Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 7, 2016) is among the most exhilarating creative spirits of the past century. Recipient of the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and countless other accolades, and an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk, his music has extended popular song into the realm of poetry, even philosophy. By the time Bob Dylan rose to fame, Cohen already had several volumes of poetry and two novels under his belt, including the critically acclaimed Beautiful Losers, which famously led Allen Ginsberg to remark that “Dylan blew everybody’s mind, except Leonard’s.” Once he turned to songwriting in the late 1960s, the world of music was forever changed.

leonardcohen

From Paul Zollo’s impressive interview compendium Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) — which also gave us Pete Seeger on originalityBob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, and Carole King on perspiration vs. inspiration — comes a spectacular and wide-ranging 1992 conversation with Cohen, who begins by considering the purpose of music in human life:

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.

Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration” — something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”), and designer Massimo Vignelli (“There is no design without discipline.”). Cohen tells Zollo:

I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I’m working most of the time.

[…]

To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

[…]

My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.

But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.

He later adds:

Freedom and restriction are just luxurious terms to one who is locked in a dungeon in the tower of song. These are just … ideas. I don’t have the sense of restriction or freedom. I just have the sense of work. I have the sense of hard labor.

When asked whether he ever finds that “hard labor” enjoyable, Cohen echoes Lewis Hyde’s distinction between work and creative labor and considers what fulfilling work actually means:

It has a certain nourishment. The mental physique is muscular. That gives you a certain stride as you walk along the dismal landscape of your inner thoughts. You have a certain kind of tone to your activity. But most of the time it doesn’t help. It’s just hard work.

But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.

Cohen further illustrates the point that ideas don’t simply appear to him with a charming anecdote, citing a writer friend of his who once said that Cohen’s mind “is unpolluted by a single idea,” which he took as a great compliment. Instead, he stresses the value of iteration and notes that his work consists of “just versions.” When Zollo asks whether each song begins with a lyrical idea, Cohen answers with lyrical defiance:

[Writing] begins with an appetite to discover my self-respect. To redeem the day. So the day does not go down in debt. It begins with that kind of appetite.

Cohen addresses the question of where good ideas come from with charming irreverence, producing the now-legendary line that Paul Holdengräber quoted in his conversation with David Lynch on creativity. Cohen echoes T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the mystical quality of creativity and tells Zollo:

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.

But Cohen’s most moving insights on songwriting transcend the specificity of the craft and extend to the universals of life. Addressing Zollo’s astonishment at the fact that Cohen has discarded entire finished song verses, he reflects on the necessary stick-to-itiveness of the creative process — this notion that before we quit, we have to have invested all of ourselves in order for the full picture to reveal itself and justify the quitting, which applies equally to everything from work to love:

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

Cohen returns to the notion of hard work almost as an existential imperative:

I always used to work hard. But I had no idea what hard work was until something changed in my mind… I don’t really know what it was. Maybe some sense that this whole enterprise is limited, that there was an end in sight… That you were really truly mortal.

Considering his ongoing interest in the process itself rather than the outcome, Cohen makes a beautiful case for the art of self-renewal by exploring the deeper rewards and gratifications that have kept him going for half a century:

It [has] to do with two things. One is economic urgency. I just never made enough money to say, “Oh, man, I think I’m gonna get a yacht now and scuba-dive.” I never had those kinds of funds available to me to make radical decisions about what I might do in life. Besides that, I was trained in what later became known as the Montreal School of Poetry. Before there were prizes, before there were grants, before there were even girls who cared about what I did. We would meet, a loosely defined group of people. There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself. We would read each other poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…

We had in our minds the examples of poets who continued to work their whole lives. There was never any sense of a raid on the marketplace, that you should come up with a hit and get out. That kind of sensibility simply did not take root in my mind until very recently…

So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.

What a beautiful testament to the creative spirit and its true motives, to creative contribution coming from a place of purpose rather than a hunger for profit.

Songwriters on Songwriting is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring Zollo’s conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vegak.d. langDavid Byrne, and Neil Young.

Chinua Achebe on the Meaning of Life and the Writer’s Responsibility in the World

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

The difference between blind optimism and the urge to improve the world’s imperfection.

BY MARIA POPOVA

“A writer,” E.B. White asserted in a fantastic 1969 interview“should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” A quarter century later, another literary titan articulated the same sentiment even more beautifully, a remarkable feat in my book, where dear old Elwyn Brooks reigns supreme.

In a 1994 conversation with Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, found in the altogether excellent More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library), the great Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) echoes White’s wisdom with his own bend of poetic conviction — conviction all the more urgent in our age of increasingly despairing clickbait “journalism.”

Chinua Achebe (photograph by Mike Cohea courtesy of Brown University)

When Wachtel asks how the prominent South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer’s description of Achebe as “a moralist and an idealist” has fared after years of political and personal struggle, he answers:

[My idealism is] still alive and well because without it the business of the writer would be meaningless. I don’t think the world needs to be told stories of despair; there is enough despair as it is without anyone adding to it. If we have any role at all, I think it’s the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism, but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don’t just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.

