Writing Workshop Lesson 4: Murdering Your Children
A friend sends this along.
What if Shakespeare had had a copy editor? [Said editor's notes are in brackets.]
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow [tomorrow and the next day, maybe?] creeps in this petty pace [doesn't "creeps" imply a petty pace?] from day to day [redundant] to the last syllable of recorded time [come on, we've only got 15 inches!].Yes, we writers bristle when someone futzes around too much with our words. One of the biggest complaints from journalists is that a slice-happy copyeditor will slash and burn so much "it no longer sounds like" the writer.
... and all our yesterdays have lighted fools [vague * just fools? or are you saying we're all fools?] the way to dusty death.
Out, out brief candle,
Life is a walking shadow [pretty big generalization, isn't it?], a poor actor [or actress] who struts and frets his [or her] hour [or two] upon the stage and is heard [and seen] no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing [ not very much?].
And yet, I revere skilled editors. And the editor in me understands the urge to purge the wordiness. This weekend I edited some 50 pages of work by other freelancers. It was good stuff, but so many writers don't understand that shorter can be better, that leaving out the "-ly" words can make a sentence so much stronger and that "very" usually weakens whatever follows it. Also, "that" and "which" are not interchangeable. Nor are "that" and "who/whom." But those are lessons for another day.
Today we're talking about the writer's voice and breaking the rules. You can look at a page of that old Flak Catcher himself, Tom Wolfe, and you know he wrote it just from the CAPITAL letters and exclamation !!!! points (what journalists call "slammers," old-fashioned j-ists anyway). Hunter S. Thompson (kerPOW! To the moon, Gonzo!) had a voice on the page like he had in real life: stream of conscious mumbling with the occasional outburst of profane brilliance.
Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, even the Brat Pack writers Bret Easton Ellis (now back in vogue and Vogue) and Jay McInerney (trying SO hard to catch up) defied the rules of their predecessors and created new ways of "speaking" to readers. Examples from the theater start with the Greeks (Aristophanes was the Mel Brooks of his time). Hear the phrase "the kindness of strangers" and you know it's Williams' Streetcar Named Desire. "Attention must be paid"= Miller's Death of a Salesman.
Maybe you've found your voice. Maybe you're still looking for it. One of my teachers, the Greek diva Mary Ann Colias, told us undergrads that it takes 10 years to get good at anything. Twenty before you're an expert. She was talking about acting, but you could apply that to so many other skills (we of the still-frisky middle ages give each other a nudge-nudge-wink-wink right about now).
In my experience, La Colias was right. I've been writing professionally since 1979 (my first published piece was an interview with the late country singer Dottie West). I wrote hundreds of long feature stories in the 1980s, mostly for Dallas' alternative newspaper, but also for the two Sunday magazines at the local dailies. In the 1990s I wrote a daily column for newspapers -- two-a-days sometimes, given early deadlines for weekend editions. It was like working on an assembly line, that job at the dailies. Give me a topic and I can opine on it for exactly 15 inches worth of typing.
Writing a column, painting portraits or playing the Sousaphone -- do it every day for eight or 10 hours for eight or 10 years and you get pretty damn good at it. You can almost do it in your sleep. (I often write ledes and headlines in my sleep. Not long ago I dreamed an entire novel... my next project after The Phantom Prof.)
Practice, practice, practice. Write something every day. Even emails are good, if you don't just write empty messages. My friend Wendy sends the best email letters, all about her daughter Esme, her messy house ("Esme in Love and Squalor was never so true," she wrote recently), her decrepit dog, her sagging porch and, best of all, the plays she's writing for the theater in Humboldt County, California. Her writing sounds like Wendy and nobody else. It's full of humor and detail. And she cares about spelling.
Your voice should sound like you. That's where breaking the "rules" comes in. When I teach young writers, so often they want to pretty up their work, sticking in fancy words and tossing those dadgum semicolons on the page because they seem to formalize the proceedings. They write in a strange passive tense with too many -ings on everything. "He was walking up the stairs," instead of "He walked...." And a common mistake is to write about "starting" to do things, instead of doing them. "I started to go up the stairs," which to me means you're frozen mid-step. I'm also a big fan of the active voice. Put the reader in the moment, right as it's happening. (Not a rule -- just a tip.)
Students who've gone through school doing nothing but footnoted research papers or short, five-graf essays, aren't quite sure what to do when given permission to write like they talk. They're used to writing by the rules. But when they know it's OK to trust their own style --- Whoo, doggies! Now I'm interested.
Some of the young writers whose writer-voices I still remember -- Allison, Charles, Vanessa, Valerie, Cassie, Jonny -- I also recall were the ones who kept journals or were doing some other kind of creative writing on a regular schedule. They also read a lot. Important.
By reading good work, you start to see which voices you respond to. You can try on other writer's styles and see which fits your taste. Then you can vamp from there. (One of my earliest influences was Fran Leibowitz's Metropolitan Life. Also, the theater criticism of John Simon and movie reviews by Pauline Kael and James Wolcott.)
This week start to hone your writer's voice. I won't give you a specific assignment for that. I trust that many of you out there in writerland are working on things already. And if you're not, I hope you will start something. (We'll sample those in weeks to come.)
Be your own copy editor. See if you can do an adverb-ectomy on your work. Check to see if you are "starting" or "beginning" actions, instead of doing them. Take out the $50-words. And "murder your children." That's the old editor's maxim that means finding those sentences you think are particularly beautiful and erasing them. Trust me, it works.
And here's today's fun exercise -- some New Rules.
Comedians are great examples of writers who've found their voices -- sometimes by breaking the rules of their predecessors. One of the crankiest but funniest right now is Bill Maher, who hosts a show on HBO and who is out there on the stump hawking his new book, New Rules. Excerpt:
What New Rules would you like to see in effect in our culture? Try four or five and post them in comments here.
New Rule: Stop blaming the summer box office slump on DVDs and video games, and demographics. The summer box office was down because no one knows who the hell Ewan McGregor is. You know how you can tell you're not a movie star? When people would rather watch a penguin.
New Rule: Competitive eating isn't a sport. It's one of the seven deadly sins. ESPN recently televised the US Open of Competitive Eating, because watching those athletes at the poker table was just too damned exciting. What's next, competitive farting? Oh wait. They're already doing that. It's called "The Howard Stern Show."
New Rule: I don't need a bigger mega M&M. If I'm extra hungry for M&Ms, I'll go nuts and eat two.
New Rule: Celebrities must stop using their TV shows to hawk their other projects. A point I should have made in my book, New Rules.
(More about last week's assignments on Thursday. Gotta go murder some other writers' "children.")