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Highlights from 12 months of interviews with writers about their craft and the authors they love JOE FASSLERDEC 17 2013, 3:37 PM ET This year, I talked to nearly 50 different writers for the By Heart series, a weekly column about beloved quotes and cherished lines. Each author shared the life-changing, values-shaping passages that have helped sustain creative practice throughout his or her career. Their contributions were eclectic and intensely personal: Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest was a finalist for the Man Booker prize this year, shared a folk rhyme from his childhood, the investigative New York Times journalist Michael Moss (Salt, Sugar, Fat) closeread the Frito-Lay slogan, and This American Life host Ira Glass eulogized a longtime friend and collaborator. Though I began by asking each writer the same question—what line is most important to you?—their responses contained no formula. There was also no specific requirement to talk about craft. And yet writers— being writers—offered a generous bounty of practical writing advice. They shared exercises. They discussed principles of revision. Some presented ways to beat procrastination, or fight back against writing-desk ennui. And a great many shared their thoughts on the most crucial craft question of all: Why does some writing feel dead on the page, while other words thrum with life? Taken together, these conversations were like attending an MFA program—I learned that much. Here are the best short pieces of writing advice I heard from writers in 2013, a whole year’s worth of wisdom. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and this year’s And the Mountains Echoed, reminded us that we can only approximate the book we want to write— the final product will never capture the excitement of initial inspiration. His tribute to Stephen King explained how he deals with that familiar disappointment. You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it's been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you're lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.
It's a revelatory. When I'm writing. there always is. Tracy Chevalier . Epiphanies are. That's why we come to art—we feel less alone. incredibly moving experience when this happens. it's quite a sobering reminder of your limitations as a writer. We are less alone. And it's humbling. She's saying: Don't think for a moment that because you've had a brief instant of illumination. counter to the more traditional notion of the epiphany— which tells us that stories are all about providing information to characters who badly need it. in some ways. staged and underimportant. that you're not going to transgress two days down the road. and so true. and you suddenly see yourself with clarity. I find this idea enormously useful in my own work. It's an intoxicating. Jim Shepard. But that's what art is for—for both reader and writer to overcome their respective limitations and encounter something true. But I think she also believes that we're essentially sinners. It can be extremely frustrating. But this doesn't happen often. I think that's the difference between greatness and just being good. It's very. something shrouded in impenetrable fog. (I can only think that there are some writers who write that way all the time. I try to narrow the gap. You see. It seems miraculous. between what I wanted to say and what's actually on the page. My characters are all about gaining an understanding of the right thing to do—and avoiding it anyway.argued against the conventional literary wisdom that has prevailed since Joyce: that short stories should be structured around a life-changing epiphany. euphoric sensation to feel that I've communicated something so real.) Even my finished books are approximations of what I intended to do. You feel heard. a thought will occasionally pass unblemished. Great art reaches through the fog.When this happens. unperturbed. momentarily. as much as I possibly can.‖ suggests moments of insight don’t last—and knowing this is key to crafting realistic characters. very difficult. In his reading of Flannery O’ Connor’s classic story ―A Good Man Is Hard to Find. That sense that we can be in some ways geniuses of our own self-destruction runs. through art. that others have felt the way you have—and you feel better. But there's still a gap. like through a glass. towards this secret heart—and it shows it to you. through my head onto the screen—clearly. with the kind of grace that epiphany is supposed to represent. author of Love and Hydrogen. holds it before you. You feel understood. doesn't it? That somebody can articulate something clearly and beautifully that exists inside you. in some ways. O'Connor really believes that we can flood.
the two main characters touch just twice—a hand. Restraint is powerful. "Less is more" encourages collaboration. and why concision matters. In my new novel. the heroine is a Quaker and says little. Taking away concentrates what's left. In Girl With a Pearl Earring. author of The Girl With the Pearl Earring. in keeping with the tradition of silence at Quaker meetings. which is what a book should be—a contract between writer and reader. By using fewer words. The Last Runaway. praised the minimalist designer Mies van der Rohe—and his famous mandate ―Less is more. you notice. an ear—but readers tell me those are some of the most erotic moments they've read. Through the drafts I kept cutting her lines.Tracy Chevalier.‖ She shared how she trims the narrative fat. I am also giving readers the chance to fill the gaps with their own. so that now when Honor Bright speaks. Chevalier also showed us this process at work: .
we can see that he is smiling. Sisyphus at the foot of his mountain. an end. He is content in his task of defying the Gods. If we consider. like Camus. a middle. She described how Camus’s aphorism ―One must imagine Sisyphus happy‖ helps her fight back against unproductive feelings of meaninglessness. To achieve a beginning. a meaning to the chaos of creation—that's more than any deity seems to manage: .Fay Weldon Fay Weldon acknowledged that. on a day-to-day level. writing can seem like pointless drudgery. the journey more important than the goal.
