(Short answer: By writing)
By Brian Doyle
Is a question asked of me surprisingly often when I visit schools, which I much enjoy not only as part of my overarching subtle devious plan to get on the good side of the children who will soon run the world, but also for the consistent entertainment of their artlessly honest questions (the best ever: Is that your real nose?), and for the sometimes deeply piercing depth of our conversations; we have suddenly spoken of death and miracles and loss and love, while we were supposed to be talking about writing and literature; and I have wept in front of them, and they have wept in front of me; which seems to me a sweet gift, to be trusted that much.
But in almost every class I am asked how I became a writer, and after I make my usual joke about it being a benign neurosis, as my late friend George Higgins once told me, I usually talk about my dad. My dad was a newspaperman, and still is, at age 92, a man of great grace and patience and dignity, and he taught me immensely valuable lessons. If you wish to be a writer, write, he would say. There are people who talk about writing and then there are people who sit down and type. Writing is fast typing. Also you must read like you are starving for ink. Read widely. Read everything. Read the Bible once a year or so, ideally the King James, to be reminded that rhythm and cadence are your friends as a writer. Most religious writing is terrible whereas some spiritual writing is stunning. The New Testament in the King James version, for example.
Note how people get their voices and hearts and stories down on the page. Also get a job; eating is a good habit and you will never make enough of a living as a writer to support a family. Be honest with yourself about the size of your gift. Expect no money but be diligent about sending pieces out for publication. All money is gravy. A piece is not finished until it is off your desk and onto an editor’s desk. Write hard and then edit yourself hard. Look carefully at your verbs to see if they can be energized.
The best writers do not write about themselves but about everyone else. The best writers are great listeners. Learn to ask a question and then shut your mouth and listen. Use silence as a journalistic tool; people are uncomfortable with it and will leap to fill the holes, often telling you more than they wanted to. Women especially will do this. (Do not misuse this great secret, son.) Everyone has sweet sad brave wonderful stories; give them a chance to tell their stories. So many people do not get the chance. Listening is the greatest literary art. Your ears are your best tools. No one is dull or boring. Anyone who thinks so is an idiot.
Many fine writers do not get credit for the quality of their prose because they were famous for something else: Lincoln, for example. The best writing is witness. The lowest form of writing is mere catharsis. Persuasive writing generally isn’t. The finest writers in newspapers are often sports and police reporters. When in doubt about a line or a passage, cut it. All writing can be improved by a judicious editor, except the King James Bible, and even there we could stand to lose some of the Old Book, I think. (Don’t tell that to your mother.) Do not let writing be a special event; let it be a normal part of your day. It is normal. We are all storytellers and story-attentive beings. Otherwise we would never be loved or have a country or a religion. You do not need a sabbatical or a grant to write a book. Write a little bit every day. You will be surprised how deep the muck gets at the end of the year, but at that point you can cut out the dull parts, elevate your verbs, delete mere catharsis, celebrate witness, find the right title, and send it off to be published. Any questions?
This piece was reprinted with permission from The American Scholar.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel Mink River. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org.
For more from Brian Doyle and to read an excerpt from his new book, The Thorny Grace of It and Other Essays for Imperfect Catholics, visit the Patheos Book Club here.