A cavalcade of writing stars: Tom Wolfe, Peter De Vries, John Updike, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Mary Karr and more!, plus Steve and Justin Townes Earle, plus bluebird porn
I'm so far behind on everything right now, I just got around to this!
I was a freelance translator for a dozen years, which is a weird sort of social ailment. Feast-or-famine, you sit at the computer waiting to see if a job comes in, keeping your schedule clear otherwise, since every translation job is urgent, *urgent, URGENT!!! As a result, I spent too much time at a computer with leisure time to become a comment section novelist, or somesuch... And one day I decided, enough! I've got to get out and see real people again and not be perpetually on call for this glorified stenography. I've got to talk to people face to face. I've got to work with physical objects again--things you can drop on your foot, for instance, rather than keyboard abstractions.
I totally agree with your advice about reading more than you write. And here, I think I've long ago arrived at the conclusion that the quality of the writing matters, and the quality of the writing is mostly in the eye of the beholder. It's a question of personal taste and preference, if you're dealing with writing that at least respects the conventions of our standard language. Otherwise, it's a question of whether something speaks to me or not, I suppose in part because readers are, as you observe, selfish.
I also agree that there's enough, maybe too much, talk about writing and writerly advice. You're no fan of Strunk and White, whereas I am. But then I'm not widely read in the genre. Beyond their concise overview, I find the subject itself rather boring, to be honest, which makes it soon tiresome and tedious for me personally.
As a matter of personal taste, I've got no use for poetry, either. There! I said it. Apart from the rhymie stuff, it all sails far too high above my head, I suppose. Very little of it speaks to me. Maybe if someone writes my a writing advice book as freeform poetry, finally I'll *get* it. Maybe.
Now I'm in a typical pinch, though, for this time of year, having too much to do that I don't have enough time for all the Substacks I've subscribed to, and for the pile of books I don't ever seem to get around to hacking away at. I'm a slow reader, too.
I don't find writing tiresome or cumbersome. I write often just for the helluvit. It'd be a different beast if it were about making a living, though. I write for myself just to record stuff before I forget it. Or to banter and chit-chat with others, mostly online. But for any other purpose? I long ago decided I don't actually have any f*cking thing I need or want to say that's of any value to anyone but me, for getting my own jollies. That's the only thing that gives it any value: as a sort of passtime and for sorting out my own thoughts and ideas.
My two best writing "tips" are from John Gardner ('Grendal', etc.)
1) Don't insert anything that "breaks the dream" -- nothing awkward, cutesy, confusingly worded, or overly clever... it's like the author of a play peeking out from the curtain at stage left to waggle his fingers at the audience, saying: "It's just a play!"
2) All great works of literature contain at least the smallest hint of the "supernatural" -- something that's unexplained, that sticks with the reader after he's done.
Thanks for your time. :)
TY for trashing S&W, the worthless "style" book believed by so many English and writing professionals to be worth the paper it's printed on. (See Geoff Pullum's tour de force at www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/50years.pdf .) You're one of the few, besides Pullum, who has the courage to tell the truth about S&W.
Super late to these valuable observations on writing. I’m not a writer myself, though I’ve tried my hand at a few memoirs just for the mental exercise and my own amusement. About the craft, all I can say is that it’s hard work (so thank you, Matt). About the product and it’s effects, I think really good poetry or prose is transparent to its meaning—the reader apprehending the writer’s thoughts directly, unmediated by the words on the page.
This is at least the third post of yours that literally made me cry (although this time to be fair it was second hand via Steve Earle's Last Words).
Damn this life can be hard, and I have been finding myself become tired and numbed to most everything. Thanks for doing your part to jar the door back open again.
Thanks, Matt. For giving us a brief but welcome respite from political juice.
Nice piece. As a hobby travel writer, I’ll remember the key take away: Write drunk, edit sober.
For what it’s worth . . . I enjoy your uniquely creative use of punctuation and savage parentheticals. They make me smile. If we ever meet in person, I promise not to blather.
Thank you, for the writing part in particular. I needed this.
And I will be sharing it with two young men in the final high school stretch. One has been accepted in journalism/ communications and the other has no clue what he wants to study but has mentioned writing fiction. He'd be good at it (I told him not to go to college for that, though.).
Matt, I couldn't give a tinker's cuss about fishing truthfully but you write about it so beautifully and spiritually I feel tempted to try it out almost every time I finish one of your essays about it. I always wonder what I'm missing out on.
Edit to add: Thank you so much for updated bluebird pictures <3
Slack Tide proves why it’s important to read if you’re going to write. Using your stories, like this one about writing, shows how a skilled writer can embellish a “dry” topic with wit, wisdom and examples. I wanted to do more reading when I retired, but there’s this stupid iPad with Twitter, Drudge Report, etc. that wastes my time and is hard to put down. But it’s also where I read Slack Tide so thank you for your periodic doses of worthwhile reading that broaden my perspective and help me keep my sanity.
Bluebird Mama’s Day, Justin Earle’s “Mama’s Eyes” bookended with Dad’s “Last Word”.
*****!!!!!! I hadn’t heard either, but Last Word brought to mind Steve Earle’s “Nothing But a Child” that he wrote in the 80’s when Justin would have been a young child. I play/sing it at Christmas every year and when there is a new birth among family or friends. Townes, what can you say, a master song writer who lived a troubled life of addiction - and still managed to write some of the best songs ever. I remember my guitar teacher introducing me to him with “If I Needed You” and “Tecumseh Valley”. Maybe a question you can ponder is why artists of all stripes can live such tortured lives?
P.S. I don’t fish, but I love reading about your fish stories.
On writing: Many insights, thank you.
Eggs to fledglings in a few weeks. On just a regurgitated diet of worms, or whatever.
But it takes two decades of toil, for a human mother. All due honor and respect.
Wonderful column today! Love the bluebirds, thank you for sharing them with us. Thanks also for introducing me to Peter DeVries; looking forward to reading him.
Wolfe was always my go-to answer for the ‘Who would you want to have dinner conversation with’ question, and now in his absence, you would be a strong contender (pending hearing back from Richard Petty).
Honorable mention to Walker Percy, although the sex stuff was a little over the top sometimes. The chapter from Lost in the Cosmos where John Calvin, John Pelham, and an alien (of the intergalactic variety) show up for a debate on the Phil Donahue Show is weirdfunny beyond my ability to describe.
Should of read include not inclune
Matt you are an amazing writer Incline yourself amongst the most talented. . So happy to be part of Slack Tide community. You are a gift. You make me laugh and cry and think and you have expanded both my musical and literary world. Today for Mothers day my husband and 2 grown children bought me a new hummingbird feeder a cedar birdhouse and tray feeder and bird bath!. Thank you!
Well said, I think symbiotic is a real good way to put it. We are a team, and nothing gets done if we don’t work together.