New Life in the Void: Poet Lu Ji on the Art of Writing

Lu Ji was a prolific writer in early China (261-303) whose best known work is The Art of Writing (originally Wen Fu, also translated as Essay on Literature), an essay of literary criticism composed of both poetry and prose.

But calling it literary criticism doesn’t do it justice. It’s a collection of eleven poems on what it means to write, to read, and to put your faith in the power of the written word, whether by long-gone ancestors or future generations. 

Chinese text of The Art of Writing by Lu Ji

Excerpt from the Chinese text of Wen Fu (Source)

Lu writes in the preface: “Through my own efforts I know how hard it is to write, since I always worry that my ideas fail to express their subject and my words are even further removed from their insufficient ideas. The problem is easy to understand; the solution is more difficult.” I don’t think Lu finds the solution (has anyone?), but he faces the difficulty and seeks out answers in these eleven poems.

The Impulse

In “The Impulse,” reading the classics inspires the poet to write. It begins with a beautiful description of the poet’s position:

A poet stands between heaven and earth
And watches the dark mystery.

And continues with the source of his inspiration:

I roam the classics through a forest of treasures
And love their elegant balance of style and substance.
Inspired, I lay down the book I was reading
And let words pour out from my brush.

Meditation

A wonderfully metaphysical description of what it’s like to write something that feels as though it’s been waiting for you to find the words: 

Sometimes words come hard, they resist me
till I pluck them from deep water like hooked fish;
sometimes they are birds soaring out of a cloud
that fall right into place, shot with arrows,
and I harvest lines neglected for a hundred generations,
rhymes underheard for a thousand years.
I won’t touch a flower already in morning bloom
but quicken the unopened evening buds.
In a blink I see today and the past,
put out my hand and touch all the seas.

Process

On continuing to work at it even when you may not feel like you’re making progress: 

Some words belong together
and other don’t join, like jagged teeth,
but when you’re clear and calm
your spirit finds true words.
With heaven and earth contained in your head
Nothing escapes the pen in your hand.

It’s hard to get started at first,
painful like talking with cracked lips,
but words will flow with ink in the end.

The Joy of Words

On the beauty of being able to create something from nothing:

A writer makes new life in the void,
knocks on silence to make a sound,
binds space and time on a sheet of silk
and pours out a river from an inch-sized heart.

You can read the whole of “The Joy of Words” on Instagram here.

Inspiration

The poem “Inspiration” is about the “traffic laws on writing’s path,” describing what it is like to be possessed with the urge to write and the knowledge, for once, of what to write about:

When instinct is swift as a horse
no tangle of thoughts will hold it back:
a thought wind rises in your chest,
a river of words pours out from your mouth,
and so many burgeoning leaves sprout
on the silk from your brush,
that colors brim out of your eyes
and music echoes in your ears.

Writer’s Block

Lu describes that dreaded condition as when “the will travels but the spirit stays put.” His solution?

You must excavate your own soul,
search yourself until your spirit is refreshed.

It’s not so easy, however:

The mind gets darker and darker
and you must pull ideas like silk from their cocoon.

But perhaps the work will pay off:

Sometimes you labor hard and build regrets 
then dash off a flawless gem.

That impossible flawless gem! But the appearance of the gem, never mind the defeat of writer’s block, is inexplicable:

Though this thing comes out of me,
I can’t master it with strength.
I often stroke my empty chest and sigh:
what blocks and what opens this road?

The Power of a Poem

In the last poem of the essay, Lu takes the long view, looking behind him at the work of his ancestors and looking ahead to the work of those who were and are still to come, and showing his faith in what literature can accomplish.

The function of literature is
to express the nature of nature.
It can’t be barred as it travels space
and boats across one hundred million years.
Gazing to the fore, I leave models for people to come;
looking aft, I learn from my ancestors.
It can save teetering governments and weak armies;
it gives voice to the dying wind of human virtue.
No matter how far, this road will take you there;
it will express the subtlest point.
It waters the heart like clouds and rain,
and shifts form like a changeable spirit.
Inscribed on metal and stone, it spreads virtue.
Flowing with pipes and strings, each day the poem is new.

The Anchor of Chinese PoetryI found The Art of Writing in The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, but many other translations exist, some of which you can read herehere, and here.

The editors of The Anchor Book note how complex the work is to translate and how many multiple meanings are possible in each line, such that the notes on the translation would far exceed the length of the piece itself.

Yet the essence of the work shines through in its multiple translations. Although written some seventeen hundred years ago, The Art of Writing still speaks to us today. The joy and pain, the dullness and ecstasy of writing haven’t changed, not across centuries or cultures.

More Interesting than Everyday Life: On the Writing Day (Part 2)

Last week I posted quotes from five authors on the details of their writing day. Today I bring you six more insights into the fascinating everyday life of the published author.

As of Friday I’m off work for the holidays, so it’s an ideal time to knuckle down for at least a couple of days of serious writing and editing. Unlike Alain de Botton, I don’t write at the office, so I’m looking forward to being at home for days on end. I’m not sure I’ll accumulate enough stop-start writing days to earn a flow day, to use Hilary Mantel’s nomenclature, but I’m going to try. I don’t plan to wait for the desire to write, as Patti Yumi Cottrell does, but I do count on floundering and blushing at least as much as Sebastian Barry might.

Galway

Hilary Mantel

On the start of her writing day:

“I get up in the dark like a medieval monk, commit unmediated scribble to a notebook, and go back to bed about six, hoping to sleep for another two hours and to wake slowly and in silence. Random noise, voices in other rooms, get me off to a savage, disorderly start, but if I am left in peace to reach for a pen, I feel through my fingertips what sort of day it is.”