Achebe builds on this thought in his response to Wachtel’s inquiry about how he convinces people of “the redemptive power of fiction”:

Good stories attract us and good stories are also moral stories. I’ve never seen a really good story that is immoral, and I think there is something in us which impels us towards good stories. If we have people who produce them, we are lucky…

I feel that there has to be a purpose to what we do. If there was no hope at all, we should just sleep or drink and wait for death. But we don’t want to do that. And why? I think something tells us that we should struggle. We don’t really know why we should struggle, but we do, because we think it’s better than sitting down and waiting for calamity. So that’s my sense of the meaning of life. That’s really how I would put it, that we struggle, and because we struggle, that struggle has to be told, the story of that struggle has to be conveyed to another generation. You have struggle and story, and these two are quite enough for me.

Illustration from ‘Beneath the Rainbow,’ a collection of mystical children’s stories featuring motifs and characters from traditional African myths reimagined by contemporary writers and artists. Click image for more.

One of Achebe’s novels, Anthills of the Savannah, features a poignant fable that illustrates his point about the meaningfulness of the struggle itself, which he relays to Wachtel:

The leopard had been looking for the tortoise and hadn’t found him for a long time. On this day, on a lonely road, he suddenly chanced upon Tortoise, and so he said, “Aha! At last, I’ve caught you. Now get ready to die.” Tortoise of course knew that the game was up and so he said, “Okay, but can I ask you a favor?” and Leopard said, “Well, why not?” Tortoise said, “Before you kill me, could you give me a few moments just to reflect on things?” Leopard thought about it — he wasn’t very bright — and he said, “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with that. You can have a little time.” And so Tortoise, instead of standing still and thinking, began to do something very strange: he began to scratch the soil all around him and throw sand around in all directions. Leopard was mystified by this. He said, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that?” Tortoise said: “I’m doing this because when I’m dead, I want anybody who passes by this place to stop and say, ‘Two people struggled here. A man met his match here.

Wachtel’s More Writers & Company, a sequel to her first compendium of interviews, is a treasure trove of wisdom from cover to cover, featuring remarkably wide-ranging and dimensional conversations with such literary icons as Harold BloomOliver SacksIsabel AllendeAlice Walker, and John Berger.

For more meditations on the meaning of life, see these timeless reflections by Maya AngelouDavid Foster WallaceMilton GlaserViktor FranklLeo TolstoyCarl SaganAnaïs NinRichard FeynmanHenry Miller and John Steinbeck.

The Project of Literature: Susan Sontag on Writing, Routines, Education, and Elitism in a 1992 Recording from the 92Y Archives

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Susan Sontag remains one of the most interesting minds in modern history, with provocative and prescient beliefs and opinions on everything from visual culture to love and sex to stereotypes and polarities to why lists appeal to us. But arguably her most timeless insights touch on the heart of her own creative material — literature.

In the spring of 1992, exactly ten years after her magnificent meditation on books in Letter to Borges, Sontag visited the 92nd Street Y in New York to deliver a lecture on the project and purpose of literature. Now, thanks to a new partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y, who recorded the live event, I am proud and heartened to offer Sontag’s talk for our shared enrichment. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/133809011&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&visual=true

On becoming a writer, writing itself (a subject Sontag pondered frequently in her diaries), and its osmotic relationship with reading — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers:

What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.

Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.

Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.

And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.

Sontag goes on to explore the still-debated issue of gender in literature and the notion of how stereotypes imprison us:

That all came from books, and it came from the usual books that are now called “the cannon” — used to be called “classics,” which is not a bad term either — and most of those writers are men. It’s not my choice that they be men, but as far as we know, Homer and Shakespeare and Dante and Rabelais and so on, those writers, they’re mostly men. Of course… George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and so on [are] absolutely first-class writers, but most great writers have been men — this is not to justify it, this is not to be happy about it, it’s just the way it is. For all the obvious reasons, we know why the majority of distinguished practitioners of most arts have been, up to this time, men — there’s nothing about the future, nothing about what ought to be, just what is.

Therefore, it was so natural to me to take the attitude that these were writers — in other words, Emily Dickinson isn’t a “woman poet” any more than Walt Whitman is a “male poet” — they’re just both poets. George Eliot isn’t a “woman writer,” whereas, let’s say, Dickens is just a “writer” — they were just writers

I also live in a time in which it’s very important to me — and natural to me — to support and want to align myself with most aspects of the feminist agenda. I’ve always been a feminist — it’s not something I became. At a certain time, I had the honor of being called by Elizabeth Hardwick “somebody who is born a feminist.”

[But] there can be a contradiction, if you will. It is important to women coming to consciousness of the cultural disabilities under which women labor, in which their consciousness is formed, to make those distinctions — the distinctions that I want to, as a writer, not think about. They can be very important for women in general to think about. So there’s the contradiction — let’s say I do one thing as a citizen, as a civic person, and I do something else as a writer.

