From the Wall Street Journal, where it was published by Mark Helprin on September 28, 2012:
Should you be insane enough to want to make a living in this cultural climate by writing fiction that is neither politicized, confessional, nihilistic, sexualized, sensationalist, nor crafted with the vocabulary and syntax of Dick and Jane, here are some suggestions.
Never write in a café, especially in Europe. Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the “tech weenie” (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000’s worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his moleskin.
This brings up Levenger, which sells “tools for writers.” The fewer tools the better, and they need not be costly or complicated. Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It’s not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen—the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page—but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.
In short, a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel. And although once you find a pen you like you’ll probably stick with it the way an addict sticks with heroin, it can be anything from a Mont Blanc to a Bic. The same for paper. There are beautiful, smooth, heavy papers, but great works have been written on ration cards, legal pads and the kind of cheap paper they sell in developing countries—grayish white, almost furry, with flecks of brown and black that probably came from lizards and bats that jumped into the paper makers’ vats.
Your most important tools will be your honesty, labor, courage, practice, luck and utter concentration. Inspiration can be magnificent. Handel wrote his “Messiah” cooped up in his room for two weeks. No one saw him, and his meals were allegedly slipped under the door. (Either it was a very strange door or he survived on fruit leather and matzah.) Then again, Voltaire—”On Sunday I was seized by inspiration”—wrote “Phèdre” in six days flat, a play that made his audiences weep not from emotion but because they had to sit through it.
More valuable than speed or being struck by what you think is lightning (and others usually do not) is concentration. When asked how he managed to come up with the calculus, surely one of the greatest achievements possible for the mortal mind, Newton replied, “I thought of nothing else.” Your drafts should be many. Some people (unspecified of course) even go, at times, to 12. This is but one of the differences between modern books that are flipped out like burgers and older ones that are roasted like beef. With the exceptions of those passages where it appears that God has commandeered the pen for the sake of perfection, the initial drafts should look like the Rosetta Stone and be so slashed and worked over with lines, directions and corrections that no one but the author can read them.
This gives rise to the fear that if you are run over by a bus before the work is set in type either it will go to the grave with you or require an army of scholars to decode it. Though they may be paid to unravel Donald Trump’s memoirs, they are less likely to be there for you.
Still, don’t hurry. Live dangerously. People love to look at the rough and scarred original manuscripts in the display cases of the New York Public Library or in facsimile editions. It’s not just because it brings them to the kind of authenticity one cannot help but treasure but because they know that if there is, indeed, magic, it is here to be seen, in worn pages that glow with concentration, genius and love.