My new pop-up newsletter: Perils of the Overworld

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, precise, and seductive. Sloan applies sentences like eyeliner; this book never blinks.

Furthermore, aren’t Karl Ove Knausgård’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

  • of the translators at the anime distributor Harmony Gold in the 1980s, challenged to come up with a story that would weave three totally disparate Japanese series into one, released in the U.S. under the title Robotech?
  • of Georges Simenon composing Maigret mysteries as a respite from his “literary” novels, cranking out a whole book in three days?
  • of the blogger squeezing in a post before lunch which will bring happiness to a thousand readers precisely because it is tossed off, not overthought and overwrought, not weighed down by “nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair”?

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 mythologies 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.

February 2020, Oakland


Really, the main thing to do here is sign up for my email newsletter. I try to make it feel like a note from a friend, and it’s easy to unsubscribe. Plus, there are occasionally … S E C R E T S