Writing Advice

The Writing Must Astonish



Last night the poet, Hilda Sheehan, presented Kenneth Koch’s advice in The Art of Poetry to a group of writers wishing to “release” a poem to the public. A series of questions, typed out 1-10, made for a good discussion of what is worthy to be published. If you don’t stumble at the first part of number 1, you have some good chance, I imagine. The first? Is it astonishing?


Is it Astonishing? 

At first, I thought, You’re kidding, right? I only have to be astonishing?  But then, I realised Koch was exactly right. If I read a work—a poem, a story, a novel—and it doesn’t astonish me, I am mildly disappointed. I don’t condemn the work, but I don’t love it. And when it comes to the written word, I want to love it. A lot.


I didn’t used to feel this way. Back when I was first discovering books, a novel didn’t have to wow me to keep me turning pages. I was so proud I could read so many pages all bound together—a 100-page book, a 200-page book, a 300-page book. As a child and even a teenager, if I failed to finish a novel I assumed it was my fault, something wrong with me that I was insufficiently hooked by the story.


It was the same for poetry.  When I first read poems I was so proud of understanding what was on the page I didn’t ask whether the poem was any good. I was too busy evaluating my worthiness to read it in the first place. And if I didn’t understand it I wondered what was   lacking in me that caused this failure.


But these days, to be astonished by a work of fiction or poetry seems to be a perfectly reasonable criterion for establishing its worthiness to be in print to begin with. If a novel doesn’t carry me with the urgency of its story, the “inevitable consequences” that knit together its action, the depth and charm of its characters, the mild to major threat that creates suspense, the careful use of its language, I’m not going to waste much time with it.


I am not unusual. To complete a novel, the reader must invest huge amounts of personal time. Given the multitude of available distractions, competing media and endless amounts of work-related reading a person has to do in the course of their day, we had better have a good reason for a person to be reading our book come evening.


How Do I Write The Astonishing Novel?

But how do we go from being capable of writing an “okay” work of fiction to one that has the potential to astonish a reader? What moves a writer from amateur to professional,  from good to great?  We know we need hours of practice, good mentors, and a steady commitment to writing, but even these will not necessarily make us capable of writing something that fills even the first of Koch’s criteria.


Naturally, one has to have talent. Talent is a given. When Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his 2008 book Outliers that you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to achieve mastery in a given field, he made it clear that your require sufficient talent to begin with. “There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers,” Gladwell explains, “..practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”


So, we know you have to have a natural ability to write, a facility for language, a sense of cadence and what sounds right, an inventiveness and playfulness, and to be a natural storyteller. We then match it to a program of deliberate practice and possibly the innate talent is able to blossom into a genius that may otherwise lay dormant.


Not everyone believes that “deliberate practice” makes any difference to success. Frans Johannson argues in The Click Moment: Seizing Opportunity in An Unpredictable World that success is far more random than we like to assume. He uses examples, like how Starbucks was a place you bought coffee by weight until its CEO, Howard Shultz, happened to drink his first latte in Milan and decided at that moment to bring the drink to America.  But here I must make it clear that by “success” Johannson is talking about commercial success, and I concede without contest that a great number of “literary” successes are astonishing, but only in their sales figures.


I’m not interested in sales figures. I’m interested in the experience of greatness I have felt while reading the true literary successes, whether they sold in vast numbers or not. I am talking about what it feels like to read Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese without knowing who she is or whether the poem is known or unknown. I’m talking about the magic I experienced reading anything from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto to Nicole Kraus’s The History of Love to John Updike’s The Afterlife. I’m talking about reading a Galway Kinnell poem on a xeroxed page without knowing who he was or whether he mattered, and being sucked into the poem by the invisible pull of greatness. Or hearing Seamus Heaney reading Beowulf aloud. Or reading one Michael Longley‘s poems about his grandchild.


Deliberate Practice At Work

There are no standard training practices to becoming a great writer, or even a good writer. There is contradictory advice all over the place, and much of what you read on the internet may actually make you a worse writer if you follow it. Luckily, those born with the innate talent Gladwell speaks of will soon sniff out what is rotten among the worst “writing teacher” offences and disregard them.


Writing poses a particular problem when it comes to developing a routine deliberate practice.  That is, few people agree about what is good or great. We have award-winning books, and sometimes those are pretty good, but sometimes they are simply pretentious and unreadable. We have bestsellers, which may or may not be good (I write here about a website called Bad Bestsellers that makes this point), and then we have the classics, which is where a lot of good writers go to see what has proven timeless and indisputable.


The trouble with reading the literature of yesterday is that it isn’t going to help you become a better writer today. You can study what is called “great literature” and learn much from it; but you won’t learn how to make great literature for today by doing so. Don’t let that be your reason for sticking it out with Milton or Hardy. Read it if you like it, if it feeds something inside you, but don’t read it to learn how to write something for readers of today.


This leaves writers with a particular dilemma. We have few criteria to determine what is excellent other than our own taste. What astonishes me may not astonish you, and vice versa.  It feels like an insurmountable problem.


In his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, the economist, Anders Ericsson, explains that, “if there is no agreement on what good performance is and no way to tell what changes would improve performance, then it is very difficult—often impossible—to develop effective training methods.”


This brings me back to why I was at a gathering of poets with Hilda Sheehan last night as part of the Wantage Poetry Workshop. I write poetry (a bit) but I’ve been so caught up in novels and blogs and articles for publication that I haven’t even thought about poetry for awhile. Writing poetry does something very important for me. It hones my work; it reminds me of the power of compressed language, makes me fall in love with words and ideas without feeling the need to create long narratives. Writing a poem, a tiny parcel of 200-300 words, then puzzling over it for hours of revision, is a kind of deliberate practice for me. And there is more, too:  a hypnotic place I reach while sewing this word to that one, reforming a phrase one more time, deciding where a line break should be, trying it this way, now that.


Perhaps this state of other-worldliness that we experience, however briefly, in our daily practice of writing is the energy that can transform us from a good writer to a great one, from a person capable of a good-enough novel to one capable of a novel that astonishes.


In his work, On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner writes, “As every writer knows … there is something mysterious about the writer’s ability, on any given day, to write. When the juices are flowing, or the writer is ‘hot’, an invisible wall seems to fall away, and the writer moves easily and surely from one kind of reality to another … Every writer has experienced at least moments of this strange, magical state.”


It may be within this state that the transformation takes place. So let’s try to go there more often, even daily, and draw from its well of possibilities the greatest skill to which we can aspire.

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