Uniquely fusing practical advice on writing with his own insights into the craft, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes constructs beautiful prose about the issues would-be writers are most afraid to articulate: How do I dare write? Where do I begin? What do I do with this story I have to tell that fills and breaks my heart? Rich with personal vignettes about Rhode's sources of inspiration, How to Write is also a memoir of one of the most original and celebrated writers of our day.
Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) has enjoyed a long career as a magazine writer and as an author, mainly of verity his preferred term for nonfiction but also of some (less heralded) novels. This book has the virtues and defects of a long chat at Rhodes's table: the author offers worthy encouragement for fighting psychological barriers, and useful advice on tools and research. His discussion of voice and structure, though aimed at both writers of fiction and writers of verity, is a bit sketchy for fictioneers. Similarly, while his guidance on writing magazine articles is interesting, his take on the business of writing after the usual caveats regarding its difficulty relies a bit much on his happy war stories. Most useful, and unusual in books of this genre, is the author's textured account of the editing process, including his own blow-by-reworked-blow example of an essay-in-the-making. This isn't quite a comprehensive guide but an encouraging companion, especially for those familiar with Rhodes's work.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 15, 1996
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Excerpt from How to Write by Richard Rhodes
'Words Like a Life Rope'
If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do? You're a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle.
There are more ways to tell a story than there are stories to ten; a story is a map, and maps always simplify. You write a story whenever you put words on paper -- even filling in a license form. A love letter or a business letter, a novel or a narrative, a short story or a news story, a screenplay, a song lyric, a family or scholarly history, a legal brief, a technical manual, a biography or an autobiography, a personal journal, a scientific paper, a photo caption, an essay, a poem, a sermon, advertising copy, schoolwork -- all these and many others are forms of story you may wish to write.
The challenge is to get from where you are to where you want to be. That probably won't be easy or quick. Writing is work, hard work, and its rewards are personal more than financial, which means most people have to do it after hours. But if writing is work, learning to write isn't necessarily painful. To the contrary, silence is pain that writing relieves. Our uniqueness isolates us. Writing, we make our way out of our isolation onto the commons that we share. It's an emotional experience. You stumble gibbering into the valley of the shadow; you pull yourself hand over hand to ecstatic heights. Beyond those terrific passages gathers the community of readers, an open, world community of people-men, women, and children-who want and need to hear.
Writing is only one kind of making. Loving, raising children, doing the work that buys our groceries, are kinds of making as well. But because writing i's structured from a common code, it's more durable than the private events that fill our lives. Books know no hierarchy and abolish space and time. We read Montaigne and know what it was like to be Montaigne, four hundred years ago, and may at least hope that someone will read us and know us four hundred years hence. Only temples and pyramids enjoy such permanence as writing enjoys. Human memory is the only certain immortality; books are memory's hard copy. Presidents and royals may read your work, your great-grandchildren, devoted fans in Red Rock, Arizona, or Timbuktu. The Iliad has been sung for three thousand years.
Writers are people who write. If you need a place to begin, begin there. Years ago, I came off active duty in the United States Air Force with a pregnant wife and one hundred dollars to my name. I was living in Kansas City at the time and found work at Hallmark Cards, writing the daily employee newspaper. A poet who made his living teaching English told me scornfully that such writing was drivel and I'd be better off driving a cab. But five mornings a week by 10 A.M. I had to fill two sides of an 8 1/2-by-11 sheet of paper with news-of promotions and retirements, of corporate doings, of births and marriages and deaths. The forms of the stories I wrote were highly stylized, the contents carefully censored, but every morning by 10 A.M. I had to get the Spam to the front line. At Yale I had chosen not to take the only creative writing course the university offered, which was called Daily Themes and which required a page of original writing delivered to the instructor's door every morning, five days a week. Now Hallmark was paying me to double that production. (The poet would say there's no comparison. He'd be wrong. Every form you learn to write, no matter how mundane, is another tool in your kit.) 1 worked in the Hallmark public relations department for a man named Conrad Knickerbocker, the public relations manager, who had already begun publishing book reviews and fiction. After I got to know Knick a little, I asked him timidly how you become a writer. He said more pungently what I wrote at the beginning of this paragraph. He said, "Rhodes, you apply ass to chair." I call that solidgold advice the Knickerbocker Rule.
But I was afraid, as you may be afraid. Who was I? What right had I to speak? My fear manifested itself as creative paralysis. In those days I was trying to write fiction. I could write the Hallmark employee newspaper, the sales bulletin, the employee magazine, and product press releases day in, day out almost without faltering, but if I began a short story or worked on a novel in the evening at home I drifted into trance states and couldn't push through, couldn't continue and finish. I had writer's block before I became a writer. Nor was the quality of what I was writing even close to what I wanted it to be. I wrote Joycean or Faulknerian pastiches; when I tried to write in my own voice I overworked my sentences to the point of affectation. I was three hands clapping. I was too tight.