by Erica Verrillo Feb 14, 2016: 5 minute read
Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915 — April 5, 2005) was one of our most famed American writers. He won the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts; and he is the only writer to have won the National Book Award for Fiction three times.
In spite of all the accolades Bellow received during his lifetime (and after) Bellow thought of himself as a “working stiff.”
“Celebrity interferes with the business of writing,” he said. “But it gives you a certain amount of confidence. Before, I said anything I damn pleased, and I did it defiantly. Now, I say anything I damn please, but I do it with confidence.”
Bellow was not afraid to say what he pleased, ever. At a PEN conference, he stated (like Churchill) that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. Predictably, he “had a fight on his hands.” But Bellow was not one to back down. And, as it turned out, neither was I.
One of the hardest things to learn during the publishing process is judgment. Writing alone, in your garret, does not demand anything from you other than time and thought. But once your work is exposed to the world, critics emerge from the woodwork. Everyone has an opinion. If they like what you have written, you feel confident that you have done a good job. And if they don’t, doubts creep in. The question you face is whether those doubts are justified.
My editor at Random House had a great deal to say about everything I had written — every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter (some of which she crossed out in their entirety). We did revision, after revision, after revision.
At the start, I assumed she was right, and I did everything she told me to do. I eliminated anything she might remotely find objectionable. But, by the end of that three-year period, I learned not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of eliminating, I simply tweaked. And, in some cases, I outright refused to make the modifications she suggested.
What had changed?
I had finally learned to “say what I damn well pleased.” I had learned to block out the advice that wasn’t consistent with what I wanted to say. And my work was all the better for it.
The last book in my series was the one in which I finally learned to stick to my guns. It was published just as I wrote it, and it got the best reviews of any of my books. Critics remarked that my writing had “really come along.” What they didn’t know was the writing had been the same in all three books. The difference was that by the time book number three came along, I had developed enough confidence to tell the difference between a good suggestion and a bad one.
The trick is to develop that confidence early — before you sacrifice your integrity.
What constitutes integrity for a writer?
Your first loyalty is to your manuscript. You must tell your story as best you can, realizing its full potential. You must ignore the distractions of what people say will sell, or what you think readers may like. You are not a panderer, you are an artist. Your job is to interpret reality through language.
Your second loyalty is to your readers. You have offered to tell them a tale. So, do it. Don’t try to impress them with linguistic gymnastics. Don’t point a finger at yourself. “Look at me!” is for actors, not writers. (Yes, I am thinking of Cloud Atlas.) Your readers shouldn’t even know you are there. You are your story.
Your third loyalty is to yourself. Nothing is more frightening than writing fiction. It lays you bare. So, don’t lie. Don’t shy away from emotions that are difficult, and from scenes that leave you raw. Tell the truth as only you can tell it.
Here is some of what Saul Bellow had to say about writing. I guarantee Saul will help you on the road to saying what you damn well please.
“You must either like what you are doing very much, either like your characters or hate them, you can’t be indifferent.”
“Your own natural, original voice provides the engine for your writing.”
“The Bible says, ‘Woe unto you when all men speak well of you.’ That’s where the critics come in.”
“The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions. He does this by opening another world.”
“When you open a novel — and I mean of course the real thing — you enter into a state of intimacy with its writer. You hear a voice or, more significantly, an individual tone under the words. This tone you, the reader, will identify not so much by a name, the name of the author, as by a distinct and unique human quality. It seems to issue from the bosom, from a place beneath the breastbone. It is more musical than verbal, and it is the characteristic signature of a person, of a soul.”
“The most pleasurable moments in writing are when you are either laughing or weeping, and scribbling at the same time. That’s what one lives for in this trade.”
Erica Verrillo has published five books. She blogs about the publishing world, posts useful tips on how to get an agent, lists agents who are looking for clients as well as publishers accepting manuscripts directly from writers, explains how to market and promote your work, how to build your online platform, how to get reviews, how to self-publish, and how to keep your confidence on Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity.
This collection is sister to The Curious Cat Project (CCP), a website that connects writers from all over the world. Follow CCP on Facebook.
Erica Verrillo was raised in Syracuse NY, the daughter of classical pianist, Violet Silverstein, and noted psychophysicist, Ronald T. Verrillo. At age seventeen Ms.Verrillo moved to England, where she performed in the Oxford Symphony Orchestra. On her return to the U.S. she attended New England Conservatory. She finished her undergraduate education at Tufts, where she majored in History.
Erica's website is ericaverrillo.com. Her blog, Publishing ... and Other Forms of Insanity can be found at http://www.ericaverrillo.com as well.
Erica is also the writer of Stella’s Star Wish found here in Helios. https://heliosliterature.com/2014/11/13/stellas-star-wish/