Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"How To Clap One Hand" by Richard S. Prather (Writer's Digest, Feb 1955)

It’s often said that one can learn a lot about writing by just reading – and certainly this is true. On the other hand, it can be a rare pleasure when a writer you admire shares their wisdom and experience. In the February 1955 issue of Writer’s Digest, pulp writer extraordinaire Richard S. Prather published an essay entitled, “How To Clap One Hand.” Much like his fiction, the essay is unpretentious and entertaining, as well as finely crafted. The title comes from the famous Zen kōan, “We have all heard the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Which is how Prather views most articles purporting to tell you “how to write.” In a down to earth manner, Prather demystifies the writing process as much as one can without being dogmatic or overly restrictive, while at the same time retaining the precious mystery of creativity and individualism.

Underlying the essay is a firm belief that writing requires both work and risk. While Prather may seem to encourage quitting one’s job to become a writer (something today that seems highly inadvisable – but what do I know), he never pretends that any level of monetary success is guaranteed. He reminds that you may fall flat on your face, just like you might in any endeavor. But that stopped people from taking chances in other occupations.

In the end, Prather is highly supportive of “aspiring writers” – a phrase he never uses in the article. As he states, writers are those who write, regardless of wealth or prestige. And if you want to be a writer, put a page in the typewriter and go to work.

Below are a few excerpts from the article.

I understand that Hemingway writes standing up, that Gardner dictates to secretaries, and others talk into wire recorders. I sit down with the portable on my lap and hack at it.


When I write a book I keep telling myself “This’ll knock ‘em dead” until I’m half hypnotized into believing it. If you think your stuff’s good as you write, and it’s fun to bang on the typewriter, the words come out much more easily. If you lose that free-wheeling kick, you groan, get indecisive and sweat.


It’s getting so that when people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” I feel like bashing them over the head with my typewriter and saying, “That’s where I get my ideas!”


You can put off the jumping-in-with-both-feet until your bones are brittle; why not do it while you can bounce? Say you were to take off for the mountains or beach, or even stay in the hometown if that’s where you want to be. Say a year later you’ve flopped, gone broke, haven’t sold a word. So what? In that you you’ll have learned more about writing – and turned out more wordage – than you would have in ten years of part-time scribbling.


When the plot looks right, I do a Synopsis, each chapter outline being written on separate pages. I usually wind up with a 500-600-word synopsis and 100-200 single-spaced pages of “plot-stuff,” with the parts I can use underlined in blue pencil. I number the usable sections with the number of the chapter into which they’ll fit; sometimes, when I reach that point in the first draft, I merely lift them bodily and put them into place like a piece of jigsaw puzzle; more often I rewrite and shape them, then slide them in.


Whether he’s sold a hundred books or nothing at all, the writer is still a guy who writes. Take a look at your typewriter and see if there’s paper in the carriage. If not, put some in the thing and write.


Writing is a little like riding a merry-go-round and reaching time after time for the brass ring. After a little practice you’ve got just as good a chance as anybody else – but first you’ve got to get on the horse. That’s really the only “secret” there is. You’ll go around in circles, and maybe you’ll get as dizzy as I am, but it’s a helluva nice ride.


(Image courtesy of The Richard S. Prather/Shell Scott Website)

4 comments:

  1. This would be a great addition to a reprint of Prather's output--- I sure hope someone is working on that.

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  2. some nice play there. I agree absolutely with the bashing it out, at least at first. I like that first draft to come fairly quickly. But then the sweating begins.

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  3. Love that picture. Me, I don't bash though. Every word is an ordeal till I get it right. (Not that I am comparing myself to him!)

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  4. As an ardent fan of RSP, I really like his advice. There's no easy way, get used to it. Richard S. Prather's advice to me back in 1963 was "get an agent". That advice was good in 1963, today I think agents should get me.

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