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Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat

Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat
April 16, 1976

Outside of a bimonthly find, I can’t read books. Three hundred pages in two weeks usually means pick up book, page 30 stop, pick up next book, page 40 stop, next book, etc. for 10 books, dropping off into People magazine and lethargically thumbing back issues of National Lampoon. This anorexia nervosa around the printed page has been a life-long affliction. I don’t know how to prove this statistically, but empirically I’ve discovered that what I go through around books is a common dyspepsia among my generation (b. circa 1950) — which is to say, not many of us pleasure-­read anymore. And friends, what’s coming up after us is worse. I’ve taught, lectured, and read at roughly two-dozen colleges, and the amount of ignorance of, and indifference to, both fiction and nonfiction is devastating except for an occasional cult book, the leaders of tomorrow couldn’t read their way out of a Glad Bag. What’s more, they wouldn’t want to.

Consider: Every American born since 1947 cut his teeth on the tube seven days a week, with Saturday afternoons off to go to the movies. TV and cine are faster than Wonder Books, My Weekly Reader, Landmark Books, The Red Pony, and whatever’s on the cover of the NYTBR next week. TV is easier. It’s multisensory. Mov­ies, (on top of) being easier and multisensory, are also bigger and on top of bigger they happen to be group experiences. Relatively, books are hard work, static, one­-dimensional. Reading is an isolat­ed activity. We’re lazy — we seek the easiest information source, the most entertainment for the least effort. One picture is worth a thousand words.

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Whenever I do a talk or a reading at a college, I always ask how many people have seen the film Dracula or one of its offspring, usually 90 to 100 per cent. Solid. Now how many here have heard of Bram Stoker? On a good day, five to 10 per cent. And for the preschoolers it’s Count Chocula, a Chocolate Marshmallow breakfast atrocity… Do you know who Bram Stoker was? And so it goes. In other words, I would guess that most eight-year-old kids faced with a choice of watching an animated version of Treasure Island on Home Box or reading Robert Louis Stevenson will go for the Box. And once you start out that way, it’s all over. TV and movies are like Wonder Bread in reverse for the book-loving part of the brain.

Now, all this upsets the shit out of me. I’m a novelist. I’m a good novelist and I’ll get better. I’ve found my calling and if I have my way I’ll be turning out books for the next half-century, books that will blow people away. But right now all I want is to be read and not just by critics and grad students. I’ve got things to say to everybody. I won’t reduce my books to “Popcorn Lit” (whatever one critic called an addicting page-turner with no nutritional value) to get my audience, but I am gunning for that kid who hates to read but can memorize every cereal jingle in a four-hour sitdown with the tube. Because I’m on his case. I’ve been there, mainlining TV ever since I could say “Clarabell.” I’ve been bored by as many books as he and when I started writing I automatically screened out whatever bored me in others’ books. What you can’t read, you can’t write. My writing is a product of being a tube child and is geared towards other tube children, at least stylistically. In other words, even though that jingle-drenched kid might not care a rat’s ass about books right now, I’ll hook the little booger before I’m through. Ex-junkies can make good drug counselors.

Storytellers who will be writing for this generation and for genera­tions to follow and who care about being read by more than a select few thousand will have to acknowl­edge that they are walking around in a world where people’s brains are being wired for holograms and sensurround and the competition is not whatever was reviewed in the Sunday Times but what’s playing down the block and whatever’s on CBS (or WNET) tonight.

This doesn’t mean writers should take a workshop with Peter Lemongello, or that they should start churning out Popcorn and go “commercial” (who me? whata you, serious?). What it does mean, in storytelling fiction at least, is that there has to be a great streamlining, a stripping, a clean-to-the-bone eloquence projected. The writer has to go for the throat from page one, word one.

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To nail this generation coming up, there will be a need to be direct as a heart attack; there will be a need for passion and integrity, an immediacy and urgency as if the writer were sitting naked on a hot stove and couldn’t jump off until the story was finished.

Spit has got to fly.

Books must be written that are alive with people who breathe. Literary characters must cease and be replaced by human beings. Novels must become three-dimensional. The print on the paper has got to crackle with life. There has got to be a direct line between the heart and the hand. An absolute guilelessness, a terrifying hon­esty.

To me, writing is acting on paper. I try to visualize everything, limit my narration to the surface of things — what a reader can see in any moment. Exposition is spare, simple, and direct. I don’t try to transcend my people but rather, to become them. If I can trance myself into becoming my character, I can load every gesture and interaction with enough information for a book in itself. It’s a simple matter of show and tell. There is a way to “show” every “tell.” There is a physical action, a mannerism, a tone of voice, a phrase that will nail down every conceivable experience, and when the writer matches up the perfect gesture for that human moment, the results are sublime.

