Shout for Joy
Comfort Across the Ages

Notes for Writers Young and Old

Annie Dillard, besides being a fine writer (think Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) has some wonderful suggestions for writers:

“Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go.” I’d add that you have to read everything you write out loud. Can you dance to it? If so, you have a keeper.

“Learn grammar. Get a grammar book and read it two or three times a year. (Struck and White is a classic.)” I’d add that the illustrated version is best.  See Spot run. Illustrated grammar. Omit needless words.

“Always locate the reader in time and space — again and again.” On August 7th she sat at her desk high in her room above campus, a single lined page in front of her, one ink blue word on the paper. She put down her pen, placed her palm on the window, savoring its cold, and watched the traffic light at the intersection beat out time as she remembered. Well, you get the point.

“Don’t write about yourself.” Bang. Annie get your gun. I second this. If you find yourself endlessly interesting, please don’t write about it. If you are that interesting, someone else will write about you. Wait for it.

“Never, never get yourself into a situation where you have nothing to do but write and read. You’ll go into a depression. You have to do something good for the world, something undeniably useful; you need exercise, too, and people.” Life is your research. Steal your experiences. Ride the bus sometime so you can write about it. Walk a different way home, so you can write about it. Meet someone. Learn something. So you can write about it. If you don’t live, you have nothing to say.

So that’s just five of the many Annie Dillard aphorisms. In her essay, “Notes for Young Writers,” there are many more. But here’s a few of my own. You can do them even if you don’t write.

Hold something. You have to use some discretion here. A smooth stone, a leaf, a gray cat, tree bark — holding something reminds you that writing starts with the particular, not the universal, with the concrete, not the abstract. Invert that rule and you become pedantic, boring.

End with a pithy sentence. My son rebelled against this exhortation, yet “pithy,” in addition to being a fun word to say (if you don’t spit with it), leaves the reader with a place to go without telling them what to think. I recommend it.

Don’t worry about what you going to say before you say it. Just begin. Begin with where you are, what you saw, what you heard, or what you read. Let it take you where it will. You can always back up and rework it.

Use round words. I mean words that you can swim around in. All thinking, Dorothy Sayers reminds us, is analogic, that is, we know the word’s meaning by reference to something else, but good writers use words that provide vivid or even multiple analogies. Renovate. Refuge. Pluperfect. Pimpernel. Scarlet. Scaffolding. Free associate. It’s fun.

And one more: Write something every day, even if it’s terrible. I mean really terrible. We need the discipline. You don’t have to (please don’t) share it.

So maybe you don’t write and don’t care to. Still, there’s one thing you can take to heart. Step away from the monitor, television screen, tablet, or smartphone and take something or someone in hand. Remind yourself what’s real. Whether writer, reader, or just human, we all need to wake up to life, need to savor the incarnate.

That's all.