Writing is Rewriting

Sometimes at this time of year, I like to write to you all about love stories — how not to make them sappy and cringey. Or how to write a good love letter. Or writing a favorite setting that cracks your heart open and makes you feel like you can fly.

Why is love so challenging to write about? My crackpot hypothesis is because it’s so loaded and so fraught. Our desire for it to resonate with the reader, our need for their hearts to swell, or break, is so intense, it can get in the way of us writing these moments well.

Or I could be wrong. Once I asked the author Roger Rosenblatt why writing about love is hard, and he said, “It’s not.”

“There’s nothing special or different about writing about love,” Rosenblatt said. ““You just have to be a good writer—a good writer can write about anything.”

And what’s the key to being a good writer? That’s right. Rewriting.

This week, in her Substack Badreads, the author Lauren Hough wrote something about craft that applies directly to this question, and I love it so much, and it’s so true, I’m just going to share it here in full:

I wrote about it so many times, whatever it is. I wrote about it so that I could practice the reality of it. So that I could see it on the page. So that it could have a place to exist. Then I wrote it again and tried to understand it. Then I wrote it again and tried to make it sound right, the way I wanted it to sound. I wrote it again to punish myself. Then I wrote it to punish those at fault. I wrote it to punish the reader. Because I was angry. Then I wrote it again and tried to see if there was a reason to write it at all. Did it matter. Did it fit the story. Could I write it in a way that I would want to read it. And mostly, when the answer was no, I never wrote it again. But if I thought there was a purpose, I wrote it again and sent it to my agent or editor. Then I wrote it again to make it funnier, or whatever it needed to be.

People love to say there are no do-overs in life. Those people are not writers. We know the truth, though. If you want to do anything well, (like writing), you not only have to believe in do-overs, you have to embrace them.  

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Kicking Down the Door, Part 1

Hey, this is part of a series on writers who kicked down a metaphorical door with their writing. Like Marie Curie with science and Little Richard with music…

Tom Wolfe was a newspaper reporter with a hankering to liven up nonfiction writing, then considered the sober sibling to freewheeling fiction. In 1962, Wolfe got hired to write for Esquire on the hot rod culture in Southern California. He hung out in the milieu, did his usual expert reporting, but couldn’t find his way into writing the article.

The day before the deadline, the editor told Wolfe to just send his notes and he’d find someone to forge them into something usable. Wolfe stayed up all night, pouring out his notes, ignoring all conventions of journalistic writing. Like this:

Dick Dale, rigged out in Byronic silk shirt and blue cashmere V-neck sweater and wraparound sunglasses, singer’s mufti U.S.A., has one cord with a starter button, while a bouffant nymphet from Newport, named Sherma, Sherma of the Capri pants, has the other one.

The editor liked what he saw and published the piece pretty much as is, with the title: “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” Readers loved it. 

From there, Wolfe went hot-rodding through nonfiction, penning intensely researched nonfiction books and articles (“Radical Chic,” The Right Stuff, etc.) that leaped to life with high-octane prose that gave readers a wildly entertaining time. From The Right Stuff:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot… coming over the intercom… with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring)… the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’…

Wolfe (and some cohorts) invented the so-called New Journalism, where nonfiction grabbed the license to use the literary pizazz of fiction, their work influencing such current nonfiction writers as Isabel Wilkerson and David Grann.

Wolfe dressed like a dandy, with white bespoke suits, and he loved poking sacred cows, as well as overusing exclamation marks!!!!!!!

In 1987, he topped his own derring-do by writing a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, that was like a piece of journalism turned into a rushing subway train rife with greed, vanity, racism, and the race for status in New York City. I remember riding the subway around that time and about a third of the people in any given car were reading the book—reading what was happening right around us.

It seemed Wolfe was having a grand time with his attire and writing, but he found them both exhausting. Kicking doors down isn’t easy. Nor should it be.

The Good Stuff

Every morning, the author Athena Dixon starts her day on a text thread with her parents and her sister: “Good morning.” “Have a good day.” “Love you.”

Here, already, you’re probably thinking, “That’s nice, Caldwell, but I thought this is supposed to be writing advice…?” Wait! It is! Because the Dixon family’s heartwarming daily tradition started after Athena published her book The Loneliness Files last October.

“My family and friends—I didn’t give them enough grace and enough love to understand that they would be here for me in any capacity I needed them to be, because I was so used to being hyper-independent,” Athena said in a visit to my class last month. “It took me putting my words into the world to really ask them for what I needed from them.”

When it comes to writing our stories, and putting them out in the world, it sometimes feels like we spend a lot of time imagining the worst outcomes. Students air their fears about this in class all the time. I wrote about it for the Writer magazine once, and so did my colleague Melissa Petro (who once got fired after publishing one of her stories). Heck, next month, I’m going to moderate a whole panel at Gotham’s nonfiction conference about managing hot-button topics and sensitive family members.

I’m not saying there’s nothing to fear. I’m saying, maybe we don’t talk about the good stuff enough.

And Athena’s experiences with her book are solid evidence that there’s lots of good to talk about. She started out simply trying to chronicle what it was to live alone during lockdown in 2020, but quickly, as most writers do, she found herself examining the experience, and then researching loneliness and its after-effects, the way it’s spreading through our culture.

And that’s the where the first really good thing happened. She understood herself better.

“Writing the book, it allowed me to kind of lay all these things out on a page and for the first time in my life look at them very starkly, and figure out what part was useful for me, what part is a hindrance to me,” Athena said. “Then by the time I get to the end of the book, I’m discovering for myself that I think there’s no solution to my loneliness. But I think there’s usefulness in it. I think I know now when I’m hiding in it, and coming up with my own toolkit on how to navigate that.”

Once she dissected her life and stitched it back together again, a story started to take shape, she said. And then a book. Her early drafts helped her secure a residency at Tin House, where she connected with Hanif Abdurraqib, an editor-at-large with the prestigious independent press Tin House Books. Abdurraqib would eventually acquire, edit, and publish her book. Which led to a book tour, and connecting even more with the writing community. And also to more honest conversations with her loved ones about leaning on each other. And a new family tradition.

Then, most recently, it led last week to Athena signing with an agent, Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.

I’m skipping over the hardest parts here, especially how painful it is to dissect your own life, as Athena did, as writers do. I’m skipping over the part where Athena struggled with depression during the long, lonely lockdown months. I’m skipping over the many rejections she’s racked up in her career.

Athena doesn’t skip them, though. “Everything that I write that I put into the world is something that I’ve sat with and said, ‘I’m okay with people talking to me about this, I’m okay with people asking me about this, interpreting it, liking or disliking it,’ ” she said. “That’s how I buffer myself.”

The hard stuff, the risks, are always there. And that’s good, in its way, too. Because it’s the hard stuff — the uncomfortable truths we excavate, the failed first drafts, the flashbacks and setbacks — that make our victories so much sweeter.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty