Write and Shine

Writing advice doesn’t get better than Seymour’s note to brother Buddy in JD Salinger’s Seymour, An Introduction.


I dread saying anything to you tonight, dear old Buddy, except the trite. Please follow your heart, win or lose. You got so mad at me when we were registering…. Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heart. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was a long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished – I think only poor Sören K. will get asked that. I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Where you busy writing your heart out​? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it, Buddy! Trust your heart. You’re a deserving craftsman. It would never betray you. Good night. I’m feeling very much over-excited now, and a little dramatic, but I think I’d give almost anything on earth to see you writing a something, an anything, a story, a poem, a tree, that was really and truly after your own heart… Love, S

Next time you sit down to write ask: Are all my stars out? Am I writing my heart out?


How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Four: Write

Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, said: “If you wish to have a faculty for… writing, write; if you wish to acquire a habit for anything, do the thing.” Two thousand years later that’s still the best writing advice going.


If you’re jigging around, unsure of where to start, here are five steps to help acquire the habit:

1. Think small
Leave the “dream big/reach for the stars/give 110%” bullshit for high school football coaches. Your only ambition, as Steinbeck said, is to finish a page. Especially if this is your first book.

Vine Lives is about 30,000 words, but that is a terrifying amount when starting at zero. Once you have rough idea of your total word count, forget it. Focus on units of a manageable size. I’m a feature writer so 1500-2000 words is a comfortable range. I framed my task as 15 chapters of 1500-2000 words each. Voila: a reasonable assignment. I’ve written god knows how many features. All I had to do was crank out another 15.

If you’re embarking on a book you will, ideally, have an idea of your writing capacity. How do you work best — 500 word blog posts? 3000-word white papers? Adapt your project to your writing style, not vice versa.

2. Give yourself a deadline
It isn’t enough to want the book done, you have to give yourself a deadline. When you’re indie publishing you have to be your own taskmaster. My Vine Lives research sat untouched for several months before guilt sparked a sense of urgency. I sent my brother/publisher the first profile in October. Once he gave it the thumbs up I set a deadline: 11 February (the day I had to move out of my house). Despite some slack weeks, I delivered as promised.

3. Create a routine
As a writer, routine is your best friend; routine will save you. A day in my Vine Lives life went like this: Wake up, feed cat, drink coffee, read a chapter of Epictetus, go for a run, flirt with the gardener, shower, cook breakfast, eat, clean teeth, then write.

You might think: “Surely it would be quicker to just roll out of bed and start writing.” Perhaps. But I’ve learned, through trial, error and abortive attempts to be more “productive” that abridging this routine makes me sketchy and distracted. Maybe it’s indulgent to spend four-plus hours warming up for work but I’m Thoroughbred, not a carthorse. If sitting at a desk and grinding it out for eight hours works for you, by all means do. If you need to prance around the paddock first, though, don’t be down on yourself. Results are what matters.

4. Be calm but disciplined
Don’t worry if you begin the day blank and afraid (I do). If you don’t know where to start, read and highlight your notes. Find an arresting phrase or image. Then “only begin”. Start writing. Even if it feels awkward and wrong, push on. I’d invariably sit down and think, “There is no fucking way I can write 1500 words today.” I’d cajole myself into doing 500 words. Usually that was enough to get into a flow. The rest was more or less easy.

Some days writing seems impossible. Take 50% of these days off to recharge your batteries. The other 50%, write anyway. Teach yourself that you don’t always have to feel good about writing, you just have to write.

5. Take up long-distance running*
Writing calls for stamina, courage, resilience, pain resistance and self-belief. The cheapest, easiest way to cultivate these qualities is to run. Especially if you don’t like running. Every time you lace up your shoes and step out the door you show yourself what you can accomplish. Every time you huff and puff up a hill you prove you can overcome obstacles. Every time you start off wishing you were doing anything else and come home buzzing you remind yourself of the rewards of discipline. Running also calms your nerves, clears your head, steadies your pulse, and keeps your arse from overflowing your chair.

