rain

I adore Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway sitting at a table writing while at his campsite in Kenya.

Hemingway writing at his camp in Kenya, circa 1953. (NARA)

Nevermind that the man’s work helped define an entire sub-category of prose that still gets asininely ascribed to his gender, and nevermind the quality of his character in life and death.

Papa had style.

His writing is clean. It’s one true thing.

One of my favorite shorts by Hemingway is “Cat in the Rain” – a story about a young married couple’s emotional isolation both from the world around them and each other.

A piece I’m currently working on, “Dog in the Snow,” is partially in tribute to this story and the narcissism of youth.

And so, I give you “Cat in the Rain.”

Link to the full text above. Below, an excerpt. Below that, a cat.

“‘I want to pull my hair back tight and smooth and make a big knot at the back that I can feel,’ she said. ‘I want to have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her.’

‘Yeah?’ George said from the bed.

‘And I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles. And I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.’

‘Oh, shut up and get something to read,’ George said. He was reading again.

His wife was looking out of the window. It was quite dark now and still raining in the palm trees.

‘Anyway, I want a cat,’ she said, ‘I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun, I can have a cat.’”

Coco, circa 2009

Coco, circa 2009

Art of the Sentence

Weekend goal: get my paws on a copy of “At the Bottom of the River” and read it.

"At the Bottom of the River" by Jamaica KincaidIt’s incredible the work that sentences can do beyond simply moving a story forward. With one comma they’ll turn on you. In a dash they can elevate or destroy you.

If you’re reading Kincaid, they’ll pull, pull, pull you ’til you’re taut and then they’ll slingshot you.

“I milked the cows, I churned the butter, I stored the cheese, I baked the bread, I brewed the tea, I washed the clothes, I dressed the children; the cat meowed, the dog barked, the horse neighed, the mouse squeaked, the fly buzzed, the goldfish living in a bowl stretched its jaws; the door banged shut, the stairs creaked, the fridge hummed, the curtains billowed up, the pot boiled, the gas hissed through the stove, the tree branches heavy with snow crashed against the roof; my heart beat loudly thud! thud!, tiny beads of water grew folds, I shed my skin…

— “The Letter from Home,” Jamaica Kincaid

via: Jane Wong’s beautiful analysis Art of the Sentence: Jamaica Kincaid in Tin House


Beautiful punctuation posters by Adam J. Calhoun. I love looking at Faulkner this way, as though he left us a code to unlocking his characters’ consciousness.

Punctuation in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (left) and in Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (right). By Adam J. Calhoun

Punctuation in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (left) and in Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (right).  By Adam J. Calhoun.

via: Punctuation in novels on Medium.

Negative Space

The negative space of writing — what we do when we’re not writing — is probably just as important, if not more, than the act of writing itself.

Which I suppose is one reason why writers are so notoriously tormented. Even the smallest decisions — what color to paint my nails, how to eat my eggs — always seem to paralyze me.

Loving this piece by Ingrid Rojas Contreras in Electric Literature about fretting over the many ways everyday minutia can impact the quantity and quality of your output. (See her chart below.)

Writing Output by Breakfast Types, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Ingrid Rojas Contreras

“All the hours I spend in the back of my throat, flexing my tongue, agonizing in unwritten sentences—is that writing?”

Food for thought.

via: On Not Writing: An Illustrated Guide to My Anxieties by Ingrid Rojas Contreras in Electric Literature