When it comes to writing, I shamelessly follow the advice of one of my favorite writers, Stephen Vizinczey, who immortalized A Writer's Ten Commandments in an issue of The Globe and Mail many years ago. I have by no means mastered all ten of these commandments, but I keep them in the forefront of my mind whenever I sit down to write or revise.
Like the original ten laws Moses brought down from the mountain, Vizinczey's writer's commandments should be followed religiously by anyone with literary aspirations. Unlike contemporary guidelines, rules, and advice, Vizinczey's commandments do not focus on attaining riches or fame, but if adhered to they just might lead to greatness, which is far more valuable than riches and fame could ever be.
What follows is an excerpt from Stephen Vizinczey's book Truth And Lies In Literature. Vizinczey is a Canadian writer of Hungarian origin who now resides in London, England. He is best known for his novels In Praise Of Older Women and An Innocent Millionaire.
I Thou shalt not drink, smoke or take drugs. To be a writer you need all the brains you've got.
II Thou shalt not have expensive habits. A writer is born from talent and time - time to observe, to study, to think. So you can't afford to waste a single hour earning money for non-essentials. Unless you were lucky enough to be born rich, you had better be prepared to live without too many worldly goods. True, Balzac got special inspiration from running up huge debts and buying things, but most people who have expensive habits tend to fail as writers.
At the age of 24, after the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution, I found myself in Canada with about 50 words of English. When it got through to me that I was now a writer without a language, I took an elevator to the top of a high building on Dorchester Street in Montreal, intending to jump. Looking down from the roof, terrified of dying but even more afraid of breaking my spine and spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair, I decided to become an English writer instead. In the end, learning to write in another language was less difficult than writing something good, and I lived on the edge of destitution for six years before I was ready to write In Praise Of Older Women.
I couldn't have done it if I had cared about clothes or cars - indeed, if the only alternative I saw had not been the top of that skyscraper. Some immigrant writers I knew took jobs as waiters or salesmen to save money to create a "financial base" for themselves before trying to make a living by writing; one of them now owns a whole chain of restaurants and is richer than I could ever be, but neither he nor the others returned to writing. You've got to decide what is more important to you: to live well or to write well. Don't torment yourself with contrary ambitions.
III Thou shalt dream and write and dream and rewrite. Don't let anybody tell you you're wasting your time when you're gazing into space. There is no other way to conceive an imaginary world.
I never sit down in front of a bare page to invent something. I daydream about my characters, their lives and their struggles, and when a scene has been played out in my imagination and I think I know what my characters felt, said and did, I take pen and paper and try to report what I've witnessed.
When I've written and typed my report I read it over and find that not of what I've written is (a) unclear or (b) inexact or (c) ponderous or (d) simply could not be true. Thus the typed draft serves as a kind of critical report on what I imagined, and I go back to dream the whole thing better.
It was this way of working that made me realize, when I was learning English, that my chief problem wasn't the language but, as always, getting things right in my head.
IV Thou shalt not be vain. Most bad books get that way because their authors are engaged in trying to justify themselves. If a vain author is an alcoholic, then the most sympathetically portrayed character in his book will be an alcoholic. This sort of thing is very boring for outsiders. If you think you're wise, rational, good, a boon to the opposite sex and a victim of circumstances, then you don't know yourself well enough to write.
I stopped taking myself seriously at the age of 27, and since then I've regarded myself simply as raw material. I use myself the same way an actor uses himself: all my characters - men and women, good and bad - are made up from myself plus observation.
V Thou shalt not be modest. Modesty is an excuse for sloppiness, laziness and self-indulgence; small ambitions evoke small efforts. I never knew a good writer who wasn’t trying to be a great one.
VI Thou shalt think continually of those who are truly great. "The works of genius are watered with its tears," wrote Balzac in Lost Illusions. Rejection, derision, poverty, failure, the constant struggle against one's own limitations - these are the chief events in the lives of most great artists, and if you aspire to share their fate you should fortify yourself by learning about them.
I've often taken heart from rereading the first volume of Graham Greene's autobiography, A Sort Of Life, which is about his early struggles. I've also had the chance to visit him in Antibes, where he lives in a small two-room flat (a tiny place for such a tall man) with the luxuries of benign air and a view of the sea but few possessions apart from books. He seems to have few material needs, and I'm sure this has something to do with the inner freedom that radiates from his works. Though he claims to have written his "entertainments" for money, he is a writer who is directed by his obsessions without regard to changing fashions and popular ideologies, and this freedom is communicated to his readers. He liberates you from the weight of your own compromise, at least while you read him. This kind of achievement is possible only for a writer of Spartan habits.
None of us has a chance to meet many great men in person, but we can be in their company if we read their memoirs, journals and letters. Avoid biographies, though - especially dramatized biographies in the form of films or television series. Almost everything that comes to you about artists through the media is sheer bunk, written by lazy hacks who don't have the faintest notion of either art or hard work. The most recent example is Amadeus, which tries to convince you that it is easy to be a genius like Mozart and very hard to be a mediocrity like Salieri. Read Mozart's letters instead.
As for specific literature on the writing life, I'd recommend Virginia Woolf's A Room Of My Own, Shaw's preface to The Dark Lady Of The Sonnets, Jack London's Martin Eden and, above all, Balzac's Lost Illusions.
