“It’s difficult to accept what your psyche or history dooms you to write, what Faulkner would call your postage stamp of reality. Young writers often mistakenly choose a certain vein or style based on who they want to be, unconsciously trying to blot out who they actually are.”
This is from a series of lovely plaques set into the sidewalk pavement on 41st Street leading up to the New York Public Library. Each includes a brief quote, some inspirational, some about books and reading. It took me twenty minutes to go two blocks. I love, also, that this plaque includes Hemingway’s standing desk (though it is rendered with an Escher-esque perspective error on the right rear leg, which is shown in front of the side brace rather than behind it). The plaque reads:
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.
— Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), “Old Newsman Writes,” Esquire, December 1934
It is as good as I had power to make it — by myself. Had I been nervous about its being a perfect piece, and with that view asked advice, and trembled over every page, it would not have been written; for it is not in my nature to fumble — I will write independently. — I have written independently without Judgment. I may write independently, and with Judgment, hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself — that which is creative must create itself — In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice. I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.
John Keats, in an 1818 letter to his publisher, responding to critics of his poem “Endymion” (punctuation as in original)
I work slowly; it’s always difficult — it’s nearly always difficult. I’ve been writing steadily, really, since I was twenty years old, and now I’m eighty-one. My routine now is to get up in the morning, have some coffee, start to write. And then a little later on, I might take a break and have something to eat and go on writing. The serious writing is done in the morning. I don’t think I can use a lot of time in the beginning; I maybe can only do about three hours. I do rewrite a lot, and I rewrite and then I think it’s all done, and I send it in. And then I want to rewrite it some more. Sometimes it seems to me that a couple of words are so important that I’ll ask for the book back so that I can put them in.
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.
Ernest Hemingway, 1954 Nobel Prize Speech
The White House has posted this photo of the president’s marked-up draft of the State of the Union address, reinforcing Obama’s reputation as a gifted, meticulous, hands-on writer. I wonder: if we were to rank the greatest writer-presidents, surely Lincoln and Jefferson would take the top two places, but who would beat Obama for third place? Theodore Roosevelt and Kennedy would have their supporters, I guess, but I don’t think either beats Obama for the bronze medal. Any other contenders?
Writers are very often miserable people: some thrive on unhappiness, others don’t. But few are immune from feelings of deep and avid dissatisfaction. We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight.
Avi Steinberg, “Is Writing Torture?”
In her new book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood poses three questions to herself and other novelists: Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? And where does it come from?
Mr. McEwan answered them in quick succession: “I think you could only do it for yourself under the assumption that if you like it, someone else might like it, too. Why do it? I think it’s impossible not to. Not to write seems to me to be a gross rebuke of the gift of consciousness. Where does it come from? You have to dig fairly deeply and relax your control of it … [Fiction] is a random, associative business, just the white noise of daydreaming thought.”
— Ian McEwan, 2002
Roxana Robinson describes how she prepares to write in the morning.
In my study, I set the mug next to my writing chair, across the room from my desk. My computer is at my desk, connected to the internet by a short thick blue cable. I unplug the cable and carry the laptop to my writing chair, where the blue cable does not reach. I sit down, free from the endless electronic niggling of the internet. My computer is now empty of anyone’s thoughts but my own.
Sometimes I read a bit, to enter into a sensibility that’s useful for whatever I’m working on. I read “The Journals of John Cheever” while I wrote “This Is My Daughter.” I read “Anna Karenina” while I wrote “Sweetwater.” I read “The Hours” while I wrote “Cost.” I read “Atonement” while I was writing “Sparta.” I came to know those books very well. I could open them anywhere and know the passage. I broke the spine of Atonement, though I only read one section of it, over and over.
I read a page or two, then close the book.
This is the moment. On a good day I’m now where I need to be, still in that deep dreaming place, where I can listen.
I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time. I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.
In his 1988 book of essays, Prepared for the Worst, Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously,” Hitchens said, going on to explain: “By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.
Jeffrey Eugenides (read the whole thing here)
The desire to matter as much as we once did to our mother is at the broken heart of all narcissistic endeavour, whether it’s writing novels, tweeting or carrying the right kind of handbag. Writing fiction is the symptom of many psychological distortions — a terror of mortality among them — the most poignant of which is a longing for perfect recognition, perfect understanding. This is the illusion hovering at the end of every painstakingly edited line. There was a time when Franzen’s mother imitated his “wuh” sound, mimicked his O-shaped gape, as if it was a work of genius, as if it mattered to the culture. The secret motivation of even the most gifted writer may be to enjoy this again — this is our blueprint for the experience of mattering — and “writer’s block” is perhaps a fancy way of describing the moments in which this seems impossible.
It is now 16 years since my first book was published, & abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, & in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying that the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear that there will never be a next one—that my impulse is exhausted for good & all. If I look back & count up the actual amount that I have written, then I see that my output has been respectable: but this does not reassure me, because it simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness & a fertility which I have now lost.
— George Orwell, 1949 notebook entry (via)