#16: The surprising truth about writing

After writing 15 newsletters and a short story, my writing is still a shit-hill.

As George Saunders explains in his book, “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain,” all writers are faced with a “shit-hill,” representing their bad writing. The first step to becoming a better writer is to accept that you have a shit-hill and then committing to working diligently on it, until, one day, your writing will stop being a shit-hill. 

Writers who are just starting out always want to know how to write better. It’s a valid question, and one that I’ve been grappling with too. Fortunately, there is plenty of material available online to help people write better and to ultimately find their voice. 

Finding your voice in writing is very difficult. Walt Whitman says,

We are large, we contain multitudes. There's more than one "us" in there.

We're choosing a voice from the many that we are able to do, to choose the one that's most energetic. You need to try on a lot of voices before uncovering your voice, the one voice that is truly yours, the one that fits you like a glove. 

You can only discover your voice through trial and error, through discomfort, vulnerability, and embarrassment. Your writing will be a shit-hill for a while, but it is your shit-hill. This is the shit you were dealt and it’s yours to work with. Fortunately, with time, patience, and resilience, you can create beauty by composting your shit, and eventually make great writing: a vehicle for sharing a beautiful message with the world.

Great writers must do whatever they can to make their readers feel. And the truth is, writers can move readers, despite their flaws. While reading A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, I was surprised to learn that the great Russian author, Ivan Turgenev, struggled with descriptions. Saunders, who teaches a class on Russian short stories at Syracuse University, writes that most of his students initially hate Turgenev’s short story, The Singers, because the first 11 pages seem to drone on with awkward and clumsy descriptions of scenery and characters. 

Despite the story’s clumsiness, The Singers is a literary masterpiece with important messages about exaltation, destiny, and technical proficiency vs. emotional power. Turgenev shares these messages through the use of binaries and juxtapositions in his descriptions of scenes and characters. I won’t get into the details of the plot, but I’ll leave you with what William James wrote about Turgenev:

But, as he [Turgenev] said, the defect of his manner and the reproach that was made him was his want of “architecture” -- in other words, of composition...If one reads Turgenev’s stories with the knowledge that they were composed -- or rather that they came into being -- in this way, one can trace the process in every line.


❤️ Thanks to my Foster editors Jordan Jones, Lyle McKeany, Stew Fortier, and Jesse Germinario


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