Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society – things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely, E. B. White
In 2007, Elmore Leonard published “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing,” a 89-page book in which he shared advice and commentary on the writing process. In it he writes: “These are the rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.”
Among his rules:
"Never open a book with weather."
"Keep your exclamation points under control."
"Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose.’"
"Avoid detailed descriptions of characters."
He also wrote in the book: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
One of my favorite regular features is the Times’ Modern Love column, and the curator has lately been sharing submission tips and archived columns via the Facebook page. I really enjoyed this entire tip today, which also explains in part why I like the columns so much:
Ideally, writing a personal essay is a process of discovery. You only understand the point of your essay after you’ve spent a lot of time and effort working on it. When you come up with a “pitch” for an essay, however, you must figure out that point at the start. The ensuing writing process often then becomes less about discovery than execution. You feel you must hew to that point. Any detours into new and unexpected terrain might threaten to derail or even undermine your point, so better not go there. Better snuff out that idea before it takes over the whole thing. Better not acknowledge that wayward truth or you may have to start all over.
I don’t accept pitches because with personal essays I feel almost anything can work or not work, and nearly every pitch sounds shallow and overly familiar to me anyway, even if it would make for a great essay in its particulars. But I still end up reading many essays that read as though they were written with a pitch mentality. They don’t seem to have grown organically or stumbled into surprising places or reached a place of heightened awareness. Instead, they feel constricted and workmanlike, hemmed in by a need to execute a pre-conceived point. Often this leads to an essay that consists of a series of examples in support of the controlling idea, like: Why our marriage is a study in contrasts but still works (or something along those lines).
It’s comforting to write that way, to not let yourself get lost, to write by following the essayist’s equivalent of a pre-set GPS device. And it can be scary and inefficient to careen off the road into the deep woods. You might waste all kinds of time and energy and still wind up totally lost. But you also might discover a place that can’t be boiled down into a two-sentence pitch. It just can’t. If someone wants to understand, they’re going to have to read the whole thing. And if you’ve done your job well, they’re going to want to.
It’s easy to cast off grammar as if it were a quaint vestige of some prim and proper era — a form of good manners or etiquette, like using the right fork. But without grammar, we lose the agreed-upon standards about what means what. We lose the ability to communicate when respondents are not actually in the same room speaking to one another. Without grammar, we lose the precision required to be effective and purposeful in writing.
Yes, this is important. Unlike the grunt of pleasure or pain one might express in the moment, written language endures over time.
Hear, hear. (Not “here … here.”)
Next, Nora fixed me up with Michael Fuchs, then CEO of HBO. He picked me up at my office with a car and driver and took me to a cocktail party hosted by Woody Allen’s cinematographer Dharius Khondji. Fuchs worked the room while I clung to the baked Brie for dear life.
Coming home in the limo after an expensive Italian dinner in the West Village, he fell asleep, his head slumping onto my breasts, his open water bottle dribbling onto my leg and into my handbag.
"Mortifying," I hissed to Nora the next day on the phone.
"No, material!" she countered, laughing. "It’s great! People love to hear bad stories that happen to other people."
Material was one thing I was struggling for as a writer in my 20s. I was also searching for my voice, when all I wanted was Nora’s.
More: A friend remembers Nora Ephron, by Melina Bellows.