How I Write

May 21, 2019

Sitting at a desk in a room by myself, near a window with no view. On an electric typewriter. Occasionally I’ll test out a sentence in longhand on a lined pad, but I’ve composed on a typewriter since I was twelve.

I imagined myself as someone who writes every day, from nine to one, from two to six, regular, productive, disciplined. That’s my fantasy. For reality, take this week: Sunday I spent two hours at my desk and wrote four pages. Monday I walked around the West End with a visitor from America. Tuesday I was at the typewriter from ten until noon, from two until five, and despite many breaks for coffee or Diet Pepsi, reworked one page from Sunday and wrote seven new ones. Most of Wednesday was spent reading someone else’s novel. So far today I have written four drafts – eight pages – of this article.

When really driven, working at top speed, I may manage twenty pages in a day, but between three and ten is more usual.

A lot of those pages get thrown away. Ten years ago my first and final drafts were nearly identical, except for neatness. Today I can’t read my first drafts without feeling I should give up the hopeless attempt to write. Partly this is because my critical standards are higher now than they were when I was twenty, but objectively I think they are worse because I’ve changed my habits. I no longer have to squeeze my writing between classes or a job. Writing is all that I do, and the only proof I have of work is a pile of typed pages. So I work things out on paper which I would once have done in my head. My first drafts are full of blind alleys, failed attempts, unnecessary scenes. By the second draft I have a better idea of what I want to say.

Ideas don’t usually come at the typewriter,  but away from it. It may look like loafing, but where would the writing be without the epiphany in the bathtub, the connection made while daydreaming or watching TV? I make lists and notes, storing them up for the day when I know how to use them.

Bits and pieces come together, sometimes after years. I am startled, looking through old notebooks, to discover just how long a particular idea has been in my head. The seeds of the novel I am writing now go back to a story I wrote while I was still at school. It was a science fiction story. The novel isn’t. I’m attracted to the ideas of science fiction, but I’m not primarily a science fiction writer.

Beginning to write, the plot is uncertain, but I have the end in mind, often in precise detail. Those final sentences are, in Dorothea Brande’s words, “a raft to swim towards”. Later, when the story takes an unexpected direction,  I worry about forcing the ending, and decide to change it. But usually I don’t have to. I find when I get there, the words are right, the details just as I imagined before I understood their full significance. It no longer seems as if I made It up, but as if I managed to find my way to a place that was waiting to be discovered.

Lisa Tuttle
How I write

four or five lines

May 21, 2019

I do find it harder to write now than before, both novels and journalism. When I worked for newspapers, I wasn’t very conscious of every word I wrote, whereas now I am. When I was working for El Espectador in Bogotá, I used to do at least three stories a week, two or three editorial notes every day, and I did movie reviews. Then at night, after everyone had gone home,  I would stay behind writing my novels.  I liked the noise of the Linotype machines, which sounded like rain. If they stopped, and I was left in silence, I wouldn’t be able to work. Now, the output is comparatively small. On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day.

Gabriel García Márquez
Interviewed by Peter H. Stone
Paris Review Winter 1981

As far as I’m concerned, I believe the subject chooses the writer. I’ve always had the feeling that certain stories imposed themselves on me; I couldn’t ignore them, because in some obscure way, they related to some kind of fundamental experience — I can’t really say how. For example, the time I spent at the Leonico Prado Military School in Lima when I was still a young boy gave me a real need, an obsessive desire to write. It was an extremely traumatic experience which in many ways marked the end of my childhood—the rediscovery of my country as a violent society, filled with bitterness, made up of social, cultural, and racial factions in complete opposition and caught up in sometimes ferocious battle. I suppose the experience had an influence on me; one thing I’m sure of is that it gave rise to the great need in me to create, to invent.

