A crabby and often cryptic writing coach occasionally stations himself in the back corner of my study. Inexplicably, he is a Greek — an old Greek, as in, hoary of mane and leathern of skin, as well as an ancient Greek, as in, toga-clad and Socratic in aspect. In fact, he may be none other than Diogenes himself, but I can’t be sure, as he never talks about himself and, unlike the original, this fellow writes nothing that later gets carved in stelae — though, come to think of it, he does talk with the irritated terseness of one obliged to chisel his own words in stone.
Over the years, whenever he has intruded upon me, I have, unbeknownst to him, switched over to a separate file on my computer and transcribed his remarks. They are numbered, these comments of his, because this is how he alerts me that he’s standing back there between the lamp and the bookshelf: He just declares a number. Interestingly, the numbers have not all arisen in order. Rather, he seems to be citing a pre-existing list, the arrangement of which is pedagogically reasonable but not exactly equivalent to the order in which I personally have needed his oracular utterances. Somehow, from the way he declares the numbers, I can tell they’re Roman numerals; if I knew Ionian numerals, he’d use those, but I don’t, so he settles for the next best thing.
Often he mocks me, though occasionally, if I’m really in a bad way, he’s more gentle and coaxing. And in spite of his habitual obscurity, he has, I think, been helpful to me, and therefore I’ve long thought that perhaps one day I would collate his remarks and fashion a little chapbook of them, a gift for him and also something to go on my own shelf alongside the aphorisms of Diogenes and Heraclitus. I haven’t yet gotten around to that, and besides, the transcription, which now runs to number 129, would be too long to share here, anyway. Therefore, to provide my strange tutor with a proper personal and professional introduction, I’ve selected some utterances that I’ve found either especially revealing of his character or particularly catalytic in my own craft. They begin with the first words he spoke to me:
I. Sit down at your desk. Yes. See the sun flare over the horizon. Sip your coffee in the warm glow of first light. This is not writing. This is the idea of writing. Go back to bed.
II. Try again. Sit down at your desk. Do not watch the sun flare over the horizon, because it won’t be there for another hour. Do you feel anxious and tired? Are you afraid this might affect the quality of what you write? Please. You’ve got no reason to expect greatness. There is no standard to live up to. So write something lousy, and tomorrow, that will be your standard.
III. Take a swallow of coffee. Take another. No, you don’t need to go make another pot.
IV. Yes, I know we did this yesterday. But writing is the opposite of travel: Only when the scenery remains unchanged might you really be getting somewhere.
V. Writing is the same as travel: What you never thought you were after can become what you were looking for, after all.
IX. Read the books. Excuse me? All the books. The good ones will give you clues and inspiration. The bad ones will give you more clues, and license.
XII. Do not go searching for your voice. You never had it to lose. There is no single voice that belongs to you. There are many possible voices, and you may use any of them, provided you can make them work.
XIII. What can you flee and chase at the same time? Yourself, as you run in circles.
XIV. Look: Hemingway’s voice was not the sum of Hemingway.
XV. Let’s try that again: Barth’s voices exceed the sum of Barth.
XXI. A work of art is a small thing. It has boundaries. If you think you are fashioning a reflection of yourself and all you know, then you are failing.
XXXIV. You’re typing so loudly you’ll wake the dog. Are you the hammer, pounding out your story? The chisel, hammered by the muse? Neither. You’re the thumb in between. So take better care of yourself.
XXXV. Love problems? You can’t write with them? Well you certainly can’t write without them.
XXXVI. Family troubles? Ibidem.
L. Procedure: it can compensate for your lack of courage and genius.
LI. Five hundred words per day. That’s the number. For nearly everyone, that’s the number.
LII. Five hundred words per day. If you think they are bad, put them in the folder called dying. Once you know they’re bad, put them in the folder called dead. Darwin would be pleased.
LVII. Finish your draft. Read once, swiftly, for large issues. Take notes on a separate sheet of paper. Read a second time, closely, for finer points. Take notes on the draft itself. Read over all your notes. Insert them at the right points in your draft; otherwise, you’ll forget about them. Now revise. Trust the procedure, because you cannot trust yourself.
LXXXVIII. Your editor will say, “take out everything that isn’t necessary.” But here’s the rub: none of it’s necessary, and you know it. It is not farming. It is not fire-building. It is not child-rearing. So what your editor means is, “make it shorter.”
XC. Remember: this is a project of meaning-making, which means, before it is there, none of it needs to be — like a person.
XCIX. Books are not made of aphorisms. They are made of words that compose sentences, sentences that compose paragraphs, and paragraphs that follow, one to the next, to tell a larger story.
C. Contradiction is allowed. What am I, Socrates?
Aaron Hirsh is chair of the Vermilion Sea Institute and author of Telling Our Way to the Sea: A Voyage of Discovery in the Sea of Cortez. He is a research associate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and his essays have appeared in literary journals, The New York Times, and The Best American Science Writing. Hirsh cofounded the biotechnology company InterCell and serves on the board of Roberts and Company Publishers. He can be found online at www.tellingourwaytothesea.com.