Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Writers on Writing – Part II

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 5, 2009

There was a brief period of madness and false hope in my life when I hoped and desired to be a writer. Thankfully, I seem to be over with it now. But now I am envious of all who can write and write well. Not a day passes by when I am not reminded by a stab of jealousy of what I could not and most probably would not be.  Although disappointed at the lack of this hoped metamorphosis, I continue to be fascinated, curious and impressed with the craft of writing. There is something divine, magical, gifted and blessed about it. Therefore, I have now decided to settle down for the next best thing – that of being a discerning reader. However, in line with my curiosity, I once in a while get hold of material that throws light on the agonies and ecstasies of the art of writing. A significant benefit of internalising these insights is that (collectively) they act as a mental compass that allows one to embark on a journey in the rough terrain of fiction. To be aware of the lay of the land prior to the commencement of the journey makes the journey bearable and hopefully pleasant –  especially when such a journey is interminable and an end in itself

Here is the second part of a collection of thoughts on the craft of writing by people who practice it –  sourced from Paris Review Magazine and Guardian


Where does the dialogue come from?
Eudora Welty
: Familiarity. Memory of the way things get said. Once you have heard certain expressions, sentences, you almost never forget them. It’s like sending a bucket down the well and it always comes up full. You don’t know you’ve remembered, but you have. And you listen for the right word, in the present, and you hear it. Once you’re into a story everything seems to apply – what you overhear on the city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you’re tuned for it, and the right things are sort magnetized — if you think your ears as magnets

What is the greatest essential of a story?
Frank O Connor: You have to have a theme, a story to tell.Here’s a man at the other side of the table and I’m talking to him; I’m going to tell him something that will interest him. As you know perfectly well, our principal difficulty at Harvard was a number of people who’d had affairs with girls or had had another interesting experience, and wanted to come in and tell about it, straight away. That is not a theme. A theme is something that is worth something to everybody. In fact, you wouldn’t, if you’d ever been involved in a thing like this, grab a man in a pub and say, “Look, I had a girl out last night,under the Charles Bridge.” That’s the last thing you’d do. You grab somebody and say, “Look, an extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday—I met a man—he said this to me—” and that, to me, is a theme. The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you’ve got something to tell, that’s a real story. It means you want to tell him and think the story is interesting in itself. If you start describing your own personal experiences, something that’s only of interest to yourself, then you can’t express yourself, you cannot say, ultimately, what you think about human beings. The moment you say this, you’re committed. I’ll tell you what I mean. We were down on the south coast of Ireland for a holiday and we got talking to this old farmer and he said his son, who was dead now, had gone to America. He’d married an American girl and she had come over for a visit, alone. Apparently her doctor had told her a trip to Ireland would do her good. And she stayed with the parents, had gone around to see his friends and other relations, and it wasn’t till after she’d gone that they learned that the boy had died. Why didn’t she tell them? There’s your story. Dragging the reader in, making the reader a part of the story—the reader is a part of the story. You’re saying all the time, “This story is about you—de te fabula.”

That’s a very classical view of the work of art – that it must end in resolution?
Katherine Anne Porter
: Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation – what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination – through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be. One of the most perfect and marvelous endings in literature – it raises my hair now – is the little boy in the end of Wuthering Heights, crying that he is afraid to go across the moor because there’s a man and woman walking there

And there are three novels that I reread with pleasure and delight – three almost perfect novels, if we are talking about form you know. One is A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, one is A Passage to India by E.M.Forester, and the other is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Everyone of them begins with an apparently insoluble problem, and everyone of them works out of confusion into order. The material is all used so that you are going toward a goal. And that goal is the clearing up of disorder and confusion and wrong, to a logical and human end. I don’t mean a happy ending, because after allat the end of A High Wind in Jamaica the pirates are all hanged and the children are all marked for life by their experience, but it comes out to an orderly end. The threads are all drawn up. I have had people object to Mr.Thompson’s suicide at the end of Noon Wine, and I’d say, “All right, where was he going? Given what he was, his own situation, what else could he do?” Every once in a while when I see a character of mine just going towards perdition, I think, Stop, Stop, you can always stop and choose, you know. But no, being what he was, he already has chosen and he can’t go back on it now. I suppose the first idea that man had was the idea of fate, of the servile will, of a deity who destroyed as he would, without regard for the creature. But I think the idea of free will was the second idea

But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with minority?
Ralph Ellison: All novels are about certain minorities. The individual is a minority. The universal in the novel – and isn’t that we’re all clamouring for these days? – is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance

What do you mean exactly by “control”?
Truman Capote: I mean maintaining a stylistic and emotional upper hand over your material. Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence – especially if it occurs towards the end – or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I dont mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all

Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?
Truman Capote
: Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. Even Joyce, our most extreme disregarder, was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners. Too many writers seem to consider writing the writing of short stories as a kind of finger exercise. Well, in such cases, it is certainly only their fingers they are exercising

Do you enjoy writing? What is its particular pleasure?
John Dos Passos: 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 of. That’s one thing to be said of writing. There is a great sense of relief in a fat volume

John Banville: Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence. In it, we can say anything. That saying, however, is difficult and peculiarly painful. Whether we are writing a novel or a letter to our bank manager, we have the eerie sensation that we are not so much writing as being written, that language in its insidious way is using us as a medium of expression and not vice versa. The struggle of writing is fraught with a specialised form of anguish, the anguish of knowing one will never get it right, that one will always fail, and that all one can hope to do is ‘fail better’, as Beckett recommends. The pleasure of writing is in the preparation, not the execution, and certainly not in the thing executed. The novelist daily at his desk eats ashes, and if occasionally he encounters a diamond he is likely to break a tooth on it. Money is necessary to pay the dentist’s bills

Amit Chaudhury: I still find it difficult to believe that I’m something called a ‘novelist’; but this hasn’t stopped me from dreaming, frequently, of alternative professions: second-hand bookshop owner; corporate worker; cinematographer. There are many reasons for this unease. One of them is a fundamental discomfort with narrative itself, and involves admitting to yourself that you derive your basic pleasure not from knowing what happens next, but from arrested time or eventlessness; this makes you constantly wish, as you’re writing, that you were elsewhere, or it makes you work to make the novel accommodate that impulse. Another reason is the professionalisation of the vocation, so that the novelist is supposed to produce novels as naturally, automatically, and regularly as a cow gives milk. In such a constraining situation, money can certainly be a compensatory pleasure; so can that paradoxical and sly addiction, failure

Joyce Carol Oates: To me, who has written for most of her adult life, in a number of genres and with wildly varying degrees of “enjoyment” and/or “misery”, it’s likely that writing is a conscious variant of a deep-motivated unconscious activity, like dreaming. Why do we dream? No one seems to really know, just as no one seems to really know why we crave stories, even or especially stories we know to be fiction. My experience of writing – of writing these very sentences, for instance – is invariably a blend of the initially “inspired” and the more exacting, or plodding, execution of inspiration. Most writers find first drafts painfully difficult, like climbing a steep stairs, the end of which isn’t in sight. Only just persevere! Eventually, you will get where you are gong, or so you hope. And when you get there, you will not ask why? – the relief you feel is but a brief breathing spell, before beginning again with another inspiration, another draft, another steep climb. “I always say, my motto is ‘Art for my sake'” – these words of the young DH Lawrence in a letter written before the first world war are probably as reliable as any

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