October 1, 2018

Writing advice from C.D. Rose

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It’s undeniable: writers (and voracious readers) can’t stop talking about what goes on behind the sentences. What did it take for a writer to put ink to the proverbial page? We ask, and we obsess over technique. 

So this post shouldn’t be very surprising. Author C.D. Rose has written two impeccable books, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure and Who’s Who When Everyone Is Someone Else, that are intertwined as much with literary craft as it is with literary canon. On his own writing, Rose mysteriously says, “The simple fact is this: books are real; writers aren’t.”

What can we glean from Rose’s perspective? Let’s take a look.

1. The nature of the work, be it an essay, short story, or novel, informs the practice. Switch things up. It also works on a project basis: every piece requires something different.

“I think it’s important to say writing a short story isn’t training for writing a novel. Obviously there are skills and techniques that cross over, but writing a short stories is quite a different discipline to writing a novel, or a poem.”

2. The cliché is true: life and what you experience affects your work.

“Looking back, I realise I was being a bit ingenuous, because even though you think you’re not putting things in, and even though I probably wouldn’t write anything like an autobiographical story, there’s always some element of something I’ve seen – some memory, your way of imagining things, your observations do sneak into the story. Everything, once it’s written, becomes filtered through or processed through the lens of my experience. It was a slow realisation that I was never just a camera, not just a recording machine – even though I might try to be.”

3. Discover the mystery in your story, hold it close—tease it out; make sure to keep readers guessing until you can’t help but give it up.

“I think all of the best stories, and works of art more generally, have a sense of mystery in them, the idea that they have not yet given up all their secrets, so they can be endlessly retold, reread, or re-viewed. Attempting to do this can be tricky, as I don’t want to baffle the reader needlessly (that’s just annoying), but finding what is hidden, or lost, or vanishing, and then examining this can create room for speculation on the part of the reader.”

4. It’s okay to think about your work as a form of legacy… but don’t waste too much of your time worrying about it.

“You make coffee in the morning, you snore at night, you dislike strong cheese but you love the smell of hair lacquer. You still remember your grandmother’s death and still feel regret about that girl you never asked out. My point is, what will remain of you? A handful of photographs, a tarnishing trophy on the mantelpiece, three-beers-gone maudlin chat in your old local bar? Or a book, a story, a poem? What you make will outlive you, and that — scant solace for the biographer it may be — is the most important thing of all.”

5. The books you read are like vacations, equal (if not greater) to those where you physically travel to a different place. Travel (i.e. read) as much as you can.

“Indeed, two readers of the book may experience something different entirely: a book isn’t just a collection of words on a page, but our emotional and intellectual engagement with it, the context we read it in, or the stage of life we’re at when we read it.“

Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.

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