“Be good and you will be lonesome.” ~ Mark Twain wrote on a photo from his trip around the world, with which he opened his book Following the Equator, 1897.
And you will be troubled, misunderstood, misquoted and… did he say lonely?
But you’ll have stories to tell. Once you master the art of storytelling, you master the art of life. Writing is not just writing. You remake the world on a page. Writing, at the most basic level, is the art of creating a more suitable reality. You learn to do that, and you can change things, by starting at the root.
After failing at gold-mining, “father of American literature”—according to William Faulkner and “greatest American humorist of his age,” bittersweet Mark Twain, turned to journalism, a more dangerous and life-threatening kind of mining, where you replace gold with words.
He found his treasure.
And here is some wit-charged advice for you (for me), to guide us on our equally lonely but satisfying adventure—of breathing new life through old words.
I took the freedom of misunderstanding Twain in my own way, and translate his nineteenth-century-ness, to help us face our post-postmodern Troubled Writer’s ghosts.
1. “The rules governing literary art require that the personages in a tale be alive, except in the cases of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.”
Translation: If it makes the reader yawn (or die of old age in one reading), it’s not a story worth telling.
2. “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
Translation: Less is more. Take off your clothes. If most of your words can’t stand naked or survive simplicity, then they’re just insubstantial decoration.
3. “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very.’ Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Translation: Not all editors will censor you and most of it will be for your own sake. But if they’re going to cut into your literary aorta anyway, you might as well give it to them bloody. Don’t censor yourself before the world has a chance to.
4. “Write without pay until somebody offers to pay.”
Translation: Oh my god, were you actually in this for the money? Ho-ney… Truth be told, you should actively seek to get paid for what you love. And you should never give up until you do. But don’t let your writing’s neck hang on it.
You’re a writer as an end not as a medium. You write because you can’t help it, not to pay the bills. But since you can’t help having an excess of both, words and bills, do try to pay the second with the first. And if you don’t know how, just write some more.
5. “The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.”
Translation: Excess tires readers. (I should know better, I have a terminal case of Writhritis). But more than excess per se, excessive explanation is also a way of justifying yourself, your words. It’s like trying to save your life after finding yourself guilty of the crime of mis-communication. It signals a lack of trust in your own art or ability to deliver it.
And if you don’t trust what you’re saying, why should the reader? Just have some faith. Don’t burn your bridges before you cross them.
6. “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”
Translation: The writing process is 10% writing and 90% rewriting, editing, chopping, retelling. And in that 90% of rewriting, you get to murder your ego time and again, and you succeed in finding your true voice, time and again. If anyone tells you otherwise, let them be hanged.
7. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Translation: Choose your words carefully. Don’t accept second bests if first is within your reach. If you’re already sweating through the gates of hell, why not stop and greet the devil?
Knowing that you can’t be perfect is all right and true. But if the only difference between your 85% and your 100% is a few careless words, why not sweat it all the way?
8. “Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar.”
Translation: Don’t obsess over typos or commas. Just write the whole thing as The Voices dictate. Make up words when needed, challenge the boundaries of language.
In a large body of work, what matters is the house, not the scratch on one of the windows. Besides, once you’re finished, you’ll have plenty of time to edit until you pass…and possibly, beyond death.
9. “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
Translation: Show me, don’t tell me. Worst of all, don’t tell me that you’re going to tell me. Be bold and just say it. You’re going to die anyway. And that lady will scream. So, now that you’re brave enough to say it unannounced, go a little further and show it.
Readers are just like you: they have imagination and they’d like to use it. Don’t chew, digest and poo your writing for them. Just invite them to dinner and make that offer as yummy as possible. Leave them the pleasure of interpretation. Don’t paint concepts with conceptual words, paint them with pictures.
10. “You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.”
Translation: Don’t be disappointed when you finally understand that you’re not perfect or a genius. The “genius” label is a modern misunderstanding of its original, ancient meaning. You can’t be a genius, you can have genius visitations or moments. They’re not particular to you, but to every member of the human race.
You can have excesses of brilliancy every now and then — yet on the other side of your yin-yang nature, you’re also capable of uttering the most embarrassing, illiterate and unpronounceable crap. Laugh at yourself (preferably with a snort) and spend some time under the bed so you don’t get hit by your own, obnoxious lightning. And then try again.
11. “Well, my book is written – let it go. But if I were only to write it over again there wouldn’t be so many things left out. They burn in me; and they keep multiplying; but now they can’t ever be said. And besides, they would require a library – and a pen warmed up in hell.”
Translation: The hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. Letting your baby fly. It’s hard because, as Leonardo da Vinci put it, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” You’re never done with anything, with anyone. But water flows. And guess what, you’re 70% water. It is the only way to move forward.
And through this lifetime journey of making and being your own art, when you get a chance, add this last bit of Twainish advice next to your other life-altering mantras:
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