Readings

A few favorite essays on books and writing.

Blocked

In a 2004 piece from the New Yorker, Joan Acocella considers writers block. Why exactly do writers stop writing? (Including Coleridge, pictured, one of the first known sufferers of writer’s block.)

Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction

“Don’t be ceremonious…. When the time is available, just put fingers to keyboard and write.”

Grit

Jonah Lehrer has been shunned for his journalistic sins, but this essay from 2011 remains one of my favorites. Talent isn’t enough; “talent requires grit.” Is there any quality more important to a novelist?

Henry James: The Art of Fiction

“The air of reality … seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel — the merit on which all its other merits … helplessly and submissively depend.”

James Surowiecki: Later

Procrastination makes no sense. It is against our own interests, it makes us miserable, and we procrastinators want desperately to stop. So why do we do it?

Jeffrey Eugenides: Write Posthumously

Jeffrey Eugenides’ advice to young writers: “To follow literary fashion, to write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they’re popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place.”

Malcolm Gladwell: Late Bloomers

Prodigies like Picasso are often “conceptual” creators. They start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. Late bloomers like Cézanne (left) tend to be “experimental”: they work slowly, by trial and error.

Orwell: Good Bad Books

“The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.”

Orwell: Why I Write

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

William James: Habit

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.”