Category Archives: Lessons from Great Writers

Paul Theroux's Writing Method


I don’t carry electronic apparatus. I don’t have a tape recorder. I don’t have a computer. I write everything in longhand, and I usually write it twice. I write it during the day in a small notebook and at night I expand it in a larger notebook. For 40 years that’s what I’ve done. And then when I get home I type it out. I used to use a typewriter, now I use a computer. But it’s all written, hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes, some of which I use, others not.

– Paul Theroux via National Geographic

The Bother of Writing is Totally Worth It

I’ve been playing at being a writer for nearly thirty years, which seems like a very long time. But whenever I begin to wonder if I will ever get tired of the bother of being a writer, I find myself writing once more and falling in love all over again.

It’s a bother to be a writer, but it’s totally worth it.

The Bother of Writing

A.A. Milne knew more than a little about the bother of being a writer. He was the creator of Christopher Robin, the Hundred Acre Wood, and Winnie the Pooh. This is what we remember of his work, but he wrote for nearly fifty years in total. Twenty-five before the bear and roughly twenty-five after, until he was finally hobbled by a stroke.

Still, no matter what Milne tried the critics always came back around to the boy and the bear. It was something he took quite poorly by all accounts, but he kept on writing.

From Milne’s essay, “The Ideal Author”:

The truth is that a layman will never take an author quite seriously. He regards authorship, not as a profession, but as something between an inspiration and a hobby. In as far as it is an inspiration, it is a gift from Heaven, and ought, therefore, to be shared with the rest of the world; in as far as it is a hobby, it is something which should be done not too expertly, but in a casual, amateur, haphazard fashion.

Even Then He Knew…

Milne had no choice. I assume the same is true for you too.

Most of us who “become writers” have always been writers. No matter what else we do we remain such creatures all our natural lives.

From Milne’s story, “The Sunny Side”:

There, just inside the gates, was Mary. He was only six, but even then he knew that never would he see again anything so beautiful. She was five; but there was something in her manner of holding herself and the imperious tilt of her head which made her seem almost five-and-a-half.

“I’m Mary,” she said.

He wanted to say that he was John, but could not. He stood there tongue-tied.

“I love you,” she went on.

His heart beat tumultuously. He felt suffocated. He longed to say, “So do I,” but was afraid that it was not good English. Even then he knew that he must be a writer when he grew up.

She leant forward and kissed him. He realized suddenly that he was in love. The need for self-expression was strong upon him. Shyly he brought out his last acid-drop and shared it with her. He had never seen her since, but even now, twenty years after, he could not eat an acid-drop without emotion, and a whole bag of them brought the scene back so visibly as to be almost a pain.

Yes, he was to be a writer; there could be no doubt about that. Everybody had noticed it. The Vicar had said, “Johnny will never do any good at Polwollop, I fear”; and the farmer for whom John scared rooks had said, “Thiccy la-ad seems daft-like,” and one after another of Mrs. Penquarto’s friends had given similar testimony. And now here he was, at twenty-six, in the little bed-sitting-room in Bloomsbury, ready to write the great novel which should take London by storm. Polwollop seemed a hundred years away.

Feverishly he seized pen and paper and began to wonder what to write.

Writing Through the Bother

Being stuck in the bother of being a writer is particularly troublesome if we should find ourselves in some other line of work. Even if the work is pleasant and the pay substantial, we are nagged by the idea of writing night and day till we set down to do it. Then, we find ourselves paralyzed by the excitement and the fear.

This rush of adrenaline coupled with stirrings of old ideals becomes the ruin of many attempts to write. The writer fears they may fail. They fear they may become a success. They fear many things, but they often fear is that they will have to return to the real world.

And often, they are right on all accounts, but it hardly matters. Fears, real or imagined, are still there but the pleasure of writing cannot be denied. It’s worth all the bothers.

Trust me… Just write and you’ll see.

From Milne’s essay, “The Pleasure of Writing”:

Sometimes when the printer is waiting for an article which really should have been sent to him the day before, I sit at my desk and wonder if there is any possible subject in the whole world upon which I can possibly find anything to say. On one such occasion I left it to Fate, which decided, by means of a dictionary opened at random, that I should deliver myself of a few thoughts about goldfish.