*Yoga, swimming, hiking, cycling, rock climbing, free-diving, boxing or martial arts work too

Ready, set, run

Ready, set, run

What’s your best piece of writing advice? Share in the comments!

fragments of TS Eliot whirling in my head

I wrote for years before I had any notion of being a writer. The gift of this scribbling is dozens of notebooks and countless files containing fragments of my life that would otherwise be lost. Some are happy, some are sad, most are maudlin (Didion would have a thing or two to say) but they contain truth. It’s easy to gloss over our flaws and fears; tempting to think only of our best selves. That’s a luxury we can’t afford as writers, though. Because life isn’t clean, motives aren’t clear, honesty is dirty fingernails. We need to remember ourselves as we really were so we can understand who we are.

Share an honest self-portrait of your own in the comments.

view from cala des moro

21 June 2010

All I can do is lie around with fragments of TS Eliot whirling in my head: twenty years largely wasted… found and lost again and again… conditions that seem unpropitious… a different kind of failure… a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment always deteriorating…

What have I done? I’ll call them the Facebook years. I started my account when I moved to Ibiza, to keep my friends appraised. All those pictures and I don’t know who of. I look at myself laughing, on the beach, at DC10, in Mexico, Venice… all the places I went, the things I did, the people I thought I loved. It just looks – I don’t know – hollow? I don’t regret any of it. If anything, I’m greedy to have seen more, yet that’s all it is: greed. Who was I? Who am I? A rolling stone. A sponge. A pair of legs with a camera and a credit card. Wandering. But to what end? I have experience but no context. What, to put it crudely, is it good for? The only possible answer, the only way to redeem the years, is to find some kernel of meaning, or some means of expression that I wouldn’t have otherwise. The responsibility terrifies me.

The photos scare me because I feel absent. I was there, I did things, I loved people, I made plans and had jobs and paid rent and went running and looked at paintings and wrote articles and whatever else. But I look at them and only recognise someone who looks like me but is younger, thinner, prettier and so remote from me as to be untouchable. Who was she, and what was she thinking? How can I drag any of that into the present and make it mean something?

God, I want to be her again. I want to be sun-warmed and tipsy and have long, golden legs. Yet that turned out to not be me at all. What was I doing? What chances did I miss? I remember James asking me in Venice, that first autumn, “are you happy?” He thought I wasn’t. I thought I must be. He was right.

Am I any happier now? I don’t know. At least I feel more aware. That girl, as much a girl as a woman of 27 can be, was willfully oblivious to herself. I didn’t want to know anything about myself, my history, or what might be. I don’t know what I did want. Maybe just to be away from myself. That was never going to work. Now I want to get back to where I started, knowing what I know now.

Share an honest self-portrait of your own in the comments.

How To Write Non-Fiction, Step One: Choose Your Topic

Welcome to Step One of the Five Step Guide to Writing Non-fiction

You want to write a book. Great. About what?

Topic is the rocket booster of a non-fiction project. Get it right, and you fly merrily into orbit. Get it wrong and you’ll either fall flat or blow up, scattering fragments of your ego across a zone the size of Arizona.
cover 1

Step I
Choosing a topic, like writing, is a process. Nobody can do it for you* but there are strategies that help.

Above all, remember the Tripartite Rule of Topic Choice:
Write about something you: A) know a little bit about, B) want to learn more about and C) isn’t you

To illustrate points A & B, I’ll explain the origin of Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers.

I’m sprawled in the cool, beige leather interior of my brother’s rental car, watching April-leafed chestnut trees pass as we drive through Southeast Portland. It’s the first time we’ve seen each other since his wedding last September. His new wife is in the passenger seat. Maybe the radio is playing.

“Hey, have you thought about writing a book?”

I mumble.

“You should write something about Oregon,” my brother says. “You’re from here.”

More mumbling (objections): I haven’t lived here for years. I don’t know that much about it. What would I write about anyway?

“Like, local food or something.”

Portland is the epicenter of hip Oregon. More kitsch eateries, craft breweries and ooh-la-la coffee shops than you can throw a pine cone at, so, okay. Let’s think.

Brother likes restaurants and beer. I, the writer, am coeliac and vegetarian which, in my view, eliminates way too many essentials. I’m not going to write about something I can’t fully participate in.

Clever brother circumvents my resistance: “What about wine?”

I love wine. “Don’t know much about it but hey, I can learn on the job.”

