Essays About


Comedy is the most unforgiving genre. For a novelist, poet, or scholar, an admixture of mediocrity need not be damning. An occasional prosaic thought can pass unnoticed amid the greater thoughts around it, just as no one notices the mulch in a bed dense with flowers. Even Milton writes dull verses sometimes, which we enjoy reading because they let us rest from interpretation.

But for a comedian alone among writers, anything that does not hit, misses. A joke that falls flat cannot fall back to being filler; no lower purpose redeems it. A poor punch line in a stand-up act, instead of fading in the surrounding laughter, creates the awkward silence that everyone in the audience remembers. Every comedic utterance that is not a triumph is a failure.

A comedian needs courage besides humor.

I write by trial and error. I move words around until I happen to like their arrangement. In the labor and details of bringing a thought into being, I lose my way and half-forget what I wanted to say. I do not find my way but keep trying sentences until, in the words before me, I recognize and remember my original thought.

The secret of writing is not so much vision or inspiration but the mundane ability to stop tinkering when we realize we've written something worth keeping. By an unmysterious formula, one accumulates good sentences by discarding bad ones. Creativity is the source of writing, but selectivity is the source of good writing. A writer is a prospector panning for gold in the stream of his own thoughts. He picks out the gems and nuggets and presents only them to the world, so that the world thinks his mind produces gold, though it mainly produces mud.

Supposedly, a monkey on a typewriter, through sheer luck, could eventually type out Hamlet. But a monkey would keep typing, ignorant of his achievement, while a writer who stumbles on truth or beauty seizes his luck and sends his manuscript to the publisher.

The more I read old books, the more I discover the source of the thoughts in new books. No writer is absolutely original. Every writer's ideas are mostly recombinations of others' ideas. A novel book is a novel amalgam of previous books. Still, great and mediocre writers differ in how fully they fuse and transform their borrowed materials. A mediocre book has the consistency of vegetable soup. The still-visible chunks of others' thoughts soak in the watery broth of the writer's own voice. The writing follows no recipe except to throw in every desirable dish, which produces an undesirable dish. The book has no identity, through having too many. Great books are like vegetable juice. The blender of genius liquefies the ingredients of prior reading into a uniform drink, with a texture and taste no single part possessed. Out of many flavors comes only one, the author's. Lesser writers emulate what they read, great writers assimilate it—merging masterpieces into a masterpiece.

Young writers are often guilty of contriving passion. They begin their work in earnest, but then they overstep the limits of their real feelings, adorning their hard-won experiences with borrowed ideas in the hope of enhancing the impact, yet actually diminishing it. Nevertheless, this youthful erring toward artifice and overextension is rooted in genuine ardor. Because young writers feel so impassioned, they try too hard to impassion their readers. Should not the reader then forgive this falseness born of authenticity?

A regrettable paradox of human aspiration is that, because we desire and strive for excellence, we have no time to relish it. Broken things rather than working things demand our attention. Nothing is more pleasant in writing than an inspired sentence that drops full-formed onto the page, but such sentences, by their very effortlessness, only provide a moment's pleasure. A writer's hours are spent bending and hammering the tough, unmalleable sentences that will not take shape. A jeweler delights in a polished stone, but the instant he has chiseled it, he sets it aside and picks up another rough rock. Work is not accidentally unpleasant but essentially so, for we work on what we wish to change, that is, on what we do not like. A company calls long meetings not to discuss strategies that are succeeding but that are failing. Our love of solutions forces us to keep company with problems.

All books about death are written by the living.