Writing and lightness

Robin Rendle, he of the world’s best-designed per­sonal web­site, is read­ing Stephen King’s book of writing advice, and he is wondering:

“Am I taking this seri­ously enough?” I ask myself. You know, ~this~; the words and the typing, the becoming-a-writer-slowly-over-time thing. I put pen to paper maybe a cou­ple of times a week but do I spend hours a day writ­ing in hopes of being not only good at this thing, but great?

He asks him­self this after encoun­ter­ing the fol­low­ing chal­lenge from King:

You can approach the act of writ­ing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair — the sense that you can never com­pletely put on a page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly.

A bit fur­ther down, King wants to make sure we understand:

But it’s writ­ing, damn it, not wash­ing the car or putting on eyeliner.

But of course: I’d love to read a book writ­ten the way a per­son puts on eyeliner. Doesn’t that sound fascinating? The blurb writes itself:

The Mirror’s Tale is con­fi­dent and precise. Sloan applies sen­tences like eyeliner; this book never blinks.

Furthermore, aren’t Karl Ove KnausgĂĄrd’s books, in some sense, the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of wash­ing the car?

Here’s what I want to say: every way of writing can work, and every rea­son for writ­ing can work.

I think often of the kids’ car­toons of the 1980s, Transformers and He-Man and all the rest. These were pure com­mer­cial art: writ­ers given an inven­tory of toys — already designed and, in some cases, manufactured — and instructed: “Come up with a story that con­nects and explains these characters.”

The result­ing tele­plays were not “lit­er­ary,” but they were successful, and I don’t just mean com­mer­cially. They worked, as sto­ries and as art. And now, of course, they’re beloved, not least for their ramshackle I’m-doing-the-best-I-can-here energy, which they couldn’t have acquired any other way.

So why not write with the lightness

I don’t mean to pick on a stray paragraph. It’s just that you encounter this so often: the insis­tence that writ­ing should be difficult, serious, painful. Blood on the page, all that. For many writ­ers, it’s a key part of their mythol­ogy of themselves.

And writ­ing can be, very often is, all those things; so it’s not wrong.

It’s just incomplete, because writ­ing can also be fun, matter-of-fact, rushed, bonkers, com­mer­cial, crass — and totally successful. Anything can work. Not every­thing does! But the gates of the city are wide open and there are a thou­sand ways in.

Against Stephen King and his “come to it any way but lightly” I will set the great Italo Calvino who, in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium from 1988 — the first of them cel­e­brat­ing light­ness—wrote:

Were I to choose an aus­pi­cious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sud­den agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises him­self above the weight of the world, show­ing that with all his grav­ity he has the secret of light­ness, and that what many con­sider to be the vital­ity of the times — noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring — belongs to the realm of death, like a ceme­tery for rusty old cars.

March 2020, Oakland