Donald Ray Pollock The heavenly table is one of the most delightfully twisted novels of the year, a race of terror through an early 20th century hillbilly hellish landscape that puts the family of a swindled kindhearted farmer on a collision course with three brothers in a wave of crimes. Pollock, whose previous novel, The devil all the time, had been named one of the 10 best books of 2011, shares five writing tips.
When I decided to learn to write, I didn’t know any writers, or anything on how to get started. I was forty-five and had worked for twenty-seven years at the same paper mill in a small town in southern Ohio. However, thanks to a factory program that helped pay the tuition fees of employees who wanted to go to college part-time, I had a degree in English. Besides, I loved to read. I decided to devote at least five years to writing and I worked on it almost every day. When I was fifty, I had published five or six stories in small literary magazines. Granted, that doesn’t sound like much, but over time I slowly found out that was what I wanted to do; and it’s always a good thing, in fact the best thing, knowing exactly what you want to do with your life, no matter how difficult or frustrating it may be, and writing is, more often than not, quite hard and damn damn frustrating. Still, I wasted a lot of time at the beginning, and with that in mind, here are, mainly for the benefit of newbies, the main things I learned about writing:
1. Have patience. I think learning to write is like learning to play a musical instrument, which I have heard takes at least five to ten years of daily practice. Even then, the learning never stops. A guitarist or pianist may be considered a genius, but they can always improve, and so can writing. At first everything I wrote was terrible, and it still is for many days, and I’ve been working on it for fifteen years now; and there will be many days when I want to give up, where I can’t find a single decent sentence, where vacuuming the carpets seems like a better use of my time, but I have to hold on because these are the days that determine if I want it enough. Plus, once you start submitting your work, be prepared to be rejected. I received at least 150 refusals in the first six years of writing. Remember that most magazines receive hundreds, if not thousands of submissions each year, and they only have room for a few articles. Don’t take it personally, respect it.
2. Type in other people’s stuff. I had been struggling for maybe eighteen months with no idea what I was doing when I read an interview with a writer who mentioned that she typed other people’s work on occasion. I decided to give it a try and ended up copying about 75 short stories, one a week, onto an IBM typewriter. Maybe because I’m not a very good reader, typing, say, a short story from Barry Hannah or Denis Johnson or Amy Hempel or Flannery O’Connor, brought me a lot closer to work, helped me see better how they, for example, dialogued, or made transitions, or divided their paragraphs, indefinitely. Try it out with a few of your favorite stories, and then if you think you won’t get anything out of it, damn it, you can always quit. I believe it was Hunter S. Thompson who said he typed Gatsby the magnificent because he wanted to see what it was like to write a great book.
3. Keep a regular schedule. Think of writing as a job, or at least a part-time job. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. This will usually only happen if you are already seated at the desk. Even if you can only hurry for fifteen or thirty minutes a day, do it. I think the inability to stick to a schedule, along with impatience, are the two big things that kill most aspiring writers.
4. Always read. Frankly, if you don’t like to read, you probably have little hope of being successful as a writer. I realize this might sound silly to anyone who reads PW, but I’ve met a lot of people who swear they want to write but rarely pick up a book. And read a lot outside of your favorite genre. I’m aiming for two books a week, and one of them is usually kind of non-fiction. Even at this rate, I can expect to read only five or six thousand books in my life, which, considering the number of books published each year, is not much.
5. Work in a place with no internet or phone. Because I have this overwhelming desire to start searching for unnecessary information every time I browse a search engine, I write in a converted garden shed behind my house on a computer that is not connected to the internet . And although I now own a cell phone (recently broke down and bought one for traveling), it stays in the house when I go to work.
Of course, most of what I’ve said you’ve probably heard before, but there is no magic formula for learning to write. In the end, it really comes down to reading and writing as much as possible. I do believe, however, that people who want to write can if they want it enough and are willing to sit quietly in a room and get the job done. Many will find that after a year or two it’s just not for them, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but for those of you who really, really want it, I can promise you that if you sit for long enough, something wonderful will happen, and it will probably be the best feeling you will ever have.