Both my novels took two years. The first was spent talking to my characters, the second, writing. Creating characters with any substance is an evolutionary process, and I had to live with them dawn to dusk. The first year, I was a stone lunatic. I had all these people setting up shop in my brain. But by the time I was ready to write I could take a battery of MMPI and Wonderlic personality tests for each of my people and answer hundreds of questions with as much intimate knowledge as if they were taking the test.

Plot always comes automatically once I know who my people are. The inevitability of their personali­ties makes the “story” a natural projection of what drives them from day to day. In a given scene I may know nothing more than how it’s supposed to end, most of the time not even that. Scenes are improvised. A character does or says something, and with as much spontaneity and schizophrenia as I can muster, another character responds. In this way, everything I write is spontaneous chain reac­tion and I’m running around play­ing leap frog in my brain trying to “be” all people.

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If art does imitate life, the most “authentic” fiction has to progress moment to moment in the mind of the writer. When I write, my only notes are a tentative shopping list of prospective interactions vaguely formulated in my head. They can range all over the book and be based on anything from an an­ecdote out of my past to a con­trived plot device. With this mosaic pattern of writing, I can address myself to the scene on the list which is most in tune with the mood I’m in at that moment. If I am writing a jealous rage, odds are I’m in a jealous rage at the time. In this way my writing is always “hot.”

A crucial part of that essential sparseness I strive for is keeping morals and messages out of my consciousness as fastidiously as possible. For the sake of immedia­cy, for the sake of creating a world without station breaks, the only thing that exists are my people. When I create a character, I grant that character enough respect and elbow room to dig his own grave or build his own monument. When I read, any intrusion — any editorial by the author — breaks my concen­tration, takes me out, makes me put down the book and pick up People.

As much as I dislike the majority of novels that come into my hands, there have been some that made me delirious with pleasure and hip to the fact that no matter how fantastic other art forms might seem, there is an ineffability, a sublime punch/counterpunch in the written word that can be duplicated in no other medium. And for the little that I value much of what’s in print I’d hate for a whole generation to miss out on even that small amount. And if I didn’t mean that I’d be at the damn movies right now.

At 26, Richard Price is the author of The Wanderers, a highly-­praised novel about a teenage gang in the Bronx. His new novel, Bloodbrothers, concerns a fam­ily of hardhats in Co-op City. 

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Best Weekend Food Events: Flushing Night Market, Aquaponics 101, and Mezcal BBQ

Flushing Night Out
Flushing High School (35-01 Union Street, Queens)
Friday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Downtown Flushing is hosting a night market which will encompass the neighborhood’s diverse selection of ethnic eats and feature live entertainment. Participating restaurants include Snowdays, Karl’s Balls, and Dosa Hutt among others. A selection of live music and performances will take place throughout the evening, and admission is free.

Oko Farms’ Aquaponics 101
Moore Street Farm (104 Moore St, Brooklyn)
Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m

Learn the basics of aquaponics from the founders of Oko Farms, the city’s largest outdoor aquaponics farm. The class will cover design, harvesting, and sourcing elements for those interested in creating their own home aquaponics farm. After class, students will harvest vegetables and fish for a meal prepared on the farm. Participants must wear closed-toed shoes and are advised to have cash on hand for snacks during the seminar. Tickets are $135 per person and include produce to take home; reserve a spot here.

Mezcal BBQ
Esme (999 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn)
Saturday, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Esme is hosting a mezcal-themed barbecue featuring treats from neighborhood favorites like Oddfellows and Duke’s Liquor Box. Representatives from Bruxo Mezcal will be on hand to lead guests in a mezcal tasting, with mezcal popsicles and lamb barbacoa among the items available on the menu. The event is free to attend and all food and drink options range from $3 to $10.

Beer: The Ultimate Muse Creative Writing Class
Q.E.D. (27-16 23rd Avenue, Queens)
Saturday, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

During this creative writing class for grownups, attendees will receive a flight of four beers, which they’ll then use as inspiration for developing four unique characters. Both novices and experienced writers are encouraged to attend. Tickets are $35 and include the cost of beer; snag them here.

Rockaway Beach Dinner

Off Season Backyard (92-12 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, Queens)
Saturday, 7 p.m. to Sunday, 12 a.m.

Celebrate a day at the beach and the food of the Rockaways.  La Cevicheria, Brothers, Goody’s, Whit’s End,  and beer from Rockaway Brewing Co. will all be served at this backyard dinner party. Tickets are $75, and a portion of the cost will be donated to Rockaway Rising; reserve them here.

