Okay, it's hero time again, no, no, not George Saunders, the other guy. On a sentence by sentence, pure writing form, I think Richard Ford is probably my biggest influence. That's not to say I write like him - but who does? He is one writer that I love to read slowly, just to soak in his words. There's a Globe and Mail interview that asks writers who writes the best sentences – for me, it's always Ford.
I also love to listen to him in interviews. He has lost most of the Southern accent (at least to my ears), but he has a voice that is so full of integrity somehow. Maybe that sounds weird or pretentious. But Ford is the guy that makes me want to be a better writer, and like George Saunders, a better human.
His book, Rock Springs is my favourite short story collection of all time (and not just mine, it shows up on a lot best of lists). In an interview from Smokelong Quarterly, I said it was the book I obsessed about the most.
But to cut to it, Ford acts as my writerly conscious. Whenever I'm feeling a bit underwhelmed by what I'm writing, or attempting to write, there can be the temptation to just say, "ah well, good enough. Let's just get this puppy done."
Where I grew up we were always getting "puppies done" – sporting games that needed finishing, holes that needed digging, beers that needed drinking (those might have been called dead soldiers instead of puppies - because, dead puppies? Ew.), and generally tasks that just needed getting done were sometimes referred in that way. Let's get that puppy done.
I digress. In a nostalgic way.
I picture Ford over my shoulder, or maybe even on my shoulder, gently chastising me in that wonderfully sonorous voice, really Craig? Is that good enough? Are you writing something that matters? Because if you're not, then why aren't you. There are plenty of other careers or pursuits that one can attend to. In fact---
All right all right all right, RICHARD. I got it! I need to do better. I need to do the heavy lifting.
People ask me if I find writing hard. Or more often, they are about to embark on their own writerly quest (hey, I've got a novel in my head, and I just need to put it down on paper.). It's not that hard is it? I remember the Samuel Jackson character in an Elmore Leonard movie (Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, maybe?), waxing on how writing is easy, you just put down the story and then you get some other dude to put in the punctuation and shit. (Wrong - see below)
Edit - Geez louise, I can't believe I got this wrong. This great piece was done by the amazing Delroy Lindo in Get Shorty - talking with John Travolta about screenplays. "That's what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn't like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn't you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas . . . where they belong, if you aren't positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I've even seen scripts where I know words weren't spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don't think it's too important."
Well, Delroy, and the dude with the novel in your head, here's the deal. It's hard. No wait, it's really hard. No, better, writing a novel is probably the single hardest thing I've done. Heavy lifting? Yeah, get ready. In fact, maybe you should stretch.
Another writer that I admire deeply is Don DeLillo. He was asked once why his books were so hard (DeLillo can be dense, and difficult to read, especially if you are looking to breeze through a narrative.) He said, "truth should be hard."
Now maybe you think that sounds a bit much. But I don't think he was being pretentious or arrogant – if you are a writer, and have attempted to do the required heavy lifting, you know exactly what he was getting at. Ford (in the interview below) downplays his own intelligence, saying that writing is a physical act for him because he's not very smart. And he says other writers might be more deft, make things look easy. He also quotes Hemingway's, never let them see you sweat. And Ford says, I don't want them (the reader) to see me sweat, but I don't mind sweating. In truth, writing requires a helluva lot of sweating. You better have some towels on hand.
There was an animated meme going around where two big-headed creatures spoke in robotic voices – and one told the other they were going to write a novel. And it would be easy, and he would make millions of dollars, and it would only take him a few days to do it. Maybe you saw it. Or maybe after viewing, you heard the collective cry of all those authors that were reliving those cocktail parties where people, upon finding out you were a writer, went on to tell you about the novel they had in their head.
Seriously – all these people with novels in your heads. What's the deal? Isn't there someway we can tap into that? An Amazon of the mind. New this fall, the book in Bob's head. Plug it into your MindReader © if you want to download it directly from Bob's head.
Hmm, I may be onto something. Yes, that is my copyright symbol, so back off that puppy.
So dear blog reader, what's the lesson here? Writing is hard as fuck. Hmm, that doesn't sound that helpful. Can you lighten that up a bit? No.
I guess, this isn't a cry for writers to be lofted up, or placed into some hard workers club – there's lot of people that are hard workers, in different ways, mental, physical, emotional. My wife worked as an ER nurse for ten years. You want hard? No, this is more of a know what you're signing up for when you begin to learn the art and craft of writing. And it's my admonishment to myself, when I slack off, and try to get my lackluster, or even semi-lustered work out the door. For me, that rich voice of Richard Ford is always telling me gently, but insistently, you can do better.
Here is a fairly recent interview from the Danish literary festival, in Copenhagen, Denmark (called the Louisiana Literature Festival – after the Danish museum), where he talks about the heavy lifting. It is only 12 minutes, and definitely worth the time - but if you want to jump ahead to where he talks about this it's around the 7 minute mark. But then stick around for his story of the first serious art he encountered - sitting on the amp of Howlin' Wolf.
Now, that would be a story.