Writers Write is a resource for writers. In this post, we share American author, Blake Bailey’s 5 Tips For Writers.
Blake Bailey is an American writer who is known for his biographies of John Cheever (Cheever: A Life), Richard Yates (A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates), and Charles Jackson (Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson). He was born 1 July 1963.
He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
His articles and reviews have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Republic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Slate, Vice, Harvard Review, and elsewhere.
His most recent book is a memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait. It was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography.
We found these tips for writers on PW and wanted to share them with you.
5 Writing Tips From Blake Bailey
“Book-length nonfiction is what I do, and my advice is necessarily tailored to writers who want to do pretty much the same thing.
1. Write about things that really interest you.
… I never dreamed I’d be a literary biographer. I’m not an academic; I’m just a bookish Joe who gets passionate about certain writers and suddenly wants to read everything they’ve ever written and find out why they wrote it. Which brings me to how this miracle came to pass. “Blake, fiction isn’t working out for you,” my would-be literary agent told me several years ago. “All your success”–such as it was–“has been with nonfiction. Look: write me a nonfiction book proposal about something that really interests you right now, and I’ll try to sell it.”
As it happened, I was really interested right then in Richard Yates… So I put it all into my book proposal and, miraculously, my agent sold it to a good publisher–with this catch: I had all of 14 months to finish my (vast) research and write a 500-page biography. The published result, A Tragic Honesty, was 613 pages not including notes and index. I’d worked on it almost every waking hour; my wife only saw me at meals, and sometimes not even then. But it was thrilling labour.
Emerson said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” He was right. Pick a subject that bores you and you’ll write a boring book (if you manage to finish at all); but if you’re fascinated with your material you’ll have a ball and just maybe write a book that conveys that excitement to the reader.
2. Be quiet and listen.
…I am sociable; I am a recluse. I think you need to be an almost ideal combination of the two to be a writer of book-length nonfiction–at least nonfiction about more or less contemporary subjects that entails interviewing live people. It’s not for the morbidly shy. You have to cold-call a lot of perfect strangers, and in some cases get them to tell you their gnarliest secrets. When I talk, say, to the widow of my biographical subject, I don’t want to know how he liked his vegetables prepared–well, I do, but I also want to know what it was like (in the case of John Cheever’s widow) to live with a man who started sneaking gin at 9:30 in the morning and had a pretty sharp tongue even when sober.
Why should she tell me these things? I’m going to broadcast it to the world! Here’s why: because it’s all part of the essentially noble project of seeing a great artist in the round, a fully fleshed human being–and besides my heart goes out to her. I understand, more or less, what she went through. I sympathise. And I’ll listen for however long she’s willing to talk. The fact is, most of us don’t have that many people who are willing to listen to all our sad stories, and when someone comes along who wants nothing better, people often seize the opportunity and talk.
So, when interviewing: don’t just tick off a laundry list of questions; let the person talk, be quiet and listen, and respond to what she’s saying. You’ll be amazed what you learn.
4. Be prepared.
… you have to do your research, and then find your structure (important), and then put all those quotes and factoids in their proper order. When a biographer’s research is done, his computer is ready to explode with undifferentiated data.
This, frankly, is the part I like best: putting it in order. What’s my structure? Is it chronological, thematic, a little of both? (The last.) I find a nice place to lie down with a legal pad, and, looking at nothing but the pad, I write down all the main episodes of my subject’s life; if I can’t think of something offhand, it can’t be all that important. Then I type this up, and cut and paste it into a viable structure. Then, using only that bare bones outline, I begin to plug in my research and the outline waxes and waxes in complexity, and I see themes and sub-themes and sub-sub-themes develop, all the while revising (and revising and revising) the structure, until finally–maybe a year or two later–my notes have been trimmed down to six or seven hundred single-spaced pages in meticulous order. At last I’m ready to write, and I rarely get stuck: It’s all laid out in front of me.
5. If possible, be funny.
Take Lytton Strachey, author of the great Eminent Victorians. He saw the world as if from a great height: with detachment, a little sadness, and a lot of humour.
Read the page where one of his four Victorians, Thomas Arnold, dies. I’ve read it a thousand times; it’s one of my favourite pages of prose. Nothing fancy: Dr. Arnold, in agony from an attack of angina, asks his distraught wife to read the Prayer Book to him. “Yes!” he barks here and there. At some point he asks his puzzled son to thank God for giving him the pain. (See: Action is character.) And then quite suddenly (for Strachey was nothing if not laconic), Dr. Arnold “passe[s] from his perplexities for ever.” I always chuckle, I’m not sure why. Not because I rejoice in Arnold’s death; but rather because I see his absurdity, and my own, and forgive us both.
Somehow the whole human condition is there: very sad, but seen in perspective, pretty ridiculous too.”
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