Up until now, it’s been pretty much the same for all my books. I never get the feeling that I’ve decided rationally, cold-bloodedly to write a story. On the contrary, certain events or people, sometimes dreams or readings, impose themselves suddenly and demand attention. That’s why I talk so much about the importance of the purely irrational elements of literary creation. This irrationality must also, I believe, come through to the reader. I would like my novels to be read the way I read the novels I love. The novels that have fascinated me most are the ones that have reached me less through the channels of the intellect or reason than bewitched me. These are stories capable of completely annihilating all my critical faculties so that I’m left there, in suspense. That’s the kind of novel I like to read and the kind of novel I’d like to write.  I think it’s very important that the intellectual element, whose presence is inevitable in a novel, dissolves into the action, into the stories that must seduce the reader not by their ideas but by their colour, by the emotions they inspire, by their element of surprise, and by all the suspense and mystery they’re capable of generating. In my opinion, a novel’s technique exists essentially to produce that effect — to diminish and if possible abolish the distance between the story and the reader. In that sense, I am a writer of the nineteenth century. The novel for me is still the novel of adventures, which is read in the particular way I have described.

Mario Vargas Llosa
Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell and Ricardo Augusto Setti
Paris Review Fall 1990

Always a game

May 18, 2019

You treat free verse as a free-for-all. But poetry (whatever we may say) is, was, and will always be a game. And as every child knows, all games have rules. So why do the grown-ups forget?

Wislawa Szymborska
Letter to Mr. K.K. from Bytom
Literary Life
Trans. Clare Cavanagh

Henry James rewrote simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult. Actually, I’ve done it recently. The story “Carried Away” was included in Best American Short Stories 1991. I read it again in the anthology, because I wanted to see what it was like and I found a paragraph that I thought was really soggy. It was a very important little paragraph, maybe two sentences. I just took a pen and rewrote it up in the margin of the anthology so that I’d have it there to refer to when I published the story in book form. I’ve often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn’t really in the rhythm of the story anymore. I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive. So, I’m not too sure about this sort of thing. The answer may be that one should stop this behaviour. There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.

Alice Munro
Interview with Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson
Paris Review Summer 1994

When I was young, I was a passionate reader of Sartre. I’ve read the American novelists, in particular the lost generation — Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos — especially Faulkner. Of the authors I read when I was young, he is one of the few who still means a lot to me. I have never been disappointed when I reread him, the way I have been occasionally with, say, Hemingway. I wouldn’t reread Sartre today. Compared to everything I’ve read since, his fiction seems dated and has lost much of its value. As for his essays, I find most of them to be less important, with one exception perhaps—“Saint Genet: Comedian or Martyr,” which I still like. They are full of contradictions, ambiguities, inaccuracies, and ramblings, something that never happened with Faulkner. Faulkner was the first novelist I read with pen and paper in hand, because his technique stunned me. He was the first novelist whose work I consciously tried to reconstruct by attempting to trace, for example, the organization of time, the intersection of time and place, the breaks in the narrative, and that ability he has of telling a story from different points of view in order to create a certain ambiguity, to give it added depth. As a Latin American, I think it was very useful for me to read his books when I did because they are a precious source of descriptive techniques that are applicable to a world which, in a sense, is not so unlike the one Faulkner described. Later, of course, I read the nineteenth-century novelists with a consuming passion: Flaubert, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hawthorne, Dickens, Melville. I’m still an avid reader of nineteenth-century writers.

