Advice from a Legendary Editor

Tips from a legendary editor of Harper’s Magazine says that if we want to tell our stories “out of the wilderness of our experience” we should begin with a notebook or diary.

Blindfold the computer, send the phone for a walk in the park– (unglue your cell phone from your right hand), and with pen and paper write about something you noticed within the last 48 hours; anything that caught your attention–like a chicken crossing the road, the scent of an orange or “the sudden feeling of dread in the presence of a 2-year-old child.”

Of course the object is to show, not tell, and to write about the details that caught your attention. Maybe the chicken was unlucky enough to have gotten smashed by a driver while on his cell phone, or the orange squirted you in the eye while you peeled it, or that 2-year-old kicked you in the shin (accidently, of course, because he was trying to show off his ability with the soccer ball you bought him at Walmart).

Then there is the problem of adjectives, and go easy on adverbs. Don’t say the chicken was adorable–say it was running for its life, squawking. As writers–according to Lewis H. Lapham, at the wise age of 84, who probably has edited thousands and thousands of pages of writers far better than we can hope to be–observe, observe, observe, and then write about it. Even if it is two paragraphs or six pages.

“Writing a book,” Lapham says, “is learning to think and see for yourself, with the eye of the mind instead of through the lens of a platitude.”

If you continue to do that exercise for six months, for at least two hours a day, Lapham says in a recent AARP article, then you have probably learned a lesson from which all others flow: “that when the mind is being put to creative use, the sense and sensation of freedom is off the charts. The writing doesn’t get easier but the work become play.”

Yes, it does become play because you are drawn to writing like a gambler to a crap table or a gardener to an emply spot in his flower bed. However, Lapham is correct in saying that the writing doesn’t get easier.