[…]

But… if I truly considered people and their lives over a long span of time — people with marriages and love affairs and careers, living in a conventional society — it could not be the case … that I would not be struck by the ways in which women think of themselves in subservient roles and in which they become dependent, or even crippled, by gender stereotypes. … Everybody knows it. What we say is what we have permission to say — we always know much more than we say, and we see much more than we acknowledge that we see, but at any given time there are conventions about what we say we can say and what we think we can think. And one of the interesting things about being a writer is to try to open that out a little bit.

Adding to Italo Calvino’s timeless definitions of what makes a classic, Sontag considers what a writer is and what literature means:

A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.

To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play…

In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.

Now, most people are not “writers” in that sense… 40,000 books a year are published in this country, and many of them are useful and are entertaining to some people. They have some constituency — they’re not part of literature. Literature is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form. But, of course, that’s what I’m talking about — I would go as far as to say that no book is worth reading if it isn’t worth reading five times, or more… That’s what I mean by “literature” — a book that you would want, repeatedly, to read, to be inside you, to be part of your bloodstream.

In answering an audience question, Sontag adds her contribution to famous writers’ daily routines, fusing with characteristic elegance the practical and the philosophical:

Writers’ lives are really very boring. I get up in the morning, I make coffee, and I go to work. And I work until I drop… A day in the life of a writer — this writer — is getting up and doing it all day long, and all evening long, and sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning.

On the psychological value of writing by hand amidst a digital culture, a point that has amplified resonance two decades later:

I write by hand and then I type it. But I have to write the first draft by hand. Now, don’t tell me about the computer — I know the computer is wonderful. I remember one writer friend of mine … said, “I don’t want to use a computer because it’s too entertaining.” It’s not writers’ masochism that makes some few of us continue to hold out against this — it’s that it is better if it goes slower, at least I think so. It’s good to feel it in your hand and it’s good to be able to just think…

Maybe a writer who grows up with computers would not feel this way, but then, I think, the writing will be different. Let’s put it this way: Writing, like painting, is artisanal. It’s one of the few artistic activities which does require solitude. Most other art activities do involve people and are collaborative… To be an artist or a writer is to be this weird thing — a hand worker in an era of mass production.

In answering another audience question, Sontag considers what it takes to be — rather than become — a writer:

You have to be obsessed… [Being a writer] is not like something you want to be — it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed.

Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument — and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were? Why can’t people have that as an art activity? … But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.

Sontag, who considers herself unproductive despite her dozen published books by that point and her ample diaries, returns to the question of daily routines and writerly rituals:

The most productive writers I know have been the most rigidly scheduled, and I’m incapable of having a schedule… Alberto Moravia, the Italian writer who was enormously productive … told me that he started work every morning at a quarter to 8 and he quit at a quarter to 1, and that was it — that’s when he had lunch… And I said, “Well, what happens if you’re called to lunch at a quarter to 1 and you’re in the middle of a sentence?” And he said, “Well, I just stop. I just go and have lunch and go back the next day.” And I thought, I couldn’t do that to save my life. I have a feeling … it’s started! How could I? … I can’t leave it! It’s not even that I can’t leave it because I’m afraid that it would go away… I simply can’t.

It’s as hard as stopping peeing in the middle of peeing — excuse the simple-minded example, but just in the same way that it’s very hard to stop peeing once you’ve started, it seems to me, once you’ve started writing, that day, if there’s anything there, how could you stop?

(There’s a reason, indeed, why the creative process at its most immersive is called “flow,” and it’s perhaps this that Henry Miller touched into in his meditation on the joy of urination.)

On the absurdity of using “elitism” as a divisive and derogatory term, something that we still grapple with today:

I think most of what is called “elitist” is a mask for anti-intellectualism — I mean, there is such a thing as excellence.

Sontag ends on a remarkably prescient note about education, the broken system for which she had proposed a revolutionary intervention some two decades prior, and a system that remains just as broken two decades later:

The worst thing about [the system we live in], I suppose, is our educational system. And that is, perhaps, also the most hopeless thing in the system — it’s the most important thing that we should be changing, and it’s the thing we’re least likely to change. And if we don’t change that, basically we won’t change anything else.

Stay tuned for more excellent recordings from the 92Y archives, and explore more of Sontag enduring genius here.

Illustrated portrait of Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton for a previous collaboration

John Updike on How to Have a Productive Daily Routine, and the Most Important Things Aspiring Writers Should Know

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“In a country this large and a language even larger … there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

In 2004, shortly after winning the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, John Updike — who had also won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal, among countless other accolades — gave an interview for the Academy of Achievement to discuss his views on writing, many of which he explored at greater depth in his superb 1996 memoir Self-Consciousness (public library), which gave us his timeless reflection on writing and death. Here are the highlights of the interview.

