Featured Writer

Damien Rudd

I am the first to admit I am not a writer. What I am, however, is severely dyslexic, a slow reader, and a post-graduate – not in writing or literature, but art. Several months after I graduated with my MFA, I was approached by Penguin to write a 70,000 word, non-fiction book on the history behind places with sad names; this proposal was based on a viral Instagram account I had begun called Sad Topographies. I told them with unflinching honesty that I was not a writer, that I had chronic dyslexia, and that I had never written anything more than a few thousand rambling words in my life. Ignoring my concerns, they asked me to send them five sample essays in one month. As an impoverished ex-art student with no respectable resume and living in Amsterdam, I had little economic choice but to give it a try. It had never been a dream of mine to be a writer or to publish a book of any kind. But what did I have no lose?

In the week following, I ploughed through various classic writing manuals suggested by Amazon: On Writing Well By William Zinsser;  The Elements of Style By William Strunk Jr., and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, to name a few. While they provided me with some fundamental rules of good writing (cut adverbs; show, don’t tell), I was left with little idea of both what and how to write. With the impending deadline, it was a short essay by Geoff Dyer that really spoke to me:

If you are a tennis player any weakness – an inability, say, to deal with high-bouncing balls to your backhand – will be just that. And so you must devote long hours of practice to making the vulnerable parts of your game less vulnerable. If you are a writer the equivalent weakness can rarely be made good so you are probably better off letting it atrophy and enhancing some other aspect of your performance.

In other words, forget what you’re bad at and work on what you’re already good at. With my education in art, an interest in obscure histories, and a fledgling ability to write digressive and rambling essays, I set out to hone my strengths. I read books by others who unabashedly embraced a digressive style, and whose writing stumbled back and forth across the border of fiction and non-fiction: Montaigne, W.G. Sebald, Geoff Dyer, and Rebecca Solnit. Forgetting the dry, formal essays that were expected, I instead digressed into esoteric subjects I found more interesting: melancholy and maps; country music and cholera; found photography and soviet cinema. I wrote in a style that, however flawed by the conventions of ‘good writing’, felt both playful and natural. At the end month, with little expectation, I submitted the five essays to the publisher.

Several weeks later, I received an email: my book had been bought not by Penguin, but Simon & Schuster, who were offering an even more generous publishing deal. While I have never found writing easy, I learned to let my weaknesses atrophy (besides, there are these great people called editors) and instead invest time building on my strengths. By doing so, I was able to create a book that felt both authentic and satisfied by intellectual curiosities.

Damien Rudd’s Sad Topographies was published in December 2017. He is currently working on another digressive book about the Anthropocene.