Thursday, February 4, 2016

When writers get blocked

In one of my favorite movie comedies, "Throw Momma From the Train," from 1987, Billy Crystal plays a writing teacher named Larry, who is stuck on the opening of his novel.  The movie opens with Larry at his typewriter.

Repeatedly, and with growing frustration, he types, "The night was. .  .dark," and then scraps that and goes in search of other equally silly adjectives, hoping for the perfect word that will get him going, as if a strong opening sentence will lead to another sentence, and so on.

What kind of writing teacher is Larry? Maybe he deserves the student from hell, Owen (Danny DeVito), who has a mother from hell; she must be seen and heard to be believed.  See the movie if you haven't.

Larry should know that trying to get it right the first time is pointless: there is no writing without revision, and the opening is usually one of the last things to be redone again and again. Equally missing in Larry's amusing notion of teaching is his stereotyped belief that writers must wait for inspiration, and also suffer, curse, waste paper and time, as if the perfect word and idea will magically appear.

Writers in movies often gaze at the stars, waiting for the Muse to inspire them. It doesn't work like that.

As I tell my students, it's normal and acceptable to write bad sentences; writing isn't brain surgery. It's all about redoing the sentences. The first draft is expected to be rough, and it is by forging ahead and "talking" it out on paper (or screen) that ideas emerge that can be shaped into something readable.

Hemingway, who says he revised the ending of "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times, wrote to a young would-be writer that if he completes ten stories, he throws out nine of them: only one is worthy of publication.

Even though Hemingway exaggerated a good bit, and lied, he was a good craftsman, a wide reader, and had sensible advice on the writing process, such as: Put the work aside until the next day. Know when to stop. And know that the draft will always be there for you to rework.

Writing doesn't have to be frustrating. It is not easy to think clearly, and it takes time and patience and an ability to sit still for a while. But it should be enjoyable, in the sense of fulfilling.  If it isn't, why do it?

Are the half-dozen unfinished stories, and the eight or nine finished but unpublished pieces in my files signs of wasted time? No, they were enjoyable to do because I take satisfaction in re-writing, line by line, until I have something fresh and worth a reader's attention.  I have begun dozens of articles over the years that never got completed, but the time put into them was a learning, and learning should at some level be enjoyable.

I worry about beginning writers who want to be published but don't really enjoy writing or have a sense of language; when they read, they do so for information rather than style. I suggest that they pay attention to the way skilled authors construct articles, stories, paragraphs, and sentences. Being a writer means immersing yourself for several years in the work of good writers before you even consider writing for publication.

Now, how do you know what writers are good?  Don't ask teachers like Larry, who, like Owen in that movie, is a wonderful comic invention with no clue about what writers really do.

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