The New Yorker

“You are the company you keep,” parents, often mothers, say, usually when they heard bad things about the family of someone you’re hanging out with at school or they don’t like your college roommate.

Your folks aren’t crazy about the people you spend time with because they don’t want you to become like them. And there might be something to this idea. For example, a review of research found “that peer-related stimuli may sensitize the reward system to respond to the reward value of risky behavior.” 

Set the stage for the writing you want to do.

What if a similar idea applies to writers? Maybe what we read influences our writing.

It’s a widely accepted concept for new writers.

Stephen Pressfield and Joan Didion learned started by writing sentences Ernest Hemingway wrote. Poet Billy Collins began his career copying Wallace Stevens. 

And J.K. Rowling says on her website, “Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.”

But there might be a connection between what we read and what we write, even when we’re no longer writing rookies.

Sometimes, when I need to write something with a specific tone, I’ll read something similar. Doing so gets my mind in the right place.

For example, if I want to write a humorous piece, I’ll read something funny. The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs items are excellent for this. 

I still write in my voice, and I’m certainly not copying anything from these influencing reading sessions. Yet, they make it easier for me to tap into the right tone of creativity I need to deliver in my writing.

It’s difficult for me to write something funny right after reading a serious news article. I need something to transition my brain from being sad, stressed, etc., to positive and lighthearted, making room for jokes and funny analogies.

Singers do vocal exercises before performing. Athletes stretch before taking the field. Why shouldn’t writers also benefit from a warmup?

And when doing your warmup, consider picking something that sets the stage for the writing you want to do. We are, after all, the company we keep.


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Maybe it’s that when I read this Nathan Heller essay about Joan Didion, I was entering my annual winter yearn for sunshine and palm trees. Still, I found the piece an enlightening exposition on a writer whose career could serve as a template for people like me.

Didion is synonymous with California, Southern California in particular. You can’t read a Didion essay or book without feeling the California sun on your skin or the Pacific Ocean’s waves in your ears. And so, as my desires shifted from snowy cabins to beach cabanas, I was an eager audience for Heller’s article, which let me mentally escape our gray East Coast winter.

Yet easing my mild case of seasonal affective disorder isn’t the biggest bonus to Nathan Heller’s essay. What makes the article stand out is his focus on Didion’s career.

Joan Didion
Joan Didion

“For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments,” Heller writes.

Heller explains that throughout the 1960s and 70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took writing assignments to pay their bills. Didion published a few novels, her first, Run River, in 1963, but to make ends meet, she wrote what businesses, mostly magazines, were willing to pay her.

Didion chose interesting subjects, from San Francisco’s hippies to Sharon Tate’s murder. And Didion wrote illuminatively, brilliantly, in ways that set her apart from others and catapulted her to the iconic status she holds today.

Didion already rested at the forefront of America’s literary mantle by the time I discovered her. Her essay collections are phenomenal, some of the best nonfiction stuff I’ve ever read. Reading them, I assumed Didion pitched publishers on the books, they agreed, then she went and wrote the stuff that went into the books I later read.

Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece proves otherwise. Most of the essays in Didion’s early nonfiction books, such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, come from columns and articles media companies paid her to write.

Many writers have a loose idea for how we’ll publish books. We get a book deal, then write the book. Next, the publisher releases the book we’ve written. We’ll write a book once someone pays us to write a book.

That may be some writers’ experiences, but it’s not how it went for Joan Didion. She and her husband had to eat, pay bills, and care for their daughter. That took money, so Didion and Dunne took writing assignments that paid.

It’s after Didion produced many articles and columns that a publisher was willing to release her book. Years later, Didion published her first nonfiction book that wasn’t a collection of work someone had already paid her to produce.

Most of us writers have to work for a living. We can feel frustrated and ashamed that we take writing assignments or work nonwriting jobs because we need electricity, food, health insurance. We want to write books, produce art, and yet we’re doing stuff we’d prefer to not in exchange for money.

But that’s OK. It might even be good. The work we do now can lead to the material we publish later. Perhaps it’s writing we repackage into a book, a la Didion style, or maybe it’s experiences and people we meet informing our future writing. 

There isn’t one path to getting published. Joan Didion forged one way, and now we get to walk through it.


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Painter Nicole Eisenman’s recent New Yorker profile covers a lot of ground, from being gay to doing heroin, and all the art she’s made along the way.

The piece also has some handy missives for all creatives, including writers.

For example, many of us plug away at our art, hoping to create something that deserves attention, that causes people to feel something and to see us. We tweak, edit, and practice, never knowing if we’ll make it to where we want our art to be, which is in a place someone might call, “Good.”

In the excerpt below, Eisenman talks about how, after years of being an artist, something clicked in her work.

"In Nicole’s account of her career, things changed about fifteen years ago, after she found ways to infuse her paintings with some of the looseness of her drawings. She expressed this in the form of a question, her voice shrinking with each word: 'The paintings started getting good?'"

One day, if you keep at it, your art will start getting good.

And when it does, when others start taking notice, you may get busy. You could get overwhelmed. If that happens, it’s crucial that you step back, return to center, back to where you can create the art that makes you happy, that you have to make.

"She missed working alone, without hourly consultations with fabricators and assistants. (The list of materials used in 'Procession' includes a fog machine, mirrored Plexiglas, a telephone pole, a bee, tuna-can labels, and 'various twigs.' One figure wore socks knitted by Roeck’s mother.) She wanted to “push the world out.”

As you work, never forget that nothing in the creative process is wasted. You never know when that thing you made ends up being not something you toss, but a piece of the larger puzzle of your creation.

"In her sketches, she had drawn someone carrying a barrel, and someone else with a belt of knives. The barrel made it into the potato painting."

Drafts, sketches, extras, whatever you call them, are steps creatives take along the path to art. As John McPhee wrote:

Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

John McPhee

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