There are things I take so for granted that I've come to realize, basic as they are to me, the givens, if you will, of my life, ranging back to a young age, would seldomly occur to anyone else. When Jim Bouton burst upon the baseball scene with the Yankees, he had no idea he had excellent control because he could put the ball within six inches of where he wished it to go. It was only when he was around other pitchers and the coaching staff, that he realized he was damn near a pinpoint guy.
Writing well breaks down into many things. The variables of language are endless. Writing well is different than writing artfully. The former is concerned with clarity; the latter is as well, but what you're doing when you write artfully is revealing the essence of human nature and human life--and sometimes more than that--to your reader, such that they grasp--or at least feel--the answers behind mysteries that may not have even known existed. You provide them with this "I get it now," moment; it may be fleeting, and they won't be able to reproduce it with their own words. But you have shown them how life truly functions.
Very few people have ever known how life truly functions. To write artfully, you need those "answers," if you will, and then you must put them in an entertaining form--or I believe, anyway--that immerses the reader. You cannot lecture at the reader, you must show; you must take them there. You have the eyes, but it's like implanting your eyes behind their eyes so that they can see for themselves.
You may be able to write a crisp sentence. But the chance of you also having this insight is virtually nil. One in a trillion. I don't know what the odds are. Writing for clarity is different, and that's also hard. To simply be clear is hard. Think about how when we're with someone, we gesture, we strain, we make shapes with our hands as our arms wave about. We're struggling to be clear.
But a writer is helped massively in either pursuit by the volume of what they absorb and learn which they will think has nothing to do with writing. I wrote a story other day, and the first person narrator--in this story not about music--makes a point about what a music critic said regarding Chopin, how his music was tantamount to cannons buried under flower beds. In this same story, there's a riff on what Dylan told the Band at Woodstock in 1967; within the narrative, this goes far beyond a music reference, and almost ceases to become one. Later we will see the couple at the story's heart--albeit at the heart art the close of the story--in the kitchen, as the song "Sante Fe" plays and they make breakfast together. There's a geographical aside that the narrator makes, which says so much about how they choose to live their lives together, which says more, because we know what she's lost.
Do you see what I mean? Yesterday I go on the radio. When I talk on the radio, I'm writing. Were you to transcribe my sentences, you'd see that they are a mixture of declarative and periodic sentences, many have multiple, interlocking, flowing clauses. People simply don't talk that way. Orson Welles did, to a degree. I'm composing in real time. Which is also why I can formally compose at the pace I do, with the stories being engineered as they are. And the nonfiction. Novels. This partially comes from my music background. My jazz background. The way I heard sound, and then the way I brought architecture--which I also always studied--to bear on sound. We were talking rock and roll, and the Byrds' live version of "Eight Miles High," how the vocal refrain is delayed, but the ear--just like the eye--has expectations. The brilliant musician, I added, just like the brilliant writer, sets up the expectations.
The eye and the ear wish for things. They wish for a delivery that the audience member is not consciously articulating. When that delivery comes, the payoff is massive. Witness, for instance--well, when all the world gets to see it--the close of "Fitty." That ending is set up. Those expectations are grown. That's partially why it's the most emotional ending, in my view, in all of literature. And it's set up architecturally--with the stairs in the story--and emotionally, romantically, musically, intellectually, metaphysically, spiritually. On the radio yesterday I said this is what Wagner was doing with the famous Tristan chord. When Rich asked me about the onus of trailblazing, and how one moves forward in directions no one else is considering, I made a very populist analogy to Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, who changed their sport, and who were subsequently followed, because as the game morphed, there was no choice but to evolve. They dragged a league and a sport to a higher plane. You have to have faith that what you're doing is so important and so much better and different than anything else, that eventually the would-be leader becomes the one doing a unique form of actual leading.
What most would-be writers do is they read the awful texts of their cronies. (And they usually pretend, or skim.) Or the awful texts being taught to them in writing programs that will only make you worse at writing. They don't realize that far more is to be had in the forest. Or the symphony. Or the quoined walls of a building. The sequencing of the Beatles record. The true life experience when vulnerability was at the fore. The William Hope Hodgson novel that is unlike anything they've ever read. Because most of what they read is exactly like everything else they read. And it's written by people who know nothing about these other subjects. See how I use them? They're conversational. Natural. At the same time, I can write a story about any of these subjects, or people from all of these walks of life. To write a story like "Jute," you need to know so much about painting that painting is in your very blood. Even though it's not a story about painting.
