Friday, May 4, 2012

On Being a Writer

I've always wanted to be a writer.  I mean for me there are three goals:
1. To be good (and this applies to wife-and-motherhood and the Sermon on the Mount and everything)
2. To be funny (this is inexplicably extremely important to me)
3. To be a writer
I also want to be a good cook and a good party planner but to a lesser degree.

I am both full of admiration and full of flat-out hatred for Mormon women from Utah Valley who are my age who went to BYU and who suddenly write best-selling novels about goose girls and vampires. There's only supposed to be one of us, and it's me, guys!

Except I haven't written anything. Oh, yes, there's my blog. But that isn't the same. Blogs are fantastic and a ton of fun and great practice, but they aren't writing in my opinion.

So what's stopping me? Oh, just the feelings of crippling inadequacy as a result of all the amazing books I wish I had written. Influence is a killer, baby. I would love to write the ultimate story of good vs evil, but hello, J.K. Rowling already did that. I'd love to write a beautiful story about friendship and love against a Nazi Germany backdrop, all narrated by Death himself. But too late. It's already been done.

Every time I think about writing something, I am paralyzed by my own expectations. It has to be the most amazing, life-altering, Great American Novel ever written! No wonder I stick to top ten lists on my blog. It's way easier.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about good writing. What are the qualities of it? How can you tell when something is well written? I know taste in books and writing is subjective, but I still think there are some universal characteristics of good writing that defy genre. Here are a few in my opinion, and of course I can't claim expertise on this subject. It's just something I have been trying to articulate:

1. Good writing seems effortless. It's not flowery, overflowing with metaphors. When you read it, it feels like the author didn't labor over it, even if she spent hours composing a single sentence.  Which camp are you in, the Tom Sawyer camp, with its romantical ideals, floweriness, and mysticism, or the Huck Finn camp, with its practicality, straightforwardness, and heart? I prefer Huck Finn myself.

2. Good writers are not self-promoting. They come from a place of humility. They just don't come across as pretentious. Good writers have the courage to be self-effacing.

3. Good writers say more by what isn't mentioned than by what is mentioned. There's a balance between what is written on the page and what is read between the lines.

4.  Good writers know that there is a moral to every story, but they don't moralize. They trick you into learning something, but not in a way that makes you feel tricked.

5. Good writing is unusual, unexpected, and refreshing. It isn't full of cliches (or worse, misunderstood or wrongly-worded cliches).

6. Good writing can function in the absence of a gripping story, i.e., a good writer can make a trip across the street interesting and a bad writer can turn a crazy adventure into a boring one.  But when you combine a really good story with really good writing, the results are really spectacular.

7. Good writers don't use words like really too much. They also don't use the word weep and they shun exclamation points. Also, and this is a pet peeve of mine, they don't say "padded" to refer to a person walking barefoot across a hard floor. I HATE "padded." But that's me.

8. Good writers don't spend too much time describing unnecessary things so that the reader gets all bogged down trying to imagine flying buttresses and stanchions and ropes, etc. Sometimes I hate having to imagine.  (This is part of the reason why I hated Atonement).

9. Good writing is about people. It may be about people in a post-apocalyptic world, or people trying to solve a crime, or people at a school of witchcraft and wizardry. But it's always about people.

10. Good writing is also about good and evil. It takes on lots of different forms and can be specific or general. But there is always that tension. I think any writer who resists this universal theme is kidding himself and will end up writing a novel with characters nobody likes (Atonement).

You can see why I may never bite the bullet and try to do any real writing. It's too hard! Too nuanced. Too complex. Maybe I will leave it to those other Utah Valley-ites whom I both admire and hate.  Or I could self-publish my blog. I have written 356 posts. That's long enough to be a novel--a really incomplete, slightly boring novel. Maybe I'm not so different from those Utah Valley ladies? Kidding! I'm just jealous.

You know what they say, those who can't do it, write top ten lists about it.


  1. Padded is a totally ridiculous word. I feel the same way.

  2. I concur. And I didn't like Atonement either.

  3. I read a really good short story by Alice Munro and the only thing that happened was a man who loved chopping wood sprained his ankle and crawled back to his pick up truck and he and his wife had a good laugh.