This Is How You Can Become a Damn Good Writer

When novelists and poets reveal their writing process we learn a great deal about our own development. 

The rhythm of a good sentence moves through you as powerfully as a solid beat. It can cause you to fall silent, placing the book face down, pages spread, to contemplate the vast sweep of life, all thanks to the combination of a few simple words. It can call you to action, creating a swell of motor neurons dictating forward momentum. A dopamine cascade tingling the extremities of limbs and minds when the puzzle pieces of language fit together in just the right form.

Sentences arrive in a flash of inspiration yet might be labored over for weeks, months—the path to fiction is not easily distracted or hopelessly inattentive. Writers spend hours typing words like musicians play scales, writes literary theorist Stanley Fish in his book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. The subtitle is telling. A writer needs to be a reader, to help grapple with the myriad forms available. Storytelling is architecture. From few basic materials a landscape of diverse structures emerges. 

Know What You Want to Say

Forms not only allow us to discover a common foundation to build on top of, Fish continues, but are “the very possibility of meaning.” To discipline yourself in form is to practice a discipline of thinking, which is why Fish believes writers are not copyists, but selectors. That includes not only the words you choose, but the breadth of the story you’re trying to tell.

The goal is not to be comprehensive, to say everything that could possibly be said to the extent that no one could say anything else; if that were the goal, no sentence could ever be finished. The goal is to communicate forcefully whatever perspective or emphasis or hierarchy of concerns attaches to your present purposes. 

Know the Power of a Sentence / Collect Sentences that Move You

Take, for example, one of my favorite sentence writers, Jorge Luis Borges. In Labyrinths, he writes:

Thus the days went on dying and with them the years, but something akin to happiness happened one morning. It rained, with powerful deliberation. 

Borges masterfully strings readers along with a necessary tension, leading you one way then the other, words like a bow massaging the violin’s strings. There is movement, which New Yorker writer James Wood believes to be an essential component of writing. In How Fiction Works he tells of a writer who opens a novel with an old photograph, a tired cliche immediately signaling “that the novelist is clinging to a handrail and is afraid of pushing out.”

To Move Your Reader, Write with Movement

The photograph is a representation of life, as are words. The Buddha in his meditative repose; Jesus in contemplative and compassionate earnestness. Historical characters are at constant risk of becoming caricatures, a trend that continues today when Instagram "stars" only show one side of their personality, over and again. When we focus on only one aspect of their being, as we often do with photographs, we forget they're complex, multifaceted beings.

The images of the prophets above are aspirational yet not wholly representational. No sign of the tears, confusion, and uncertainty that over time gave clarity to the shape of their molds. Wood believes the same trap happens with amateur novelists, who rely on static descriptions of what should be dynamic beings. For him, more practice, and patience, is required.

The unpracticed novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilized in a scene that is hard.

Make the Everyday Seem Extraordinary

Speaking of his first volume of published poetry, Pablo Neruda admits he never wanted mystery or magic to infiltrate his observations. In Memoirs, the poet, he maintains, must in personal effort help everyone reach higher. In doing so he caresses everyday objects, grounded in the commonplace, the key to transcendence. Neruda says:

The closest thing to poetry is a loaf of bread or a ceramic dish or a piece of wood lovingly carved, even if by clumsy hands.

Fish puts it nicely: “What you can compose depends on what you are composed of.” There is an artificiality to language, in that words are units we inhabit and manipulate in order to carry meaning across. They are not real yet represent everything in reality. So powerful is writing you might believe its invention signaled metaphysical representation, but you’d be wrong.

Understand What a Word Really Is

Despite romanticized myths of gods handing down language to animals with engorged cortices, Felix Martin points out in Money: The Unauthorized Biography that writing, for thousands of years, was merely accounting. You have this many cattle; my land yields this many bushels of wheat. These symbols, which eventually became written words, represent the thing without actually being the thing.

When Neruda claims the strength of words resides in the mundane, he was unknowingly tapping into the origins of language. Symbols we call letters were invented to keep track of bread and dishes. From there we gave such objects life through the expanding associations and possibilities of our newfound muse: the creative potential of narrative. 

From the pragmatism of credit we’ve created literature, exploiting certain brain regions while embellishing others—literature engages the visual cortex, hippocampus, and default mode network, and can even send readers into flow states by disengaging parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with self-awareness. Love of structure collided with passion for narrative. It took millennia but scribes eventually turned loaves of bread and ceramic dishes into poetry. The everyday became transcendent. The evolution of written communication armed us with innumerable vehicles of imagination to transform daily events into extraordinary occurrences. 

Breathe New Life into the Oldest Story in the Book

What comes through in all of these writings on writing is the journey: humans are seeking animals. First, the basics: nutrition, enclosed shelter, other bodies to fulfill biological impulses and share emotional quandaries with. From there, the story. 

For Wood, storytelling requires a constant urge that something new, something greater, always lies in wait around the corner, regardless of the few basic tales—of war, of love and love lost, of deception and power—we keep repeating with different characters, over and over throughout the ages. We must act as if the dull edges of repetition have fully hypnotized us, then rebel against it with all our might. 

The true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional. 


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Image: SRF
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The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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