Famous Authors From Famous

Authors Famous

“Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
–Will Rogers

If you’re a writer who pays any amount of attention to the Internet (and how can you not be?), then you, like me, are no doubt regularly bombarded with advice: “37 Brutal But Eye-Opening Tips from Famous Authors, ” “Jack London’s Writing Advice, ” “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” It seems not a day goes by that I don’t find one or more of these headlines in my feed. Yes, of course, I could ignore the links, or stay off social media altogether, but often enough I find myself signing in and clicking through—because who doesn’t hope occasionally for some brilliant blast of insight, some perfect kick in the ass?—only to be left strangely deflated by the advice I’ve just received. In fact, I’ve come to suspect that the likelihood of these pearls of wisdom stymieing a writer—aspiring or otherwise—is quite a bit greater than the chance of their helping her at all.

Take this gem, upon which I recently stumbled:

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

–Kurt Vonnegut

At a coffee shop in Chicago, I once served a bagel to Kurt Vonnegut; that’s possibly the high point of my many years waiting tables. He seemed to me a nice person—twinkly, grandfatherly—and I’d very recently read and loved Slaughterhouse Five. That said, WTF? Putting aside the problematic politics of this (ok, dated) statement: Semicolons do serve, you know, a purpose (c.f., Claire Messud: “For those of us whose thoughts digress; for whom unexpected juxtapositions are exhilarating rather than tiresome; who aim, if always inadequately, to convey life’s experience in some semblance of its complexity—for such writers, the semi-colon is invaluable”), while most of the best books I’ve encountered indeed read as if their author went to college (Virginia Woolf’s, for example, who never did). Even if Vonnegut’s just being funny (and he isn’t just being funny, or even . . . funny) it’s not at all hard to imagine a legion of young Vonnegut fans becoming smug about semi-colons for the rest of their lives, and about writers who use semi-colons, and for what?

If that one’s too silly, here’s one that at least sounds closer to sane:
“Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”

–Elmore Leonard

Advice often robs us of the things we love. This advice, for example, might rob us of a writer like Georges Perec, who goes into such great detail in his Life: A User’s Manual, with its “meticulous descriptions of all the objects in each of the rooms of a seven-storey block of flats in Paris . . . surely a device permitting or more probably requiring the use of every word in the Grand Larousse dictionary, ” as David Bellos, the book’s translator, describes it. And what of Woolf and her gorgeous “Kew Gardens” (“From the oval shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour”), so thick with visual description it seems almost to become a garden itself?

There’s this:

“A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.”

–V.S. Naipaul

Or this:

“Include a beautiful woman with raven locks and porcelain skin, preferably quite young, and let her die tragically of some unknown ailment.”

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