writing links

Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art

When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.

Neil Gaiman, “Make Good Art” (read it here)

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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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.)

Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: ·

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.)

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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Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction

When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it. It’s not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it’s entirely possible to make it all shut up for twenty minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there’s always twenty minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn’t become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day’s page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you’ve already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.

— Cory Doctorow, “Writing in the Age of Distraction

William James: Habit

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.

William James, Habit (read the whole essay here).

Update, 8.20.2017:

William James’s famous essay on habit is mentioned in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey (wonderful book):

James was writing from personal experience — the hypothetical sufferer is, in fact, a thinly disguised description of himself. For James kept no regular schedule, was chronically indecisive, and lived a disorderly, unsettled life. As Robert D. Richardson wrote in his 2006 biography, “James on habit, then, is not the smug advice of some martinet, but the too-late-learned too-little-self-knowing, pathetically earnest, hard-won crumbs of practical advice offered by a man who really had no habits — or who lacked the habits he most needed, having only the habit of having no habits — and whose life was itself a ‘buzzing blooming confusion’ that was never really under control.”

James was also a chronic procrastinator. He told one of his classes:

I know a person who will poke the fire, set chairs straight, pick the dust specks from the floor, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take down any book which catches his eye, trim his nails, waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without premeditation — simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests.

I actually find all this heartening. Maybe there is something in the undisciplined mind that enables it to imagine freely. Of course, it is too much to say that lack of self-restraint is a necessary condition for creativity; there are certainly creative people with rigorous self-discipline — William James’s brother Henry not least among them. But, at a minimum, one can say that a disorderly mind and unsettled habits are not a complete bar to great creative achievements, if William James is any example.

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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.

Read the whole essay here. See also: Orwell on Why I Write.

Categories: Books    Tags: ·


“What are the causes of success? …studies suggest that our most important talent is having a talent for working hard, for practicing even when practice isn’t fun…. Success is never easy. That’s why talent requires grit.”

Jonah Lehrer (follow-up here)

Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: · ·

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.

George Orwell, “Why I Write

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James Surowiecki: Later

A theory of procrastination:

“… the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called ‘the divided self.’ Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control.… The idea of the divided self, though discomfiting to some, can be liberating in practical terms, because it encourages you to stop thinking about procrastination as something you can beat by just trying harder. Instead, we should rely on what Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson, in their essay in The Thief of Time, call ‘the extended will’ — external tools and techniques to help the parts of our selves that want to work. A classic illustration of the extended will at work is Ulysses’ decision to have his men bind him to the mast of his ship. Ulysses knows that when he hears the Sirens he will be too weak to resist steering the ship onto the rocks in pursuit of them, so he has his men bind him, thereby forcing him to adhere to his long-term aims.”

Anybody got a mast I can borrow for the next couple of weeks?