Seek the Love of Strangers: Billy Collins on Writing

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Billy Collins on Writing

Last week Billy Collins addressed the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium in a key note address with his thoughts on writing. Following are some ideas he shared.

What it Means to Write

In considering various forms of writing, Collins admitted to differences in his level of comfort versus insecurity. “The prose writer in me is riddled with insecurity. The poet is not.”

In explaining the practice of writing, Collins hit home with a reference to Thomas Mann. He gave the entire room a good laugh with this one. It is far too true. “As Thomas Mann said, a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”

Collins used a point from W.H. Auden on how to recognize when your writing is complete. “W.H. Auden compared writing to cabinet making – the just rightness about the words.”

Considering Poetry

Later Collins continued the comparison of forms of writing. “Poetry and prose, for me, are like two different musical instruments.”

As a poet, he explored that approach further, using it to give insight to writing in general. “Poetry offers the highest level of imaginative freedom of any writing. It doesn’t have to stick to its topic.” And, “The poet seeks to get lost in the woods of his own imagination.”

He considered, finally, how the means of concluding a piece gives insight to the method of the whole. “All poems are about one thing – how do you get out of there? That can be extended to all writing, I think. The conclusion is about reaching that point where you have nothing else to say, and the reader doesn’t want to read anymore.”

Part of Collins point in exploring poetry was to encourage us as writers to pull inspiration from beyond the walls of wine writing. How? Collins suggested that the conventions of wine writing could be improved, or undone, by interjecting the conventions of other writing forms. He offered several tips, and examples, some drawing too from other styles of writing.

Wine As Discovery

“Start out writing about something other than wine so then wine comes in as a sort of discovery.”

“If you get the reader to accept something simple at the beginning of the piece, they’ll be more willing to accept something more complex later. […] Once you’ve established something human at the beginning of the piece, you’ve established absolute authority.”

“Be an interesting speaker.”

The Love of Strangers

Collins considered for a moment writers’ relation to others first by referencing American Essayist Roger Angell. “Roger Angell said, that’s what writing is all about, the love of strangers.”

Collins continued the idea by taking a look into why writers write. “We have people all around us that love us but their love is often incomplete. So, we seek out the love of others – strangers.”

He used the idea of seeking attention from others to drive home a fundamental point about what makes some writing work – we are all in a sense alienated. Writing, when it works, becomes a site to connect with others. How?

“We can always assume the indifference of readers. To get over that indifference, move off into other topics. Have some drift in your writing.” The drift becomes what Collins called our “something human” that gives us authority in the piece. Not in the sense of dominating the reader, but in the sense of pulling them in.

Building a Scene

Collins considered other ways to pull the reader in by again turning to other forms of writing. “Writers of novels do not proceed by explanation. They proceed by scene-by-scene construction. It is certainly good to begin with a scene. All sorts of things can happen in a scene. Is it raining? Put some rain in there.”

Collins considered advice from Nelson Algren. “Make them laugh. Make them cry. But most of all make them wait.”

Collins then riffed on Algren’s point by considering again conventions from other forms of writing. “Plant a suspense scene or clue in the beginning, then go to describing the weather, or the scenery outside the window.”

The Writer’s Ego and Interest

As he continued, he referenced Joan Didion and her technique of borrowing stylistically from fiction to deliver her non-fiction prose. He also pointed to a more extreme example, Hunter S. Thompson, in which “the reporter replaces the subject of the story. They inject their ego into the story.”

In describing that generation’s styles of reporting where the journalist suddenly became (overtly) integral to the reporting, he joked, “Everyone wrote like an only child.”

Finally, Collins turned the attention back to the state of the writer while writing. “Keep yourself interested. If your writing doesn’t keep you up at night, it won’t keep anyone else up at night. You have to make yourself a stranger to your own writing. Step back from each paragraph, and ask, would a stranger be interested in this?”

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For Amy and Meg.

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