Monday, June 22, 2015

Michael Coffey's Writing Advice: Don't (Necessarily) Eschew Adverbs

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Michael Coffey, author of The Business if Naming Things (Bellevue Literary Pressoffers ten writing tips.

Although I am hardly in a position to dispense writing advice, having never taught or participated in a writing workshop, I have been writing all my adult life and trying to write well. What “well” means is certainly no absolute; it is truly a relative concept, relative to what the writer needs to do and wants to do and is capable of doing. Just because you cannot write with the style of [choose an author whose work you admire] does not mean that you must give up on writing “well.” I write sentences and try to improve them to my satisfaction. But there are some things I have learned, for myself, about myself and my style of expression, that I can share.

1. Do not write every day for the sake of writing every day. I find it can be not only dispiriting the next day, to wade through what you wrote under a sense of obligation to the daily quota, but a real time drain as well, as you then have a day or even days dealing with the problems you introduced. Write often, very often—but try to have something to say, some enthusiasm, something you want to try. Writing isn’t like getting daily cardio.
2. Set aside time everyday for writing or thinking about writing, which can include going to an art gallery or listening to music or doing anything that brings you back to thinking about writing--look your dog in the eye, or your child, or your partner. Read what’s there. 

3. Read everyday and read with purpose and intent, mindful of what works, what doesn’t, looking for wisdom, craft, inspiration. Sit down with some William Gass when your spirit flags. If you don’t have enough time to read, you need to make a change.
Snow angel: A pale imitation

4. Don’t imitate. One of the dangers of not writing everyday but reading in the interims is that you can fall under the spell of another writer. Beckett looks easy; David Foster Wallace looks like fun; George Saunders looks doable. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

5. Don’t eschew adverbs. I love them. They are verbs kicked into action in place and in time, lovingly, searchingly, eternally. And they are gravid with that extra suffixial syllable, so helpful in rhythm and phrasing; and adverbs also pack the power of a falling rhythm. Elmore Leonard and Stephen King would hate this, but Joyce could do it, and did: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” That is snow falling, sadly, through words.

6. Explore all the voices—first, second, and third. Yes, even the dreaded second. Understand the particular powers of each. “I hated what she said to me.” “You hated what she said to you.” “He hated what she said to him.” These are three different narrative worlds, with different rules, each with its perfect occasion. Find it.

7. Prose is about what you know. Poetry is about what you don’t know.

8. Find your drama in a genuine place, don’t steal it or manufacture it. Be wary of allowing dysfunction to be the main dramatic premise. But if you cannot stop it from being so, let it in, thrash it.

9. Don’t write about “snow angels”...

10. ...Write about real angels.