Writing for Writers

Manila Bulletin, March 5, 2011 | Go to article overview

Writing for Writers


MANILA, Philippines - How can a beginning writer know a good how-to book on writing from a bad one? Is there a way to sort one from the other? What are the guidelines?Students and Campuses Bulletin corresponds with Peter Selgin, author of "Drowning Lessons", winner of the 2007 Flannery O'Connor Award for Fiction, and the novel "Life Goes to the Movies", as well as two books on writing, "By Cunning & Craft" and "179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers", which is just out from Writers Digest Books.STUDENTS AND CAMPUSES BULLETIN (SCB): As a successful writer, how do you get your ideas?PETER SELGIN (PS): Ideas are never in short supply - at least for me. It's very seldom that a day goes by without an idea for something - a story, an essay, a novel - occurring to me. Most of them I brush away like flies. But then there are some that are too good to resist, and others that keep after you persistently to where you finally give in to them. I think the real challenge for most writers isn't coming up with ideas, but choosing which ideas to pursue. You have to make informed judgements about the kind of raw material that you can make the most of. On the other hand, it's also not a bad idea now and then to try your hand at something completely unusual-say, in my case, a murder mystery, or a biography.SCB: What was the biggest challenge you encountered while you were beginning your first novel?PS: The answer to this question depends greatly on whether you mean first published on unpublished novel.By the time "Life Goes to the Movies", my first published novel, was finished, I'd written three others. The first I wrote when I was twenty-three and knew nothing about how novels were written, or how hard they are to write. This blissful ignorance made the task relatively easy; but it also accounts for the failure of the result. I think a certain amount of blind faith is good when writing, but it needs to be tempered with at least a general understanding of how fiction works.As for my first published novel, the biggest challenge there - since the material I worked with was almost entirely autobiographical - was making autobiography work as fiction, to shape it as art while still doing justice to certain experiences and relationships in my own life that I wanted to portray and pay tribute to.SCB: In what ways was your writing process different on your next succeeding works?PS: Since every project presents its own unique challenges one never gets the feeling - at least I don't - that one "knows how" to do something. I've also been a painter, and as a painter I had the same experience.Every painting is a series of discoveries and accidents (some happy, others disastrous). You never know how things are going to turn out. If you do, then the result is usually dead. In any creative process involving the imagination the real creativity happens in the space where you don't know what you're doing. Keats coined the term "negative capability" to describe this space. Every new work presents uswith a new set of unknowns that are the fertile ground in which, with luck and perseverance; a work of art will take root and flourish.On writingSCB: What do you enjoy about writing books on the craft?PS: I'm glad you asked this question. Great books about craft - books of practical instruction - are fairly rare. I could count those that I like using the fingers of one hand. When I set out to write about writing it was because I noticed how many books there were on craft, and how poorly written and even unreadable (in terms of style) most of them were.This seemed to me not only ironic but abominable. How can a good book about how to write be poorly written? The answer is that it can't- or shouldn't be. And while there are many very readable writing books that deal with the spiritual and emotional side of writing-Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird" comes to mind-such books have little, really, to say about craft. The challenge, then, is to provide reasonable instruction in a way that's exemplary and useful-and honest, since too many craft book's prey on the delusional hope that an enormously difficult undertaking can be made easy.

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