At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern & left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations & capabilities impossible to any less magical & quiet hour.

H.P. Lovecraft
letter to Lillian D. Clark, 1st September 1924

First off, my intent in using these approaches is not to mystify my readers. My agent once said to me, “I know you thought no one would `get’ this in your story but I understood what you were up to.” I wrote back that if I thought no one would get it, I wouldn’t have put it in there. There’s no purpose for an author deliberately making things obscure. What I am trying to do is show the way things really seem to me — and to find the most appropriate way to tell the particular story I have to tell. I certainly never sit down and say to myself, “Gee, I think I’ll tell a story in the first person or third person.” Some stories simply seem to need a first-person narrator, others are dream stories, another might require a third person narrator. What I try to do is find the narrative approach that is most appropriate to the subject matter.

Gene Wolfe
Interview with Larry McCaffery, November 1988

The mystery of music

February 1, 2020

The music of a people offers a unique entry into their unconscious life. The tenor of what haunts and delights them becomes audible there. The cry of a people is in their music. The mystery of music is its uncanny ability to coax harmony out of contradiction and chaos. Often the beauty of great music is a beauty born from the rasp of chaos. The confidence of creativity knows that deep conflict often yields the most interesting harmony and order. In the Irish tradition, we have sean-nós singing. This is a style of unaccompanied singing in the Irish language that has a primal tonality and a very beautiful rhythm. The resonance and style of sean-nós seems to mirror the landscape and sensibility of the people. There is a repertoire of these songs and they are sung over and over.

John O’Donahue
Beauty: The Invisible Embrace

Writing before dawn began as a necessity – I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama–and that was always around five in the morning. Many years later, after I stopped working at Random House, I just stayed at home for a couple of years. I discovered things about myself I had never thought about before. At first I didn’t know when I wanted to eat, because I had always eaten when it was lunchtime or dinnertime or breakfast time. Work and the children had driven all of my habits… I didn’t know the weekday sounds of my own house; it all made me feel a little giddy.

I was involved in writing Beloved at that time – this was in 1983–and eventually I realized that I was clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning. The habit of getting up early, which I had formed when the children were young, now became my choice. I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.

Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was–there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard–but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

Toni Morrison
The Paris Review, Issue 128, 1993

Night writing

July 27, 2019

If your writing doesn’t keep you up at night, it won’t keep anyone else up either.

James M Cain
Paris Review spring / summer 1978
Interview with David Zinsser conducted 7th January1977

If, as Dr Johnson said, a man who is not married is only half a man, so a man who is very much married is only half a writer. Marriage can succeed for an artist only where there is enough money to save him from taking on uncongenial work and a wife who is intelligent and unselfish enough to understand and respect the working of the unfriendly cycle of the creative imagination. She will know at what point domestic happiness begins to cloy, where love, tidiness, rent, rates, clothes, entertaining and rings at the doorbell should stop, and will recognise that there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.

Cyril Connolly
Enemies of Promise

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

I am in the path of Blake, but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight. I have been writing since I was a very little boy, and have always been struggling with the same things, with the idea of poetry as a thing entirely removed from such accomplishments as ‘word-painting,’ and the setting down of delicate but usual emotions in a few, well-chosen words. There must be no compromise; there is always only the one right word: use it, despite its foul or merely ludicrous associations; I used ‘double-crossed’ because it was what I meant. It is part of a poet’s job to take a debauched and prostituted word, like the beautiful word, ‘blond,’ and to smooth away the lines of its dissipation, and to put it on the market again, fresh and virgin. Neuburg blabs of some unsectarian region in the clouds where poetry reaches its highest level. He ruins the truth of that by saying that the artist must, of necessity, preach socialism. There is no necessity for the artist to do anything. There is no necessity. He is a law unto himself, and his greatness or smallness rises or falls by that. He has only one limitation, and that is the widest of all: the limitation of form. Poetry finds its own form; form should never be superimposed; the structure should rise out of the words and the expression of them. I do not want to express only what other people have felt; I want to rip something away and show what they have never seen. Because of the twist in myself I will never be a very good poet: only treading the first waves, putting my hands in deeper and then taking them out again.

Dylan Thomas
Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson 15th October 1933

keepers of the unsayable

March 31, 2019

If poets are the keepers of the unsayable, then silence, not language, is a poet’s natural element, the realm where the unsayable lives. Poets fetishize silence as much as words; they are disturbed and comforted by the sounds that interrupt it. This is what John Keats means by Negative Capability, his notion of a poet’s basic qualification, the need for ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’ This a fancy way of describing ambivalence, also a basic qualification for a poet, the ability to passionately hold two opposing feelings at once. Poets need ambivalence in order to acknowledge the unsayable and speak nonetheless. The hidden subject of all poems is the silence that surrounds them, the things that can’t be, that will never be said; a real poem points to everything beyond it.

Craig Morgan Teicher
Ars Poetica: Origin Stories