I’ve been writing about all sorts of things related to writing. I thought I’d better write about writing itself.
The title of this post comes from the J.D. Salinger short story “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor.”
Have you read it? It’s one of his most famous short stories. It’s told by a soldier who is training in England, in World War II. One day he walks into a church and listens to a children’s choir practicing. He notices the best singer, a girl. Later, he is sitting in a tearoom when she, her brother, and her nurse walk in. (I’m doing this from memory, so correct me if I make any mistakes.)
Her name is Esmé, her brother’s name is Charles. She is a self-possessed young lady with a vocabulary that is not quite under her control – she uses words that don’t quite mean what she things they mean in an effort to be sophisticated. But she’s charming, an attractive character. Her brother, who is younger, is a typical little boy. Their nurse tries to get them away from the soldier, but they pay no attention to her. Their father has died in the war, their mother is somewhere, I don’t remember where. But it’s obvious that Esmé is used to giving orders and looking after Charles. When Esmé learns that the solider is a writer, she asks him to write her a story. She asks him to put a lot of squalor into it. It’s obvious that she doesn’t quite understand the word. Before she and Charles leave with their nurse, she asks the soldier for his address so she can write to him.
The scene shifts, and the solider who is narrating the story tells us that this is the part with the squalor in it. The war has ended. It’s obvious that there’s something deeply wrong with the soldier, that he’s seen terrible things. But he finds a letter from Esmé, a letter that has taken a long time to reach him. Reading that letter is almost like reading a letter from another world, where there are still children, and there is still innocence, and there is still a future. And it saves him – suddenly, instead of the terrible insomnia he’s been feeling, he feels sleepy. And you know that he’s going to be all right.
It’s a wonderfully written story, strong and clear. And my point today is that without that, without the wonderful writing, none of the rest of it matters.
If you’re a writer, your first duty, a duty you owe to yourself and your readers, and to your writing itself, is to become wonderful. To become the best writer you can possibly be.
Now that I’ve written that, I feel obligated to suggest some ways to actually do it, to become a wonderful writer. I think everyone becomes a wonderful writer differently. But here, at least, are some ideas.
1. Read a lot. But read as a writer, to see how other writers are doing it. And make your knowledge of literature in English as deep and broad as you can. In workshops, writers are often told to read what is being written now, but if that is all you read, you are limiting yourself. You need to get a good overall sense of English literary history, so you can write out of that knowledge.
2. Learn as much as you can. Take every opportunity to learn about writing, whether it’s through classes, workshops, whatever is available to you. This may be difficult, because things like classes, workshops, writing programs, require time and money. But I say this honestly and somewhat harshly – if you’re not willing to prioritize your writing, perhaps you should do something else?
3. Write all the time. I believe in writing every day, at least a thousand words a day. We have a strange idea about writing: that it can be done, and done well, without a great deal of effort. Dancers practice every day, musicians practice every day, even when they are at the peak of their careers – especially then. Somehow, we don’t take writing as seriously. But writing – writing wonderfully – takes just as much dedication.
4. Accept criticism. If you do not offer your work for criticism and accept that criticism, meaning give it serious thought and attention, then you will never improve.
5. Be ambitious. Try to be as good as you can, to improve your craft, to become a master of your art. Push yourself to be better, do not rest on what you have done before or what comes easily. If you tell a group of writers, and specifically science fiction and fantasy writers, that you want to be as good as Salinger, as Jane Austen, as Jorge Luis Borges, they may look at you strangely. I know, because I’ve gotten that look before. It’s as though you’ve told them you’re aiming too high, wanting too much. But why shouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t you take the best writers as your models? Why shouldn’t you want to write as well as Virginia Woolf? With fairies.
I think what I’ve said can be encapsulated in four words:
Engage fully. Be relentless.
I write all this because there’s so much information out there now about how writers can succeed. A great deal on marketing, social media, that sort of thing. And I do think all of that is important. I do.
But if the writing isn’t wonderful, what’s the point?