Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Writers on Writing – Part 1

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 24, 2008

There is a mystical dimension to the craft of writing. The aura of mysticism is inherent because nobody understands the real mechanics behind writing – including the people who practise it to produce works that keep the readers in a thrall. I would be hugely disappointed if this mysticism is unravelled on some ill fated date in distant future. It is my wish that it remains an enigma and continues to confound mankind for eternity. I want the attempt of human beings to understand this mysticism assume a sort of sisyphean nature, that is, I would want us to be eternally tending towards an understanding of it and never understand it completely. There is something transcedental about writing – for the writer during the period of writing and for the reader while reading the book. Both extend beyond themselves in ways unknown to them. Everytime I read a book, a part of my reading mind is always wondering at the creative process. I am constantly obsessed with the question: how does it get done? That there are no clear answers to this is evident to me, yet I do not stop asking this question. There is a body of inspiring conversation around it in the form of writers views on writing. The originality of the thoughts of some of these writers is near numinous 

The Paris Review Magazine is one of its kind dedicated to literature.  Among others, every issue of the magazine carries a couple of interviews with a well known writer/s, poet/s or a playwright/s, dealing with the art of fiction, poetry or drama in general. Almost all of interviews are available for reading. It is while rummaging through these interviews that I started to get a peek into the views that writers hold about their profession. Here is a selection of these thoughts to enrich the content of my blogsite. These views have been sourced from The Paris Review (barring the opinions of Jhumpa Lahiri, John Irving and Graham Swift which are from Powells and Salon respectively)

Interviewer: And telling the truth is, finally, what writing is about? That wonderful quote from Montaigne about speaking the truth, not as much as you know but as much as you dare—and daring more as you grow older.
Peter Taylor: I think trying to write is a religious exercise. You are trying to understand life, and you can only get the illusion of doing it fully by writing. That is, it’s the only way I can come to understand things fully. When I create, when I put my own mark on something and form it, I begin to know the whole truth about it, how it was put together. Then you can begin to change things around. You know all this after you have written a lot. You really know. And it has become the most important thing in your life. It has nothing to do with craft, or even art, in a way. It is making sense of life. It is coming to understand yourself    
Interviewer: Which brings more “inner order,” fiction or nonfiction?
Francine du Plessix Gray
: Oh, fiction is a much mightier, more capable watchdog against the threat of inner disorder, of gibberish. I’ve given some thought to this, because I’ve a few friends who try to flatter me out of writing novels by saying “dozens of people around can do that better than you, so why not stick to nonfiction since very few writers can do it as well as you; you could be the John Gunther of your generation, blah-blah.” And so I’ve had to analyze why I’m impelled to go on writing novels, and I know it’s because even at the beginning of a fictional text, when it’s no more than a vapor, a perfume in my head, there’s a whole world hovering by me, a most protective and consoling presence

Interviewer: You have said at various times that, for you, literature is like a game. In what ways?
: For me, literature is a form of play. But I’ve always added that there are two forms of play: football, for example, which is basically a game, and then games that are very profound and serious. When children play, though they’re amusing themselves, they take it very seriously. It’s important. It’s just as serious for them now as love will be ten years from now. I remember when I was little and my parents used to say, “Okay, you’ve played enough, come take a bath now.” I found that completely idiotic, because, for me, the bath was a silly matter. It had no importance whatsoever, while playing with my friends was something serious. Literature is like that—it’s a game, but it’s a game one can put one’s life into. One can do everything for that game.

Interviewer: How does a book take shape for you?
: That’s a vast topic and, to be honest, one I barely understand. Even in the case of a naturalistic writer, who in a sense takes his subject matter directly from the world around him, it’s difficult enough to understand how a particular fiction imposes itself. But in the case of an imaginative writer, especially one like myself with strong affinities to the surrealists, I’m barely aware of what is going on. Recurrent ideas assemble themselves, obsessions solidify themselves, one generates a set of working mythologies, like tales of gold invented to inspire a crew. I assume one is dealing with a process very close to that of dreams, a set of scenarios devised to make sense of apparently irreconcilable ideas. Just as the optical centers of the brain construct a wholly artificial three-dimensional universe through which we can move effectively, so the mind as a whole creates an imaginary world that satisfactorily explains everything, as long as it is constantly updated. So the stream of novels and stories continues . . .

