Last night I got to see Barbara Kingsolver read from her latest book, Flight Behavior, and answer lots of good questions. She ended up outlining several rules for writing that she tries to follow herself. I thought they were wise, but daunting, especially #3 and #5. Here they are:
- The first sentence of the book should make a promise that the book will keep.
- Keep a large trash can next to your desk, or use your delete key often. The best gift you can give your readers is to withhold the bad writing.
- Make sure the idea is important enough that it’s worth spending a couple years of your life on. The book should ask a question that’s never been asked before.
- Give the reader a reason to turn every page. Plot is important.
- Do something dangerous in the writing to make it challenging for yourself, to keep yourself interested and engaged while writing.
Kingsolver also told how she wrote her first novel ina closet as a 31-year-old pregnant woman with insomnia. It’s always heartening to hear about writers who got started when they were older than you currently are, especially when you can find glimmers of their story that make you feel like you have something in common. (Hey, I’m pregnant too!) It’s like the opposite feeling you get from hearing about someone like Keats, who composed several masterpieces and died at an age when you didn’t even feel like an adult. That just makes you want to give up, doesn’t it?
I first saw Kingsolver speak in 2005, when I was a junior marshall at Centre College’s commencement ceremony. I remember her speech as very urgent, environmentalist, and inspiring. I felt jealous of that class for having such a good speaker. The year after I graduated, there was another great address by Tim Russert, just a couple years before he died. But in 2006, we were stuck with Gordon Gee, who was chancellor of Vanderbilt, and spent his entire speech at Centre College talking only about Vanderbilt. Before he led Vanderbilt, he was president of Ohio State, so between those two schools, he represented four graduate programs that had rejected me. I’m not bitter or anything. If only Barbara could have come again! I wouldn’t have minded if she’d given the exact same speech two years in a row!