Good writing requires courage

Professor X, the author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, is a good writer who was frustrated in his efforts to write professionally and turned to other things. So when his fifteen minutes of fame landed him a book contract, he took the opportunity to write in a writerly fashion, and also to expound on his ideas about writing—fair enough, since he is writing about being a teacher who teaches writing.

I disagree with his general viewpoint about what it takes to write, but only in context. He speaks from the viewpoint of a literary novelist, draws most of his examples from literary novels, and sees the problems of a writer as being just those of the literary novelist. Even while sticking to fiction you’ll get quite a different perspective from Dean Wesley Smith, who very proudly writes pulp fiction. There is some overlap in their advice, but the emphases are quite different—Professor X, for example, would probably emphasize authenticity, while Smith would emphasize telling a gripping story. William Zinsser writes about writing non-fiction, and his perspective is different still.

I think they might all agree with this observation by sportswriter Red Smith, from a 1949 Walter Winchell column:

Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …”Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

It’s a famous quote, but usually read as meaning you need to be passionate,, or authentic, or confessional, the sort of thing Professor X would be more likely to say than Smith or Zinsser. But I think they would all agree that the best writing, regardless of genre, reveals something about the writer. And that takes courage, and sometimes feels akin to opening a vein.

I don’t write passionately, or authentically, or confessionally. But I still find writing daunting and draining, just because I always set myself the goal of conveying to the reader only what I think about the subject I’m addressing. And so I suppose there are elements of passion and authenticity and confession up front—elements that need to be shaped and tamed as the words are written. Plus there’s the scary part—if I’ve done my job properly, the reader will then know just what I think.

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