Get Out of the Way!

Get out of the way

Many of the submissions Joe Ponepinto has turned down for his literary journal appeared to have everything going for them — tension, good characterization, an interesting premise — yet they just didn’t work. He had to reject stories that hit all the right buttons, but failed to resonate.

Writing as both an editor and author, he tells us what’s wrong with technically sound but lifeless submissions:

In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.

How do you create writing that doesn’t sound like writing? Yes, you have to hit all the right buttons, including pacing, characterization, theme, plot points, tension, etc, but you have to do it without the reader seeing you do it. And you can only do that when you don’t think about those technicalities. As Ponepinto puts it, “You have to internalize the conventions of creative writing so that you know them without thinking about them.”

Or, as Ernest Hemingway advised, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

The goal is what the Japanese call zanshin, the state of total awareness made possible by unselfconscious mastery of your craft. There’s only way to get there, and that is to practice the techniques of your craft until they enter your subconscious. In karate class, we had to practice basic skills repeatedly until they became second nature. In a tournament (or, more urgently, a street fight) you cannot win if you obsess over methodology. (How did sensei tell me to block a low punch?)

Martial arts require unconscious mastery and total focus, attributes that are invaluable in every aspect of life, including writing. Here’s what Wannabe Bushcrafter counsels about mastering the sling:

Your mind must be completely clear. Try to not think about anything when slinging. Distracting thoughts absolutely kills accuracy. …

Now here is the hard part! You need to practice, A LOT. You need to practice every single day for hundreds of days. Practice until your arm and back are sore, practice until thick hard calluses form on your release fingers. Practice until your muscles, your eyes and your mind become one. Practice until you are able to consciously purge all thoughts from your mind at a moment’s notice.

For writers, that means we must read a lot and write a lot.

9 thoughts on “Get Out of the Way!”

  1. Such an awesome post, Mike. Ever be the student. I am reading Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” He certainly wrote drunk (the book is mostly a besotted traipse across Europe). And I love the crossover of writing and martial arts. Musashi said, “If you know the way broadly you will see it in everything.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Joshua,

      Interesting that you bring up Musashi. I intended to include this quote of his in my original post, but ended up not using it: “From one thing, know ten thousand.” By which he means, the discipline of learning one craft will enable you to learn others. It’s certainly true of martial arts and writing.

      BTW, when you finish “Sun,” check out “A Farewell to Arms,” and his short stories, such as “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “Short Happy Life.” The prose almost smolders with inner heat.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I have A Farewell to Arms on my nightstand waiting to be read. Great suggestion. And I love that quote. I try to teach my martial arts that way: principles instead of techniques. You can know ten techniques or learn ten principles and create unlimited techniques.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My problem mostly when I am writing is that my thoughts race on and my fingers on the keyboard lag behind and then I find myself tripping over my own thoughts. However, if it is a longer piece it does get done in high style with everything checked and if it is a shorter piece I sometimes wind up with two or more short posts due to the fact that my racing thoughts pick up new ideas along the way. I hope you have a great weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

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