Sisyphus! For Mohsin Hamid. but it was only when I tested them—in the crucible of an actual garden with actual pests on an actual patch of land—that I was able to form my values more fully. For him. My head cleared. Every morning. reach for the heights. have a child. If the choice is between extended periods of abject writing failure and prescription orthotics. I'd learned a set of values from Thoreau in the library. arms at my sides. I could manage with just walking. stick some flowers in a vase and start. a daily five-mile walk turned out to be exactly what I needed.m. And I don't plan on stopping. Then I walked for an hour. And. So I tidy the desk. entire paragraphs as I walked. So it made sense that while he has to run to get fit enough to do what he has to do. even polish it up a bit. stewing and filtering and looking. Smile on. he uncovered his subject and approach. I finished my novel in only two more years (for a total of six). Hamid found that long. Rewrite. . What the hell. As I begin a novel I remind myself as ever of Camus's admonition that the purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. sentences. fat chance! I find courage. I'd already used up many of the usual tricks writers before me had employed to shake things up when they were in a rut: travel chemically. My energy soared. which as a dad now meant 6 or 7 a. I walked for half an hour. I write short novels. And even while thinking. change continents. get married. quit your job. So I started to walk. Sometimes I texted myself ideas. Walking unlocked me. Or a library. break your heart. nearing the age of 40. I was desperate. the act of starting a garden helped him develop the questions he never could have posed abstractly—through gardening and the work of Wendell Berry. physical exercise helped break through writer’s block. My neck pains diminished. walking every day. I needed to get unstuck. daily walks made him more creative.But it's what writers do. I know which side my man Murakami and I are on. Michael Pollan advocated getting one’s hands dirty. Following the counsel of literary ultra-marathoner Haruki Murakami. well. etc. Then I walked for 90 minutes… Murakami's quote is about writing long novels. It's like LSD. and if the rock keeps rolling down again so it does. Be of good cheer. the significant speed difference notwithstanding. It does things to you. And. First thing. as soon as I got up. author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Other times I just floated along. start again.
to the way our food is grown. I try to trace the whole long chain: from your plate to the feedlot. and they reminded me to start writing again after a long hiatus after the birth of my first child. and we need to think about our eating with this fact—and its implications—in mind. His injunction—―What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?‖—helps her remember that facing the blank page is not so relatively painful. I'm reminded of the one exclamation in the passage: "You would be ashamed to confess it!" His words helped me navigate rejection." It's a line that urges you to connect the dots between two realms—the farm. I didn't have a subject until I kind of hit on the garden by mistake. Stephen King’s classic craft memoir On Writing addresses almost everything the master storyteller knows. It's why. but beyond endurance? I got myself back to the desk. you find yourself preparing the next self-addressed stamped envelope pretty quickly. But one key topic is not covered in that book: how to write a perfect opening sentence. on how books should start and why beginnings matter. which is certainly no fun. I became reoriented: I learned a way of thinking and living that I didn't know before. and I loved editing magazines. The words helped me survive the protracted sale of my first novel. and from there to the corn field. And by engaging with my own agricultural struggle on a small scale.the story has got to be there. watching the process of revision. Berry reminds us that we're part of a food system. and from there to the oil fields in the Middle East. and this helps her stop procrastinating. It is difficult. and the plate— that can seem very far apart. but is it unbearable? Who would say that it is? Even asking the question. I wanted to write more and more about the agricultural and political realities I am joined to by my eating. In a way. and that's the real work. A book won't stand or fall on the very first line of prose -. We must link our eating. but my editorial work—helping writers with their prose. And yet a really good first line can do so . I didn't think it was ever realistic that I could make a living as a writer. developed over many years of writing.It was in reading Wendell Berry that I came across a particular line that formed a template for much of my work: "eating is an agricultural act. I wasn't sure how to make room for writing with a baby. all my writing about food has been about connecting dots in the way Berry asks of us. Jessica Francis Kane has taken solace over the years in the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. when I write about something like the meat industry. finding a narrative paths through a complex subject—made me increasingly curious to try it myself. Ultimately. but if you ask yourself if it's unbearable. Writing is hard. I was an editor at Harper's. King shared his thoughts. this revelation led to a change in my career. in other words.