But to-day I do not need to bother about a subject. Today I am without a care. Nothing less has happened than that I have a new nib in my pen!

OThis post was originally published on Medium…

What It's Like to be Rejected by Charles Dickens

While looking through the collected letters of Charles Dickens, I came across a rejection letter Mr. Dickens wrote to an anonymous author.

The letter came as a result of this author’s submission to “All the Year Round”, a weekly published by Mr. Dickens for a great many years until he handed over the enterprise to his son (Charles Jr.). During it’s publication run, the magazine distributed the works of a great many authors in serial form. No doubt this anonymous scrivener sought to join their storied ranks by sending along his three-part manuscript.

I really wish the author had been identified in the book. I’m sort of dying to see how their fortunes turned upon receiving this letter from Mr. Dickens.

In any case, I’ve kept you waiting long enough already. So, without further ado:

Office of “All the Year Round,” Tuesday, Feb. 5th, 1867.

Dear Sir,

I have looked at the larger half of the first volume of your novel, and have pursued the more difficult points of the story through the other two volumes.

You will, of course, receive my opinion as that of an individual writer and student of art, who by no means claims to be infallible.

I think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt. Evidences of inexperience in every way, and of your power being far below the situations that you imagine, present themselves to me in almost every page I have read. It would greatly surprise me if you found a publisher for this story, on trying your fortune in that line, or derived anything from it but weariness and bitterness of spirit.

On the evidence thus put before me, I cannot even entirely satisfy myself that you have the faculty of authorship latent within you. If you have not, and yet pursue a vocation towards which you have no call, you cannot choose but be a wretched man. Let me counsel you to have the patience to form yourself carefully, and the courage to renounce the endeavor if you cannot establish your case on a very much smaller scale. You see around you every day, how many outlets there are for short pieces of fiction in all kinds. Try if you can achieve any success within these modest limits (I have practised in my time what I preach to you), and in the meantime put your three volumes away.

Faithfully yours.

P.S.—Your MS. will be returned separately from this office.

I have to say that I’ve received a great many rejection letters in my time, some from famously blunt editors. Never have I received anything quite like this… But I wish I had.

A letter like this leaves no room for interpretation. The author has utterly failed in every sense of the word. Not only is the work, as submitted, below even an unsatisfactory grade it leaves the impression that there may be no hope at all of redemption. However, Mr. Dickens does not simply allow his dismissal of the work to shuffle the author off the stage. He goes on to question the author’s heart and commitment to the craft itself, leaving scarce hope that the author may be redeemed (though there is a faint chance).

A letter of this sort is bound to cause one of two reactions: utter despair culminating in abandonment of the craft, or a redoubling of efforts resulting in a breakthrough. For me, I think it is the latter though the former is certainly the first reaction I had.

Nearly 150 years after the fact, I can’t help but hear the words of Mr. Dickens directed at my own works. I cannot help but feel I am playing the role of the wretched man to which he alludes.

Assuming they are honest, what writer could say they feel otherwise? We’ve all been there. We’ve all worked hard to create something we felt was perfect and beautiful only to see it later, though the eyes of another, as a catalyst for weariness and bitterness of spirit (to borrow a phrase).

Still, there is a hope. There is the faithful closure to the letter and the brutal honesty in which to seek comfort. There is a sense that if one begins by aiming lower, one might acquire the skills to dare for something more grand.

This is really what writing comes down to. It’s a battle in the trenches, a successive piling on of failures, until at some point there is a breakthrough or better yet a real understanding of what one is trying to achieve and sense of how to reach that destination.

Keep writing.

No, it's called a "book"… (i.e. The Hunger Games Success is not due to Social Media)

I’m sort of slack-jawed at this post by John Furrier on How A Startup Powered Hunger Games Into A Global Social Phenomenon – A Money Machine.

The central idea of this post is that the success of the Hunger Games movie is based on perceptions of the film in social media. Furthermore, there is one particular startup that is responsible for making this possible.


