a view of Skye

Ancestors, distant relatives and the past really were not part of my sense of family as I grew up. Something of my father’s exile from Scotland – self-exile really – and then exile from Great Britain, has rubbed off on me and probably affected the way I write. When I started writing, I didn’t feel that I was quite part of the English literary world or its systems of class or whatever – I always felt something of an outsider in it. That’s faded over the years, but I think it has made quite an impression on me, this sense of not being deeply connected to all the branches and roots of family. I could make a narrative of my writing which goes something like this: that I began as a kind of existential writer, much more interested in casting characters almost, as it were, outside of history and outside of identifiable places, and as the years have gone by I’ve become perhaps a more traditional writer, or at least a writer much more aware – consciously, expressively aware – of the traditions of the English novel, the treasures that are laid up for us by the great 19th-century expositors of character and psychology. And so the gap between my early short stories and a novel like Atonement, with its country house – a novel that looks partly back over its shoulder towards Jane Austen, but also back towards the hallowed traditions of Agatha Christie and crime novels, in that you set up a scene, you have a stranger arrive and everything follows from that. So there’s an enormous gap from Atonement to the earliest short stories with their very dispossessed, alienated characters who are living in a city with no name, often in a time that’s not fixed.

Ian McEwan
On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft
The Guardian, 26th March 2011

in a strange way

May 21, 2018

words2

Usually the idea for a novel comes to me, in a strange way, from reading rather than from living or observation. It’s often what I can only call an intellectual concern – some sort of large issue I’ve got very interested in. The operation of memory is an obvious one because several novels have been prompted by that. Or again the nature of evidence – that’s another important theme to me. Then the problem is to find the vehicle, to find the story and the characters and the backdrop, because they’re going to be the vehicle for this idea. Because then I don’t want the idea to show very much; I want the idea to be a sort of seven-eighths of the iceberg, a kind of ballast, but without which the whole novel would flounder.

Penelope Lively
On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft
The Guardian, 26th March 2011

Open all your senses

May 19, 2018

Here is a way to approach making poetry. Recall an experience. Let it flow into your head into your body until you know fully again what is now memory. Open all your senses: see, hear, smell, taste, touch again what you lived. Focus on one moment. Feel it completely. Do not try to understand it yet. Tell about it. Let the words come. Are they questions? Answers? Write so the reader and listeners respond with their senses, so that they let their bodies think. Do not explain: reveal. Let the image you create work for you. Ask the poem to talk, silently and aloud. People will listen and hear.

Katharyn Howd Machan
On Writing Poetry

burried

The techniques for mystifying women’s lives and belittling women’s writing that I have described work by suppressing context: writing is separated from experience, women writers are separated from their tradition and each other, public is separated from private, political from personal – all to enforce a supposed set of absolute standards. What is frightening about black art or women’s art or Chicano art – and so on – is that it calls into question the very idea of objectivity and absolute standards:

This is a good novel.

Good for what?

Good for whom?

One side of the nightmare is that a privileged group will not recognize that ‘other’ art, will not be able to judge it, that the superiority of taste and training possessed by the privileged critic and the privileged artist will suddenly vanish.

The other side of the nightmare is not what is found in the ‘other’ art will be incomprehensible, but that it will be all too familiar. That is:

Women’s lives are the buried truth about men’s lives.

The lives of people of colour are the buried truth about white lives.

The buried truth about the rich is who they take their money from and how.

The buried truth about ‘normal’ sexuality is how one kind of sexual expression has been made privileged, and what kinds of unearned virtue and terrors about identity this distinction serves.

Joanna Russ
How to Suppress Women’s Writing

primitive need

May 19, 2018

book light

I write to dream; to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead. I have a kind of primitive need to leave a mark on the world. Also, I have a need for money.

I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing. There are those great moments when you forget where you are, when you get your hands on the keys, and you don’t feel anything because you’re somewhere else. But that very rarely happens. Mostly I’m pounding my hands on the corpse’s chest. The easy times are intermittent. They can be five minutes long or five hours long, but they’re never very long. The hard times are not completely hard, but they can be pretty hard, and they can go on for weeks.

Mary Karr
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do
Edited by Meredith Maran

turmoil by Michael Lang

There would seem to be four stages in the composition of a story. First comes the germ of the story, then a period of more or less conscious meditation, then the first draft, and finally the revision, which may be simply ‘pencil work’ as John O’Hara calls it — that is, minor changes in wording — or may lead to writing several drafts and what amounts to a new work.

Malcolm Cowley
Introductory essay
The Paris Review interviews, 1st series

When I write a novel I’m writing about my own life; I’m writing a biography almost, always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end.

Beryl Bainbridge
On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft
The Guardian, 26th March 2011

I remain no wiser

May 15, 2018

alone

Although my ‘Unsent: New and Selected Poems’ stretches over thirty two years I remain no wiser as to how poems get themselves written. Since I began writing in my teens, nothing has so enthralled me as poetry; before my first attempts at writing, reading poetry had thrown a similar glamour over me, as it continues to do. Words are made of the breath of life, its essence, and they land on the page still breathing. That, I think, is the mystery and the surprise, for me, and then follows the hard work.

But what kind of hard work is involved? The whole process of editing and re-shaping and learning further meanings from that first draft is an addictive and deep pleasure for me. Seeking to keep the spontaneity alive is also an exciting challenge.

It takes a long time. Many of my poems are in various draft versions for years. Some poems prefer to develop at the speed of geological time, it seems! There is also the phenomenon of the now-and-again poem, as all poets know, which arrives as a free gift. It falls on to the open page through some kind magic and needs only the tiniest of tweaks. But these are rare and seldom occasions. I think perhaps that they only happen if the poet’s radar is switched on all the time.

Penelope Shuttle
On Writing Poetry

And this brings us to an issue that is never discussed: the dimly glimpsed truth that liking a book cannot, by itself, decide its overall quality. I’ll hurry past the issue with a few assertions:

● ‘Enjoyable is not the same as Good.’
● ‘Enjoyable can be Good.’
● ‘Good can be boring and still be Good.’
● ‘Boring may sometimes mean a work is Bad.’
● ‘Serious work can be entertaining.’
● ‘There are many values in fiction beyond entertainment. It can provoke interest and curiosity, elicit understanding and sympathy, make us feel and think, confront ourselves, and involve us in ways that intellectual discussion can’t – and do all this without being entertaining. In fact, it can be downright disturbing and frightening.’

George Zabrowski
Raising the Net: The C. P. Snow Lecture, Ithaca College, 6 April 1995

A dream of wine

all those poems about women, written by men: it seemed to be a given that men wrote poems and women…inhabited them. These women were almost always beautiful, but threatened with the loss of beauty, the loss of youth…Or they were beautiful and died young, like Lucy and Lenore. Or…cruel…and the poem reproached her because she had refused to become a luxury for the poet…the girl or woman who tries to write…is peculiarly susceptible to language. She goes to poetry or fiction looking for her way of being in the world…she is looking eagerly for guides, maps, possibilities; and over and over…she comes up against something that negates everything she is about…She finds a terror and a dream…La Belle Dame Sans Merci…but precisely what she does not find is that absorbed, drudging, puzzled, sometimes inspiring creature, herself.

Adrienne Rich
When we dead awaken: Writing as re-vision