It helps to have a smart sibling, or similar interlocutor, to bat ideas around, but you can apply the principles of this example solo. My brother identified something I knew something about: Oregon. Knowledge doesn’t have to be based on intense study, or some arcane specialist skill. I was born in Oregon and lived there for 18-some years. Voila. Accidental expertise.

Make a list of your accidental expertises and what makes you an expert. Aim for, say, six. Here’s my sample list:

Oregon (birth)
Women (chromosomes)
Running (runner for over 20 years)
Nancy Drew mysteries (read dozens of them, dozens of times)
Living abroad (lived in Mexico, Spain, England, etc)
Writing (my job)

NB: See how broad these topics are? Unless you’re a rich masochist who plans to live to 120 don’t even think about it.

Next, brother and I broke it down to stuff we like: specialty food and drink. Still too broad.

Fortunately (for the purposes of this exercise) I’m a dietary fusspot. I can’t or won’t eat most things on a standard restaurant menu and my inability to digest gluten makes craft beer a no go. Which brought us to wine.

Wine fits part A of the Tripartite Rule. I like wine, drink it, read labels, have opinions, am familiar with the major wine growing regions of the world, and appreciate wine’s historic and cultural value.

Wine also fits part B, because there is a hell of a lot I don’t know about wine, and would love to find out.

Most importantly, wine passes C. It ain’t me; I’m not it.

The success of the Tripartite Rule depends on slavish obedience to part C. There should be, to borrow a line from Salinger, only very conditional passes allowed to write memoir. Yes, your life is fascinating, but the combination of self-awareness, discipline, distance and talent needed to turn emotional raw material into a polished product is as rare as dodo’s eggs. Be present in your topic through expertise and affinity (parts A and B) but don’t make it about you.

Step II

Once you have a provisional topic that fits the Tripartite Rule, refine it by considering the following practicalities.

1) What kind of book do you want to write?
2) What research will you have to do? (e.g. What’s the gap between what you know and what you want to write?)
3) How much time do you want to devote to it?
4) What are your constraints?
5) What else is on the market?

Initially, we thought about a travel guide to Oregon wine country. Nothing wrong with that, apart from the fact (3) I was only in Oregon for seven weeks, (2) I’m allergic to spending hours compiling boring information, and (5) there are several excellent Oregon wine guides on the market. I am also not a technical wine expert, so (4) writing a specialist book about viticulture or oenology was out.

Step III
After defining what you can’t/won’t/can’t afford to do, look at what you can do. This part of the decision making process is about you as a writer and a person.

Two key questions are: What is your writing experience? and What type of book you most enjoy A) writing and B) reading?

The answers will define and shape your book.

I like writing profiles and am a good interviewer. I like textual research. I am fine with emails or face-to-face conversations but hate phone calls. I have a passion for reportage based life-writing (George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Joan Didion). Etc.

These likes and dislikes led to a plan: Visit a selection of Oregon wineries and interview the owners/winemakers.

Step IV
That left brother and I with one crucial question: What is our book about? A book has to have an angle. A collection of profiles about Oregon wineries is just that: a collection of profiles. To justify a book we needed a unifying theme. Much conversation (and perhaps a little wine) later, we hit on “pioneering”. The beauty of it, for us, was that it serves so many purposes: we could talk about pioneering techniques, pioneering vintages, pioneering attitudes and so on. We didn’t know exactly how the theme would play out in the book until much later, but having that word in mind gave me the structure I needed to start.

This final step — the angle — is the hardest part of choosing a topic. You’re probably sick of the damn topic already (oh, just wait till you start writing!) Grit your teeth and think it through anyway. You need this. It’s your green light on the dock, the thing that keeps your project moving in the right direction.

Choosing a topic is tough but don’t get overwhelmed. If you’re going nuts trying to wrestle a raw idea into a workable topic, step back. Talk it over with a friend or two. Read stuff that is relevant to either to your putative topic and format. Go for a run, or whack the crap out of a punching bag. Get drunk (coffee works too, if you’re teetotal). Play around. Something will come or you’ll discover this isn’t the topic for you. Either way, be calm. We live in a world of infinite infinities — and one of them is yours to write about.

*Unless you’re a celebrity with a publisher waving an autobiography advance in your face; or a seasoned writer with a helpful editor. If you are, feel free to drop me a line. Be sure to include your agent’s mobile number.