There’s really no other way to put it, and obviously I’m not the only one who found this ludicrous.

Comment from Liam Flemming:

Seriously? So a book that spent 100 weeks on the NYTimes bestseller list before September 2010 and had a viral buzz for years was turned into a blockbuster and social media is supposed to get credit? I would say traditional media had a much, much larger role in this movie to the point that it was getting overhyped. US Weekly and E! were covering every single cast pick 18 months ago non stop because the BOOK was billed as the new Harry Potter and Twilight. Once again Social Media trying to take credit for a good product that people care about. “People were social about a terrific product which they love!” oh what a surprise.

What’s really amazing is that Mr. Furrier is sticking to his central thesis while getting chomped to pieces in the comments:

My point and article was a “startup helped” it not was the sole reason. Yes the book was a success and that was the core “driver” in it’s success. In the marketing world they call that “an activated” audience. The social media formula leveraged that and then the studio used that data to tweak their marketing promotional plans to align with and satisfy those fans and loyal “Hunger Games” activists. In other words the studio didn’t “blow it” and instead “maximized the experience” for all.

Mr. Furrier either needs to adjust his alcohol intake while writing. In other words, if he’s drinking while writing he should stop and if he’s not drinking then he really ought to consider picking up the habit.

The Hunger Games is a success because it is a damn fine BOOK. The movie is a success because Suzanne Collins is a fine author who cares about her characters and the stories they have to tell.

The Old Man and the Tweet

WIRED has a post about what Hemingway would think of the Internet. The author is a little young to be writing about Hemingway. He’s not even 30, but if you read his bio you’ll see that it’s really just tongue in cheek (or rather some other body cavity) humor he’s after.

It’s unfortunate though. With a little effort, the author could have taken a fluff plug for his new book and turned it into something poignant. He could have sliced off about half of his monologue intro, dropped into the fairly predictable jokes quickly and then discussed what an older Papa would have been like on the Internet. He could have done that, but he’s really not that sort of writer.

You might think I’m being a little harsh here, but let’s consider that the author just published a sensationalist book lampooning a man on the 50th anniversary of his suicide. That’s just a wee bit crass, don’t you think?

So rather than complain about this piece further, let’s really examine what might Hemingway do on the Internet. Of course, we must select a Hemingway and there are so many from which to choose…

Are we talking about a young Hemingway on the battlefield? Say, a medic in Iraq or Afghanistan? A couch-surfing Hemingway learning his writing trade in the virtual expat community of Gawker and HuffPo stringers? An adventure junkie Hemingway flinging himself off mountains in wingsuits or war reporting in Africa?

“Those the world will not break it kills. The good, the gentle, and the brave. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too.”

Or maybe we have a Hemingway who’s best days are far, far behind him. A Hemingway bypassed by the world, whose last novel was a disaster. This Hemingway, the author of Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), would have a very different approach to the Internet.

“Sure they can say nothing happens in Across the River, all that happens is the taking of Paris …plus a man who loves a girl and dies.”

The author who finished The Old Man and the Sea would have something very different to say. That Hemingway called in favors from every corner of the literary world to get his name pushed to the top of the Nobel ballot. One can only imagine the endless flow of tweets and Facebook posts pushing for acceptance and visibility culminating in his inevitable acceptance speech.

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. A writer does his work alone and if good enough he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

But then, at the end of his life, we are left with a very different sort of Hemingway. This Hemingway could no longer bring his mind to craft particularly good sentences, let alone the great ones he demanded from himself. This Hemingway was slipping into mental illness, dementia, and paranoia (which may have had roots in fact as well). What sort of Internet presence would the author at the end of his life have? Would he be the Charlie Sheen of his day? Ranting like a madman, setting up town hall shows to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the torpedo of truth?

“It’s the worst hell. The goddamnedest hell. They’ve bugged everything. Everything’s bugged. Can’t use the phone. Mail intercepted.”

Then we come to the very end and perhaps in a moment of lucid realization he would dash off one final thought…

“He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on.”