Tuesday, June 06, 2006

JSB: Writerly Wisdom

I collect quotes from writers on all aspects of the writing life. It opens up little windows in my perspective and lets me see things I might have missed. I like to review these quotes from time to time, as it makes me feel I'm in on a big conversation about my profession, with a bunch of very cool and experienced people. The only thing missing is the Starbucks.

Actually not, as I'm typing this right now at my favorite table at my favorite Starbucks. I'll just pretend it was Ray Bradbury who bought me that first cup, as he sits down with me and says,

"I do a first draft as passionately and as quickly as I can. I believe a story is only valid when it is immediate and passionate, when it dances out of your subconscious. If you interfere in any way, you destroy it.... Let your characters have their way. Let your secret life be lived. Then at your leisure, in the succeeding weeks, months or years, you let the story cool off and then, instead of rewriting, you RELIVE IT. If you try to rewrite, which is a cold exercise, you'll wind up with all kinds of Band-Aids on your story, which people can see."

Thanks, Ray. When I read your work that's exactly the impression I get, that your incredible imagination has been frolicking around in the fields and having fun. And by the way, thank you for The Illustrated Man, which was one of those life changing books you read as a kid. When I read that in junior high, I thought, Man, to be able to write that way someday…

Ah, I see that Henry David Thoreau, looking awfully good for a dead guy, has joined us. First thing out of his mouth is,

"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."

Right on, Dave. If there's nothing of value inside the writer, how can there be anything of value for the reader? And you can't buy value, like vowels on Wheel of Fortune. You have to earn it by living. Which makes me wonder about these packaged book contracts flowing to teenage novelists, like that girl at Harvard who, it turns out, copied somebody else's value and got caught. Reminds me of something I heard once, that a writer really doesn't have much to write about until he's 40. That may be a bit high, but there's something to it, I think. Live first; write second.

Here's Barnaby Conrad, the man who started the famous Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and a terrific writer himself. As he drags a chair over, he says,

"Remember, almost no writers had it easy when starting out. If they did, everyone would be a bestselling author. The ones who make it are the stubborn, persistent people who develop a thick skin, defy the rejection, and keep the material out there, trolling."

Boy, is that ever true, Barnaby. When I wrote my first screenplay, I thought it was a work of pure, natural genius. The first industry friend who read it said, "You don't have it." I first thought she meant I didn't have any talent (as some of my former criminal clients have averred). But she explained I didn't have it ON THE PAGE. I realized I had a big learning curve ahead of me.

I wrote six full length screenplays over the next two years or so, before I landed with a Hollywood agent and began getting anywhere. Before that, I almost broke a knuckle knocking on doors and getting them slammed in my puss.

Which is why Andre Dubus, who has brought his latte to our table, interjects,

"Don't quit. It's very easy to quit during the first ten years."

That catches the ear of another lawyer-turned-writer, George Bernau, who was busy typing at a neighboring table. Bernau, who wrote Promises to Keep and other novels, was a practicing attorney when he got into a car accident and almost died. In the hospital he took stock of his life, and, as he reminds us,

"I decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life."

If you have the God-given desire to write, then make the decision now that you'll write – strongly, passionately, with a commitment to your craft – and leave the results to Him. He will see to it that your words reach the hearts that need to hear it, whether the few or the many. There is no wasted effort in His economy.

And so the conversation continues…maybe you have a favorite writing quote you'd like to share. Or some wisdom you've acquired that has moved or inspired you. Go ahead, let us hear it. Pull up a chair. Just don't spill Ray's coffee.

James Scott Bell is the author of the bestselling suspense novel, Presumed Guilty (Zondervan) and the Christy Award finalist Glimpses of Paradise (Bethany House)

"The Suspense Never Rests"


At 12:27 AM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

I write because I must...And I leave the rest to God! All in His time!

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Wow, Jim, I feel like I was right there at Starbucks with you guys! Great conversation!

One of my favorite quotes is from Alice Hoffman: "It is the deepest desire of every writer, the one we never admit or even dare to speak of: to write a book we can leave as a legacy. And although it is sometimes easy to forget, wanting to be a writer is not about reviews or advances or how many copies are printed or sold. It is much simpler than that, and much more passionate. If you do it right, and if they publish it, you may actually leave something behind that can last forever."

Of course as a Christian writer, the legacy we have in mind is a little diffferent than what Hoffman was probably imagining, but the idea is the same.

Oh, that our writing might reflect His Word and change a life for eternity.

At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All stand. A couple of ladies are about to crash this male bonding party.

That's Lillian Hellman on the approach, and she looks darkly amused...

"If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talking about writing or themselves."

On the way out the door, her companion, Alice Munro, remarked just loudly enough for the boys in the back to hear: "Those fellows always want to complicate things, don't they? It's really so simple: you want in all cases for the story to get through the writing.
Let's get out of here before Papa Hemingway and Faulkner show up and start a brawl."

At 10:42 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

LOL, B.J. The guys do seem to be dominating the conversation, just like....guys. So I'm glad you're here, and also Brenda Ueland, author of "If You Want to Write." She says, "Work with all your intelligence and love....Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all the know-it-alls, critics, doubters."

At 5:30 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

Well, shoot. What could I possible add to that conversation?

Thanks, everyone, for sharing those. Now I'm going to make a copy and paste them on my computer. :o)

At 7:32 PM, Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

Well, I guess another guy quote won't hurt:

"My books are water. Those of the great geniuses are wine. Fortunately, everyone drinks water." --Mark Twain


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