Nathaniel Hawthorne penned the pithy statement that is the title of this post. Over the years, famous authors have contributed to an incredible volume of eloquent writing advice. “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” George Orwell ruled. “Try to leave out the parts that people skip,” Elmore Leonard recommended. “Write drunk, edit sober,” Ernest Hemingway advocated. I wondered, with so many persuasive tips out there, how you know which ones to follow. Since you are more likely to take advice from someone you admire, I decided to focus on writers who had an impact on me at various points in my life.
When I read The Martian Chronicles in the fifth grade, I thought, “Ray Bradbury, where have you been all my life?” (He had been busily writing short stories, novels, plays, and poems.) In 1989, Bradbury published a collection of essays called Zen in the Art of Writing, which is now on my Amazon wish list. One of his oft-quoted pieces of advice was, “Don’t start out writing novels.” Oops. He also counseled, “You must write every single day of your life.” I will take this teaching to heart. And I like to think he was speaking to me when he said, “I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you.”
I became a fan of Shakespeare in junior high. I even had a Shakespeare pin, which I actually wore to school. You can imagine how popular I was. Here are some helpful hints gleaned from Shakespeare’s plays:
- Be brief. “Brevity is the soul of wit.” (Hamlet)
- Read a lot. “My library was dukedom large enough.” (The Tempest)
- Express sincere emotion. “Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears / Moist it again, and frame some feeling line / That may discover such integrity.” (Two Gentlemen of Verona)
“Be a literary genius” is also implied.
I discovered Woody Allen in high school, when I saw Love and Death (which I loved and subsequently quoted to death). According to Allen’s character in Husbands and Wives, “Some can write; others will never learn.” I suspect that may be true. Regarding his personal routine, Allen says, “I always write with a yellow pad and a ballpoint pen, on my bed. . . . When it works, I type it up afterward.” He describes the writing process as “wracked with anxiety” and a “battle for survival”—which I find oddly comforting.
Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer and The Assistant amazed me when I read them in college. When asked about his work habits, Malamud replied, “There’s so much drivel about this subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing.” Touché.