It Should be the What, Not the How

I read a wonderful–and true to life–piece in The New York Times the other day, called “Stupid Writer Tricks.” The author, novelist Ben Dolnick, laments his time spent investigating the writing techniques of famous writers (as in how they wrote, like, where they sat when they wrote, or whether they used a No. 2 pencil or a typewriter, etc. rather than their actual writing).

As he puts it in the article:

I had, for a long time, a profound vulnerability to hearing about these sorts of routines. Of course I knew that writing was terrifically hard work, and that there was no secret code, as in a video game, that would unlock Tolstoy-mode, enabling me to crank out canon-worthy novellas before lunch. But I persisted in believing that I might one day come upon some technique, some set of tricks, that would vault me irreversibly onto the professional plane. I didn’t have a working printer, but I agreed wholeheartedly with Joan Didion that I needed to be sleeping in the same room as my manuscript, so as never to lose touch with it. It would be years before I’d written so much as a single chapter of a novel, but I knew that when I finished a book, I would, like Anthony Trollope, begin my next one on the very same day.

I confess to seeing a lot of truth, and a lot of myself, in this piece.

The “imaginary author interviews I occasionally conduct with myself while brushing my teeth” that Dolnick mentions bear more than a passing resemblance to my own inner fantasy life (though usually I’m on Letterman or Craig Ferguson, not in the pages of The Paris Review). And I would be lying if I said I haven’t been occasionally browsing the prices of stand-up desks since learning that’s how Hemingway preferred to work. (I’ve also taken to drinking mojitos on the same principle).

So I resolved to take Mr. Dolnick’s advice: he points out that

the important thing is not the techniques, but the spirit in which you take them up. If you reach out, as I spent all those years doing, like a drowning man for a scrap of wood, then you’ll most likely flail until you and your technique sink together in an unhappy mass. If, though, you can reach out from a position of calm, as a swimmer reaches out for a kickboard before turning to begin his next lap, then you might find yourself feeling what all the tricks and tips are finally pointing toward: freedom.

Naturally, what was the first thing I did after vowing to be more free of concerns about writing, about not worrying so much about how I write and just write more, and not spending so much time investigating how others have done the same work in the past?

I read this article by Austin Grossman about how working on video games taught him how to write.


– S.

PS: I really wish Dolnick hadn’t pointed out that all those Paris Review interviews are available online…