Essays on Writing and Life
by James Sallis

Never mind working without a net; living as a writer is like working without even the tightrope, learning to balance, suspended, in mid-air. That's the way James Sallis has lived for almost forty years, publishing a blizzard of novels, short stories, poems, essays, translations and biographies in everything from "Transatlantic Review" to "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction." Two rules, he says. Put your butt in the chair. Don't look down.  
WFL columns

Writing from Life
Babe the Blue Ox, and Mike
Stalked by Poetry!
Approaching the Page
Repopulating Oz
On Just Saying No
Distress Signals
Tiny Blurbles

Writing By the Seat of Your Pants

Okay. Here I am, preparing to teach writing for the first time in, what?, nine, ten years? When I first taught, ages ago — I was about twelve years old, and seem to recall that a number of students rode buffalo to class — I did so beneath the protective cover of thinking that I knew what it was all about. A young man's fancy. These days I know less and less. Besides which, a lot of what one does as a serious artist is finally about being in doubt, accepting that you don't know where you're going and doing your best to get there anyway. And as years pile up, the hardest thing's the struggle against doing what you've done before, what you know how to do. It's a battle you fight all your working life.

A painter friend once told me how every day he goes into his studio and stands there looking at the canvas and thinks: This is the day. This is the day they're all going to realize I don't have a clue, that I've been faking it all along. Then he gets to work.

There is, too, the fact that many years ago (around the time those newfangled bicycle things replaced buffalo outside the classroom) I gave up writing the well-made story. Apostasy of the frankest sort. I was bored with such stories, they were too tame, too predictable. Too unrewarding. I vowed to write only stories, poems and books in which I had no idea where I was going, pieces continuously improvised, pieces in which I surprised myself — hoping some portion of that surprise would be transmitted to the reader.

Like my painter friend, and like poet George Oppen in the lines below, I hold that:

I might at the top of my ability stand at the window
and say, look out; out there is the world.

That's it. That's the best we can hope for. That's what we do. We're bird dogs. We get the hunter's attention and point, show him where the game is.

So, all this being said, why should I presume to think I have anything to pass along to newer writers?

Especially when all they really need is this one pure-gold nugget of writerly gnosis from John Updike. "What's the hardest part of writing?" an interviewer asked Updike. "Getting up the stairs to work every morning," he replied.

Oh, yes.

So, anyway, here I am about to teach for the first time in a decade or so and I've been thinking about the most important things I can tell a new writer. Well, for starters,

THAT UPDIKE THING. Get yourself up those stairs, get your butt in the chair, get words on paper. Most of us have to write out an awful lot of terrible stuff, shovel away a lot of sod, before we get down to the rich deposits. Seems obvious, doesn't it — you want to write, write — but it forever amazes me how many sit around

WAITING FOR INSPIRATION. About which I have one thing to say: Don't. None of the best stuff falls on you from out of the sky. And much of the best stuff just appears there beneath your hand or on the screen, unsuspected, unplanned, as you're writing. Inertia is the great force of the universe. Refuse to be an object at rest. Don't fail, either, to

TURN OFF THE CENSOR. We've all got them, these little devils on our right shoulder, and every time the little angel on the left shoulder says Write!, the little devil on the right shoulder says: You're not good enough. Or, if you've actually managed to get something down: This isn't good enough. The more a person has read, the better his or her critical faculties, the more difficult becomes shutting this little sucker down. One thing that may help here is

DON'T WRITE UP. Write the way you talk, the way you think. Nothing will freeze up the engine faster than trying for some presupposed notion of the literary. You have a new car, you break it in; you don't take it out right away to see what it can do. Another way of loosening up is

WRITE DIFFERENT THINGS. Okay, you're a poet. So now spend a week writing a short story. Or, from the other shore, take a break from that story that's got you so jammed up and write three lyric poems. Just three, then you can go home. Switching genres can be as valuable as learning a language; it's not all about vocabulary, it's about changing the way you see the world and the way you think, about prying open doors and windows — and some of those doors and windows have been closed a long time. Still, all the while you're writing away, don't forget to

READ. Anything, everything. Many writers feel guilty about taking time away from their writing to read. But for us, reading is not only pleasure, it's food, water, sunlight, essential nutrients. Then when you've read a while, go back to your own writing and

REVISE. For many of us, it's during revision that the story or poem actually happens. First drafts can be horrible enough to frighten unborn children and send cockroaches scurrying off. If a piece didn't quite work the first or fifth or tenth time, try again. Or put it away and go on to something else, but come back later. You'd be surprised how many stunted stories and poems come out of files or notebooks after months or years and suddenly get their growth.

And now, dear readers — a special reward for those who've stuck it out this long — the single most valuable piece of advice I can give you, second only to John Updike's priceless nugget back at the beginning of this column:

WHEN IN DOUBT, CUT. I've never seen a story- or poem-in-progress that could not be made better by judicious cutting. Most often whenever I come to a jarring stop, don't know what happens next, seem to have lost my feel for the story or poem, it's because something extraneous has worked its way in. Sometimes this happened a sentence or a paragraph back, sometimes much farther back. Each time I print out a page, I go over it with a red pen, excising individual words, taking out whole paragraphs with a single oblique line. The slash and burn approach to literary creation.

I remember an exercise my friend Chip Delany gave students years ago when upon occasion we taught workshops together. Chip would have the students go through one of their stories and mark out every third word. He wanted them to see that it still made sense more or less, wanted them to realize how little was lost so that they'd start thinking about concision, choice, clarity, clean and uncluttered language — all those writerly things.

So there it is, everything I have to pass on about writing: the content of my first class.

Only fourteen more to go.

The final book in Jim's Lew Griffin series, Ghost of a Flea, is just being released in trade paperback by Walker & Company. A book of Sallis translations will be available online shortly from Obscure Publications.