Love and Squalor

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?

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9 Responses to Love and Squalor

  1. Emily Gilman says:

    I’m curious what you do or don’t count as writing. I don’t do “serious” writing (stories, papers, blog entries) as often as I should, but I do a *lot* of e-mailing and IM-ing (and probably actually more academic writing than I think I do). For example, copying the transcript of a conversation from last night into my word processor and doing the word count, it comes in at 6,029 words. Assuming only half of those are mine and that maybe a third of them are actually my screen name or timestamps, that’s still a couple thousand words.

    Similarly, how does revising enter into this? That IM conversation is a lot of words but they’re not necessarily good ones, or carefully thought out. (As it happens at least parts of it are, but that’s because we were discussing word choice in a current story draft.) On the other hand revisions don’t necessarily result in a lot of new words but they usually result in better ones, and better sentences, and better whole stories/essays/e-mails/what-have-yous. Would you consider that part of writing, or is that a separate “muscle” that needs its own exercises?

    (According to my word processor, this comment alone is a couple hundred words.)

  2. Nathan says:

    This is an excellent list. I especially like number five.

  3. rushmc says:

    Great post, although I am not a fan of Salinger (to say the least). I’ll add a Faulkner quote, though: “Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

    (BTW, the contact email address you list is bouncing mail.)

  4. I count writing stories, essays (which is what blog posts really are, short essays), anything creative. I count my academic writing as well. I don’t count writing emails or other personal communications. I think I can feel the difference between the writing that counts and that kind of writing: in an email, I’m not using the same creative mental muscles. And you’re right, I don’t count revising, although it probably should count in some way. Basically, a lot of those 1000 words, right now, are blog posts. I use them as warm-up, the way a ballet dancer would use a class. (Professional ballet dancers take a class every day.)

    Nick, I remember when that story came out. I haven’t read it, but I’m about to. 🙂

    Thanks, rushmc! I’ve had problems with that before, and will change it.

  5. Haddayr says:

    It is my single favorite story of forever and everywhere and always.

    As the full-time employed disabled mother of two — one of whom is relentlessly time- and energy-consuming — I have gotten myself caught, tripped, trampled, and squashed by #3.

    I finally decided not to let it worry me, and to change it to “write when I can,” without feeling utterly helpless in the face of my lack of time. And when I freed myself from the thought that I had to do that to be a “real writer,” I started getting published, and I wrote two novels.

  6. Bob Devney says:

    Wonderful essay. Your ambition leaves us a little breathless, I think, precisely because those of us who have read your work know that you may well have the talent to attain it.

    You’re not alone, either. Here’s a bit from a fanzine I used to do (The Devniad, this is from issue 70C) where I quote something similar said by SF satirist William Tenn (Philip Klass) at Boskone in 2001. First me, then Tenn talking about Forster, then Tenn talking about himself:

    [Tenn does us the great compliment of taking his
    field —- and his audience —- very seriously,
    uttering one of the most breathtaking things I’ve
    ever heard a writer say]

    E. M. Forster was on a BBC radio
    interview many years ago. He was asked
    the question, why do you write? He said
    first, “For money” … which upset the
    interviewer very much.

    … And he said, “Today I write to win
    the respect of those I respect. To begin with,
    Homer. Possibly Aeschylus.”

    … So in that regard, in my own case I’d
    mention Swift, Voltaire, Aristophanes. If I
    had the feeling that one of their shades
    would nod a little bit at something I’ve done

  7. I think every writer has to find his or her own way. Haddayr, as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been phenomenally productive. 🙂 I do like the idea of meeting the shades of the writers I admire, someday. I’ll be the Austen fangirl, and she’ll be like, WHAT did you do with my story?

  8. #5 = yes! Exactly that. I aspire to write as wonderfully as my writing heroes, but when I say that people either:

    1) Think I am crazy.
    2) Think I am being too ambitious.
    3) Think I am being somehow falsely modest (like, maybe I scretly believe I already AM that good and just want to be told it).

    It makes me sad. And a little angry.

    I am so far from the vision I hold of myself as a writer, that I could honestly cry. But I keep writing and I’ll keep learning – we have to! My first novel just came out and, already, I find find myself unable to re-read it because I can see all the faults; all my weaknesses. I hope to improve with each new project, I really do.

    Thank you for this post! Sorry to write such a long comment – I’ve been lurking for a while, now. 🙂

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