As for Latin American literature, strangely enough, it wasn’t until I lived in Europe that I really discovered it and began to read it with great enthusiasm. I had to teach it at the university in London, which was a very enriching experience because it forced me to think about Latin American literature as a whole. From then on I read Borges, whom I was somewhat familiar with, Carpentíer, Cortázar, Guimaraes Rosa, Lezama Lima—that whole generation except for García Márquez. I discovered him later and even wrote a book about him: García Márquez: Historia de un decidio. I also began reading nineteenth-century Latin American literature because I had to teach it. I realized then that we have extremely interesting writers—the novelists perhaps less so than the essayists or poets. Sarmiento, for example, who never wrote a novel, is in my opinion one of the greatest storytellers Latin America has produced; his Facundo is a masterwork. But if I were forced to choose one name, I would have to say Borges, because the world he creates seems to me to be absolutely original. Aside from his enormous originality, he is also endowed with a tremendous imagination and culture that are expressly his own. And then of course there is the language of Borges, which in a sense broke with our tradition and opened a new one. Spanish is a language that tends toward exuberance, proliferation, profusion. Our great writers have all been prolix, from Cervantes to Ortega y Gasset, Valle-Inclán, or Alfonso Reyes. Borges is the opposite — all concision, economy, and precision. He is the only writer in the Spanish language who has almost as many ideas as he has words. He’s one of the great writers of our time.

Mario Vargas Llosa
Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell and Ricardo Augusto Setti
Paris Review Fall 1990

how do you write?

May 14, 2019

how do you write?

Well, aside from literally just sitting down and typing (or writing longhand, if you prefer), here are a few tips to help you create a system and environment that compels you to write, instead of dithering about how to get going:
• Come up with a daily goal: Stephen King, for instance, makes himself write 2,000 words per day, every day — no ifs, ands, or buts. You may also choose a word count goal
• Choose a start time and stick to it: Hemingway always wrote in the morning, right after first light, because he loved the peace and quiet of the early hours. He would write until 9am or 12pm, at a point where he “still ha[d his] juice and kn[ew] what w[ould] happen next.”
• Limit yourself: Bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult once said, “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it.”
These are just suggestions. You may want to imitate one, some, or all of these ideas, but whatever you decide, just pick one and get started. Time’s a-wastin’!

Sarah Cy
Want to be a Great Writer?

Yearning for the Other

April 25, 2019

One writes because one has been touched by the yearning for and the despair of ever touching the Other.

Charles Simi
The Poet’s Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of 26 American Poets, eds. Stephen Kuusisto, Deborah Tall, & David Weiss

look all round me

April 21, 2019

I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book open before me. I love all poetry, and high generous thoughts make the tears rush to my eyes, but sometimes a word or a phrase of yours takes me away from the world around me and places me in an ideal land surrounded by realities more than any poem I ever read.

Bram Stoker

Letter to Walt Whitman February 1872

The urge to write

April 18, 2019

“The incurable disease of writing,” the Roman poet, Juvenal, called it. “Many suffer from” it, he notes. There is in fact a term used by mental health professionals for extreme cases of the need to write, “hypergraphia.” It’s usually applied to people who have a severe mental illness, they literally can’t stop writing, and who often include drawings in their scribblings. Hypergraphia is associated with epilepsy and temporal lobe disorder.

But it’s an open question whether that clinical term can be applied to prolific writers like Edgar Alan Poe, or Dostoevsky, or Isaac Asimov, or in contemporary times, Joyce Carol Oates, (who has published 40 novels, plus novellas, volumes of short stories, poetry, plays and non-fiction.) Notably, Oates has said that she is able to write when she’s in the car—when someone else is driving—and even when she’s got the flu.

For some of us the need to write is so profound that if we can’t do it we are quite miserable. Yet the life of the writer is mined with struggle and disappointment. “Ever tried. Ever failed,” Samuel Beckett wrote. “No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”That about sums it up for some of us. The professional writers’ life is not necessarily a happy one—our personal happiness, if possible, is usually achieved through friends, lovers, spouses, children, pets, sex, a good meal, a stiff drink. Happiness from writing does come momentarily when an agent calls to tell us she’s sold a novel. But even that happiness is often followed by a year—or a year and a half!—of anticipation and worry—will the novel get good reviews? Will it get reviewed at all? Will it sell! Then comes the day of publication, and another moment of happiness—the nice book party and the congratulations of family and friends. But that’s perhaps three hours’ worth of happiness, and then… on we go.

Dinitia Smith

Writing and Madness