But in the model. It goes back to what Cheever’s character. and in the intermingling of them you get something like the mystery of human experience. The darker it gets. In music it’s counterpoint. Jonathan Franzen reminded us that fiction writers must be singular. It’s great for buying stuff. the good and the bad. that intuitive human truth that the great and the small. Second-rate writing will tell you which pole to pick: ―Be kind to strangers!‖ Then you’re in the realm of propaganda or received opinion or truisms. that starts to enlist you for the long haul. You want to know about this. So there's incredible power in it. when we arrives at just one remaining pinpoint of light. The imminent arrival of death—what greater thing to set life in relief against? In Enon. is denying either pole in favor over the other. the whole thing is just a sonata—it’s just one voice— against the threat of utter darkness. you’re in danger of explaining yourself away. when you describe something on the scale of the universe. Lauren Goldenberg Paul Harding. it’s death and life. the light and the dark. that conceptual model. is attempting but failing. You put contradictory things next to each other. And someone begins to listen. that pinpoint becomes all the more beautiful and resplendent for its rarity and clarity against the gloom. In the digital age. which is always dark. This works in writing. people are more seamlessly connected than ever before. Contradiction is the essential move or method for art. or sentimentality. that makes you eager. So you could take a tiny. which is light. He explained why great writing happens far from the cloud. it’s great for bringing together people to work on . In landscape painting it’s the contrast between the foreground. It’s Einstein. Otherwise. The same kind of principle works for juxtaposition—the infinite with the infinitesimal. I think the definition of kitsch.much to establish that crucial sense of voice -. It’s a fabulous research tool. and then describe something as tiny as a grain of sand. when you say. and the background. The poles must be structured around the truly irreducible questions— mysteries you can’t get to the bottom of. intimate domestic scene—someone drinking a cup of tea at a desk—that scalability. author of Enon. come in here. no subject has any meaning if it’s been separated from its opposite. And in writing. are all intermingled.it's the first thing that acquaints you. it’s relativity: Nothing has meaning without being relative to its opposite. to do—trying to deny the dark part and show only the light. explained how juxtaposition and contradiction underlie great fiction—and held up John Cheever as a sterling example of this principle at work. the crowd: The Internet is fabulous for a lot of things.
When I first met Don DeLillo. not a group voice… And this is true. . What makes a good novel. Andre Dubus III made the case against outlining. And I really believe— this is just from years of daily writing—that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams. everything is communal. and go deep. but not at the production end. if I say nothing else to my students. As a writer. When it works. it’s great.communal things. I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off. is how true it is to the individual subjectivity. (Of course. and report from the depths on what they find. But it specifically doesn’t work. So even as I spend half my day on the Internet—doing email.) This is a primary assignment for anyone setting up to be and remain a writer now. Everybody gets one. in the realm of cultural production—and particularly literary production. the place where the crowd is forming now is largely electronic. I think. We will only be a crowd. I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there. We’re all born with an imagination. Good novels aren’t collaborated on. looking at bird pictures. or people who share a passion or are all suffering from the same disease and want to find each other and communicate. apart from the skill of the writer. The more I’m pulled out of that. buying plane tickets. It’s wonderful for that. I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world. communally shareable. That’s what fiction is. Good novels are produced by people who voluntarily isolate themselves. is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all. I’m trying to pay attention to the stuff the people aren’t paying attention to. all of it—I personally need to be careful to restrict my access. Because the private self is where my writing comes from. ordering stuff online. for anyone who aspires to write serious fiction. I need to make sure I still have a private self. dream‖—he insisted that fiction comes to life when you stop trying to control it by working towards an ending planned out in advance. he was making the case that if we ever stop having fiction writers it will mean we’ve given up on the concept of the individual person. like software. But the Internet in general—and social media in particular—fosters this notion that everything should be shared. They do put what they find in a form that’s communally accessible. People talk about ―finding your voice‖: Well. the more I simply become another loudspeaker for what already exists. In his warning against intellectualizing one’s work—―Do not think. especially true. You’re finding your own individual voice. And so it seems to me that the writer’s responsibility nowadays is very basic: to continue to try to be a person. Good novels aren’t written by committee. not merely a member of a crowd. it’s this. As a writing teacher. that’s what it is.
