“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.“
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.“
From a writing point of view, does it matter where you live? Cities, large cities, have been where, historically, and culturally, literature thrives. It is cities where multitudes of diverse peoples live, where you are bound to interact with folks not like yourself, where talk fills your ears, where emotions are street attractions and the hurly-burly urban world provides endless stimulation. Or, as Samuel Johnson put it, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Any large city might do.
I have lived in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Providence, Denver, Philadelphia, London, and Venice, Italy. It is mostly New York, London, and San Francisco, which have, I believe, had an impact on my writing, New York most of all—with some fifteen books or so set there. (But then, I grew up in New York.) Writing my forthcoming book, Catch You Later, Traitor (Algonquin), a NYC tale set in the 1950’s, released a host of complex and very real memories to create what I think is one of my better books.
Yet, having grown up in a city of eight million, I now reside high in the Rocky Mountains, in a community numbering thirteen, of which my wife and I count for two and the others are at least a mile away. (We are still looking forward to meeting them all.) Therefore, another forthcoming book, Old Wolf (Athenaeum) is a fable about old age and youth, set in these mountains. It is not something I would have written if I had lived only in cities. Indeed, last night, I was out gazing up at the vast Milky Way that graces our heaven and I thought, the darker the night the brighter the stars. Not a city thought.
But ultimately, it is what and how you see the world that shapes you, the writer, not your street address. Just reread To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.
Samuel Johnson was the preeminent 18th century English literary lion, essayist, critic, and creator of the most important dictionary of the English Language until the OED. When I sent in a new manuscript to my editor, I remembered his words: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Which is to say, having sent in the book, I was suddenly full of misgivings, enough so I went back to the book and found all kinds of things that wanted changing, from dropped words, to rephrasing of paragraphs. I have had this happen before, experiencing everything from remorse to simple embarrassment, after I sent in my work.
Having remembered Johnson, I recalled some things he said about writing.
“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
“Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
Dylan, from Lincoln, Nebraska, writes, “Do you think you are a good writer?”
In fact, Dylan, I do not consider myself a good writer. But I do think I’m a very good rewriter. Oh, now and again I write something that works well the first time. Not often. I find that I have to go over and over my text sixty, eighty, a hundred times. I cut, I add, and often change things in a big way. My best work emerges slowly, very slowly. I have also learned that those parts of my work that I’ve changed the least are quite often the parts that have to be taken out.
In that regard, I’ve always liked this anecdote. Someone once said to Samuel Johnson, the great 18th Century literary figure: “Mr. Johnson, my friend has written a great book, with wonderful passages, but he cannot find a publisher.” Johnson is said to have replied, “Tell your friend to remove those wonderful passages, and he will have a much better book.” In writing, as elsewhere, less is often more.
There is a Samuel Johnson story I have always loved, though I have no idea where I read it, or how true it is. I recall it as something like this. His friend Boswell said to him, “Mr. Johnson, I have a friend who has written a fine book with many splendid passages, but no publisher will take it. What shall he do?” To which Johnson is said to have replied, “Tell your friend to remove all his splendid passages, and he will have a book he can sell.”
When writing a book, particularly a long one, it’s quite common to write such “splendid passages,” fine-honed paragraphs you, well, love. But if you do revise your book thoroughly—as you should—and yet those passages remain utterly untouched, you might consider taking Johnson’s advice. Such passages are often, in fact, road bumps on an otherwise smooth path.
I’ve learned—perhaps to soothe my own vanity—to cut those passages, and (working with a computer) park them at the end of the manuscript, telling myself they are not gone, just held in reserve. More often than not, I forget about them. Then, when I come upon them, I find myself asking, “Why did I ever save this?” Away goes that splendid passage—and I have a better book.