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Good Reads Before Tonight’s James Beard Awards

Voice critic Tejal Rao was nominated for the James Beard Foundation‘s Craig Claiborne award for distinguished restaurant reviews and the award ceremony is tonight! Meanwhile, you can catch up on reading the critic’s three nominated reviews below:

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Bangkok Pop, No Fetishes

The Sweet Taste of Success

Enter the Comfort Zone

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Michael Pollan Launches $10K Food Journalism Fellowships at UC Berkeley

Excellent news for food journalism: UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism is now offering five $10,000 fellowships a year, for early and mid-career journalists to travel and report longform stories on a range of food subjects, from nutritional policy and food science, to technology, culture, and urban farming.

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The fellowships are part of a new program established by author and activist Michael Pollan and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (and are supported by a grant from The 11th Hour Project). Right now, print and radio journalists can apply; in upcoming years multimedia and video journalists will be welcome as well.

And now for the bad news: Online applications are due next week, on April 1, which means there isn’t much time to polish pitches and secure letters of recommendation.

Find more details about the 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship here.

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When Food Journalists Write for Free

When Nate Thayer posted his exchange with an Atlantic editor asking him to contribute to the site for free, he sparked a huge debate over whether writers should ever be expected to go unpaid. The short answer, if you ask me and most journalists, is no. But as a writer who has written for free, the no comes with an explanation.

When I first started writing about food, I found I could land super short pieces about things like local whiskey, seasonal ingredients, and roundups of the best brunch deals. Unsurprisingly, not a lot of outlets were interested in my oddball food stories about the architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen designs, or the dead English romance novelist Barbara Cartland.

So I found a home for the more esoteric things I was interested in researching and writing about at the Atlantic, which did not pay me. My first post for the magazine’s online food section was about a Spanish-language sticker book full of recipes for imaginary animals and my second was about Cesar Ramirez’s then newly launched dinners at Brooklyn Fare.

As a young writer, between writing for paying publications, copy editing, and cooking to make a living, this for-free work gave me some space to write just a little longer and a little weirder than the other gigs would let me. So I tried to find time for it when I could (usually when I had a fringe idea that just wouldn’t fit anywhere else, like a story about Victorian cookbooks or eating cow spleen).

Writers who give away their work are shamed by more established writers for not valuing their writing enough, and for perpetuating this messed-up system built on free work. On the other hand, writers who won’t work for free (or for very, very little) can’t always find a home for the stories they want to tell.

Read more:

 

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about how he was convinced, even as a professional journalist being paid $12,000 for a major story, to start blogging for free in exchange for “exposure.” The comments here are especially interesting.

 

  • The Awl hosts a great conversation about the issue and editors chime in with details about their freelance budgets and all sorts of honest, nitty-gritty logistics. A must-read.

 

  • Over on Gawker, Cord Jefferson makes the excellent, uncomfortable point that most writers who can afford to write for free have financial safety nets (like their parents), which means they’re often white and of a certain class.

 

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Ray Bradbury, Champion of Books, Writing Hero

Ray Bradbury, the author and sci-fi legend, died this morning in Los Angeles at the age of 91. Bradbury, who sold over eight million copies of his books, and wrote for television, film, and theater, received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in 2000, and the National Medal of Arts in 2004.

As Victoria Bekiempis reminds us, the author may not have been a great fan of the internet or the rise in ebooks, but he sure loved reading. A few days ago, squashed on the F train, I read his essay Take Me Home, about discovering the fictional character of Buck Rogers, and the work of Tarzan-creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, when he was a boy in Illinois. It was a wonderful reminder of how pulp and the low-brow can be great. And, at their best, inspire greatness. (And silliness, too! I was delighted when my colleague Robert Sietsema pointed me toward a campy, sci-fi commercial for prunes, starring Bradbury.)

Most writers love reading, but few talk about it with as much honesty and childlike joy as Bradbury did. He wasn’t just a champion for his genre, but a believer in the pleasure and importance of all great writing. Fahrenheit 451, perhaps his most famous novel, shows us a world where complex ideas are eradicated, and books burned. Here’s a particularly moving video, where a grizzled Bradbury sits in a book-filled cranny, with a restless cat on his shoulders, and talks about his love:

And here’s Bradbury on the joy of writing:

Anything you love, you do it. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it….I don’t write things to benefit the world. If it happens that they do, swell. I didn’t set out to do that. I set out to have a hell of a lot of fun.

Links

Obituary: Ray Bradbury, Master of Science Fiction, Dies at 91 [The New York Times]

Essay by Bradbury on his early influences as a writer: Take Me Home [The New Yorker]

Interview: Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203 [Paris Review]

A funny, sci-fi commercial for prunes starring Bradbury [Fork in the Road]

A blog post about Bradbury hating blog posts (and technology in general) [VV]

Keynote address at the Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea [Brain Pickings]