Essays on Writing
Letter to a Young Writer
by Richard Bausch
While there are, of course, thousands of reasons that people begin to
write -- some of them rather shabby ones, too – there usually is
only one reason they continue and that is that the work has become necessary.
We are habit-forming creatures and this work is very habit forming if
one has any talent at all. Of course you don't know when you begin
if you really have any talent and you hope you do. Perhaps you even suspect
that you do. Sometimes you go back and forth, believing on some days and
disbelieving on others. Mostly you believe the last thing you read or
heard concerning the work, and you probably tend to listen to the negative
things more. The last negative thing you heard has sunk deeper into you
and has lasted a longer time than any positive comment. Painful as this
is, it is also perfectly normal. My best advice has nothing to do with
technique or aesthetics or craft itself, really. It has more to do with
training oneself to be shrewd, to live intelligently where the work is
concerned. As I have said many times in classes, "Writing is not
an indulgence. The indulgences are what you give up in order to write."
You don't go to as many parties, you don't watch as much television,
you don't listen to as much music. You make decisions in light of
what you have to do in a given day and everything except the life you
lead with your family is subordinated to the hours you must work. How
much you get done depends in large part not on your talent, which is whatever
it is and it's mostly constant, but on your attitude about what
you are doing. So I've devised a sort of Ten Commandments that are
the result of some of my own struggles with this blessed occupation and
what I have been able to learn from reading or being around writers who
are better than I. Here they are:
Read. You must try to know everything that has ever
been written that is worth remembering and you must keep up with what
your contemporaries are doing. Fitzgerald's advice to his daughter,
Scotty, is as good as any there is on the subject. "You must
try to absorb six good authors a year." This means that you do
not read books as an English major is trained to read them. You swallow
them. You ingest them. You move on. You do not stop to analyze or
think much. You just take them into yourself and go on to the next
one. And you read obsessively, too. If you really like something,
you read it over and over through the years. Come to know the world's
literature by heart. Every good writer I know or have known began
with an insatiable appetite for books – for plundering what
is in them, for the nourishment provided there that you can't get
from any other source.
Imitate. While you're doing this reading, you spend
time trying to sound like the various authors, just as a painter learning
to paint sets up his easel in a museum and copies the work of the
masters. You learn by trying the sound and stance of other writers.
You develop an ear, through your reading and imitating, for how good
writing is supposed to sound.
"Be regular and ordinary in your habits, like
a petty bourgoise, so you may be violent and original in your work."
This comes from Flaubert and is quite good advice. It has to do with
what I was talking about in the first paragraph and is, of course,
better expressed. The thing that separates the amateur writer from
the professional, often enough, is simple the amount of time spent
working the craft. You know that if you really want to write, if you
hope to produce something that will stand up to the winds of criticism
and scrutiny of strangers, you're going to have to work harder than
you have ever worked on anything else in your life æ hour upon
hour upon hour, with nothing in the way of encouragement, no good
feeling, except the sense that you have been true to the silently
admonishing examples of the writers who came before you – the
ones whose company you would like to be in and of whose respect you
would like to be worthy.
Train yourself to be able to work anywhere. Once
when our first child was a baby, my mother came to visit. And after
the baby went to sleep, I began tiptoeing around trying to make no
noise. My mother said, "What the hell are you doing?" I
said, "The baby's asleep." She said, "Have some friends
over, put some music on, rattle some dishes, make noise. You're training
that kid to be a bad sleeper." That wise advice applies to this
craft, too. (Incidentally, that kid could sleep through a battle.)
If you set up a certain expectation about when and how you'll be able
to do the work, you train yourself to be silent. Shostokovich wrote
his famous 7th Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, during the siege
of Leningrad. Bombs were falling all around him and he understood
perfectly well that there was a very good chance he would die within
the next few hours or days. Teach yourself to write in busy places
under the barrage of noises the world makes. Work in rooms where kids
are playing, with music on, even with the television on. Work in the
faith that if something is really good, it will not escape back into
oblivion if you get distracted from it. It will turn up again. There
is no known excuse for not working when you are supposed to be working.
Remember that it is an absurdity to put writing before the life you
have to lead. I'm not talking about leisure. I'm talking about the
responsibility you have to the people you love and who love you back.