VII Thou shalt not let a day pass without rereading something great. In my teens I studied to be a conductor, and from my musical training I picked up a habit which I think is essential also for writers: the constant, daily study of masterworks. Most professional musicians of any standing know hundreds of scores by heart; most writers, on the other hand, have only the vaguest recollections of the classics - which is one reason why there are so many more skilled musicians than skilled writers. A violinist who had the technical proficiency of most published novelists would never find an orchestra to play in. The truth is that only by absorbing perfect works, the specific ways great masters have invented to develop a theme, to construct a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, can you possibly learn all there is to be learned about technique.
Nothing that has already been done can tell you how to do something new, but if you understand the masters' techniques, you have a better chance to develop your own. To put it in terms of chess: there hasn't been a grand master who didn't know his predecessors' championship games by heart.
Don't commit the common mistake of trying to read everything in order to be well-informed. Being well-informed will allow you to shine at parties, but is absolutely no use to you as a writer. Reading a book so you can chat about it is not the same thing as understanding it. It is far more useful to read a few great novels over and over again until you see what makes them work and how the writers constructed them. You have to read a novel about five times before you can perceive its structure, what makes it dramatic, what gives it pace and momentum. Its variations in tempo and time-scale, for instance: the author describes a minute in two pages them covers two years in one sentence - why? When you've figured this out you really know something.
Every writer will pick his own favorites from whom he thinks he can learn the most, but I strongly advise against reading Victorian novels, which are riddled with hypocrisy and bloated with redundant words. Even George Eliot wrote too much about too little.
When you are tempted to overwrite, read the short stories of Heinrich von Kleist, who said more with fewer words than any other writer in the history of Western literature. I read him constantly, along with Swift and Sterne, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. At least once a year I reread almost everything by Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, and Balzac. To my mind Kleist and these nineteenth-century French and Russian novelists were the greatest masters of prose, a constellation of unsurpassed geniuses such as we find in music from Bach to Beethoven, and I try to learn something from them every day. This is my "technique".
VIII Thou shalt not worship London/New York/Paris. I often meet aspiring writers from out-of-the-way places who believe that people who live in the media capital have some special inside information about art which they do not possess. They read the review pages and watch arts programs on television to find out what is important, what art really is, what intellectuals should be concerned about. The provincial is often an intelligent, gifted person who ends up following some glib journalist's or academic's notion of what constitutes literary excellence, and betrays his talent by aping morons whose only talent is getting on.
Even if you live at Land's End, there is no reason for you to feel out of touch. If you have a good paperback library of great writers, and if you keep rereading them, you will have access to more secrets of literature than all the cultural phonies who set the tone in the big cities. I know a leading New York critic who has never read Tolstoy and is proud of it, too. So don't waste time worrying about what is the declared fashion, the right subject or the right style of what sort of things win prizes. Anybody who ever succeeded in literature did so on his own terms.
IX Thou shalt write to please thyself. No writer has ever managed to please readers who were not on approximately his own level of general intelligence, who did not share his basic attitude to life, death, sex, politics and money. Playwrights are lucky: with the help of actors, they can broaden their appeal beyond the circle of kindred spirits. Yet only a couple of years ago I read the most condescending reviews in the American papers for Measure For Measure - the play itself, not the production! If Shakespeare can't please everyone, why should you even try?
This means there is no point in forcing yourself to be interested in something that bores you. When I was young I wasted a lot of time trying to describe clothes and furniture. I didn't have the slightest interest in clothes or furniture, but Balzac had a passionate interest in them which he managed to communicate even to me while I was reading him, so I though I had to master the art of writing exciting paragraphs about cupboards if I was ever to become a good novelist. My efforts were doomed and used up all my enthusiasm for what I had been trying to write about in the first place.
Now I only write about what interests me. I don't look for subjects: whatever it is that I can't stop thinking about - that is my subject. Stendhal said that literature is " the art of leaving out," and I leave out everything that doesn't striker me as important. I describe people only in terms of their actions, statements, thoughts, feelings, which have shocked/mystified/amused/delighted me in myself or others.
It isn't easy, of course, to stick to what you really care about; we would all like to be thought of as people who are curious about everything. Who ever attended a party without faking interest in something? But when you write you have to resist the temptation, and when you read over what you have written, you must always ask yourself, "Does this really interest me?"
If you please yourself - your real self, not some fanciful notion of yourself as the noblest of persons who cares only about the starving children of Africa - then you have a chance to write a book that will please millions. This is so because no matter who you are, there are millions of people in the world who are more or less like you. But no one wants to read a novelist who doesn't mean what he writes. The trashiest bestseller has one thing in common with a great novel: they are both authentic.
X Thou shalt be hard to please. Most new books that I read seem half-finished. The writer was satisfied to get things more or less right, and then moved on to something new. For me writing becomes really exciting when I go back to a chapter a couple of months after I've done with it. At that stage I look at it not so much as the author but as a reader - and no matter how often I rewrote the chapter originally, I can still find sentences that are vague and adjectives that inexact or redundant. Indeed, I find whole scenes which, though true, add nothing to my understanding of the characters or the story, and so can be deleted.
It is as that stage that I ponder the chapter long enough to learn it by heart - I recite it word for word to anyone who is willing to listen - and If I cannot remember something, I usually find that it wasn't right. Memory is a good critic.