Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ralph Keyes (My favorite books on writing)

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write and The Writer's Book of Hope. (Amazon US links under image. Amazon UK links under title in text.)

[Before we begin, a caveat: Although most writers rank these books very highly among books on writing, the tiny minority of writers who don't love them loathe them. See this Amazon UK review for an example.]

The title of Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write is a morph of Rollo May’s classic little study The Courage to Create. May was the first psychologist to understand that the process of creation is filled with anxiety, and that an almost supernatural alertness is part of the process of what he termed “encounter”—the encounter of the subjective with the objective, of self with other, of the idealized conception of the work and the ability of the artist to execute the work.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but I’m never happier than when I’m writing.” If so, you’re probably in the state psychologists call “flow.” I posted a piece on anxiety and flow over at the MNW blog about a year ago; here, I’d like to stick to Keyes’ books.

It’s easy to scoff the idea of writing as a courageous undertaking. Oh, sure—writing subversive material under a totalitarian regime, maybe. Writers are in prisons all over the world. But writing a travel essay or a romance novel? What’s the worst that can happen? You could get rejected; or you might get accepted, and then people might laugh at you. How life-threatening is that compared to, say, fighting a fire?

The problem with this line of reasoning is that courage isn’t proportional to the threat to one’s life. Courage is proportional to fear, and fear isn’t governed by rational assessments of risk. One of the things feared most widely and deeply is public speaking—something far less physically risky than, say, driving a car.

Keyes attacks the issue head on: “Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process, but a necessary one. If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.”

At first that sounds as if he’s going too far, but he layers in quote after quote from writers who agree. The marvelous Margaret Atwood says, “You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer, an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez notes that “All my life I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.” And the sarcastic, hilarious, Fran Lebowitz, who on the page displays as much chutzpah as anyone, says “It’s really scary just getting to the desk—we’re talking now five hours. My mouth gets dry, my heart beats fast. I react psychologically the way other people react when the plane loses an engine.”

Keyes doesn’t claim it’s all about fear and anxiety, but he claims those are an integral part of the process. “To love writing, fear writing, and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction…Kids on skateboards and writers at their desks know the same thing: fear fuels excitement. Writing is both frightening and exhilarating. It couldn’t be one without the other. The best writers use fear’s energy to billow the sails of their imaginations.”

Once he has established fear as a factor in the writing process, Keyes moves on to analyze the different classes of fear writers experience. The range from the obvious (fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, fear of self-revelation) to the more rarefied (fear of not living up to the original conception, fear of letting go and finalizing a work that has taken up so many hours of the writer’s life). And, unless I’m the only twisted neurotic in the crowd, Keyes is honest about that certain special moment:

To non-writers, receiving a first copy of your own book would seem to be a moment of unalloyed ecstasy. (My book! I did it! I’m a published writer! Me! I’ve reached the promised land!) In fact, examining the first copy of your book is a far more mixed experience. On the one hand, proof now rests in your hand that you indeed wrote a book. This exciting thought lasts for about six seconds. Then the mind turns elsewhere: Couldn’t the publisher have found a better typeface for the jacket? Next time, I’m going to hire a professional photographer to take a good author picture. I wonder what Mom’s gonna think when she reads the rape scene. I wonder how long it will be before my book shows up on remainder tables. I wonder if it’s going to get panned. I wonder if anybody will read it at all.

My excitement lasted more than six seconds, and I didn’t have any problems with the cover font—in fact, I thought the lettering of the title was rather brilliant; but I also admit that my mind soon moved on to the ‘but now what?’ worries about the baby’s future. And I definitely moved on to the second phase of the experience he describes:

Washington Irving once confided to a friend that he dreaded opening an advance copy of one of his books. Rather than spasms of joy, he felt tremblings of fear as he recalled the books weaknesses, the many places where he might have written better. This is a common reaction when examining a new book with one’s name on the spine. Anything that’s wrong with the book—by the author’s hand or the publisher’s—is now on public display. Any mistakes the writer’s eye catches are there forever…

After providing an excellent taxonomy of the way writers can tie themselves in knots, Keyes seems to feel we deserve some relief. So the later chapters are devoted to the ways writers cope with fears, from the self-defeating (hiding behind elegant obfuscation) to the neurotically useful (rituals) to the entirely rational (making use of critiques).

I think that at some point the author realized he’d opened Pandora’s box and let the demons free without looking into the bottom of the chest. That’s my explanation for his follow-on volume, The Writer’s Book of Hope.

The title of this second book makes it sound like a collection of inspirational stories about writers who overcame the odds to succeed. Sure, there’s plenty of that to be found here, but the strategy of Keyes book is far more cunning than a simple compilation of feel-good anecdotes. In many ways, The Writer’s Book of Hope is a sociology and psychology text slanted to the needs of writers. Considerable time is devoted to the writer’s internal problems, including procrastination and excuses, but things perk up greatly when Keyes anatomizes “Discouragers:” people in your life who for various reasons want to see you abandon your writing, or if you persist, wish to see you fail. (I’ve been relatively lucky in this regard. Or perhaps just oblivious.) Dissecting the motives of those who want you to give up is a sad but informative task.

