In his early 20’s my dad was a beat reporter for the Kettering-Oakwood (KO) Times, a small local paper near Dayton, Ohio. It was there that he learned the proper way to dangle a Viceroy from his lips while yelling out of the corner of his mouth and pounding on a typewriter. He was ambitious, young, and, as he put it, “promising.” He wrote quickly and precisely and developed a passion for prose. He left after a few years to pursue a degree in Political Science, which eventually led him to a tenured teaching position in Political Theory at Ohio Wesleyan University where he taught for 25 years. Throughout his career, into retirement, and even in the days before he died, my dad loved to read and write almost as much as he loved to laugh.
#1) Read What You Write. SAY What It Means, and then Write that Instead
In high school, I would write a research paper or essay by hand and then sit with my dad in his tiny basement office and read it to him as he typed it on his Apple IIE. He would often pause, his face scrunched, head shaking. “Tell me what you mean by that,” he’d say. As I explained my point, he would nod and start typing again. “That’s much better. Stop trying to write and just write.”
#2) Only Gabriel Garcia Marquez Can Write a Sentence that Goes on For a Whole Page
Dad’s favorite book was One Hundred Years of Solitude. He described it as “an exquisite meal that takes a month to eat.” There’s something magical about lyrical prose like that, so unless you’re a magician, keep it simple; but not at the expense of rhythm. Paragraphs should have beats: some predictable; others syncopated or cut time. Whatever the drum chart, be sure to end with the crash of a cymbal.
#3) If You Can’t Be Beautiful, Be Funny. But It’s Best to Be Both
My dad loved the humor of Elmore Leonard, but to him, no one wrote as entertainingly as Tom Robbins. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas made him laugh until he coughed. I remember hearing one of these coughing fits lead to a gag. I can only hope that one day I write something funny enough to make a reader vomit.
#4) Trust Your Strengths; Test Your Weaknesses
After reading an early, partial draft of my father-son memoir, Rock, Meet Window, my dad told me, “You’re already funny, so all you have to do is write. Stop putting jokes everywhere—I can see them coming, and they take me out of the scene.” He encouraged me to be honest and write about things that made me feel uncomfortable. “Just because it’s not knee-slapping-funny doesn’t mean it’s boring. Just tell your story, and trust yourself, because no one else can do it for you.”
#5) Be Patient and Diligent
My dad talked about writing a book for decades. Ideas and scenes from disparate genres smattered his notebooks. The beginning of a cold war spy novel followed some dense, Marxist analysis of GMOs, and a couple of short poems. Unless I have yet to discover his hidden Confederacy of Dunces, from what I could tell, he lost interest each project before he got started. What he never learned but taught me by example is that writing is both a sprint and a marathon. Or maybe it’s a series of sprints or just a marathon. Perhaps running is the wrong analogy here. Whatever the case, in my experience, the beginning only feels like the best part of writing because you haven’t yet experienced the deep satisfaction of finishing. No matter what you do, most of the middle is going to be torture. Just breathe and type. Breathe and type.
Jason Good is a writer in Minneapolis and author of “Rock, Meet Window: A Father-Son Story” (Chronicle Books). Find him on the Internet at Jasongood.net, Facebook.com/JasonGood365, and on Twitter @jasonmgood