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?

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Three Questions

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

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How Writers Write: Roxana Robinson

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.

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Writing is frustration

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.

Philip Roth

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Write posthumously

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)

Quote of the Day

We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.

— Winston Churchill

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: ·

The desire to matter

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.

Talitha Stevenson

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Orwell in torment

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)

Categories: Productivity · Writing    Tags: ·

Steve Jobs on ideas vs. execution

One of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease. And that disease — I’ve seen other people get it, too — it’s the disease of thinking that having a great idea is really ninety percent of the work. And if you just tell people, “Here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen. The problem with that is that there’s a tremendous amount of craftsmanship between having a great idea and having a great product.

Steve Jobs (via david)

Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: ·

Quote of the Day

Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.

Mike Tyson

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Conrad: The sitting is all

I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day — and the sitting down is all.

Joseph Conrad, letter to Edward Garnett, Mar. 29, 1898 (via)

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Roth: Stop now

Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”

Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”

Julian Tepper, “In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice

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Junot Diaz: You keep writing anyway

In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

Junot Diaz

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Ian McEwan on the ideal length of a story

I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction.

Ian McEwan

Categories: Books · Writing    Tags: ·

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.

Categories: Productivity    Tags: · · ·

Emerson: Finish each day and be done with it

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day, you shall begin it serenely with too high a spirit to be encumbered by your old nonsense.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Tchaikovsky: Work without inspiration

Do not believe those who try to persuade you that composition is only a cold exercise of the intellect. The only music capable of moving and touching us is that which flows from the depths of a composer’s soul when he is stirred by inspiration. There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.

A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and today I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write today will have the power to make an impression and to touch the hearts of those who hear it. I hope you will not think I am indulging in self-laudation if I tell you that I very seldom suffer from this disinclination to work. I believe the reason for this is that I am naturally patient. I have learnt to master myself, and I am glad I have not followed in the steps of some of my Russian colleagues, who have no self-confidence and are so impatient that at the least difficulty they are ready to throw up the sponge. This is why, in spite of great gifts, they accomplish so little, and that in an amateur way.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky, letter to a benefactor, 1878 (via Brain Pickings)

Categories: Creativity    Tags: ·

Jeffrey Eugenides: Not the audience, the reader

I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not “audience.” Not “readership.” Just the reader. That one person, alone in a room, whose time I’m asking for. I want my books to be worth the reader’s time, and that’s why I don’t publish the books I’ve written that don’t meet this criterion, and why I don’t publish the books I do until they’re ready. The novels I love are novels I live for. They make me feel smarter, more alive, more tender toward the world. I hope, with my own books, to transmit that same experience, to pass it on as best I can.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Paris Review

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Picasso: I am always doing what I cannot do

I am always doing what I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.

Pablo Picasso (via)

Categories: Art · Creativity · Writing    Tags: ·

Quote of the Day

War hath no fury like a non-combatant.

Charles Edward Montague (via)

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