On his daily rhythm, adding to the stringent routines and offbeat rituals of famous writers:

Since I’ve gone through some trouble not to teach and not to have any employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch, so I work three or four hours in the morning. And it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases… I begin by answering a letter or two — there’s a lot of junk in your life as a writer, most people have junk in their lives — but I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There’s a danger if you don’t move it steadily that you kind of forget what it’s about, so you must keep in touch with it. . . . I’ve been maintaining this schedule since … 1957.

On doggedness:

It’s good to have a certain doggedness to your technique.

His advice to aspiring writers, including a sentiment about money that Michael Lewis would come to echo and which Muppeteer Jim Henson embodied:

Try to develop actual work habits and, even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say, or more a day to write. Very good things have been written on an hour a day. . . . So take it seriously, set a quota, try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. . . .

Don’t be contentious to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country and writing, as some would agree, is a capitalist enterprise… It’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience.

Read what excites you… and even if you don’t imitate it, you will learn from it. . . .

Don’t try to get rich. . . . If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or be a certain kind of lawyer. On the other hand, I like to think that in a country this large and a language even larger, that there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.

Complement with more invaluable advice to aspiring writers from Ernest HemingwayH.P. LovecraftNeil Gaiman, and Josh Green, then bookmark and revisit this continually updated archive of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft.

For more of Updike’s wisdom, see his meditation on why the world exists and his little-known, lovely children’s book.

William Faulkner’s Beautiful Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech About How Artists Help Us Live

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

Despite its dark history, the Nobel Prize endures as one of our civilizations’ highest seals of merit — so much so that the Nobel Prize acceptance speech has become an art unto itself. Among history’s finest are Ernest Hemingway’s brilliantly laconic meditation on the value of working alone, Seamus Heaney’s reflection on the essence and politics of poetry, and Alice Munro’s insightful recent interview-in-lieu-of-speech on writing, gender, and the rewards of storytelling. But one of the best comes from William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, exactly twenty years after he wrote The Sound and the Fury, and delivered his acceptance speech at Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950.

Despite the poor sound quality of this archival recording, it is a pinnacle of articulate thought and literary conviction at once timeless and remarkably timely in the context of our day. The transcript, found in the ceaselessly inspiring Nobel Lectures: Literature 1901–1967 (public library), follows.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Writing at the height of the Atomic Age — the threats and dystopian projections of which precipitated The Age of Anxiety, a cultural phenomenon alive and well today — Faulkner reflects on how creatively toxic it is to write from a place of fear rather than a place of hope for the human heart:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

In a sentiment that E.B. White would come to echo two decades later in his famous meditation on the role and responsibility of the writer, Faulkner

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Complement with Faulkner on writing, the purpose of art, and the meaning of life, his little-known Jazz Age drawings, and the strange story of his only children’s book.

For more notable insight on the written word, see this perpetually growing catalog of famous writers’ wisdom on writing.

Herman Melville on Writing and His Daily Routine

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“A book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

After my recent exploration of how the sleep habits of famous authors affected their creative output, I found myself revisiting a decade’s worth of notes and marginalia on the daily routines and odd customs of literary greats, and inevitably remembered some I had missed in the visualization project. Among them was the immeasurably beautiful daily routine of Herman Melville (August 1, 1819–September 28, 1891) found in the wonderful 1954 volume Reader and Writer (public library) — a collection of notable meditations on the osmotic arts of reading and writing, on “the technology of language and its human aims,” featuring contributions from such literary titans as Sherwood AndersonErnest HemingwayFrancis Bacon, and Henry David Thoreau.

In a letter from December of 1850, mere months before the publication of Moby-Dick, Melville writes to his friend Evert Duyckinck, editor of The New York Literary Journal, and describes his life in the country, shortly after he left New York City and settled on a farm in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts with his new wife, Elizabeth Shaw. After a few facetious lines about having neglected to write to his friend for months, Melville paints this beautiful vignette imbued with his nautical obsession:

I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is all covered with snow. I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.

Illustration by Matt Kish from Moby-Dick in Pictures

He then outlines his daily routine, emanating his equal passion for writing and life — and above all, perhaps, his profound understanding of how the two flow in and out of one another:

Do you want to know how I pass my time? — I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. [manuscripts] on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.

Melville ends with an endearing, tongue-in-cheek lament about the disconnect between his ambition and his productivity and the general creative paradox of writing:

Can you send me fast-writing youths, with an easy style & not averse to polishing their labors? If you can, I wish you would, because since I have been here I have planned about that number of future works & cant find enough time to think about them separately — But … a book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism. And taking a book off the brain, is akin to the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel — you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety — & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.

Complement with more daily routines from Charles DarwinWilliam S. BurroughsHenry MillerCharles BukowskiJohn UpdikeJoy WilliamsKurt VonnegutMark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other literary greats.

