Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Thurber on Writing

Since reading Jack Hart's Storycraft, I've been obsessing about structure, narrative arcs and diagrams.

I'm fine with outlines. Especially the kind of informal to-do-list "jot outlines" Hart talks about in A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to words that Work. But diagrams of arcs (or the "mind maps" popular with some copywriters) are simply counterintuitive for a guy who flunked finger-painting.

How refreshing it was to come across this quote from James Thurber:
I don't believe the writer should know too much where he's going. If he does, he runs into old man blueprint.
Thurber on first drafts:
That draft isn't any good; it isn't supposed to be; the whole purpose is to sketch out proportions... I rarely have a very clear idea of where I'm going when I start. Just people and a situation. Then I fool around—writing and rewriting until the stuff gels.
I admire the person who can write it right off. Mencken once said that a person who thinks clearly can write well. But I don't think too clearly—too many thoughts bump into one another. Trains of thought run on a track of the Central Nervous System—the New York Central Nervous System, to make it worse.
Still, the act of writing is either something the writer dreads or actually likes, and I actually like it. Even rewriting's fun. You're getting somewhere, whether it seems to move or not.
Neither way is right or wrong. There are many paths up the mountain.


  1. I really enjoyed your post with both the Jack Hart reference and your James Thurber quotes.

    I've interviewed Jack Hart on several occasions for Published & Profitable, and he was insightful on both occasions.

    James Thurber taught me so much over the years; it's a shame his name doesn't come up more frequently. There were so many moments of pure perfection in its stories.

    As a mind mapping evangelist, I read your comments about mind mapping with great interest. I can see your point, but, on balance, I feel that its positives outweigh its negatives...especially for organizing projects before writing.

    My next task is to explore more of your blog, to see what you have to about Don Murray, one of Jack Hart and Roy Peter Clark's Poynter Institute colleagues.

    Thanks, again, for sharing the Thurber references.

    1. Hi Roger,
      I read and enjoyed your interviews with Jack Hart. (The link in my post on his "Writer's Coach" book goes to your interview.)
      I never said mind maps weren't good. (By the way, that also links to your blog.) I just personally don't get them. I'm verbal not visual. I even print out directions from Google without the map!
      I only recently discovered Don Murray. Truly great (wish I had known him!). I'm also a fan of Roy Peter Clark. Thanks for the suggestion of bringing in more of their ideas. I should really do that. Most of my blog deals with copywriting and direct marketing. But lately, I've been focusing more on my "first love"—writing and editing.
      To quote another wise man: "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."—Groucho Marx