By Nathaniel Rich
February 10, 2014
The best writing advice I ever received did not come from a writer and was not given as advice. And it was only three words. But I’ve been guided by those three words ever since.
They were spoken by a high school friend of mine named Charlie, a virtuosic jazz guitarist who on school vacations traveled the world to play at music festivals. My high school encouraged students to pursue creative endeavors, probably to a fault—many classmates who might have had successful, fulfilling careers as doctors, lawyers, or financial planners have spent their first decade after college drifting between rock bands, MFA programs, and art galleries. But it was clear, even when we were freshmen, that Charlie was destined for greatness. He wasn’t just brilliant, he was also funny, obscene, anxious, and self-deprecating, with a musical taste as unpretentious as it was sophisticated, encompassing Oscar Peterson, Nordic death metal, Ennio Morricone, Mr. Bungle, and the Wu Tang Clan.
Charlie performed regularly at school assemblies, but most students didn’t know what to make of his music. I certainly didn’t. It was obvious that he was playing flawlessly pieces of astounding difficulty and complexity, but only the other musicians on stage and his instructors were fully able to appreciate his talent. After one performance, a classmate, struggling to formulate a response to what she had heard, told Charlie that she “liked” his music, but admitted finding it “pretty weird.” “Weird,” Charlie repeated, nodding in approval. He thanked her. “That,” he said, “is the highest compliment you could’ve given me.”
I think he sensed her bewilderment—and mine—because he went on to explain that his personal mantra was to “make it weird.” Weird, he said, meant surprising, unexpected, unusual, new. Weirdness was the quality he sought when he listened to music, and also when he watched movies, and read books. All great art was weird.
I instantly realized that I felt the same way. Great literature confounds expectations. Great sentences, paragraphs, stories, and characters create surprises that are as unexpected as they are revelatory. Even the books assigned to us in high school English class—novels like Heart of Darkness, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick (especially Moby-Dick)—were greeted with confusion and apprehension upon their original publication. They were unlike anything that came before. They were unconventional. They were weird.
When I dislike a novel, it’s usually because I recognize something familiar in it: a character, a premise, most often a writing style. Familiar is boring. When I enjoy a novel, it’s usually because it surprises me, tells me things I didn’t know, or reveals things that I do know, but from a different perspective. All high art is destined to be weird. Weird: from wyrd, Old English for “destiny.”
When I write fiction, I tell myself to make it weird. Then I force myself to make it weirder. Life is extraordinarily weird. Art must be weirder.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of two novels, The Mayor’s Tongue and Odds Against Tomorrow.