Other writers don't have this option at all. They have limited experience, limited knowledge, limited range of options, similar backgrounds, and then they're around people just like them. All the time. With their literary citizen nonsense. And no one can write well. Compellingly. With any wrinkle of surprise. Let alone artfully. You read a building. You read a life experience. You read how Wayne Gretzky change the geometry of sport. You read the chords of "She Loves You." You read the birds in the trees. Be able to identify everything in nature by name. Know different kinds of diatoms. You read the rocks on the side of the path, and the kind of minerals encrusted within them. These people know none of this. They are working with one drab color, whereas I have all the colors of the universe, right there, all the time.
What happens is the industry becomes all about that one color. The simple and unimaginative gatekeepers and taste-makers look only for that drab brown. Anything different is foreign to them. Unsettling. They have no real confidence. Very few people in publishing do. That's a big reason why they're in publishing. They're not going to say, "right, that's for me, I get it, this is bold and important." They don't want to feel. To cry. To learn, To experience. They just want to see that dull brown. That dull brown then becomes the standard, it becomes fetishized. Enter, then, me, in the war I am in. Because what most others will do is try to copy the drab brown, and even if they didn't want to, they're limited in ability, and they've spent so long chasing or being about the wrong things. I worked at this every day since I was born. I knew I was here to write and to tell stories, to be story. Every single thing in my life was done to write better. It remains the same right now. There is not a day on this earth when another right works harder than I do at writing, at growing. There is nothing I will not learn. A math problem? I'll study it, because it helps me write. Everything can help me. But not that shit MFA writing. That's not going to help you. What's more--as in more important--is it's not going to help any readers.
When you have a story taken by the Idaho Review--well, let's be honest, they're just taking wretched work by fossils like Joyce Carol Oates--that's not really helping you. No one is going to read that. It's not going to be seen. You can't conflate back claps from cronies and academics and other writers and would-be writers with anything that truly means anything. And often these people think it means their story means something. Or they hope it does. Look: I had fiction in Harper's called "Find the Edges." It's a great story. You won't see one better than it. I wrote in forty-five minutes. Do you know how many stories since that story in 2018 I've written? It's like 300. They're not better. They're not worse. Why do you think that story was picked up there? There was a decent person in charge who could make a decision and made it about the work and he realized he had something special. He was willing to work with the writer. He'd get seven stories at once from that writer and go through them. If he wanted changes, he knew the story was worth it and the writer could deliver. It wasn't because I wrote some piece unlike anything I'd ever written, in terms of quality. Hell, today's new story might have been "better." And there's nothing better than "Fitty." So I'm a guy who's been there, who has been just about everywhere. All those places you want to get into. And very little of it is real. It's real for me, because normally to get in, I have to do so against great resistance. I have no one in my corner. I don't quid pro quo, no one reaches out to me, and thousands of people here hate me, because of what I can do and do do. But it's also not real for me, because the reason something else doesn't go isn't because of what it is. It's almost always animus and the nature of what does go. Work like other work. Work like the editor would him or herself would do. Cronyism. Payola. Race and gender politics. Blackballing. The lies and gossip of fools and frauds. And so much insecurity. And laurels for fat, gassy asses. Upon which to rest, and to pump in as the same old, same old.
I keep going because I think the system will change--it's already almost in rubble--and I can change it and replace it with something better. I believe I can get people reading again. And in ways they haven't before. Because I don't write like other writers. Not before, and certainly not now. But if you want to write well, I don't care how much ability you have--you have to work your ass off. Constantly. You have to put in the time. You have to get up at four in the morning and write. You have to think about writing the rest of the day, doing anything you do. You always have to see writing in your brain. And you need to see art, and listen, and watch films--I don't mean your Netflix--and get into stuff and exposed to stuff and drink in stuff that no one else in your life has heard of, often. Because their worlds are circumscribed. And yours cannot be, or you will flat out suck at writing. And I mean just being clear and being compelling. The art stuff is way beyond that. But start there.