This was my main problem when I was just starting out: I was trying to say something. So I’ve learned over the years to free-fall into what’s happening. but who hate their families. ―You know. What happens then is.‖ Why are they addicted to being demeaned and devalued by the people who are supposed to love them? So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind. you don’t have to go. I have white friends who grew up very comfortably. and even a little terrifying. I’m in the childhood bedroom of my mind. it was his upbringing on an Indian reservation—but in our childhood prisons lie the seeds of inspiration. You go through this whole journey . frankly. I’m always telling them. I was deeply self-conscious. for me at least. I was writing stories hoping they would say something thematic. I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off. Sherman Alexie. or don’t understand. And we always go back. It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy.‖ There’s an aspect of controlling the material that I don’t think is artful. of course. We tend to revisit our prisons. and yet they go back everything Thanksgiving and Christmas. And all these years later. things start to happen on their own. You’re making something up when you think out a scene. or address something that I was wrestling with philosophically. Things start to happen under your pencil that you don’t want to happen. author of Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own. I think it leads to contrived work. When I began to write. You can come to my house. explained how writers are kept captive by the things that torment them—in his case. they’re ruined until February. Half in. If you allow them to do what they’re going to do.Here’s the distinction. There’s a profound difference between making something up and imagining it. I’ve learned. You think. The very act of storytelling is a return to the prison of what torments us and keeps us captive. think and feel what they’re going to think and feel. But that’s when the work starts to have a beating heart. half out. it’s a dead road. This is not only true for reservation Indians. I’m in the farm town of my mind. no matter how beautifully written it might be. ―I need this to happen so some other thing can happen. You can hear the false note in this kind of writing. He urged us to reclaim our traumas and make great art. Every year. certainly before I’d published. It was exciting. I think every writer stands in the doorway of their prison. you start writing something you don’t even really want to write about. It’s writing from the outside in instead of the inside out. But during my very early writing. and writers are repeat offenders. when you’re being logical about it.
I know it’s working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath it the verbal. For me. after all. I know my own writing is working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath the verbal. because both are built out of language. that mysterious emotional place. The writing I tend to think of as ―good‖ is good because it’s mysterious. Some of those mysteries clarify. rather than traditional notions of plot. The words that click into place. and it keeps me going…. This means I’ve hit on something unconscious enough to write about—something with enough unknown in there to be brought out.said that the best writing is enigmatic—she lets the music language guide her. That’s the thing I want to do in my own writing: present words that act as a vessel for something more mysterious. I just don’t work like that. I can’t. It’s on the rez. after all. Though I know some writers do.with your prison. too. I surprise myself. On some level I can sense that. Hopefully. you get to a point when you realize there was beauty in your prison. but they’re not all going to clarify. When it sustains hope that there’s more to write about. plot and character emerge directly from the word—as opposed to having a light-bulb about a character or event. plot and character will start to emerge organically. that there’s an open door for me to explore. That’s the thing that drives me from first sentence to last sentence. Maybe. ―I’m on the reservation of my mind‖ can also be a beautiful thing. when you get to that point. It tends to happen when I get out of the way–-when I let it go a little bit. and you pick the parts where the language is working. I feel most pleased with my language when I don’t understand it completely. Language is the ticket to plot and character. If you write a page a day for 30 days. that mysterious emotional place. where I learned to tell stories. but do not reveal it fully. author of The Color Master. I find I can write for two lines and then I have nothing else to say. I think a good poem will always stay a little mysterious. the only way to find something comes through the sentence level. wrap around something mysterious. revisiting it in your mind. For me. oh I have an insight about the character. and knowing where she’s going. Aimee Bender Aimee Bender. . The best writing does. and when I’ll sit down to write. I feel like it’s all about waiting for a kind of discovery that takes place on the sentence level—as opposed to having a light-bulb about a character. I’ll think. They create a shape around which something lives—and they give hints about what that thing is. That’s when the writing gets really fun. character. it feels extremely imposed and last for two minutes. and sticking with the sentences that give a subtle feeling that there’s something more to say.
