You’re No Hemingway
So, you’re a writer. You sit at the shimmering, terrifying typer and bring a beer, a wine, or a whiskey along too. Writing is hard! You need a drink! When you’ve filled your cup, you remember the greats: Hemingway, Bukowski, Rhys, Carver. They did it with the booze. So can you! It’s just to calm the nerves, get the juices pumping, the blood flowing. You are strong. A tank. Pave your way to literary glory!
You are pathetic, trite, and, most likely, a terrible, terrible writer.
Sure, I claim these things with a mild, implied “probably.” Some of you are alcoholics, dependent. Your work would be even worse without the booze. Some of you are so great that, by some miracle, the drink cannot conquer your talent. But for the rest of you, the rest of us, let me have your undivided attention: Stop, just stop.
Time and time again, I read lazy, embarrassing manuscripts only to hear the age old words spewing from the author’s mouth. “Oh, I’ve just got to have a drink before I start! Really helps take the edge off.”
Your sentences are sloppy, wordy.
Your characters are shallow, emotionless, numb.
Hear this: You might need to relax, but your characters don’t. They need tense, neurotic behavior. All those thoughts you can’t face and emotions you think are paralyzing and hope to drown in alcohol, they are your saviors. They are your muse, your fuel, your soul. Every drop you swallow to calm your nerves is another drop in your literary grave.
“But what do I do? These nerves. I’ve got all these nerves!”
Yes, of course you do. That is why you’re a writer. That is why you need the page. Pluck your beard, pick some scabs, twirl your hair, pick your nose.
Just don’t drink.
Now, think for a second. How did it work out for the rest? Hemingway’s brains decorated some wall, Rhys had two masterpieces and vanished into obscurity, Carver died regretting the last twenty, drunken years of his life, and Bukowski…Well, maybe Bukowski lived all right.
Make no mistake. I am not here to preach the sober’s gospel. In fact, I think most writers need to drink. We are a restless, obsessive, insufferable bunch, born with brains wired too tightly and nerves too taught. Myself included, lord knows. I yank out beard hair after coarse beard hair just reading a book. But when you sit down at the typer, you have an obligation. Even if you’re writing something you’ll never show anyone, you’re writing to exorcise your demons, to heal, not to party. The party is later and eternal. The typer is for work, for others, for the self.
But what can I say? I don’t care. Do it. Drink up. You coward. You waste. More room for me.
– Gabriel Schnell
When recently invited to read my work, I chose a scene from my novel-in-progress where my two main characters get caught in a storm in the South Atlantic. The scene comes halfway through the novel, so I gave some context: “They’re on a 27’ sailboat, in the middle of the ocean.” And then I read.
Thirty seconds in, I saw confused faces in the audience. “Shit,” I said into the mic. “Hang on a sec.” I felt a brief glossary was necessary: “a mainsail is the big sail on a boat; it’s pronounced mainsel. A jib is the smaller sail up front. A tiller is basically the boat’s steering wheel. To tack is to turn the boat into the wind. Uh,” I added, “everything else should make sense.”
This got me thinking about esoteric terminology in general. How much is too much in a literary work? How much is too little? You certainly don’t want to insult your reader with vague diction: he put the sail over there; he moved the boat to the left. On the other hand, you don’t want to present your readers with a doctoral thesis in sailing terminology.
But sailing terminology itself is beautiful, both ridiculously archaic (look up “cunt splice”) while also amazingly practical. For example, close hauled means you’re sailing as “close” to the wind as you possibly can, with all sails “hauled” in tight. I wanted to capture the elegance and unfamiliarity of the words without sending my reader running to Wikipedia (although their “Glossary of Nautical Terms” is particularly helpful).
I believe good writers instruct the reader about terms relevant to the story’s content. Moby Dick, for example, will teach you all the terms you ever wanted to know regarding the hunting, killing, and butchering of sperm whales. That novel uses an effective technique: Ishmael is new to sailing and whaling, so he’s forced to learn a new language specific to those endeavors— much like us, the readers. The novice character turned expert is a common approach when dealing with the unfamiliar.
But some authors eschew this method. In his wonderful novel, Outerbridge Reach, Robert Stone gives us sailing-specific language from the outset. The novel opens with the protagonist, Owen Browne, sailing a 45-foot sloop. In the second paragraph, Browne “cut his auxiliary and hoisted a mainsail and genoa.” A reader can guess that if a genoa is hoisted along with the mainsail, it’s probably another sail. But a genoa is a particular type of jib. It’s bigger than a normal jib and stretches back past the mast.
A few paragraphs later, Browne coasts “on a starboard tack.” Starboard is familiar enough, but starboard tack isn’t. It indicates the specific alignment of a boat with respect to the wind. Because wind direction is indicated from where it’s blowing, starboard tackmeans the wind is coming from the boat’s starboard. Later, we get the term unreefed, which is advanced-level sailing stuff. To reefmeans to temporarily shorten the height of the mainsail; it’s done to depower the boat in a storm to keep it from heeling too far. Tounreef, then, is the opposite: let that shit fly high.
There are hundreds more sailing-specific terms in Outerbridge Reach—their general meaning gleaned through context, but their specific meaning known only to readers familiar with sailing. This was a bold choice on Robert Stone’s part, but it establishes his chops as a sailor. And, since readers get the gist of these unfamiliar terms by Stone’s judicious sentence craft, they are buoyed through the story by good writing—not drowned in a sea of flotsam.
So, writing about subjects that deal with unfamiliar terminology—think business speak, medical, engineering, sports—is an issue of how to treat a reader. Inevitably you will teach them something. The novice-turned-expert approach is reliable, though in unskilled hands may appear patronizing. So, go for gold. Choose the precise word, the unequivocal, the exotic. Unreef yourself.