Scattered But Complete Contents
Keeping a journal and writing in it eve1y day had, for me, another advantage. It taught me the habit of discipline. I made it a daily practice. I jotted down my thoughts and my feelings no matter how mundane they seemed at the time. If I didn’t have my notebook with me, I wrote on a scrap of paper, on a napkin, even a match box cover. I watched James Michener do this in Spain. He wrote notes on envelopes that he kept in his inside suit coat pocket. He wrote in a fine, minuscule writing so he could get more on a page. I often wondered if he turned the envelopes over to a secretary to transcribe. He must have, considering the volumes that he wrote.
My writing every day became a habit, which is what writing is all about. It’s a profession, and I’ve learned to treat it as such. I never let myself get bogged down in rules. Christina Jones, the popular British author of women’s contemporary fiction, comes to mind. She said in an interview, “Don’t worry about breaking the rules. Write because you love it. Write what you like reading-write for yourself as well as for your public. If you love your characters and your story, then it’ll show, and your readers will love them, too.”
I have a few principles that I follow. I like big, fancy• sounding words; they fascinate me. I collect them in a notebook and often read them over. But I do not use them, or seldom do. I may stick a big word into my text perhaps because of the way it sounds, impressive, but in the end, I cut it out. My whole idea of writing is to be understood. Why then would I use words the majority of the people don’t understand? By using such words, I am only defeating my purpose. I certainly don’t want to use big words to make myself sound erudite, as many authors do. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. It may be certain big words are the only words that describe my thoughts to the fullest. I like what William Faulkner had to say about Ernest Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
I will emphasize the point I made earlier. When a writer says, “You don’t understand what I am saying,” then the writer has got it wrong. A writer’s duty is to make his writing understandable. To say such a thing, the reader doesn’t understand, is to admit ignorance. Also if a writer makes statements like “it’s beyond description” then he should find another profession. Nothing should be beyond description. Another no-no is “words cannot explain it.” I suggest to these people to take up painting and not writing. By the same token, I make every attempt to omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. Example: “He walked into the bar and the bartender put the lid back on the free lunch” bowl.” That says it all with not a single adjective or a long description. You know immediately guy who entered the bar is a bum. I endeavor to write in a way which comes naturally, and I do this with nouns and verbs, not adjectives. Paint! Draw! I draw the picture for others to see it in their minds. Above all, I avoid fancy words or hackneyed phrases: cold as ice, hot as hell, or as did above-“by the same token.” The duty of a writer is to create new expressions.
Take a look at Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. There are not many words in the books that an eighth grader wouldn’t understand. Much of our modern literature comes from these books. A writer’s aim should be to put down on paper what he actually sees and what he actually feels, and to do this in the best and simplest way he can. This is what Mark Twain did in Tom Sawyer. He put readers there in a small town on the Mississippi River, whitewashing fences.
To get started writing each day, I have to get myself into the mood, and to do this I read a little beforehand. Maybe only a page or two, but it must be good writing, something that I find thought inspiring-not trash. I treat writing the same. I pick up a good book, a classic, and begin reading. It’s kick-starting me into action. But I make sure it’s good writing and not rubbish. When I go to a gym, I do warm-up exercises first. Writing for me is the same. If I lay off writing for a few weeks, or even a few days, I find myself out of shape, and I must go through some warm-up exercises first. Reading is that exercise.
But what constitutes good writing? The classics, perhaps? According to Carl Van Doren, critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, “A classic is a book that doesn’t have to be rewritten.” In other words, it’s a book that can stand the ravages of time.
When I was a beginner with hope of becoming published, it took courage to sit down and write. My fear was not the act of writing but the fear that someone would laugh at me. It helped when I read what Eddie Rickenbacker had to say about fear. When he was asked if he was frightened when he flew the Atlantic, he said: “Courage is doing what you are afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you are scared.”
When I ponder a new story idea, I have worked out a good testing ground to see if I am on the right track. I talk it over with friends-but I do it surreptitiously. I can gauge a story’s weight by reaction from others. This works well when I give a public talk. I can feel out the audience and determine their likes and dislikes. Friends at a dinner table can do this for me, too. My listeners become my teachers, unknown to them.
If I find it difficult developing a new story, I sit down and proceed as if I am writing a letter to a friend or a letter home. No fancy words and no questionable prose. I keep it light, and I am not afraid to make fun of myself. I write to inform not to embellish.
Writing letters can be dangerous. What does it matter with a little fib in a letter? I can think of a specific case where simple letters written home turned out to be explosive. It happened in Vietnam. I was covering the war as a correspondent, and I got many leads by listening to Gls telling their experiences. I listened to one story a couple of Gls joked about regarding a corporal who sat behind a desk in Saigon. Everyone back home felt sorry for him for risking his life at war. So as not to disappoint them, he wrote war stories in his letters home. But the tales he told were not what happened to him but what had happened to others. When he did return home, he returned as a war hero. His mother had been handing his letters over to the local newspaper, and they published them. The town even named a street after him. I wonder what he feels every time he looks into a mirror. I make sure I don’t put myself to the same situation.