Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Great Advice from Siskel and Ebert on the Craft of Writing: Be Yourself and Beware Political Correctness

So much good here. Indeed, political correctness as a governing rule for writing is a type of ventriloquism. We should always say what we mean when we write. This is great wisdom that all writers can learn from.

I was reading Roger Ebert's Journal as I often do each week. His writing is so precise and honest. Watching Siskel and Ebert--At the Movies was a ritual with my mom and dad when I was growing up, so taking my time at Ebert's site is a great and nostalgic joy.

There, I came across the above (and very helpful) interview on the craft of writing.

I am very interested in meta level questions about the writing process--which is why I like to linger on such questions whenever I have a chance to talk to accomplished authors.

And have you ever listened to a thing, and then realized it was reminding you of advice that you received at some point in your life, and then was reminding you of things that you had forgotten? For me, Siskel and Ebert's conversation about finding your voice, the role of truth-telling, and the courage to put your own opinions out for public scrutiny and criticism rang home.

They are both correct on a basic point: a writer needs to be comfortable with their own opinions, the vulnerability that comes with telling the truth, and also speaking one's own mind in public.

There are many styles of writing. Each requires a different, albeit (what is a a likely) complementary, skill set.

For example, there is much diversity in style and approach among those who write online. Some folks are news aggregators or archivists; others are skilled at writing pithy summaries; some people are analysts who connect the dots; there are essayists who specialize in short pieces as opposed to long ones (what are very different skills); while some writers are deep and thorough in their analysis.

Most who choose to write online and/or have adapted their print skills to the electronic medium just want to entertain, get some attention, validation, and receive immediate feedback. The strength and weakness of writing online is immediacy: worthy and important ideas are often not paid attention to because the Internet encourages disposable thinking and "drive-by" writing that goes for the cheap thrill. However, great and important ideas can also quickly circulate. Consequently, they can have an outsized impact as these claims are not bounded by the limits of print or an academic review panel.

When you choose to write online, and if you want to be successful at it, branding and voice are also important. As the Atlantic pointed out last week, even how a particular author writes a blog title is integral to their success. A reader should be able to see a title and know, with some likelihood and certainly, from where that essay or story originated.

We have a range of readers here at We Are Respectable Negroes. Most blogs do not last 3 months. For those of you who have been observers and fans of particularly successful blogs or other online forums, what tips do you have for those who are just starting out? For those of you who have written online for some time, what advice do you have for those folks who are just starting out?

My advice is simple. Be yourself. Do not try to imitate other people. Be confident and comfortable with criticism. Have little fear of rejection. And take risks so that you can get substantive feedback, mean words, some hate from the peanut gallery, and learn to welcome how those who despise you are gonna come hard. If you write for "hits" or comments you will end up hating and resenting the process of writing online because there is no rhyme or reason to the logic of a fickle public and Internet. If no one cares, responds, or comments, it is harder to proceed; but, this ought not need be a deterrent as you will be surprised how your work can take on a life of its own.

Ultimately, if you have nothing interesting to say about a topic, do not care, have no expertise on it, and/or are indifferent, it is best not to say anything at all. Silence can be a virtue.

And of course, write every day.

In keeping with my ghetto nerd professional wrestling roots, if people are booing you, at least they are reacting. Silence is death. Moreover, as Siskel and Ebert implied, most folks probably do not even risk trying and giving 100 percent of themselves because they are afraid of rejection. The latter is an especially bad habit; it can be crippling.

How many great stories, essays, blogs, books, and the like have we the public been deprived of, because a potential author feared the magic of conjuring up a thought, and committing it to paper or screen? I would guess that there are an almost infinite many.


A. Ominous said...

Speaking of which, CdV: one of the greatest debates about writing (the noun/ the verb/ the pathology) ever committed in pixels!

Oblio said...

Great stuff... I couldn't agree more. I started blogging a couple of years ago and, while I average only a single posting/essay per month, I am actually quite happy with the results most of the time. Why? because I write about things that interest me, that I care about, and that have an impact on me either personally or in some other larger perspective.

Whether a favotite recipe for enchiladas that was spurred by an instant childhood memory, or the painful decline and death of my younger brother to alcoholism, the reactions I get from readers is almost always of a personal nature, i.e. "your post is relevant and had an impact on me." That RULES.

