Richard Rhodes, in his “How to Write” challenges would-be writers.
He challenges us to put the ass to the chair, as one of his acquaintances advised, to sit in the cobbler’s wax, as Anthony Trollope said, and to find our “bottom” and stay with it.
He challenges us to write, not to dream about being a writer.
So all told, stuff I’m coming to know on my own. It’s good to hear it reconfirmed by someone with the writing caliber as Rhodes, however. Blessed be those who read and find they are already walking down that familiar road, perhaps not at the pace they’d prefer but walking forward still.
Rhodes’ book is a succotash. There is much for the beginning writer – he discusses scheduling, levels of edit, offers many examples of the tricks he preaches, from writing profiles of individual characters to collecting and surrounding oneself with cues to burnish the senses as one writes (this is something I do already and regard it as a critical trick in getting writing that is more vivid; I imagine Edgar Allan Poe with some kind of skull-embossed bug in his possession inspiring him to write “The Gold-Bug”). But there is much as well for the more advanced writer who struggles with taking one’s writing from good to better to best. My favorite tidbit:
[I]f you don’t say what you mean, your reader will say it for you, willy-nilly. When I see an incoherent film I usually complain about its incoherence. That surprises my friends, who proceed to explain to me what isn’t in the script. They write their own stories to fill in what’s missing. Hollywood, with its contempt for the people who make it rich, expects no less of us: ya got spectacle, ya got stars, ya want coherence? Filling in gaps is the way our facile brains work. There’s a blind spot in the eye, but you’ll never see it unless you make special arrangements to look – the brain fills it in. Give people random sequences of numbers or other symbols and they’ll usually find a pattern that isn’t there. But you don’t want people to write their stories into your work, to find patterns that aren’t there. You want people to find your stories, to find the patterns you designed.These are my stories I’m writing. Mine. Mine. Mine. Writers are egomaniacs, Rhodes insists, and I tend to believe him. We want to tell our stories and have people enjoy them, but we want them to be our stories. Our own. To do that, he says, and to get away with it through editors and other makers of filters and tinkerers of words, we have to concentrate on filling in those gaps so that at every turn, the story is ours, not the readers. Paul Theroux and JRR Tolkien, I believe, embody this writing religion – they leave no gaps in their stories. Reading Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast” leaves the reader with no room for wiggling – as does Peter Weir’s film treatment of the book. Watch Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films and you see how Jackson and company leave things too open. Tolkien does not. The stories are his, and his alone. He maintained they were undramatizable to his death, for that very reason.
That’s not to say the films Weir and Jackson made of these stories aren’t enjoyable. I enjoy them very much. They encapsulate the kernel of the stories they tell. But that’s it. There’s no time in the medium of film to tell every little bit, so they will always be a pale imitation of the original material.
But I digress from Rhodes’ book. An excellent read for writers at all levels of engagement, one that launches challenges I’m loath to take on because they’re hard. (Perhaps a sign I’ll never be a writer). Those challenges? Thinking and re-thinking a story before it’s written down so you come out with a first draft that doesn’t need as much editing as a raw draft would; throwing caution – and finances – to the wind in order to pursue research to make your writing more vivid. Challenging yourself to ensure you have picked the perfect word to convey your thought, and not settling for the first word your dog of memory brings back to you. And many others.
But I can see reading this book as reading a palimpsest, a metaphor he uses quite often in the book. I can pick up stuff now and, through painful practice and apprenticeship, learn to recognize the wisdom he speaks in the things I am loath to try once I am further along and have a few published novels under my belt.
This book’s a keeper, so to say.