Great Sentences – Truman Capote

To become better writers, we must understand what is possible. That means reading writing that pulls us up short, raises the hair on our arms, makes our eyes spiral with awe like a clobbered cartoon creature.

Capote photographed by Avedon

Capote photographed by Avedon

This, is Truman Capote on photographer Richard Avedon. He opens his word portrait with a simple statement:

Richard Avedon is a man with gifted eyes.

Then, in the second paragraph, Capote articulates the consequences of this gift in one of the most audacious, rule-breaking, read-it-to-believe-it sentences I’ve ever clapped eyes on. If the opening sentence is a swift, single drumbeat to grab the reader’s attention; this sentence is the orchestra summoned life.

Within the year the novice was established; his work, now regularly appearing in Harper’s Bazaar and Life and Theatre Arts, as well as on the walls of exhibitions, was considerably discussed, praised for its inventive features, its tart insights, the youthful sense of movement and blood-coursing aliveness he could insert in so still an entity as a photograph: simply, no one had seen anything exactly comparable, and so, since he had staying power, was a hard worker, was, to sum it up, seriously gifted, very naturally he evolved to be, during the next decade, the most generously remunerated, by and large successful American photographer of his generation, and the most, as the excessive number of Avedon imitators bears witness, aesthetically influential.

Share a favourite sentence in the comments!

Five Travel Writing Tips

Travel writing should be easy. Go someplace interesting, snoop around, take a few notes and the blog/article/book will write itself, right?

In my experience, wrong. Dead wrong.

The fact is travel, like other highly subjective experiences, is hard to universalise. The challenge is to capture your feelings and experiences in a way that makes them interesting to other people. It is harder than it sounds. Much harder.

Getting it right is not about having the most glamorous encounter (though a disastrous one can be helpful, see 5) or staying at the finest hotel, it is about grubbing for detail then rendering it as evocatively as possible.

Shwedago Pagoda, Myanmar

Shwedago Pagoda, Myanmar

These five tips are how I start:

1. Prepare
You might not think you need to research your destination because, hey, you’re going there! But preparation is essential. Before I went to Myanmar I tracked down people who had lived, worked and travelled there. On a practical level, their advice on local customs, etc saved me a huge amount of hassle and panic. When it came to writing, their stories and experiences provided context and contrast for my own.

2. Record
Personally, I’m a notebook fan (blame Harriet The Spy). And I record interviews. Whatever your preferred method get down every single damn boring detail. Because you won’t know until much later what is significant. Make note of how long it takes to get breakfast, what flavours of ice cream the street vendors sell, the brand of soap in the hotel bathroom, what books are on display in the shop window, the graffiti on the side of the flyover, how many stray cats circle your table at the restaurant, how much it costs to get a sandwich at the airport, anything and everything has the potential to be a telling detail. The smaller and more seemingly obscure, the greater the chance it will evoke something specific about the place – which is what you’re aiming for.

3. Shoot
Photos, that is, not the stray cats circling your table. Some projects or assignments will require photography, but even if you don’t have to supply images at the end, use a camera as a writing tool. Snapshots jog your memory; they allow you to be accurate and specific; they take you into a scene in a new way. Usually, I take notes, recording my subjective impressions, and then take a couple of pictures. These images, along with my words, allow me to revisit and recall scenes with greater depth and precision than notes or photos alone.

4. Talk
The whole point of travel is to experience something new. The way to do that, to get out of your own head and perspective, is to talk to people. As many as possible. Chat to taxi drivers, waiters, shop assistants, street-sweepers, kids, anyone at all. Don’t be shy. Ask them about their lives, what they like, where they hang out, what’s good to eat/watch/wear/buy in their town. If they tell you to try something, do it. If you’re heading someplace where there is a major language barrier (Myanmar, for example) ask for introductions from your hometown sources (tip 1) and arrange to meet with people who can give you insights into life on the ground.

5. Fail
The great journalist and globe-trotter Martha Gellhorn observed that audiences love a tale of travel catastrophe. I’m not saying to go look for trouble. That’s daft and possibly dangerous. If, however, your venture veers into misadventure, consider it a gift from the gods of narrative possibility. Whatever unfolds, carry on recording, shooting and talking. The positive action will propel you through the dilemma and it is all material.

Travel writing tip or query? Share in the comments!