Political correctness has no bearing on what I write. My latest essay is about a terrible 9-hour span in 2011 when my wife and I had to rescue her Mother from a nursing home that almost killed her. Surprisingly enough, the essay garnered MANY kudos from folks who had experienced similar trauma but had no way to crystallize their own stories.

And the best part: Mother-in-law LIKED the story because a) she didn't remember lots of what happened and b) it sorta made her both laugh and cry.


Just write about what you know and love and don't worry about the rest. JUST WRITE.


Shady_Grady said...

What have I learned? Be polite to readers but never apologize for having your own pov.

Write as much as possible and edit even more.

Try to find that overlapping area that is both things you're interested in and others have interest in.

Find a rhythm so people know when to expect your new posts.

Be open to learning from more successful bloggers, or better yet, published writers.

chaunceydevega said...

@SA. Will check out. You have been a watcher of these Internets for some time. Any thoughts or suggestions?

@Oblio. There really is no formula. You are right, say what you want to say in your own voice. Who knows, some of those most personal stories resonate the loudest.

@Sbady. You never apologize. Good trait that I admire ;)

A. Ominous said...


(pulls out pipe...)

Thoughts: five years from now, when pseudonyms are either illegal or very difficult to get away with, and strong opinions are punishable with fines, we'll look back on the Golden Age of Global Conversation/ Free Speech (unprecedented in its immediacy, reach and laissez-faireness)... which started sometime during the '90s and peaked a couple of years ago... and whimper. Or chuckle?

Like all Paradigm Shifts (eg, electric lights, indoor plumbing, birth control) we took Global Conversation for granted within months of its unprecedented existence. I've made the most of it and I hope you have, too!

Suggestions: I have to break that up into two parts.

1. Re: blogging: attract more Female Commenters to your site!

2. Re: writing (in the sense of Fiction):

Learn the art of visual description from middle-period Paul Theroux, the arts of cadence and dialogue from Don DeLillo, the art of brevity/elision/compression from Paul Bowles and Bruce Chatwin, the arts of gamesmanship and precision of word-choice from Vladimir Nabokov and the arts of allegory and lightness of touch from Kurt Vonnegut, Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera. Brodkey, Didion, Sterne and Gardner are worth reading, too, but they're each so *sui generis* that I'm not sure what to suggest you'd learn from them.

Oh, and: Yup, that's a list of Old (or Dead) White Males!

Just as Black Females and Males (of all genders) are the go-to Masters if you want to learn in the Western Neo-Classical (aka "Jazz") Tradition, White Males are the generational-keepers of the flame of the English-language Literary Tradition. Too many Writers-of-Color being too proud to acknowledge that obvious fact is part of the reason that Black Musical Genius (and its Accomplishments) dwarf, by *orders of magnitude*, Black Literary Accomplishment.

It takes generations of Literacy to produce a steady supply of literary geniuses in any subculture, and, as you know, reading-and-writing would have gotten most of us *killed*, in the USA, not even 200 years ago! No fault of our own but we have some catching up to do (the fact that America has entered an Illiterate Age is not helping).

Anyone with a deep feeling for the English language will have to see that, for example, Ted Hughes is operating on a more *technically knowing* level than Langston Hughes; Langston is fine but he is not grappling with the Olde Ones in the back of the Word Cave; Langston (as we all are) was a noob. We shouldn't take this any more personally than a White reader should when I state, with no fear of reasonable contradiction, that Duke Ellington is Bach to Stan Kenton's... uh... Stan Kenton.

I had an argument with a Brother once who claimed that Toni Morrison could "write James Joyce under the table"... which I had to ascribe to the fact that the partisan-Brother hadn't read much beyond Ms. Morrison (who writes near the level of a, say, Saul Bellow, the over-rated favorite of Ziocons).

Hey, I can see the sh-t-storm this comment may generate, but I ain't much bothered (and I will not throw away 8 hours of online tussle-time defending this comment in the near future, either)! laugh

Further: if you want to deepen-and-sharpen your Sci Fi, check in with the "Literary Fiction" masters first. Don't end up like PK Dick (and so many of the Sci Fi greats): powerful imagination wedded to shaky chops!

Those are my thoughts... ignore them in an utter absence of peril!

(Please note that all racial descriptors used above were sociological, and not pseudo-biological, in nature)

Anonymous said...


Interesting article above about the challenges a white canadian woman faced. The game has changed, so it ain't so easy "making a living" by the pen. Most don't even try.

- Buddy H.