A Call to Quills for Writers Everywhere
From time to time, someone asks me for advice on writing. I want to encourage people to write because this is a crucial time in history. As the scourge of censorship takes hold across the West, we do not know whether the platforms of communication available to us today will be around tomorrow. The days of handwritten samizdat may well return, and for this reason, it is important that freethinkers spend time recording their thoughts so that others may learn and do the same.
Writing is good exercise for the brain, and through trial and error, even non-writers will become writers quickly. Most of what I know comes from reading the words of others — which is a testament to the power of writing.
The most important thing to know about writing is this: always write without fear. The word "essay" actually means "an attempt." Our current understanding of the word as a form of written composition comes from the great sixteenth-century writer Michel de Montaigne, who recorded his thoughts in a collection of "attempts" (essays) during the French Renaissance. Writing is not about producing perfection; it is about pursuing perfection.
Michelangelo said, "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it." When I sit down to write, I look for that statue and start to chip away at the rock the best I can. I begin with an idea of what perfection might look like. Invariably, I never achieve a perfect result, but sometimes I am a little closer to the ideal in my mind. Everything I write is an "attempt" to reach this ideal.
Writing should be fun. "I only write when inspiration strikes," William Faulkner said before adding, "Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning." Although I have found the early morning hours a particularly rich time to write, I hardly ever write until my head is nearly bursting with ideas. I let thoughts collect and percolate until my brain feels as if it might explode, and only then do I sit down and attempt to sculpt those ideas into something worth saying.
Some of the best advice on writing comes from Kurt Vonnegut's short essay, "How to Write with Style." His rules for great writing include: (1) Find a subject you care about; (2) Do not ramble, though; (3) Keep it simple; (4) Have guts to cut; (5) Sound like yourself; (6) Say what you mean; and (7) Pity the readers.
If we take rule #4 to heart, then I think we could effectively edit Vonnegut's rules into just three: (1) Write with passion; (2) Speak with your own voice; and (3) Keep it concise. The more passionate you are about a subject, the more naturally your own voice will flow. So if you really want to catch a reader's attention, first think about the subjects that most fire you up! Let that energy stir inside you until you feel as if you might pop! Then get those words down on paper. In Gus Van Sant's movie Finding Forrester — inspired by the life of reclusive writer J.D. Salinger — Sean Connery memorably instructs his young protégé: "No thinking — that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is...to write, not to think!"
The more honestly you reflect the thoughts in your head, the more convincing you will be to any reader. Sportswriter "Red" Smith was once asked if writing a daily column was a difficult "chore." "Why, no," the wordsmith sardonically replied — "you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed." If you are angry, write with fury. If you are heartbroken, write with sorrow. If you are filled with joy, write with wit. Take what bubbles in your soul at any given moment, and let those bubbles explode into your writing.
Then, after you have stopped hammering that block of stone in search of the statue in your mind, take a step back and fine-tune your work. No matter how difficult it is (and sometimes it is very difficult), I try hard to keep Vonnegut's fourth and seventh rules at the forefront in my head: have the guts to cut and pity the readers. Sometimes chiseling away a word, sentence, or even an entire paragraph means the difference between a good essay and a great essay. Sometimes I fail in these "attempts" and burden the reader with outrageously convoluted sentence structures anyway. In my defense, perfection is never obtainable.
I once had the fortune of attending a small gathering that included the renowned American writer John Updike. Someone asked him if he had always wanted to be a novelist. He answered that he had always wanted to be a poet. He then speculated that every novelist had first failed at being a poet and then a writer of short stories — before finally turning to the longer format of a novel to express the ideas that eluded him. The notion that Updike was a failed poet or short story writer is laughable, but his observation has always stuck with me. Great writing tends to have a cadence to it. It can be read out loud in a spacious auditorium or whispered with the help of a flashlight inside a dark tent. Rhyme, alliteration, and metaphor transform even the most tedious subjects into lively dances that pull the reader toward the next line. A talented writer such as Updike can string together sentences like "attractive nuisances" that invite a reader to trespass further.
Finally, remember this: good writing is both imitative and autobiographical. Every writer builds from the words and styles of other writers. What we read gives us new tools and perspectives for what we will eventually write. William Shakespeare, the most skillful and imaginative writer of them all, "borrowed" so heavily from other sources that he would be accused of Biden-like plagiarism by today's standards. Still, how he used what he borrowed set his writing apart from and above all others for the last four centuries.
At the same time that we imitate other writers, our best writing is revealingly autobiographical. It is not just the stories we choose to tell readers. Every choice of word reflects a great deal about ourselves. In what part of the world was a writer born? What kinds of people has he met? In what vocations has he spent his time? How might a turn of phrase reveal that writer's age, travels, or natural dialect? No matter how anonymous a writer might choose to be, his sentences tell a good deal of his private story.
That is good. Any writer willing to "open his veins and bleed" is an honest writer. An honest writer will write without fear. A fearless writer usually has something important to say. And when someone is filled with enough passion to pick up a bullhorn and shout the truth, then strangers will often turn an ear to listen.
I encourage you to become a writer, if you are not already. Fight back against the Iron Curtain of censorship now descending all around us by making sure that your thoughts can never be erased. Write with passion and inspire others. It is impossible for the government to eradicate all dissent — so long as all of us insist on having something to say.
Consider this a call to quills — for writers everywhere.
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