Want to be a writer? Buy a pen.


Want to be a writer?  Please stay out of the Paris cafés.  The French are sick of seeing you there.

Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the “tech weenie” (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000’s worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his moleskin.

This is author Mark Helprin‘s free advice in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. He sincerely wants to help out all those who are “insane enough to want to make a living in this cultural climate by writing fiction that is neither politicized, confessional, nihilistic, sexualized, sensationalist, nor crafted with the vocabulary and syntax of Dick and Jane…”  Well that leaves me out.  Perhaps he’s feeling full of himself, as he’s about to publish In Sunlight and Shadow on Tuesday (read a review here).

Forget it.

He does advise you to buy a pen.  He insists that “there’s magic in writing by hand.”  That’s where he and I part company.  I don’t see why writers wax sentimental over pens.  They are much, much slower than thought, and careful penmanship can unduly sway you about how good your writing is. An elegant hand can disguise inelegant thought more than a scribble on an envelope can. I prefer computers.  Seeing the bald words in mutable Times New Roman quickly unmasks the mediocrity of your ideas. And there’s nothing like an empty screen to intimidate you out of your torpor.

He continues joyfully:  “More valuable than speed or being struck by what you think is lightning (and others usually do not) is concentration. When asked how he managed to come up with the calculus, surely one of the greatest achievements possible for the mortal mind, Newton replied, ‘I thought of nothing else.'”

I fail again!  I think of everything else.  I think about checking my inbox, on all my accounts.  I think of checking CNN every few minutes to see if anything has exploded.  I think about how I should be concentrating more.  I think about dark chocolate – a lot.

Clearly, I’ll never be a writer.  I should just abandon decades and find another way of making a living.

Only seven readers commented to the piece so far – several are advertising pens to buy.  And Jean-Pierre Cauvin takes Helprin to task for his comment that Voltaire “wrote “Phèdre” in six days flat.”  It was Racine, of course.


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