What Puss in Boots told me about writing

MASTER CAT Puss in the Boots, a fictional character in the fairy tale of the same name, which in French is Le Maître Chat ou le chat botté—retold by Charles Perrault in Contes de ma mère l'oye

One is moved to write by the force of other people’s writing more than by the forces of nature, more than by life itself. I mean, we all have been moved by mountains or by the speckled skies or by the beauty of someone we have just met, but not all of us write, not all of us have been moved to pin it down on the page, to express our awe in writing.

I’ve always tried to remember what it was that made me want to explore this world with words. Maybe it was Charles Perrault’s version of Puss in Boots, maybe it was Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the East in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, maybe it was even Robert Southey’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but it was something I read. I swear by the 26 letters of the English alphabet that it was in one of these books that the life I live now, as a writer, first gave away itself—and I’ve been moved to pursue it throughout my entire adult life to the point of sacrifice.

I only speak of writing because this is my experience, but I’m sure it’s the same with any life pursuit, like art or science or astronomy or music. Edith Piaf was left in the care of her father’s mother who ran a brothel in Normandy, and the prostitutes played quite a role in many of her songs like “L’accordéoniste,” “Milord,” and “Je ne regrette rien,” but, well, her mother was a street singer. It isn’t far out to imagine her growing up hearing her mother sing, though her mother sort of abandoned her at such a young age.

FRANCE'S NATIONAL CHANTEUSE French singer, lyricist, and actress of international acclaim Edith Piaf

Ludwig van Beethoven’s experience might have been different and I can’t seem to find information on how his father, the German musician, singer, and music teacher Johann van Beethoven, might have struck him with inspiration. In much of Beethoven’s works, especially in Symphony No. 6, otherwise known as Pastoral Symphony, there is so much ode to nature. The ripples on a creek, birds singing on treetops, or the rumble of thunder on a stormswept sky might have moved him to do music, but little is known about his childhood in Bonn, except that his father, an alcoholic, taught him how to play the violin and the piano, and he would drag his son out of bed in the middle of the night to perform for his drinking buddies, threatening to beat up Ludwig, should he fail to impress the guests.

Writing is is a love affair, and reading is its intimate encounters. It’s those quiet moments you spend with the one you love, during which you are given the opportunities you need to learn more, live more, hurt more, bleed more...

Most writers will tell you that to write you must read. It’s almost a prerequisite, although there may be a few people who just have the luck and the natural gift of ear, which is essentially what writing is, a skill with which we can string together words in a way that sounds like music. Otherwise, that is to say, without this rare, exceptional gift, it takes a million pages to read to hone your rhythm. For one, you need a wide vocabulary to produce a word symphony, not that I think you need big words in your arsenal. So don’t take this to mean that I am suggesting you write with a thesaurus next to you. Just read, read, read and trust that when the idea comes, you have the right words with which to express it.

DOROTHY AND FRIENDS Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum, Oxford Classic cover illustration

A reader wrote a blogpost on my book Write Here Write Now: Standing at Attention Before My Imaginary Style Dictator (National Book Store, 2012), claiming that my book was no more than a list of everything I had read. That’s true, I don’t deny it, but it’s also not true because it doesn’t list everything, only the books that applied to the gamut of topics I covered in the book, from the blank page to getting started, from composing short snappy sentences and crafting long, meandering ones to tips and tricks on writing dialogues. Besides, that was the point: Other than an instructional, inspirational guide to writing, Write Here Write Now is a reading list because to write well, you must read a lot and you must keep reading because language is organic and it just keeps changing. That is why Henry David Thoreau, who by the way I refer to on my book’s reading list, once said, “It’s too late to be studying Hebrew; it’s more important to understand even the slang of today.” But I don’t expect this reader to have taken this much from my book because, as he said so himself, he stopped reading at page 20, which incidentally is only the second page of the first chapter “Begin at the Beginning.”

Sometimes I have young people come to me saying they want to write, but their sentences, written at age 20, 21, 24, betray their inadequate exposure to beautiful writing, so I ask them and they say, “Oh I stopped reading in high school” or “I don’t read anymore,” so that’s that. I rest my case.

Writing is not like a love affair, it is a love affair, and reading is its intimate encounters, its passionate quarrels. It’s those quiet moments you spend with the one you love, during which you are given the opportunities you need to learn more, live more, hurt more, bleed more, and give more to be a master at loving.