There are no bad dogs, according to the title of a popular training manual, but don’t tell that to the parent of a child mauled by a pit bull or a rottweiler; he or she is apt to bust your beak for you. And no matter how much Iwant to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers. Some are on-staff at your local newspaper, usually reviewing little-theater pro- ductions or pontificating about the local sports teams. Some have scribbled their way to homes in the Caribbean, leaving a trail of pulsing adverbs, wooden characters, and vile passive- voice constructions behind them. Others hold forth at open- mike poetry slams, wearing black turtlenecks and wrinkled khaki pants; they spout doggerel about “my angry lesbian breasts” and “the tilted alley where I cried my mother’s name.”
Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity. At the bottom are the bad ones. Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large and welcoming; these are the compe- tent writers. They may also be found on the staff of your local newspaper, on the racks at your local bookstore, and at poetry readings on Open Mike Night. These are folks who somehow understand that although a lesbian may be angry, her breasts will remain breasts.
The next level is much smaller. These are the really good writers. Above them—above almost all of us—are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. Shit, most geniuses aren’t able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age.
I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of master- ing the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
I’m afraid this idea is rejected by lots of critics and plenty of writing teachers, as well. Many of these are liberals in their politics but crustaceans in their chosen fields. Men and women who would take to the streets to protest the exclusion of African-Americans or Native Americans (I can imagine what Mr. Strunk would have made of these politically correct but clunky terms) from the local country club are often the same men and women who tell their classes that writing ability is fixed and immutable; once a hack, always a hack.
Even if a writer rises in the estimation of an influential critic or two, he/she always carries his/her early reputation along, like a respectable married woman who was a wild child as a teenager. Some people never forget, that’s all, and a good deal of literary criticism serves only to reinforce a caste system which is as old as the intellectual snobbery which nurtured it. Raymond Chandler may be recognized now as an important figure in twentieth-century American literature, an early voice describing the anomie of urban life in the years after World War II, but there are plenty of critics who will reject such a judgment out of hand. He’s a hack! they cry indig- nantly. A hack with pretensions! The worst kind! The kind who thinks he can pass for one of us!
Critics who try to rise above this intellectual hardening of the arteries usually meet with limited success. Their col- leagues may accept Chandler into the company of the great, but are apt to seat him at the foot of the table. And there are always those whispers: Came out of the pulp tradition, you know . . . carries himself well for one of those, doesn’t he? . . . did you know he wrote for Black Mask in the thirties . . . yes, regrettable . . .
Even Charles Dickens, the Shakespeare of the novel, has faced a constant critical attack as a result of his often sensa- tional subject matter, his cheerful fecundity (when he wasn’t creating novels, he and his wife were creating children), and, of course, his success with the book-reading groundlings of his time and ours. Critics and scholars have always been sus- picious of popular success. Often their suspicions are justi- fied. In other cases, these suspicions are used as an excuse not to think. No one can be as intellectually slothful as a really smart person; give smart people half a chance and they will ship their oars and drift . . . dozing to Byzantium, you might say.
So yes—I expect to be accused by some of promoting a brainless and happy Horatio Alger philosophy, defending my own less-than-spotless reputation while I’m at it, and of encouraging people who are “just not our sort, old chap” to apply for membership at the country club. I guess I can live with that. But before we go on, let me repeat my basic premise: if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great . . . fuhgeddaboudit.
What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well—settle back into compe- tency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on. There is a muse,* but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly
*Traditionally, the muses were women, but mine’s a guy; I’m afraid we’ll just have to live with that.
grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid- night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.
Believe me, I know.