Writing

The virtues of hackery

Mario Puzo thought he was slumming when he wrote The Godfather. He was broke, an aspiring literary novelist with some respectful reviews but not many sales, and he hoped that a thriller about the mob might make a quick buck. … In fact, the writing of The Godfather released something fresh in Puzo’s imagination—a streak that was both potboilerish and also a little baroque—and if the result wasn’t “literary,” exactly, it was great pop fiction. … The director of those movies, Francis Ford Coppola, originally felt about them the way Puzo felt about his book; he considered them commercial hackwork compared with his more “artistic” films like “Rumble Fish” and “One From the Heart.”  And as in Puzo’s case, that attitude actually proved liberating, enabling Mr. Coppola to adopt a style that was grander and more operatic—more “epic,” to use the Hollywood term—but also less arty and self-conscious than the one he used for his more personal projects. Mr. Coppola’s “Godfather” enterprise went off the rails in “Part III,” which came out in 1990, when self-importance again seemed to overtake him (along with his star, Al Pacino) and he was no longer in touch with the story’s roots in pop culture and gangster-movie mythology.

Charles McGrath

I suppose there is a more compelling case to be made for artistic ambition, but it is worth remembering that great, lasting work often comes when artists aim low.

Share     Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: ·

“Never do it the same way again”

Beginners sometimes ask me how a novel is written, the answer to which is: Any way at all. One knows only when it is finished, and then if one is at all serious, he will never do it the same way again.

Thomas Berger, author of Little Big Man

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags:

Billy Budd manuscript

Billy Budd manuscript, 1888-89

Melville’s original handwritten manuscript of Billy Budd (via). (Click image to view full size.)

Share     Categories: Books · Writing    Tags: ·

The Artist in the Arena

Brené Brown on dealing with critics real and imagined. Helpful advice for creatives of all kinds, writers included. Of course, the Teddy Roosevelt quote that was so meaningful to Brown, about “the man in the arena,” is one that every writer should keep close by, for those low moments.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Share     Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: · ·

Ira Glass: The gap

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·

Up a tree

The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.

Vladimir Nabokov

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

George R.R. Martin’s “secret weapon”

I love this: George R.R. Martin writes his novels on a DOS-based computer using a vintage 1980’s word-processing program called WordStar. In this clip, he tells Conan that he actually has two computers, a modern one with an internet connection for ordinary tasks and an old DOS-based, web-free computer for writing. I do something similar, though my work computer is not quite as ancient as Martin’s. I have an old ThinkPad T23, one of the last ThinkPads made without built-in WiFi. It dates from 2001 or so. It has no internet access, and better yet it is heavy and battery life is awful, so it’s effectively immobile — it chains me to my writing desk. I write my novels on WordPerfect, a zombie word processor that I’ve been using since 1984, when my college roommate introduced me to it on his state-of-the-art Kaypro II computer. I have been a WordPerfect devotee ever since. Writers go to all kinds of extremes to seal themselves off from the insidious distractions of the web. I am surprised more don’t just use an old computer from the pre-WiFi era. In this case, less is more.

Share     Categories: Productivity · Writing    Tags: · · · · ·

David Lynch on Where Ideas Come From

We don’t do anything without an idea. So they’re beautiful gifts. And I always say, you desiring an idea is like a bait on a hook — you can pull them in. And if you catch an idea that you love, that’s a beautiful, beautiful day. And you write that idea down so you won’t forget it. And that idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole — whatever it is you’re working on — but now you have even more bait. Thinking about that small fragment — that little fish — will bring in more, and they’ll come in and they’ll hook on. And more and more come in, and pretty soon you might have a script — or a chair, or a painting, or an idea for a painting.

Via Brain Pickings

Share     Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: · ·

How you comin’ on that novel?

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·

The Value of Uncertainty

“You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.”

— Pablo Picasso

Share     Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags:

Hemingway: “Make it alive”

“You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not just depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you read something by me you actually experience the thing.”

Hemingway, age 25, letter to his father, March 1925

Share     Categories: Books · Writing    Tags: ·

Jeffrey Eugenides: Write Posthumously

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. When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember?

Jeffrey Eugenides’ speech to the winners of the 2012 Whiting Award — wonderful advice to young writers (and not-so-young writers) on the hazards of success. Well worth your time.

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Mary Karr: What you are doomed to write

“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.”

Mary Karr (via)

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Library Way

Hemingway plaque

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

Share     Categories: Books · Writing    Tags: ·

Blocked

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Yesterday was my Birth Day,” Coleridge wrote in his notebook in 1804, when he was thirty-two. “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. — O Sorrow and Shame…. I have done nothing!”

In a 2004 piece in the New Yorker, Joan Acocella considers writers block. Why exactly do writers stop writing? (Pictured: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the first known sufferers of writers block, a condition that does not seem to have existed, as such, before the early 19th century.)

Share     Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: ·

Keats: “I was never afraid of failure”

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)

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

“It’s always difficult”

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.

Alice Munro

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

“Each book should be a new beginning”

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

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Tweet of the Day

Alain de Botton tweet

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·

Writer-in-chief, cont’d

SOTU draft crop large

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?

An enormous, legible version of this image is here. (Via James Fallows.) See also the similar image posted by the White House three years ago.

Share     Categories: Writing    Tags: