liquor

September 19, 2019

Don’t you drink? I notice you speak slightingly of the bottle. I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well-being that rum does?… The only time it isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight. You have to do that cold. But it always helps my shooting. Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief.

Ernest Hemingway
Letter to Ivan Kashkin 19 August 1935

Shitty first drafts

September 14, 2019

Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do — you can either type, or kill yourself.” We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time. Now, Muriel Spark is said to have felt that she was taking dictation from God every morning — sitting there, one supposes, plugged into a Dictaphone, typing away, humming. But this is a very hostile and aggressive position. One might hope for bad things to rain down on a person like this.

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird

Writing advice

September 13, 2019

Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you.

James Baldwin
Paris Review spring 1984

Letters to Strangers

September 12, 2019

This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to me.

— Emily Dickinson

We write our letters to strangers, to you who will turn
the corner of the page to stumble upon a garden of poem
or this epistolary plain, write letters rooted in nuances
of the commonplace of our every day living where you
may plant yourself and perhaps lift the eyes, furrow
the brow, or tum lips upward into a sheepish smile,
maybe scratch the head or nod or not, bare feet propped
up on a fat pillow on a hard table top, to you thinking
perhaps about a lost child or safe return home, some
forgotten kiss or one you wish you had given freely,
that job you took on or wished you never had, that song
whose lyrics fleet in and out of a quiet afternoon or
disturb sleep, even those large lettered signs you lifted in
protest or others you did not heed and thought you would
or should, all while sipping a sweetened tea or rounding
a whiskey glass rim with lemon peel, fingers pressed
to temple, mind hovering or darting off from these letters
to strangers, clearing a way from the maze of the page,
letters trying speak to you, calling to you to stay a little
longer, to come here, come in a little closer, force your
ear to the earth of words straining to burst into bloom
just for you.

Andrena Zawinski

texts of despair

September 5, 2019

Many poets develop a sense of positive loss, like Clarice Lispector, or Anna Akhmatova, in whose poetry we read of something never lost at the very bottom of loss, or Marina Tsvetayeva, in whose texts the stakes are something that she never had. Theirs are all texts of despair, that is, of hope. Elsewhere I have shown how the same happened in a much more novelistic way, fleshed out in the work of someone such as Karen Blixen.

Helene Cixous
Poetry passion and history: Marina Tsvetayeva
The Inscription of passion in writing (Chapter four)

writing

August 29, 2019

Writing is not destined to leave traces, but to erase, by traces, all traces, to disappear in the fragmentary space of writing more definitely than one disappears in the tomb.

Maurice Blanchot
The Step Not Beyond

I wrote the book in narrative order and wrote the end last. I decided to write through the night. I’d never done this before, so it felt fruitful in its originality at least. I had the house to myself. I lit candles, turned off lights and tried to summon death.

I wrote for hours, until the sun came up. I wrote from every angle – others watching Tessa die, inside her head, dark tunnels, bright lights… I had to get rid of all the clichés by writing through them and I had to get rid of the critic (who often sits on my shoulder). In the morning, I had 22,000 words and my arms ached, but I knew the end was in there somewhere.

I opened all the curtains and because I’d told friends what I was planning, I got lots of supportive phone calls and then went out for breakfast. I didn’t look at the words for two weeks, which really allowed time for reflection. When I read through them again, I knew what to do.

Jenny Downham
Interview with ‘The View From Here’ October 2008

holding his hand

August 26, 2019

On the bus back, the couples leaned their heads on each other in different ways, and C’s shoulder was bony. Soon my head was somewhere between his stomach and lap, and I drowsed for twenty minutes, holding his hand, my head pressed hard into his abdomen. I felt the flesh under there – all that skin and sinew of a person who let me do these things to him now. After my nap I sat up and whispered fast, I’m going to bite your face, but I didn’t. I think no one heard. I thought, I could write that down. Or I just thought, I have someone I could bite their face; then, I have someone whose face I could bite, all in that voice in my head that means I might write it down.

Joanna Penn Cooper
The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis

Twin fears

August 23, 2019

When I write something there is always the fear it will happen, become a new reality. In the same way, if I love someone too much, too deeply, I fear losing them and that love. Yet despite these twin fears I cannot stop writing or loving – what does that say about me?

As in the tales of Grimm and Perrault [Tsvetaeva] suggests that it is the fear, the delight in our fear, we enjoy, a delight we cannot enjoy in reality since we fear for our skin. Conversely, Tsvetaeva tells us, a fairy tale that doesn’t frighten is not a fairy tale. It is terror that transports us to the place where Dostoyevsky was transported when he was condemned to death, this most precious place, the most alive, where you tell yourself you are going to receive the axe’s blow, and where you discover, by the axe’s light, what Kafka made Moses say: How beautiful the world is even in its ugliness. It’s at this moment, as Blanchot would say, that “we see the light.” It’s at this moment, in extremis, that we are born and enjoy the strange things that can happen during such a dangerous, magnificent, and cruel experience as losing a relative while still in the freshness of childhood or youth. We feel, to our unspeakable horror, something that is incredibly odd: on the one hand an infinitely greater loss than the one we feel when we are of a mature age, and on the other, an unavowable joy – difficult to perceive – that is simply the joy of being alive. The pure joy of feeling that I am not the one who is dying.”

Hélène Cixous
The School of Dreams
Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing