Wednesday, January 1, 2020

"Remember that Writing is not Typing"

Rebecca Solnit is a writer who crosses the boundaries of history, politics, feminism, and social criticism. I especially enjoyed River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, which tells the story of the photographer who managed to capture high-speed motion in California in 1872 but also a meditation about the roots of Hollywood and Silicon Valley and the modern industrial economy.  A few years ago she wrote a short essay: "How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit--Joy, Suffering, Reading, and Lots and Lots of Writing" (Literary Hub website, September 13, 2016). It's a quick, fun read, but here are a few of her thoughts about writing that especially caught my eye:
Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing, with revisions as you go, and then more revisions, deletions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work. Typing is this little transaction in the middle of two vast thoughtful processes. There is such thing as too much revision—I’ve seen things that were amazing in the 17th version get flattened out in the 23rd—but nothing is born perfect. Well, some things almost are, but they’re freaks. And you might get those magical perfect passages if you write a lot, including all the stuff that isn’t magic that has to be cut, rethought, revised, fact-checked, and cleaned up. ...

Time. It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies.

Facts. Always get them right. The wrong information about a bumblebee in a poem is annoying enough, but inaccuracy in nonfiction is a cardinal sin. No one will trust you if you get your facts wrong, and if you’re writing about living or recently alive people or politics you absolutely must not misrepresent. (Ask yourself this: do I like it when people lie about me?) No matter what you’re writing about, you have an obligation to get it right, for the people you’re writing about, for the readers, and for the record. It’s why I always tell students that it’s a slippery slope from the things your stepfather didn’t actually do to the weapons of mass destruction Iraq didn’t actually have. If you want to write about a stepfather who did things your stepfather didn’t, or repeat conversations you don’t actually remember with any detail, at least label your product accurately.