Joan Didion on Storytelling, the Economy of Words, and Facing Rejection

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

In her otherwise prolific and acclaimed career as one of the greatest writers of the past century, Joan Didion only ever wrote three short stories. They are collected in Telling Stories (public library) — a tiny 1978 treasure, the 26th in a series of keepsakes issued by the Bancroft Library for its members, which I found thanks to the curatorial magic of the wonderful Honey & Wax. Prefacing the three short stories included in this slim volume, Didion recounts her reluctant foray into the genre as a junior at Berkeley. It took place in the fall of 1954, shortly before her twentieth birthday, when she was admitted into celebrated literary critic and writer Mark Schorer’s English 106A class — a “writers’ workshop” that required each student to produce five short stories over the course of the semester. She was instantly immersed into a cesspool of self-doubt and comparative adolescent insecurity:

I remember each other member of this class as older and wiser than I had hope of ever being (it had not yet struck me in any visceral way that being nineteen was not a long-term proposition), not only older and wiser but more experienced, more independent, more interesting, more possessed of an exotic past — marriages and the breaking up of marriages, money and the lack of it, sex and politics and the Adriatic seen at dawn; the stuff not only of grown-up life itself but, more poignantly to me at the time, the very stuff which might be substantiated into five short stories.

[…]

I had no past, and, every Monday-Wednesday-Friday at noon in Dwinelle Hall, it seemed increasingly clear to me that I had no future. I ransacked my closet for clothes in which I might appear invisible in class, and came up with only a dirty raincoat. I sat in this raincoat and I listened to other people’s stories read aloud and I despaired of ever knowing what they knew. I attended every meeting of this class and never spoke once.

In her ratty raincoat, Didion coasted through the class, mustering three of the five required short stories and earning, by the mercy of Schorer, “a man of infinite kindness to and acuity about his students,” a course grade of B. She wrote no more short stories for the next ten years, then she penned the ones collected in Telling Stories.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Mary Lloyd Estrin, 1977

But there’s some essential fine print to Didion’s career trajectory, which might resonate with paralyzing familiarity for many aspiring writers today:

When I say I wrote no more stories for exactly ten years, I do not mean that I wrote nothing at all. In fact I wrote constantly. I wrote, once I left Berkeley, for a living. I went to New York and I wrote merchandising copy for Vogue and I wrote promotion copy for Vogue (the distinction between the two was definite but recondite, and to try to explain it would like giving the AFL-CIO definition of two apparently similar jobs on the line at the Ford assembly plant in Pico Rivera, California) and after a while I wrote editorial copy for Vogue. A sample of the latter: “Opposite, above: All through the house, colour, verve, improvised treasures in happy but anomalous coexistence. Here, a Frank Stella, an art nouveau stained-glass panel, a Roy Lichtenstein. Not shown: a table covered with frankly brilliant oilcloth, a Mexican find at fifteen cents a yard.”

But rather than deriding this type of word-mongering with the privilege of hindsight, Didion cherishes the learning ground it provided in mastering the art of conciseness and precision with the written word:

It is easy to make light of this kind of “writing,” and I mention it specifically because I do not make light of it all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words (as well as with people who hung Stellas in their kitchens and went to Mexico for buys in oilcloth), a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted.

This leaves one wondering whether easily derided modern forms of forcibly concise non-literary writing might engender similar benefits — perhaps there’s a reason why some of today’s greatest writers, from Joyce Carol Oates to Neil Gaiman, have embraced Twitter.

Didion continues:

At Vogue one learned fast, or one did not stay, how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely thirty-nine characters. We were connoisseurs of synonyms. We were collectors of verbs. (I recall “to ravish” as a highly favored verb for a number of issues, and I also recall it, for a number of issues more, as the source of a highly favored noun: “ravishments,” as in tables cluttered with porcelain tulips, Faberge eggs, other ravishments.) We learned as reflex the grammatical tricks we had learned only as marginal corrections in school (“there are two oranges and an apple” read better than “there were an apple and two oranges,” passive verbs slowed down sentences, “it” needed a reference within the scan of the eye), learned to rely on the OED, learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. “Run it through again, sweetie, it’s not quite there.” “Give me a shock verb two lines in.” “Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.” Less was more, smooth was better, and absolute precision essential to the monthly grand illusion. Going to work for Vogue was, in the late nineteen-fifties, not unlike training with the Rockettes.

It’s a poorly kept cultural secret that most aspiring writers who take, with the intention of doing so temporarily, such placeholder or springboard jobs never actually replace them with or spring into a full writing career. But Didion eventually managed to carve out time for writing something other than perfectly measured captions:

Gradually, I began, in the evenings and in between deadlines in lieu of lunch, to play with words not for Vogue but for myself. I began to make notes. I began to write down everything I saw and heard and remembered and imagined. I began to write, or so I thought, another story.

