The writing life

Your blogger pops up momentarily at the start of John McPhee’s new essay on writing (subscription required for the whole piece but anyone can read the lede). His piece is the latest reminding that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.

Writer’s block isn’t usually a problem for me. The contrary is true: What’s already been spewed forth creates its own set of issues. Writers must revise. The worst is when I’m at a midpoint in a project and have two problems of roughly equal heft:

1. All the stuff I haven’t written yet.

2. The dreck I’ve already written.

You don’t know whether to go forward or go back. To advance into new ground or clean up the mess you’ve already made.

But block? No, the best thing about being a professional hack news person is that you usually can just start typing. They pay us not to agonize. Quality we add later, if there’s time (though probably we should just move on).

“Good enough” isn’t good enough, of course. A real writer dreams of greatness, not adequacy. But sometimes good enough is all you got, and that’s acceptable if you are willing to hate yourself for not doing better.

I remember another McPhee letter. When I applied for his class, I included a clip from the student newspaper, an essay, topic now forgotten. I seem to recall that it had a certain amount of verve and dash, but was ruined for the educated reader by three distinct grammatical errors that were worse than mere infelicities. McPhee must have realized that I was a feral writer, that I wrote by ear, not really understanding the rules of the language (still don’t but let’s not get into that). I could sling the words but wasn’t actually literate. He sent my piece to the grammarian at the New Yorker, asking for her input. She wrote back a long letter — McPhee read it to me, but didn’t give it to me — saying that my errors were the flares of an uneducated and self-absorbed person, and reflected the broader narcissism  of the Me Generation. At least that’s how I remember it. This was more than 30 years ago. Whatever: I got in the class. We could work on the technical stuff over time.

A couple of years later, as I was starting out in the news business, McPhee assured me that I’d be a writer. “You have to be,” he said. Yes, I really didn’t have a choice.

I always tell students and aspiring writers the same thing: A writer is just someone who writes. You don’t need a credential or a fancy resume. You don’t need a lot of special training. You don’t need connections. Just put your hands on the keyboard and start typing. And don’t stop. (Just remember that you always need to revise, trim, fact-check, elide unneeded adjectives, abjure adverbs, and read a printout before you publish.)

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · April 23, 2013