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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

On Writing

Two of my favorite authors, Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut share a common approach to the craft of writing. They both wrote for at least five to six hours every day. It has taken me a lifetime to learn how to write on demand, and it might take another to learn to sustain that level of output much less to compose anything approximating a fraction of their genius.

I write, as I have mentioned before, to keep my language alive, my mind active, and as an exercise of will. All reasons enough to exercise a daily discipline but it is precisely that. I write because my thoughts outrace me, tumbling out in all directions faster than I can speak them, and in so many directions that I can scarcely follow any single branch to its conclusion. Only writing them out allows me to fully think them out.

Hemingway said that “writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done”. I am living testimony to that truth. And it is for that reason I once found writing a tortuous endeavor. That is, until I learned that editing and writing are very different creative processes. For me, writing, whether done well or badly, is all about capturing those thoughts tumbling out of mind before they vanish in a thicket of endlessly branching curiosities. Editing is all about making choices, not just stylistic, but about divining the essence from the jumble that has found its way onto paper.

Another author I admire, John McPhee, taught me two tremendously valuable lessons in that regard. Anything is worth writing about, anything, if it is something that matters to you. You may know McPhee from his work in the New Yorker, or perhaps read one or more of the thirty books he has published on subjects such as the making of a birch bark canoe, nuclear engineering, farmer’s markets, dirigibles and all things geological. The latter, a subject which in any other writer’s hands would be deadly but which in his seminal work, Annals of the Former World, won a Pulitzer Prize. McPhee writes about what interests him and judging by his work—nearly everything does. But it would not matter what McPhee chose as his topic, his books are never about the nominal subject, but about the people who give them life. In short, McPhee writes about the one thing which endlessly fascinates us all, other people.

The characters who populate McPhee’s writing, and they are invariably characters, might well act as conduits for the author’s traits and opinions but among his many gifts is his choice to stand outside the narratives, allowing the subjects to speak for themselves. It is a talent sufficiently rare that every writer of non-fiction should study it.

If you are like me and have too much to say, most of which is best left on the cutting room floor, McPhee and Hemingway share another enviable trait. They write simply. Writing pundits describe Hemingway’s style as the iceberg approach. Brevity is the hallmark, the voice declarative, without reliance on exposition but rather inference to reveal character and plot. I imagine them both as sculptors. Some artisans chip away at the marble to expose the image they hold in their mind. Others allow the stone to reveal itself; they carve what the marble wishes to be.

That is how I write today, letting the words and thoughts tumble out as they will unafraid of the mess they make. They need to marinate, while I step back and question them. What emerges, in the week or so over which this process takes shape is almost never anything like what it set out to be. Hopefully the editing results in something better and clearer, but occasionally it results in abandonment, a certain sign of premature birth. Maturity is knowing when an idea is unripe.

I only wrote poetry for many years. I loved the play of language, and the power of words to evoke powerful feelings. But poetry to me is enigmatic by design. Non-fiction, at least the type that McPhee writes along with many of his colleagues at the New Yorker is all about discipline and clarity, though never at the expense of good storytelling.

The novel for me is the singular challenge and represents both the greatest and most dismal of works. We might have a spirited conversation about what books we might cast in those categories but let me offer a final thought in the form of my own tests. Do you wish to leave the world the author has created or dwell a while? Have the characters that populate its pages, villain or hero, come to life in your mind? Will you return to this work again? If your answer to these questions is yes, you have read something of great worth, the thing done as well as it can be.

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1 Comment

Christiaan Campbell
Jul 16, 2023

I have always loved a technique that Vonnegut used, and has been mimicked by Donaldson, King, and others. I am certain it was not Vonnegut’s invention, although my own deep respect for the author will forever associate it with him. Sometimes you have no idea at all what to write, but your routine or discipline requires keeping sharp by writing every day. You can create a character, such as Kilgore Trout (who I believe was autobiographical) in so much detail that they become real to you. Then you take your character and place them in a situation. Finally, just watch what they do and write it down, and you will have the backbone of your story.

I myself have written…


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