Interviewer: You said that language and the power of imagination were the same thing. What did you mean by that?
: That behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined. Actually, every word has a great burden of memories, not only just of one person but of all mankind. Take a word such as bread, or war; take a word such as chair or bed or heaven. Behind every word is a whole world. I’m afraid that most people use words as something to throw away without sensing the burden that lies in a word. Of course, that is what is significant about poetry, or the lyric, in which this can be brought about more intensively than in prose, although prose has the same function

John Steinbeck: The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through—not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible………..Writing is a very silly business at best. There is a ridiculousness putting down a picture of life. And to add to the joke  — one must withdraw from life to set the picture down…………… Having gone through all this nonsense, what emerges may be the palest of reflections. Oh! it’s a real horse’s ass business. The mountain labours and groans and strains and the tiniest of rodents come out. And the greatest foolishness lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. Not that it is necessary to be remembered but there is one purpose in writing, beyond  simply doing it interestingly. It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage. If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and half developed culture it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult; a wisdome to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know…… A strange and mystic business, writing. Almost, no progress has been made since it was invented. The Book of the Dead  is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than the most. And yet in spite of the lack of this continuing excellence, hundreds of thousands of people are in my shoes – praying feverishly for relief from their word pangs

Interviewer: Do you enjoy writing?
William Styron
: I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell

Garcia Marquez: In One Hundred Years of Solitude I used the insomnia plague as something of a literary trick since it’s the opposite of the sleeping plague…… Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry.Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved. And as Proust, I think, said, it takes ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I never have done any carpentry, but it’s the job I admire most, especially because you can never find anyone to do it for you

Interviewer: I noticed you call it coaching rather than teaching. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that phrase used to refer to that relationship
Barth: Coaching is more accurate. God knows whether we should be doing it in the universities at all. I happen to think there’s some justification for having courses in so-called creative writing. I know from happy experience with young writers that the muses make no distinction between undergraduates and graduate students. The muses know only expert writers and less expert writers. A beginner—such as I was when, with the swamp still on my shoes, I came into John Hopkins as an undergraduate—needs to be taught that literature is there; here are some examples of it, and here’s how the great writers do it. That’s teaching. In time, a writer, or any artist, stops making mistakes on a crude, first level, and begins making mistakes on the next, more elevated level. And then finally you begin to make your mistakes on the highest level—let’s say the upper slopes of slippery Parnassus—and it’s at that point you need coaching. Now sometimes coaching means advising the skier to come down off the advanced slope and back to the bunny hill for a while, back to the snowplow. One must be gentle about it

Interviewer: How much do you revise, generally?
Jhumpa Lahiri
: That’s really all I do. It’s all a process for me of continued revision. I worked on most of the stories in this book for several years. When I finished some, and I published some, along the way, then I considered them done, but I still worked on them for a considerable length of time, and the ones I didn’t publish, I continued to work on. Most of these stories were simmering for two to three years, minimum

John Irving: Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you have not had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with the language; for me this means writing and rewriting sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation

Graham Swift: I really do have tremendous faith in writing as a leap into the unknown. But it is a leap that you take with the sort of rope of the imagination to hang on to. The imagination is a wonderful thing: it can cross the gap between you and some experiences you have never had personally, or to some person who is entirely out of nowhere and not someone you’ve known. That’s the excitement, and of course it’s the real creative element in writing

John Cheever: Cocteau said that writing is a force of the memory that is not understood. I agree with this. Raymond Chandler described it as a direct line to sub conscious.The books you really love, give the sense, when you first open them, of having been there. It is a creation, almost like a chamber in the memory. Places that one has never been to, things that one has never seen or heard, but their fitness is so sound, that you’ve been there somehow….. Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh. I dont think there is any consecutive moral philosophy in fiction beyond excellence. Accuteness of feeling and velocity have always seemed to me terribly important. People look for morals in fiction because there has always been confusion between fiction and philosophy

Interviewer: Do you enjoy writing?
John Dos Passos
: That depends sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t…. Well you get a great deal off your chest – emotions, impressions, opinions. Curiosity urges you on – the driving force. What is collected must be got rid off. That’s one thing to be said about writing. There is a great sense of relief in a fat volume


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