Didion thought it was a story about a man and a woman living in New York, but after several false starts, she peered into her notes and beaming back at her came a wholly different story:

What I actually had on my mind that year in New York — had on my mind as opposed to in my mind — was a longing for California, a homesickness, a nostalgia so obsessive that nothing else figured. In order to discover what was on my mind I needed room. I needed room for the rivers and for the rain and for the way the almonds came into blossom around Sacramento, room for irrigation ditches and room for the fear of kiln fires, room in which to play with everything I remembered and did not understand.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Dominick Dunne, 1964

What Didion had initially intended as a story about a woman and a man in New York thus became her first novel, Run River, about the wife of a hop grower on the Sacramento River. Reflecting on why her originally devised short story never worked, Didion contemplates the heart of the genre and illustrates it with a gripping example:

Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus. Let me give you an example. One morning in 1975 I found myself aboard the 8:45 a.m. Pan American from Los Angeles to Honolulu. There were, before take-off from Los Angeles, “mechanical difficulties,” and a half-hour delay. During this delay the stewardess served coffee and orange juice and two children played tag in the aisles and, somewhere behind me, a man began screaming at a woman who seemed to be his wife. I say that the woman seemed to be his wife only because the tone of his invective sounded practiced, although the only words I heard clearly were these: “You are driving me to murder.” After a moment I was aware of the door to the plane being opened a few rows behind me, and of the man rushing off. There were many Pan American employees rushing on and off then, and considerable confusion. I do not know whether the man reboarded the plane before take-off or whether the woman went on to Honolulu alone, but I thought about it all the way across the Pacific. I thought about it while I was drinking a sherry-on-the-rocks and I thought about it during lunch and I was still thinking about it when the first of the Hawaiian Islands appeared off the left wing tip. It was not until we had passed Diamond Head and were coming in low over the reef for landing at Honolulu, however, that I realized what I most disliked about the incident: I disliked it because it had the aspect of a short story, one of those “little epiphany” or “window to the world” stories, one of those stories in which the main character glimpses a crisis in a stranger’s life — a woman weeping in a tea room, quite often, or an accident seen from the window of a train, “tea rooms” and “trains” still being fixtures of short stories although not of real life — and is moved to see his or her own life in a new light. Again, my dislike was a case of needing room in which to play with what I did not understand. I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story. I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and I still do. I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself. I wanted everything in the picture. I wanted room for flowers, and reef fish, and people who might or might not have been driving one another to murder but in any case were not impelled, by the demands of narrative convention, to say so out loud on the 8:45 a.m. Pan American from Los Angeles to Honolulu.

A page from Didion’s manuscript of A Book of Common Prayer, 1977

Despite her distaste for the genre, however, Didion did write the short stories included in Telling Stories, and all in the same year — 1964, as Didion turned thirty, months after Run River was published. She explains the reluctant impulse:

My first novel had just been published, and I was suffering a fear common among people who have just written a first novel: the fear of never writing another. (As a matter of fact this fear is also common among people who have just written a second novel, a third novel, and, for all I know, a forty-fourth novel, but at the time I considered it a unique affliction.) I sat in front of my typewriter and believed that another subject would never present itself. I believed that I would be forever dry. I believed that I would “forget how.” Accordingly, as a kind of desperate finger exercise, I tried writing stories.

Of the three stories — “Coming Home,” “The Welfare Island Ferry,” and “When Did Music Come this Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?” — the first two found a home fairly quickly, in the Saturday Evening Post and Harper’s Bazaar, respectively. The third, however, was an exercise in weathering the storm of rejection. Didion, who was represented by the William Morris Agency at the time, traces the downward spiral of the story’s fate in a series of letters from her agent in New York beginning on October 9, 1964:

As you probably know, [Esquire fiction editor] Rust [Hills] wrote to a great many writers regarding stories for the children’s issue and the guarantee for everyone is a flat $200. On the price for the story itself, they will pay $1750, or a $250 increase over your last price. Please let me know whether this is agreeable and if so we’ll confirm the terms on your behalf…”

Seven weeks later, the horizons begin to dim:

I’m really disappointed not to have better news for you, but Rust Hills has returned “When Did Music Come this Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?” … We’ll of course send the guarantee check off to you just as soon as we receive it. Since you indicated that you wanted to do some further work on the story, I am wondering whether you would like the manuscript returned to you at this point…”

Over the following months, Didion’s agent pitched a revised version of the story to several prestigious publications, but to no avail. Then, in a letter from August 25, 1965, the avalanche of rejections reaches tragicomic proportions, rendering Didion’s story one of the most evasively and euphemistically yet prolifically and consistently rejected works by famous writers. Her agent tabulates the rejections, which give a peculiar taste of each publication’s general editorial tone and culture, beginning with the Saturday Evening Post:

Many of us read it and a great many were excited and insistent in their admiration of it. Others, and they include Bill Emerson who has the final vote, also admired it but felt that it was wrong for the Post, not so much because of its subject matter, but also because of the oblique method of narration.

The New Yorker:

As a whole it just isn’t effective enough.

Ladies’ Home Journal:

Too negative for us.

McCall’s:

I feel very bad about rejecting this story — not because I think it’s really a well worked-out story but because the writing is so awfully good. She has a very special way of involving the reader… but I’m turning this down, reluctantly, because I don’t think it’s a successful story in the end.

Redbook:

Just too brittle.

