Good Prose Month: Elizabeth Berg On What It Takes To Be A Writer

Editor's Note: In conjunction with his publication of his new book, "Good Prose," Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Tracy Kidder and editor Richard Todd will host “Good Prose Month” on Signature.com, with the goal of bringing together the strongest voices in nonfiction to share insight into the writing and editing process with the next generation of authors. Every day during the month of January, visit Signature.com for a new Good Prose tip, lesson, or story from bestselling authors, award-winning journalists, acclaimed editors, and favorite storytellers. The conversation will continue on Twitter with a weekly #GoodProse chat about the craft of writing, hosted by selected authors from a range of nonfiction genres.

Elizabeth Berg is the author of twenty novels, including Open House, which was an Oprah's Book Club selection, Once Upon a Time, There Was You, The Last Time I Saw You, Home Safe, Dream When You're Feeling Blue, and The Year of Pleasures. Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as ALA Best Books of the Year, and Talk Before Sleep was shortlisted for the ABBY Award in 1996. The winner of the 1997 New England Booksellers Association Award for her body of work, Berg divides her time between California and Chicago.

It helps if you’re a crybaby, which is to say it helps if you feel things very deeply and respond to them, whether with actual tears or not. (If he’s not already, John Boehner should be a writer.)

Along with a great deal of sensitivity, you need to develop and practice the habit of noticing: a flicker of a facial muscle that suggests anger; the tone beneath words being spoken; the movement of wind in the linden trees; the bagging at the knees of a pair of pants; what your grandmother’s apron smelled like when she pulled you in for a hug; how, when you bite your cheek, the blood tastes in your mouth. You need to study your species and your habitat, and then you need to be like my daughter, Julie, when she was three years old and saw tannish sand from the snow plows covering the white. “The snow looks just like crumb cake,” she said, and she was absolutely right. You need to notice all the time, and then tell what you saw in a new way. As for the notion that everything has already been said, maybe it has, but life is like meatloaf: there are so many different ways to present it. What’s unique about you is what makes your writing interesting, and what makes it shine. It is yet another reason why you should never try to imitate other writers.

You need to be a panhandler: you need to collect all you notice and then sift through it for the gold; you need to be discerning. You need a sense of restraint, a sense of timing. You need to know when to hold back and when to put those nuggets in; your writing should be like a river, flowing, changing, bringing the reader along on an unpredictable ride.

No matter what you write, you need an active imagination. You need to be entertaining story ideas all the time: lying in bed, at the grocery store, out for a walk, even (sad to say) when you’re in conversation with someone. Writers have a reputation for being distracted. That’s because writers are distracted. They are always tuned into that other voice, the one in their head that rarely turns off. Even in sleep, its little light glows.

You need a place to work that works for you; and you need people to understand that when you are writing, you are doing a rarefied type of brain surgery and therefore should not be subject to a million random interruptions. You need supplies you like: I favor folders with girly designs, a certain brand of orange pencil with black wood called Rhodia (available from the funky Pieritz Brothers Office Supplies, Oak Park, Il.). I like black, 3-inch, 3-ring notebooks with pockets for holding notes. And my favorite coffee cup by my side. And fresh flowers. And my dog. And a Barr-Co. "Original Scent" candle, burning.

If you are interested in publishing, you’ll need to develop a thick skin because you’ll get rejected. Then, when you are published, no matter how many good reviews you get, you’ll get some stinkers, even some scorchers. People won’t always get you. Or they’ll get you wrong. Or they’ll get you right and praise you to the skies to boot, but if you’re a real writer, you’ll be too neurotic to take that in; you’ll be feeling for the pea in the mattress. And of course, all this business about developing a thick skin is just useless prattle: you don’t have a thick skin because you’re so sensitive, so you’ll have to suffer. But this is a good excuse for a martini with another suffering writer.

You need to admit joy. Let the need and practice of writing be joyful, first and foremost. Everything else falls away -- or should -- when you’re experiencing the profound satisfaction of releasing what’s gnawing away at the inside, seeking a way to make you understand something you can’t understand any other way.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to remember that your own review of your work is the one that matters most.

If you’ll excuse me now, I think I’ll go and try to follow my own advice.

Elizabeth Berg's latest work, "Tapestry of Fortunes," will be published in April of 2013.