Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Writers On Writing – Part 3

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 10, 2011

The more I read, the more I am realising how hard it is to be a writer. The act of writing is not just divine inspiration alone, which of course it is, but it is also about real hardwork. Continuous working and reworking on words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters till one drops down with exhuastion, that seems to be the bulk of writing about. Here are some wonderful excerpts on the craft, form and views on the mechanics of writing from some of the well known contemporary writers. (All extracts are from interviews given by these writers to Paris Review magazine)

Thornton Wilder
I forget which of the great sonneteers said: “One line in the fourteen comes from the ceiling; the others have to be adjusted around it.” Well, likewise there are passages in every novel whose first writing is pretty much the last. But it’s the joint and cement, between those spontaneous passages, that take a great deal of rewriting

Do you think this feeling of not being at home is part of what made you into a writer?
Andrea Barrett
Sure. I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. Have you? We all feel unhoused in some sense. That’s part of why we write. We feel we don’t fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we’re not of it. Different experiences in our lives may enforce or ameliorate that, but I think if they ameliorate it totally, we stop writing. You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world. We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us. Through writing, maybe we can penetrate it, elucidate it, somehow make it comprehensible. If I had ever found the place where I was perfectly at home, who knows what I would have done? Maybe I would have been a biologist after all. No great loss if that had been the case, but it didn’t work out that way.

What do you start with? The arc of the story, a character?
If I’m lucky, it’s a character, but it’s usually not. It’s been all different things. It’s usually something much more amorphous than that: a strange, misty pull toward some set of material or a particular place or time or something like a landscape. Sometimes the instigator is both abstract and tiny. The story “Theories of Rain,” for example, came out of reading something about dew and how dew gets formed. That might not seed a story for someone else, but for me, it did

Why do you think people are interested in whether fiction is autobiographical?
I don’t know. I have to accept that they are, because I run into it everywhere. Writing is so personal. There’s so much of us in our fiction, whether we draw on the facts of our lives or not. Our hearts and spirits are in there—everything that’s important—it seems like this should be enough, but apparently it’s not

Is it (writing) fun?
Andrea Barrett
When a plant grows, is it fun for the plant? Fun isn’t really the right word for it. Is grass having fun? There’s a seed, you put it in dirt, water it, and shoots unfold. If it happened really fast, like with bamboo, it might be fun to watch, but is it fun for the bamboo? It’s the wrong question. Is it essential? Absolutely. Can I live without doing it? Apparently not

You’re still useful in the fifth and sixth hour (in a day where the author spends six hours in writing)?
David Mitchell
Writing describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields—writing new scenes—demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages—that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours. Sometimes, at any hour, you can receive a gift—something that’s really tight and animate and so interesting that I forget the time until my long-suffering wife begins to drop noisy hints. Writers can sound rather mystical when they talk about these things. Words like inspiration and creativity I’m really rather suspicious of, though I can’t talk about my work for more than thirty seconds without deploying them myself. Sometimes I think that creativity is a matter of seeing, or stumbling over, unobvious similarities between things—like composing a fresh metaphor, but on a more complex scale. One night in Hiroshima it occurred to me that the moon behind a certain cloud formation looked very like a painkiller dissolving in a glass of water. I didn’t work toward that simile, it was simply there: I was mugged, as it were, by the similarity between these two very different things. Literary composition can be a similar process. The writer’s real world and the writer’s fictional world are compared, and these comparisons turned into text. But other times literary composition can be a plain old slog, and nothing to do with zones or inspiration. It’s world making and the peopling of those worlds, complete with time lines and heartache

I was struck by the phrase from Ghostwritten about “an infinity of paths through the park,” which seems to describe the novel itself.
David Mitchell
The line owes a debt to Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Human life, Borges said, is a cascade of possible directions, and we take only one, or we perceive that we take only one—which is how novels are written, too. You start with a blank page, and the first word opens up possibilities for the second word. If your first word is Call, those second two or three could be “a doctor” or it could be “me Ishmael”. It could be “Call girls on Saturday nights generally cost more than” . . . The second sentence opens up a multitude of third sentences, and on we go through that denseness of choices taken and choices not taken, swinging our machetes

Sartre wrote an essay called “Qu’est-ce que la littérature?” What is literature for you?
Julian Barnes
There are many answers to that question. The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet. And being a writer gives you a sense of historical community, which I feel rather weakly as a normal social being living in early twenty-first-century Britain. For example, I don’t feel any particular ties with the world of Queen Victoria, or the participants of the Civil War or the Wars of the Roses, but I do feel a very particular tie to various writers and artists who are contemporaneous with those periods and events. I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on— is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. For example, even people who condemned Madame Bovary, who thought that it ought to be banned, recognized the truth of the portrait of that sort of woman, in that sort of society, which they had never encountered before in literature. That is why the novel was so dangerous. I do think that there is this central, groundbreaking veracity in literature, which is part of its grandeur. Obviously it varies according to the society. In an oppressive society the truth-telling nature of literature is of a different order, and sometimes valued more highly than other elements in a work of art

Annie Proulx
In a rough way the short story writer is to the novelist as a cabinetmaker is to a house carpenter. Although I said that the short story is a superior literary form, there are plenty of exceptions of great novels that could only be novels. All the same, the short story deserves more honor and attention than it gets. It can be a powerful reading experience. One can go back to a good one over and over and always learn something new about technique. I sometimes think it would be better in creative-writing programs if students cut their writing teeth on novels instead of short stories. Short stories are often very difficult and demanding, drawing on deep knowledge of human nature and the particulars of pivotal events. Every single word counts heavily. The punctuation is critical. Finding the right words and making honorable sentences takes time. The general reading public has no idea of what goes into a short story because it is literally short and can give the impression that the writer sat down and rattled the thing out in an hour or two. A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say—which is where a lot of writers stop—and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story. There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works


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