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When asked about how to know if you are destined to be a writer, Leo Tolstoy is credited for saying: if you can help and not write, don’t. I think more people should take his advice. Unless you have a physical need to write, fiction writing is not for you.

Take two pillars of the modern western literary tradition: Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway. In a way, they are polar opposites: Dickens spends pages on describing the mood and feel of the southern England bogs and marshes, weaves complex, intricate plot webs, painstakingly develops his characters. Hemingway specializes in simple. Simple plot. Seemingly simple characters. Accessible language. But, they are both genius. Their work is profound.

Which means that the stiches aren’t showing.

When I read Hemingway, I feel a palpable pleasure akin to eating a piece of green lettuce. You are there with him, seeing the snapshots of life, living them, feeling the hollowness, the simple joy, the distress. But you don’t see HIM. Like lettuce, which nobody created, mixed together, baked, cooked or otherwise altered, his writing just IS. The world he describes exists with nothing artificial. You don’t see how he created this world. You don’t see him sitting in a café on Rue Montmartre, drinking coffee, working diligently, completing a page an hour (unless, of course, he tells you about it in his nochalant way). You don’t see the stitches.

Same can be said for Dickens. You read his words and you forget that you are reading. No simile is forced, concocted. No long-winded sentence is artificial. The punctuation disappears altogether and you are consumed by his world, living in it day and night while you are reading the tale. You live in it, it lives in you. Even after you’re done. To think that a person wrote this, that these images, ideas, characters at some point did not exist, is near trecherous. The integration between author and composition is complete. Stitches? Ha! You don’t even see the different pieces of cloth which meld into the fabric of his creation.

Contemporary examples of this genius: Douglas Coupland’s Life After God. I want to eat that book. It is brilliant, and here, I am 100% convinced that Mr.Coupland did not pour over each word and sentence, that it just came out, pure and spontaneous. And if he did write a page a day, editing and re-editing, I am all the more impressed. Another great book where the author is unseen: The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

You try writing like Coupland, or like Hemingway. When I first read Hemingway in high school, I was sort of puzzled about all the hooplah around this guy. Heck, I could write like that! Yeah, I’d like to see my old self try.

I half-read a book a few months ago that was tremendously depressing. Not because the author was a narcissistic twirp who seemed to think that his run-of-the-mill life in St.Louis in the 1980’s was something worth writing about, but because you could see him literally wringing each word out of himself, burping up a joke, sweating out a clever closing line. Hey dude, if your topic is boring, at least write well about it. I was repulsed to the point that I never finished the book. He tried so hard to make it seem effortless, that not only was the style overburdened, but the trite topic itself became ridiculous.

To paraphrase Jesus’ exclamation in the epic Jesus Christ Superstar, “why are you obsessed with writing? Stick with fishing from now on…”

How’s that for a closing sentence?!

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