Monday, August 1, 2011

Paul Greenberg on Writers' Conferences

I went to the Arkansas Writers Conference the other day to talk about writing.

Talk about writing? Rather defeats the purpose, doesn't it? Like driving somewhere to walk. Or attending a conference to learn how to pray in solitude.

But I accepted the invitation anyway. I had a few things I wanted to say about the tendency to teach writing as a process. Much like churning out pre-cast concrete, no doubt. Or producing a political speech that, you can tell, has been written by asking all the politician's advisers for their, to use another unfortunate term: input. Because that's the accepted process. As in processed cheese.

There's a reason Mr. Lincoln wrote his Gettysburg Address, and the ineffable Second Inaugural, alone. Writing should concentrate thought, not diffuse it.

But we live in the age of writing coaches. You find them everywhere:

•At corporate headquarters.

•At conventions of writers, which is an interesting concept in itself, considering what a solitary business writing is, or ought to be.

•Or, you can consult a writing coach on your own. ("Have a seat, Count Tolstoy, and let a real pro show you how it's done. First off, you'll want to foreshadow Anna Karenina's character rather than just throwing her into some messy Russian household, don't you think? And this Vronsky character, he's still a bit of a blank. Your reader's got to wonder what Anna ever saw in him. If you could just bring him out, give him some strong convictions, maybe make him a political activist seeking social justice. ... But on the whole your plot has great potential. There are real possibilities here. You work this thing just right, and you could have a ... screenplay!")

As with any other craft - such as restoring furniture or auto body work or shoe repair - there ought to be a way to teach writing. I used to think so - before I tried to do it once a week at the Little Rock branch of the University of Arkansas. I soon found out there's no teaching it, no way to turn out a writer who wasn't essentially one before he fell into my clutches.

No talent, no writer. Yes, given enough time and inexhaustible patience, we might be able to produce a wordsmith that way - but not a writer.

Some of the well-trained even might be able to pass for writers among the undiscerning. Often enough, I feel as if I'm passing for one. A fellow could dine out on that kind of adulation. I know.

I've found that those impressed by the wannabe writer, the writer manque, aren't worth impressing. Unless maybe they have a nice big grant to hand out.

The surest sign of a writer worth reading is that he's not much interested in talking about writing at conferences or workshops. Or anyplace else.

Talking is one thing, writing quite another.

Now and then, somebody will want to talk to me about this great idea he has for an article or a book, usually only vaguely. I make it a rule to do him a great favor. I tell him to just write it up instead. Write, don't talk about writing. Show, don't tell. That way, there'll be something on paper, or at least on the computer screen, to work with: actual, written words.

For a year to the day, I attended an hourlong editorial conference every weekday morning at the old Chicago Daily News, and watched good ideas talked away daily.

The Daily News was a great newspaper when it still had a fine corps of foreign correspondents and a local columnist named Mike Royko. He was so local, so Chicago, he was a national treasure. That's what having a sense of place will do for a columnist. Or for a real writer, a Faulkner, a Barry Hannah, a Walker Percy, an Ellen Gilchrist.

But how do you teach anybody a sense of place?

Short answer: You don't. You just stand aside and get out of the way when a Buddy Portis comes roaring by, or rather comes trotting by in the perfect 19th-century prose of his soul-daughter Mattie Ross out of Yell County, she of, and with, "True Grit."

Teach somebody to write like that? At a conference? In a classroom? At a writers' workshop?


Kingsley Amis, who should never go unmentioned when writers are discussed, once said that everything wrong about his post-war era could be summed up in one word: Workshop.

Maybe that's because so much talking is done in workshops, while writing - good writing, at least - is done alone.

Writers, like other dangerous criminals, should come to know solitary confinement. It does 'em a world of good. No wonder prisons have incubated the best political writing, certainly in Russia, whether under tsar or commissar. (No matter how much Russia changes, it remains Russia.)

There are certain words that let you know at once that the kind of writing they describe will be certifiably, professionally bad. Words that sound as if they came out of an industrial manual.

For excruciating example:


Raymond Carver said that once a writer starts talking about technique, you know he's out of ideas.

Writing is simple enough. All you need do is walk into a room, sit down - alone - and look at that blank page staring you in the face like a cobra.

Then it is time to face the most terrifying of audiences, the one that can see through your every trick: yourself.

This column is based on a talk to the Arkansas Writers Conference by Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


edpacht1 said...

I like this, I relate to it -- so much so, in fact, that I am tempted to swallow it whole, but that would be just as unproductive as would be a complete reliance on workshops and teachers. Yes, writing is a very personal thing. It's only effective if it is an expression of what the writer wants to (or, indeed, has to) say, and it is extremely rare for the writing of a group to be worth reading. There are exceptions: read the United States Constitution or the masterful translation of the King James Bible, both of these committee efforts. These are cases where a committee did splendid work, but such cases are rare. Good writing is usually the solitary production of a solitary writer.

However, writing, like storytelling, is never truly a solitary thing. It's communication, with a speaker (or writer) and an audience. It's done in language, and language is always a social thing, a tool for carrying thought from one person to another, and is always worked out by a society. A language is a set of tools, and one does, and must, learn how to use the tools one is given. There are techniques, tricks, if you will, by which language can be made to do what the writer wants it to do. Such devices work only if the reader/hearer understands them.

I personally hate workshops and avoid them, but, frankly, that makes sense only because I have a confidence that I know enough of the workings of the language and of the elements of storytelling that I can communicate well, AND because I have seen demonstration that I have actually communicated with readers. If no one told me that my writing is good, and no one told me what they did or did not like about it, I would not know that for sure, and I would not know how to improve.

Worshops and formal teachers can be a huge help or a terrible handicap -- but learning how to write and how to write better is essential if one is to be a writer. One simply has to find ways to do that.

And, though writing is done alone, and has to be, a good writer is very much aware of the presence of readers as he writes something for them to read.


Alice C. Linsley said...

I was sure that you would indeed relate to Greenberg on this. I attended writers' conferences when I was younger and I learned a few things about the publishing business, but not so much about the art and craft of writing. I heard John Updike speak at the Kent State Writers' Conference years ago. That was worth the price of admission. You would enjoy this piece by Updike:

I also met a terrific literary agent from New York, Peter Miller. I hope that he will look at my manuscript "Ten Myths about Abraham." The book should be ready by spring.