Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.
Lots of people procrastinate, of course, but for writers it is a peculiarly common occupational hazard. One book editor I talked to fondly reminisced about the first book she was assigned to work on, back in the late 1990s. It had gone under contract in 1972.
I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.
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At age 76, Jim Harrison has touched every major genre in American letters. He’s written 10 novels, 17 books of poetry, classic essays on food and wilderness, screenplays for feature films starring Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner. Some of his best work, though, has been in that undersold genre, the novella—a form he became associated with after the success of his 1979 suite of three long stories, Legends of the Fall.
Harrison’s new novella collection—his eighth—features a character who’s recurred in his work for more than 20 years: Brown Dog, an unconfined, hard-drinking wild man from Michigan’s wintry upper peninsula. First introduced in 1990’s The Woman Lit By Fireflies —the story concerned the fate of an Indian chief’s recovered body, perfectly preserved in the deep murk of Lake Superior—Brown Dog became one of Harrison’s most recognizable characters. This eponymous collection collects the five existing Brown Dog novellas in one place for the first time, and closes with a new one.
When I asked him to share a favorite passage for this series, Harrison used a Theodore Roethke poem to share a vision of how he writes. His process, like his protagonists, is unintellectual, wild, and elemental. He explained why he waits for years before word one, and how rhythm helps unlock his characters.
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More and more often these days, authors are considered responsible for their own success—and those who were once responsible for promoting them now tout the glories of self-promotion. Or, as a cheery New York literary agent recently put it, “You, the author, have an unprecedented amount of control over the way people discover you and your work, and how your ‘presence’ is presented to the world.”
Here’s what an author’s guide to stardom might look like in the near future.
Dracula, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe: it takes a special kind of greatness for a literary character to achieve autonomy from his creator. Like those “folk songs” that are actually the products of a single pen (“This Land Is Your Land,” say), such figures come to seem as if they’d sprung directly from the popular imagination, effacing their originators altogether. Everyone has heard of Frankenstein; not many know who Mary Shelley is.
Such is the case with Tevye, the jocular giant of Yiddish literature. With his trio of marriageable daughters and his eternal little town of Anatevka, his largeness and simplicity, he seems to come to us directly from the pages of a folktale. You’d almost have to be a Yiddishist to recognize the name of his creator, Sholem Aleichem. Yet once he was a giant, too: the voice of Eastern European Jewry by universal acclamation; the creator, Jeremy Dauber tells us in his new biography, of modern Jewish literature as well as modern Jewish humor; the man to whom the author of Huckleberry Finn replied, upon being introduced to “the Jewish Mark Twain,” “please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.” His death in 1916 was the occasion of the largest public funeral New York had ever witnessed.
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This year, I talked to nearly 50 different writers for the By Heart series, a weekly column about beloved quotes and cherished lines. Each author shared the life-changing, values-shaping passages that have helped sustain creative practice throughout his or her career. Their contributions were eclectic and intensely personal: Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest was a finalist for the Man Booker prize this year, shared a folk rhyme from his childhood, the investigative New York Times journalist Michael Moss (Salt, Sugar, Fat) close-read the Frito-Lay slogan, and This American Life host Ira Glass eulogized a longtime friend and collaborator. Though I began by asking each writer the same question—what line is most important to you?—their responses contained no formula.
There was also no specific requirement to talk about craft. And yet writers—being writers—offered a generous bounty of practical writing advice. They shared exercises. They discussed principles of revision. Some presented ways to beat procrastination, or fight back against writing-desk ennui. And a great many shared their thoughts on the most crucial craft question of all: Why does some writing feel dead on the page, while other words thrum with life?
Taken together, these conversations were like attending an MFA program—I learned that much. Here are the best short pieces of writing advice I heard from writers in 2013, a whole year’s worth of wisdom.
On the back cover of a 1967 album by Robert Pete Williams, beneath a photo of the Mississippi blues musician, appears a signature rendered illegibly in a strained combination of print and script. The lines shake with a careful effort which yields results only a step better than his the X his sharecropper father likely made. Takoma records trumpeted Williams’ illiteracy—with the printing of the signature they signaled to the audience the thrill of a hardened criminal life and raw emotion of the primitive musician. But the single line of scrawl is more deeply emblematic of the evils of the segregated society.
The signature, the ability to sign one’s own name with grace and confidence, has long been an essential marker of society. Today more and more I meet high school students who, though they can read, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, are ashamed whenever they are confronted with the need to sign a document. Students are sometimes too embarrassed to admit that they can’t read a piece of an important historical document or the comments of a teacher who writes in script. Script is not seen by students as some quaint relic of the past. Even among kids for whom academic achievement is hardly “cool,” students recognize the pedigree that the knowledge of the cursive alphabet and the ability to write it fluently represent. Cursive has become a status marker.
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If you took to heart the recent cover story in The Economist, “How Science Goes Wrong,” you might be tempted throw your hands up and stop reading about scientific research entirely. The piece describes how scientists often fail to reproduce some of the most frequently cited findings in their fields, calling their conclusions into question. Science writers have also come under fire recently, most notably Malcolm Gladwell, who according to critics in the The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate, among others, cherry-picks research to fit his thesis and hangs major arguments on poorly replicated studies in his latest book, David and Goliath.
A short documentary shows how Scott Lew, who has ALS, writes feature films.
Writers who have day jobs outside the literature industry aren’t a new thing. Oscar Wilde wrote, “The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.” Essays at The Millions, Ploughshares, and elsewhere feature stories of folks who have made the double life of writer and Joe or Jane Worker fruitful and rewarding. Short story writer Lorrie Moore wrote, “First, try to be something, anything, else,” in her essay “How to Be a Writer.”
Poet Amy Woolard, named one of the 50 Best News Poets of 2013 by Best New Poets editor Brenda Shaughnessy, has tried “something, anything, else”—including, most recently, working as a child-welfare lawyer. But she has also kept writing. I spoke with her about what it’s like to maintain a career in poetry while also maintaining a demanding, white-collar day job. A condensed, edited version of that email conversation follows.
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"Slaves of the Internet, Unite!" is the kind of headline that is guaranteed to get you attention on the Internet. And so, my little corner of it was ablaze yesterday with its central question: Is it right to write for free?
This discussion typically ping-pongs between two extremes: (1) It’s deeply unjust and insulting to ask people for free work, including free writing; and (2) If you don’t want to write for free, then just don’t, end of story. These are easy and attractive answers, but the question is deeper.
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