Harper’s Bazaar:

While “The Wellfare Island Ferry” is almost my favorite among the stories we have published… I feel that “When Did Music Come this Way?” is not quite as good.

Vogue:

Not quite right for us.

Mademoiselle:

Unable to use this particular story.

The Atlantic Monthly:

I hope you’ll be sending us more of Joan Didion’s work, but this didn’t make it, so back to you.

The Reporter:

Alas, not right for The Reporter.

Cosmopolitan, to whom the story was submitted twice due to changes in editorial staff:

Too depressing.

But the best — for the sheer anomalous coexistence of professional compliments and personal editorial indignation — came from Good Housekeeping:

Marvelously written, very real, and so utterly depressing that I’m going to sit under a cloud of angst and gloom all afternoon… I’m sorry we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time.

Surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly, given their institutionally indoctrinated gender attitudes — Esquire was the only publication that didn’t respond at all to the revised story.

In the end, the agent began submitting the story in the trade reviews, until it was eventually accepted by the Denver Quarterly, which paid $5 per page, for a total of $50 for Didion’s 10-page story — $1,700 less than what Didion originally billed. “When Did Music Come this Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?” was published in the Winter 1967 issue of the Denver Quarterly. Didion never wrote another short story.

Joan Didion with her Corvette Stingray, 1970. Photograph by Julian Wasser.

But despite the unfortunate fate of that story — or perhaps precisely because of it — the trio included in Telling Stories are an absolute delight to read. Complement it with Didion on self-respectkeeping a notebook, and grief, then revisit famous writers’ collected wisdom on the craft.

Vladimir Nabokov on Writing, Reading, and the Three Qualities a Great Storyteller Must Have

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

“Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

“Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself,” Umberto Eco observed in his magnificent atlas of imaginary places. Indeed, our capacity for self-delusion is one of the most inescapable fundamentals of the human condition, and nowhere do we engage it more willingly and more voraciously than in the art and artifice of storytelling.

In the same 1948 lecture that gave us Vladimir Nabokov’s 10 criteria for a good reader, found in his altogether fantastic Lectures on Literature (public library), the celebrated author and sage of literature examines the heart of storytelling:

Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.

Vladimir Nabokov by William Claxton, 1963

He considers this essential role of deception in storytelling, adding to famous writers’ wisdom on truth vs. fiction and observing, as young Virginia Woolf did, that all art simply imitates nature:

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

Going back for a moment to our wolf-crying woodland little woolly fellow, we may put it this way: the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story. When he perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire. But he was the little magician. He was the inventor.

What’s especially interesting is that Nabokov likens the writer to an inventor, since the trifecta of qualities he goes on to outline as necessary for the great writer — not that different from young Susan Sontag’s list of the four people a great writer must be — are just as necessary for any great entrepreneur:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.

Indeed, as important to the success of literature as the great writer is the wise reader, whom Nabokov characterizes by a mindset that blends the receptivity of art with the critical thinking of science:

The best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgment will temper the intuitive heat. If, however, a would-be reader is utterly devoid of passion and patience — of an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience — he will hardly enjoy great literature.

Lectures on Literature is a wealth of wisdom in its entirety. Also see Nabokov on the six short stories everyone should read, then revisit famous writers’ collected insights on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writingWalter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrinesF. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughterDavid Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tipsHenry Miller’s 11 commandmentsJack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniquesJohn Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

The Six Motives of Creativity: Mary Gaitskill on Why Writers Write

I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School. I encourage you to take the time to read these powerful, awe-inspiring words.

Here is the link to today’s article. It’s taken from Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers.

The art of integrating the ego and the impulse for empathy in a dynamic call and response.

BY MARIA POPOVA

Why do writers — great writers — write? George Orwell attributed it to four universal motivesJoan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about funMichael Lewis ascribes it to the necessary self-delusions of creativityJoy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocketItalo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. For Susan Orlean, it comes from immutable love.

But one of literary history’s most beautiful answers comes from Mary Gaitskill in her essay “The Wolf in the Tall Grass,” titled after Nabokov’s famous meditation on the art of storytelling and published in the 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (public library) — an altogether fantastic collection, featuring David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “The Nature of the Fun” and other notable reflections on writing from Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rick Bass, Norman Mailer, Rick Moody, and more.

1. To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.

Mary Gaitskill by Ben Handzo

Her second motive reflects Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” Gaitskill continues:

2. To give form to the things we can sense but not see. You walk into the living room where your father is lying on the couch, listening to music. You are small, so he doesn’t hear or see you. His face is reacting to the music, and his expression is soft, abstract, intensely inward. It is also pained. It is an expression that you have never seen. Then he sees you and smiles, but the music still fills the room with that other expression…

Quoting Nabokov’s famous words — “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” — Gaitskill reflects on that ability to give shape to the ineffable as the essence of storytelling:

Stories mimic life like certain insects mimic leaves and twigs. Stories are about all the things that might’ve, could’ve, or would’ve happened, encrowded around and giving density and shape to undeniable physical events and phenomena. They are the rich, unseen underlayer of the most ordinary moments.