The chapter on dealing with rejection is fine (though that’s an oft-trodden path) but it’s followed by my favorite chapters in the book, “The Publishing Tribe” and “Betting on Books.” Here Keyes takes on the role of an anthropologist describing the unusual customs and beliefs of people in the publishing industry, which in the US means a crowd of literate New Yorkers: by definition, a group of people who are thoroughly out of touch with the rest of the country, and surprisingly out of touch with writers:

To make the world of publishing come into clearest focus, recall your adolescence: the crowds, cliques, rivalries, jealousies, intrigue, gossip, slang, buzz words, fashions, fads, and who ate lunch where and with whom…The only basic difference between pub people and your high school classmates is that pub people have more money and bigger vocabularies. Like adolescents everywhere, they are far more concerned about the opinions of those they consider part of their crowd than those they don’t. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but pub people don’t necessarily consider writers to be in with this crowd.

The last third of the book is entitled “Beyond Frustration,” and it is here where Keyes describes the ways to keep hope alive. Such a section has the potential to turn sentimental and sappy, but the author remains pragmatic and practical, discussing where to find supportive people (“Encouragers”), what can be learned from the careers of other writers, and the best way to help yourself. He ends the book with these words: “Writing is both a cause of despair and an antidote to despair. Put another way, on days when we’re feeling hopeless, the best way to revive our sense of hope is to keep on writing.”

Both of these books are excellent (and worth the price for the quotes and citations alone). Nonetheless, I think of them as a unit, and if you’re interested in reading them, I recommend reading them in order. Fear first, baby.


Neil said...

Hi, David.

Fear of not living up tot he original conception? I can dig that totally.

By the way, I've been meaning to ask, have you read Calvino's 'Six Memos for the Next Millennium'? Very good. And the bonus is, there are only five memos. (He died before he completed the final essay.)

Anonymous said...

David, thanks so much for this piece - I hadn't heard of either of these books, but they sound as if they're good and practical, by the standards of this end of the how-to-write-book spectrum.

I do think, too, that fear doesn't just mean writers (pub'ed and un-pub'ed) can't write or get stuck, it can also mean they don't write what is really the right stuff for them.

It goes both ways: I know super-literary, super-intelligent people writing self-confessed 'tosh' and half-ashamed of it, and sometimes it's because, actually, they love tosh and don't like to admit it; and sometimes it's because they're too scared (by too much Great Literature at university, or a hyper-literary-academic background) to nail their literary colours to the mast and give it a go, and so take refuge in writing which they don't have to be seen taking seriously.

Equally, I know people who ought to be writing tosh, in the sense that they'd be terrific, and struggle to do something more literary. The assumption is that a Booker Winner writing thrillers under another name writes the Booker books for pleasure and the thrillers for money, but what if it's actually the other way round?

Jen Ster said...

"The problem with this line of reasoning is that courage isn’t proportional to the threat to one’s life. Courage is proportional to fear, and fear isn’t governed by rational assessments of risk."

Amen. I'm terrified of cockroaches, which are gross but not exactly dangerous, and completely fearless around Dallas traffic. Joan is terrified of those eight-legged things that we don't talk about in this house and totally fine with wrangling cockroaches. She also likes horses, which I'm afraid of, and we're both kind of nervous around geese (though I maintain that's a rational fear; the suckers are mean. )

I used to (and still do sometimes) have great swooping fits of panic when I had to send something out to an editor or publisher. Back when I drank (yes, I did drink once) I would set out to get drunk before I had to do stuff like that. Since that's no longer an option, I just have to Deal, which is something I'm still learning about.

Mind if I ask you if you're older than me? I was going to throw myself under a bus if I wasn't published by the time I was forty, but I'm 39 3/4 now, and the idea is losing its appeal. Besides, it's passe'. Even Hillary Clinton's been thrown under a bus.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

I love Calvino but haven't read those. They are now officially on my list. All six or five of them.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

Yeah, those questions about what you are 'supposed' to be writing, by your own fallible internal compass or the even-more fallible demands of the world as you percieve it--those are the big ones. And only real writers could get so twisted trying to sort it out.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

We used to live in Hawaii, and the cockroaches there are HUGE, and fly at you. And also shit in prodigious volume when frightened.

Of course I'm older than you. I'm about four times older than you. A lot of people claim I'm in my early fifties, but that's like more than 160 in meerkat years.

David Thayer said...

David, as always you manage to express my darkest fear and find entire books about them. One of the early signs you're not writing what you're supposed to be writing is when everyone says, "wow, this is good." Yeah, it's good, but it's four pages long.

Alis said...

For me the 'fear' - though I'd never construed the emotion in exactly that way before - arises from the notion of challenge, ie the challenge we set ourselves in credibly fleshing out the story we have in our minds. If it was easy, how many of us would want to spend our life wrestling to fuse subconscious and conscious, artistic and cerebral, words and images?

S. Boyd Taylor said...

A huge and, as usual, great post :) Thanks for recommending these.

That fear of not living up to the original idea is pretty evil. So is the fear that maybe you don't have a story on your hands at all or that people won't understand what it's about.

I've never been completely terrified to sit down at the keyboard -- I have been nervous about it every once in a while -- but I don't make my living writing and I don't have any reputation to risk yet. I get the feeling that these might raise the stakes.

David Isaak said...

Hi, David--

I often wish I had four good pages...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

If it were easy, I might still sign up for it. As Nigel Tufnel says in This is Spinal Tap, "I dunno...what are the hours?"

David Isaak said...

Hi, SBT--

Yeah, I never get into full-blown terror, but it still gets pretty Hitchcockian sometimes...