Writing

Ira Glass: The gap

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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

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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.

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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

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How you comin’ on that novel?

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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

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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

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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.

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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)

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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

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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.)

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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)

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“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

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“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

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Tweet of the Day

Alain de Botton tweet

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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.

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Malcolm Gladwell: Late Bloomers

Prodigies like Picasso … tend to be “conceptual,” [the economist David] Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research,” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “… I have never made trials or experiments.”

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes…

Malcolm Gladwell, “Late Bloomers,” on precocious vs. late-blooming artists, and two very different types of creativity: conceptual and experimental. This article helped me understand myself and my own (experimental) creative method, and it is still a consolation to me. (More here.)

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Henry James: The Art of Fiction

But the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be interesting. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. “Enjoy it as it deserves,” I should say to him; “take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, reveal it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you … There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory. Don’t think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself…. Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible—to make as perfect a work.”

— Henry James

Read the complete essay here.

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Quote of the Day

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

— Peter DeVries (though I’ve seen this quote or something similar attributed to several writers)

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Miserable people

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?

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