Gaitskill contrasts this intense outrospection and sensitivity to the world’s unseen layers with her third reason — which coincides with Orwell’s first motive — and writes:

3. To feel important, in the simplest egotistical sense. … Strong thoughts and feelings about what you see and feel require a distinct point of view and an ego. If you are frequently told that your point of view is worthless, invalid, or crazy, your ego will get really insulted. It will sulk like a teenager hunched in her room muttering, “No one ever listens. No one cares. One day they’ll see!” To make them all see — i.e., see how important I am — was once a big part of why I wrote stories. As a motivation, it’s embarrassing, it’s base, and it smells bad, but it’s also an angry little engine that could: it will fight like hell to keep your point of view from being snatched away, or demeaned, fighting even when there’s no apparent threat.

But just as one begins to raise a skeptical eyebrow and summon Alan Watts for a counterpoint, Gaitskill herself acknowledges the existential paradox therein:

The only problem is, the more your ego fights, the smaller your point of view gets. For a while, I needed to take great pains to make myself feel safe, to the point of extreme social isolation, so I wouldn’t feel like I had to fight. The angry engine quieted down a bit, and I began to learn about other points of view.

Indeed, this impulse for empathy and for giving voice to the marginalized realities of others brings us to Gaitskill’s fourth motive:

4. To reveal and restore things that I feel might be ignored or disregarded. I was once at a coffee shop eating breakfast alone when I noticed a woman standing and talking to a table of people. She was young but prematurely aged, with badly dyed hair and lined skin. She was smiling and joking, but her body had a collapsed, defeated posture that looked deeply habitual. Her spine was curled, her head was slightly receded, and her shoulders were pulled down in a static flinch. She expressed herself loudly and crudely, but also diffidently. She talked like she was a joke. But there was something else to her, something pushing up against the defeat, a sweet, tough, humorous vitality that I could almost see running up her center. I realized that if I hadn’t looked closely, I would not have really seen this woman, that I would not have seen what was most human and lively in her. I wondered how many people saw it, or even if she herself saw it…

That kind of small, new, unrecognized thing is very tender to me, and I hate it when it gets ignored or mistaken for something ugly. I want to acknowledge and nurture it, but I usually leave it very small in the stories. I do that because I think part of the human puzzle is in the delicacy of those moments or phenomena, contrasted with the ignorance and lack of feeling we are subject to.

Gaitskill moves on to her fifth reason, echoing Oscar Wilde’s famous emphasis on receptivity and reflecting on the osmosis of reading and writing:

5. To communicate. … To read well is an act of dynamic receptivity that creates a profound sense of exchange, and I like being on both ends of it.

Illustration by Sydney Pink for ‘How to Overcome Creative Block.’ Click image for more.

Citing one of her favorite passages in literature, from Saul Bellow’s The Victim, she captures the highest potentiality of literature:

It opens life up down to the pit; when I read that, I can’t ignore how extraordinary it is to be alive.

In her sixth and final reason, Gaitskill returns to Nabokov:

6. To integrate; to love. One of Nabokov’s early novels, Laughter in the Dark, has an apparently simple, almost hackneyed plot: a foolish, wealthy middle-aged man (Albinus) falls in love with a vulgar, heartless sixteen-year-old girl (Margot). She and her lover, Rex, proceed to destroy Albinus and his family in a ruthless, ultimately grotesque fashion. On the face of it, it’s a soap opera, but what makes it extraordinary, aside from the beauty of the prose, is the author’s gift for inhabiting every energetic strain of his breathing animal creations. Rex and Margot are absolutely evil, but they are also full of fierce life, with, and supple, eel-like charm. Nabokov can step inside their cruelty and vitality almost as if it were an electrical current, then step out again and enter the much slower, cooler ambience of their poor stooge Albinus, or the person of Albinus’s bland, taffy-sweet wife, and emerge again, all in a flash. … The ability to do this requires a great understanding of and regard for life that is, I think, a kind of love.

Gaitskill concludes by reflecting on this “kind of integration [that] requires holding many disparate elements together in a fluid mosaic” in her own experience of writing, from the depths of which emerges the light of the creative impulse:

When I start writing a story, I don’t feel like I’m integrating anything; I feel like I’m marching through mud. But at least some of the time when there comes a moment when I feel I’m carrying all the elements I’ve just described and more in a big, clear bowl. It doesn’t feel like I’m containing them. It feels like I’m bringing them into being and letting them be, exactly as they are. My perplexity and upset may still be there, but they are no longer the main event. I feel sadness because much of what is in that bowl is sad. But because of that tender sadness, I also feel humility and joy and love. It’s strange because much of what I write about does not seem loving. But to write it makes me feel love.

Why I Write, while out of print, is still findable and very much worth the hunt. Complement it with its contemporary counterpart, one of 2013’s best books on writing, then revisit famous writers’ advice on writing.