“Beret Man”

When I begin to write a book, writing my daily word count with my fountain pen in my hand, following one sentence with the next, struggling to find the tone and feel and thread of a book, trying to discover what might be discovered at the end of the line of words, I am Beret Man.

 

In those early days of writing a new book, the heady days, the days when I feel as though I am an actual artist, going to work wearing such a stylish chapeau is in order.

 

The first trick is to keep the artist working.

 

When I have my beret on, I do not look back at the work as I write. If I criticize and edit and point out the flaws too soon, I can dampen my spirit and discourage myself before I have a chance to discover what it turns out I am trying to make.

 

I already know better than anyone that much of what Beret Man writes at this stage will reveal itself to be not good enough to be read by anyone. But many of the holes the new book has can be fixed later. Right now nothing can be allowed to get in the way of this new thing.

 

I do not bother Beret Man with the hard work of craftsmanship required to turn a pile of scribbling into a book that someone might want to read. The time for rewriting will come soon enough but not until the man in the beret has finished.

 

“Writing anything,” as Gordon Lightfoot once observed about the art he made brilliantly for so many years, “is a fragile magic at best.” He and Mr. Updike may or may not have known each other, but they were clearly on the same page.

 

Criticize the man in the beret too often or too soon or too harshly in the beginning, and he will put down his pen, afraid and discouraged and hesitant. It is right to leave him alone a bit, let him believe the work is golden.

 

Soon enough the truth will be apparent.

 

– Robert Benson, from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen”

 

Wildly Controversial

Erring on the side of audaciousness – trying to grab the customer by the throat – is partly why a lot of the projects we are talking about were wildly controversial and, in some cases, deeply upsetting when they launched. Think of Orson Welles combining fact and fiction in his famous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds – in that moment he was reinventing entertainment and deeply scaring people at the same time.  Think of Matisse’s Blue Nude being burned in effigy in 1913. (Today you can buy a print of it at Walmart.) Think of D. H. Lawrence’s novels banned for their obscenity. Think of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which invented a new genre of nonfiction – people were incensed; was it real or not? Think of the technology that is subject to protests and reactive legislation – from Airbnb to Uber. Eventually, they become a part of our daily lives, but at first there is something deeply shocking and forceful to them. “Either you’re controversial,” as the perpetually controversial writer Elizabeth Wurtzel advises creatives, “or nothing at all is happening.”

 

– from “Perennial Seller” by Ryan Holiday

 

In Praise of Revision

Every writer I know who’s worth a damn spends way more time “losing” than “winning” – if success means typing a polished page that lands in print as is. Scriveners tend to arrive at good work through revision. Look at Yeat’s chopped-up fixes in facsimile form, or Ezra Pound’s swashbuckling edits of Eliot’s Waste Land. Without radical overhaul, those works might have sunk like stones.

 

In fact, after a lifetime of hounding authors for advice, I’ve heard three truths from every mouth: (1) Writing is painful – it’s “fun” only for novices, the very young, and hacks; (2) other than a few instances of luck, good work only comes through revision; (3) the best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age, which lends them a sense of history and raises their standards for quality.

 

– from “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr

 

 

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