No arduousness in the craft or arts should ever occupy one second
of the time you're supposed to be spending that way. It has never
been a question of the one or the other and writers who say it is
are lying to themselves or providing an excuse for bad behavior. They
think of writing as a pretext for it. It has never been anything of
Be patient. You are trying to do something that
is harder than just about anything there is to do, even when it feels
easy. You will write many more failures than successes. Say to yourself,
"I accept failure as the condition of this life, this work. I
freely accept it as my destiny." Then go on and do the work.
Never ask yourself anything beyond "Did I work today?" If
the answer to that question is "yes," then no other question
Be willing. Accepting failure is a part of your
destiny _ learning to be willing to fail, to take the chances that
often lead to failure in the hope that one of them might lead to something
good. Be open for business all the time. You must try to be that person
on whom nothing is lost. This does not mean that you are taking notes
while people around you suffer. You are not that kind of observer.
It means in the workroom you are willing to follow whatever you are
dreaming presents you with - openly, without judgment or attitude
or even opinion.
Eschew politics. The person who has it in his mind
that he will write to engineer better human beings is a despot before
he writes the first line. If you have opinions, leave them out of
the workplace. If you have anything worthwhile to say, let it surprise
you. The writer John Gardner once told me, "If one of your characters
makes a long speech filled with his deepest held beliefs, make sure
you don't believe one word of it." I think that is very sound
advice. You are in the business of portraying the personal life, the
personal cost of events. So even if history is part of your story,
it should only serve as backdrop. The writers who have gotten into
trouble with despots over the shameful history of tyranny did so because
they insisted on not paying attention to the politics except as they
applied to the personal lives of the people they were creating. They
told the truth, in other words, and refused to be political. The paradoxical
truth of the matter is that a writer who pays attention to the personal
life is subversive precisely because he refuses to pay attention to
anything else. Bad politics hurts people on a personal level and good
writers report from there about the damage. And the totalitarians
are rightly afraid of those writers.
Do not think. Dream. If you believe you are thinking
when you write, make yourself stop thinking. You are trying to tap
a part of yourself that is closest to the dreaming side, the side
that is most active when you sleep. You are trying to recover the
literal vision of a child. That is what Flannery O'Connor means when
she says, "A good story is literal in the same sense that a child's
drawing is literal." Dream the story up. Make it up. Be fanciful.
Follow what comes to you to say and try not to worry about whether
or not it's smart or shows your sensitive nature in the best light
or delivers the matters of living that you think you have learned.
Just dream it up and let the thing play itself out as it seems to
want to. And write it again, and still again, dreaming it though.
And then, as you educate yourself each time through more as to what
it is, try to be terribly smart about that. Read it with the cold
detachment of a doctor looking at an x-ray for a lump. Which is to
say, you must learn to re-read your own sentences as a stranger might.
And say everything out loud. Listen to how it sounds.
Don't compare yourself to anyone and learn to keep from building
expectations. People develop at different rates with different
results and luck is also involved. Your only worry should be, again,
"Did I work today?" Be happy for the successes of your friends
because good fortune for one of us is good fortune for all of us.
When a friend or acquaintance says "good luck," you may
feel envy because envy is a natural human reaction. But as George
Garrett once put it, "When that stuff rises to your mind, you
just train yourself to contend with it there." That is what determines
everything else about you as an artist and it really determines everything
about you as a person. You will never write anything worth keeping
if you allow yourself to give in to petty worries over whether you
are treated as you think you deserve or your rewards are commensurate
to the work you've done. That will almost never be the case and the
artist who expects great rewards and complete understanding is a fool.
By wary of all general advice. Destroy everything
that precedes this commandment if, for you, it gets in the way of
writing good stories. Because for every last assertion in this letter,
there are several notable exceptions. Finally, try to remember that
what you are aiming to do is a beautiful, even a noble, thing _ trying
to write or make the trust as straightly and honestly and artfully
as you can. It is also always an inherently optimistic act because
it stems from the belief that there will be civilized others whose
sensibilities you may affect if you are lucky and good enough and
faithful to the task at hand. No matter how tragic the vision is,
it is always a hopeful occupation. And, therefore, you have to cultivate
your ability to balance things, to entertain high hopes without letting
those hopes to become expectations. To do your work without worrying
too much about what the workd will have to say about it or do to it.
Mostly, of course, the world will ignore it. And so, you will have
that in common with many very great writers, good men and women who
came before you. By giving it everything you have and being faithful
to the work, you honor their fidelity to it. You partake of it. You
accept their silent admonition to write like all hell and be as good
as they were.
© Richard Bausch
National Endowment for the Arts · an independent federal
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20506