Pensive Prowler #3 by Dmetri Kakmi
Shut Up and Write!
I’m sick of the professional writing industry and, by extension, the role a writer is expected to play in society.
On the one hand professional writing courses churn out automata without individual style, and on the other hand celebrated names are trotted out to utter trite phrases best left to high school students and self-help groups.
Here’s an example from a contemporary. ‘We should always be evolving and searching for ways to keep opening our sense of literary possibility. The hope is that we will find expression of the full scope of our lives in fiction.’
There’s two sentences too many in that earth-shattering pronouncement. Whoever it was that said, ‘If it’s worth saying it’s worth saying briefly’ obviously didn’t shout loud enough for this fount of wisdom. We might add that if you have nothing to say, remain silent. Don’t blather. Leave room for solitary contemplation, a writer’s true luxury in these distracted times.
The problem is that platitudes like the above are flung at regular intervals before starry eyed hopefuls like fodder to sheep. They in turn rush to join writing classes, convinced of their inalienable right to express themselves and to be heard. There to create more vapidity. And on it goes in a never-ending cycle.
Harsh, I know. But I speak from experience. I’ve been at the coal face of writing and publishing for most of my life. As such, I can tell you that most people who seek the aid of an editor or a manuscript assessor don’t need an editor or a manuscript assessment. They need to learn how to write. They need to learn how to construct a sentence; they need to learn how words chime when placed next to each other; they need to learn about punctuation; and they need to learn how to present a manuscript.
If all this sounds trivial, a handmaiden to all-important story, think again. A display of these crucial elements puts out a clear signal. It tells a publisher how serious you are as a writer. How seriously you take yourself as a professional who shows pride in your craft; and, more importantly, if a manuscript shows promise but doesn’t yet come up to scratch, you have the wherewithal to work with an editor to make it work.
Most people who submit manuscripts for assessment don’t even know how story works. They don’t know how to construct scenes that move the narrative forward; they don’t know how to introduce characters and how to develop them; they don’t know how to write concise dialogue, or how chapters operate as individual units and how chapters function within the overall framework. I won’t even mention having an individual voice or style. And yet they’ve written a 1120 page magnum opus that has the loopy logic and halting flow of a Donald Trump speech.
It makes me wonder what they learn at all those amazing writing courses they attend. If they’ve attended one. A number people I’ve worked with don’t even read. Why? Because there’s nothing out there that appeals. How do they know if they don’t read?
One student told me his novel will be better than ‘anything Nabokov ever wrote.’ And he hadn’t written anything yet. When pressed on the question of the great Russian, the champ admitted never having read Nabokov because ‘Lolita is child porn.’
One can only despair because, ultimately, you learn to write by reading. Lots. And then you augment that by writing. Lots.
It’s rare for new writing to hit you between the eyes, to leave you breathless and to make you feel as if you’ve been shot out of a cannon. It’s even more uncommon for that writer to have the nous to keep silent and let the book do the talking. That is after all what writing is about. Writing is communication. If the writer has to explain and answer at gab fests, the book has failed. And if the book hasn’t failed, everything else is sound and fury. It’s marketing.
Nowadays it’s not enough to write. A writer must be an intellectual, a stand-up comic, a sparkling personality. A book is no longer a book. It’s a ‘product’ that must move X number of units to justify existence. An author must have a ‘brand’. I tell you if I hear one more writer say they’re going to see their publisher about developing their ‘brand’, I will run screaming for hills that have pick axes in their eyes.
Oh, for the silence of the writer!
So few understand that the art of shutting up is paramount. Withdrawal to the mind’s private citadel affords the greatest luxury a writer can hope for: calm, peace of mind to work on the next novel, short story, poem or essay. The work that comes out of deepest self and not from Twitter.
That’s why I love Australian author Gerald Murnane. He’s written twelve novels in forty years.
Readership is as low as acclaim is high. Public sightings are as rare as truffles on a Detroit kitchen table, and he does not travel outside his home state. He rarely appears at gab fests, he is not a social media sensation and the only time he makes a controversial statement is very likely when he judges the local yabby competition in the town of Goroke, where he lives. Perfect!
Murnane, I feel sure, has taken very much to heart Dorothy Parker’s dictum: ‘Hold your pen and save your voice.’
For me the ideal writer should not speak. He or she should be a silent watcher, lingering at the edges, like Nosferatu, and giving everyone the shivers. Not one word ought to come out of the mouth. Rather every thought ought to be put on paper and transmitted to the world, without once emerging through the natural vocal facilities. Because to understand silence is to understand how words work.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.