using old family photographs.Amy Tan. That’s my territory. So how do I know when I’m moving in a productive direction? If anything might happen in a character’s life. Ill start at. Writing by hand helps me remain open to all those particular circumstances. I try to see as much as possible—in microscopic detail. I have an exercise that helps me with this. and what experiences shape the way they respond? I have to be open to their beliefs. author of The Joy Luck Club. telescopically. As Whitman says. I’m microscopic. ―You look at things universally. I wouldn’t be able to say—it should always be this way. and work through it pixel by pixel. Generalizations are just not part of how I think. This process is a metaphor for the way I work— it’s the same process of looking closely. the way I write the early drafts of a novel. She shared a writing exercise involving family photographs—a practice that inspired her new novel—and explains why she likes to move pixel by pixel. looking in the unexpected places. but instead allow myself wide-ranging exploration. or think that they’re dying—how do they respond. in the particularities that make up each individual life. a corner. As I try to open myself up to all possibilities. I abandon 95 percent of it. Stories begin with microscopic-level detail. believes in the value of small details. all those little details that add up to the truth. for all people. Sometimes. But I love it. say. I really admire the ACLU. So much of my work through the beginning—and especially through the middle—of writing a story is establishing what the characters believe as they go on and face ever-changing situations and hardships.‖ I’m at that tiny end where stories begin. I never consider it a waste of time…. looking at every detail. overlooked details that are important to my family’s story. I’ve discovered crucial. macroscopically. It’s part of my writing process. whatever framework they might come up with to respond to the circumstances of their lives. For me. Whether they fall in love. And the strangest things happen: you end up noticing things you never would have noticed. I have to be open to all the possibilities of what these characters are thinking and doing and what might apply. or have a death that occurs. and being receptive to what you find there. how do I determine which details will serve me well? I err on the side of going into too much detail when I do research and write. the best way to do this is writing longhand. ―Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land‖: I don’t try to confine myself to one particular road. As I write a story. . I’ll blow an image up as much as I can. But I said. anarchy tends to reign. and I value the important work they do. looking carefully. There’s so much chaos in my early drafts. This isn’t the way we typically look at pictures—where we take in the whole gestalt. eyes focusing mostly on the central image.
only rewriting. romantic idea that if you’re not in pain. when things aren’t going well. the solution would be to change point of view. Let's say you are writing a scene in which a man and a woman are breaking up. My path as a writer became much more smooth when I learned that. I thought I could write this book and I can’t. Applying the [notion] mentioned above. So. you will discover something you didn't know before. to his girlfriend. maintaining ―stubborn gladness‖ helps her back away from self-hatred—and become a more productive. It is dull and flat. language. I don’t wrestle with the muse. That is. if it is told from the man's point of view. I have to drink a bottle of gin before 11:00 to numb myself at how horrifying this is. voice. I really worked to create that kind of relationship—so that it’s not a chaotic fight. I try to get away from self-hatred. I try to remain stubborn in my gladness. for example. not tragic. and if that doesn't work. it should hold true for structure. change it to the woman's. It seems to me that each time you add a new point of view and tell the story again. I don’t go up against my writing and come out bloody-knuckled. listen to the language we use to . and who hid in a closet in the kitchen when the man and woman who are breaking up came in and started arguing. Take point of view. Elizabeth Gilbert disputed the idea that great art is rooted in suffering. tell it from the point of view of the neighborhood. full of catastrophes and disasters and emotion and attempts that fail.Craig Nova. and if you’re not causing pain by making your art. to regard my struggles as curious. as he hears it. Elizabeth Gilbert Finally. then you’re not really doing it right. I’ve always questioned that … I mean. How do we get through this puzzle? That’s funny. offered advice from Robert Graves: ―There is no good writing. You could almost call it a spiritual practice I’ve cultivated over the years. fulfilled artist. Writing can be a very dramatic pursuit. For her. all those things that mark and mar so many writers’ careers and lives. and all the other elements that go into a piece of fiction. I don’t argue. author of All the Dead Yale Men. But the scene doesn't work.‖ He explained how making radical changes—changing genre. and so on—helps him learn about his subject and move towards a final draft. narrator. And if this is true for point of view. And if that doesn't work tell it from the point of view of a burglar who is in the apartment. We have this very German. They are doing this while they are having breakfast in their apartment. and competition. instead of. who is listening through the wall in the apartment next door. and if that doesn't work have this neighbor tell the story of the break up.
‖ I always want to weep when people speak about a project and say: ―I think I finally broke its back.‖ ―Kill your darlings. .‖ That is a really fucked-up relationship you have with your work! You’re trying to crack its spine? No wonder you’re so stressed out! You’ve made this into battlefield! We should know enough about the world to realize that anything that you fight fights you back.talk about creative process: ―Open up your vein and bleed.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?