Writing Strategies

Those who write can, those who can’t write about it.  That’s the plain and simple fact. If you can’t make money writing, you have to try making money writing about writing. Make up stuff about how to write and develop strategies to aid writers.

You think I’m off base? Ask one of these self-appointed writing strategists if they’d rather write a splendid novel or another tome on writing and if they were honest, I’d bet they’d opt for the novel.

Writing isn’t a product that can be analyzed, formulated and peddled. It’s a process. It’s running through a field of ideas, emotions, characters, accents, events and grabbing as many as you can, herding them inside then sitting down and trying to organize them into a story. If the story doesn’t come together, you ditch it and head out to the field again. What field? Your field, the one that’s in your head, your imagination. And trying to organize your imagination is worse than herding cats. It isn’t organized, it’s wonderfully random, that’s why it works so magically.

I used to work in advertising. And we had strategies up the wazoo. All energetically worked over, carefully researched and checked out with the consumer and then neatly typed out and attached to every meeting document. Kind of the Holy Grail or the Lord’s Prayer. Some young assistant brand manager would seriously intone the strategy at the beginning of every client creative meeting. But again and again, I saw that the advertising that really connected with the consumer was not the one that was on strategy, but the ad that took off in some unexpected new direction and sold the hell out of the product. Anyone stupid enough to point out that the amazing ad was off strategy was shushed out of the room. For the smart people knew that anyone can write a strategy but not everyone can write a great ad.

Like a sales pitch. I’m sure every car manufacturer has paid millions of dollars to strategize what an effective sales pitch should look like. But then the ace salesmen throws that pitch to the wind and makes Chevrolet sales history by putting his own special spin on it.

Plus any attempt to strategize implies standardizing, one size fits all. And that might work if you’re teaching a set, formal discipline but not when each imagination is so marvelously different.

Now if I’m sounding like I have some problem with writing strategists, you’re all wrong. They are free to do what they like or to do what will make money which always makes you like a profession more.

Strategies for writing are like strategies for cashing in on the stock market. Some might work by chance, just by luck, but what makes a great stock trader is gut instinct, knowing exactly when to buy and sell. Can’t be quantified except in the grossest terms. Just as in writing you can say, you should write about what you know. But then a great writer like Eudora Welty comes along and says the opposite, write about what you don’t know about what you know. So where are the rules? Grisham told me you have to have a main character that’s likeable. Okay, that’s his rule, but does that mean every other writer has to follow it? Certainly not.

The problem I have with writing strategists is not the strategists themselves, but the people who read them. Because writers who read writing about writing are succumbing to the dread disease of procrastination. The dread of facing the page. It’s real and tormenting to the Nth degree. If you let it.

Never have I had a blank sheet of paper have so much to communicate. “What makes you think you can write?” is one thing the sheet said to me. Another time, the sheet said, “You are wasting your time, Vanderwarker, when are you going to wake up and realize that?” Blank sheets can say anything you project onto them and writers, being notoriously insecure, have loads to transmit so the blank page is always crammed full of self-doubts, cautions and can’t do that’s.

So you have to stare past the page, ignore then danger signals you’ve posted on it and begin to push the tips of your fingers down on the keys.

For a writer, reading about writing strategies is a certain waste of time. As Barbara O’Neal recently said, ““Writers write. They write and write and write and write, until they write themselves into their own understanding of who they are and what they bring to the page.”

Or the other quote from Welty that I love, “You’re not writing unless you surprise yourself.” Unless out the field of your imagination comes a thought, feeling, sentence or character that you didn’t expect of yourself. And no strategy will ever give you that.