On flow days:

“Days of easy flow generate thousands of words across half a dozen projects – and perhaps new projects. Flow is like a mad party – it goes on till all hours and somebody must clear up afterwards. Stop-start days are not always shorter, are self-conscious and anxiety-ridden, and later turn out to have been productive and useful. I judge in retrospect. On flow days, I have no idea what I’ve written till I read it back. It’s a life with shocks built in.”

Patti Yumi Cottrell

The author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace in an interview at The Creative Independent, on not writing every day:

“I have to feel a desire to write. I don’t know if there’s ever an end goal in mind. But I just have to feel like I really want to do it. I have to feel borderline desperate. And then I want to write. That’s what motivates me. Going long periods without writing, where I’m just doing other things, helps create that feeling of wanting to write.”

On surprising yourself while you’re writing:

“It just feels like an ecstatic and magical thing. You didn’t realize something could happen and then you make that happen. It feels clarifying in a way, because it’s like something was there all along but you didn’t know it. And then you’re surprised by it. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself through writing.”

Deborah Levy

The author of the excellent novel Hot Milk writes in a shed she rents from a friend. She plans her routes, follow directions, but still gets lost:

“When I begin writing a novel, I usually know where I want to get to, I just don’t know how to get there. I plan a route and follow my directions. Sometimes this works well. Yet, it’s when I detour from the map and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes. In case you think I like getting lost, I should tell you that I resist it with all my will. This is always a futile battle. Eventually I surrender to the unknown route, write for a few hours and take a look at the new view.”

On getting to the end:

“As far as I’m concerned, the writing life is mostly about stamina and the desire to give my complete attention to language. … To get to the finishing line requires the writing to become more interesting than everyday life. This is not as easy as it sounds, because I have never found everyday life boring.”

Sebastian Barry

On ideal writing days: “Those ideal days begin when I have managed to survive that awful waiting period with a novel when you are writing, but also crossing out crossly, beginning again, floundering, panicking, blushing in the privacy of your workroom.”

On getting down that first good line:

“But the gods maybe have pity at last on the poor author sequestered there, struggling with his book, and eventually a serviceable first line is rendered from the heavens. The whistle-tune, the birdsong of the book. The relief is immense, and that strange and uncharacteristic courage to proceed descends.”

Alain de Botton

On writing in an office environment:

“I act almost normally, from the outside, clicking away at the keyboard. Even though I may inside be tempted by all kinds of emotions, I handle myself with calm and reserve – which is not the limitation it may sound. It can be the greatest freedom, sometimes, to have to repress some of what you are. I sit quietly for hours. I’ll have a sandwich at the desk. I can’t sink into despair, scream or act all poetic: other people are watching. At the office, there’s a chance to edit yourself, thankfully. That’s why I go there.”

On the gap between who you are and the work you do:

“My writing ends up sounding quite different to the way I feel inside. That’s the point. It tries to understand, to be serene, to be competent. Perhaps this ability to have a gap between who you are and what your work is like doesn’t just hold true for art: it’s something all work offers. … Work gives us a chance to give our better natures a go.

“It’s great to make things tidy via work. The wider world will always be a mess. But around work, you can sometimes have a radically different kind of experience: you can get on top of a problem and finally resolve it. You can bring order to chaos for a bit.”

Elizabeth Strout

The author of Olive Kitteridge can write anywhere, but her favourite place to write is at home.

“These days I write first thing in the morning after having breakfast with my husband; my writing day starts as soon as he leaves the apartment, which is usually right after breakfast. Then I clear the table and sit down to work. I write mostly by hand, transcribing it on a computer when I can no longer read my writing, when I have made too many marks on the paper to be able to see the scene I am trying to write.”

On writing scenes separately and then piecing them together:

“I am a very messy worker – I push these scenes around our table. It is a big table, and over time I realise which scenes are connected. I have never written anything from beginning to end, not a story or a novel. I just collect different scenes, and the ones that aren’t any good to me, get slipped on to the floor and eventually into the wastebasket. (There are many of those.)”

And more

For much more minutiae on the lives of writers, I suggest Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, The Paris Review Interviews Volumes I and II, Writing Routines, and The Guardian’s “My writing day” series (which supplied quotes for some of this post). And in case you missed it, check out part one!

Not Measured in Minutes or Hours: On the Writing Day (Part 1)

I love reading about the writing days of published authors and comparing them to my own. Seen close up, they don’t seem so different from how my writing day tends to go (or my writing hours, I should say). They too have a hard time staying focused! They too sometimes have no idea what they’re doing or where they’re going!

Sometimes there seems to be a world of difference between writing while having a full-time day job and writing as a day job (even a part-time one). Other times I think the upsides and downsides of each are probably roughly equal.

The writing day

Regardless, it’s comforting to know that, although I am a writer with nothing published, almost nothing finished, my experience of writing as an activity, a process, is not so far off from those whose work is out in the world. They get the words written and assembled into a shape fit for others to read, however impossible it may seem at one point or another, in a way that doesn’t sound so different from how I do it.

The internet offers up a multitude of details about writers and their writing day. I have too many favourites to fit into one post, so this will be the first part. I’ll share the second half next week.

Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Not all writing days are created equal, Ayòbámi Adébáyò writes in The Guardian. “On most days, I dragged my pen across the page, glancing over my shoulder at the wall clock to check if it was lunchtime, astonished by how long it would take for a minute to pass by. … I did write, but I also drew lots of squiggles in the notebooks because the right words just wouldn’t come.”

But then there are the special days, not like most days:

“Those special days are not measured in minutes nor hours but in chapters completed and sentences perfected. They don’t even feel like days, they are periods I spend in a magical place, unbound by the rules of a temporal universe. Usually, by the time I hit save before taking a nap, my word count has gone down but the world I’m creating feels more tangible than it did before.”

You never know when a special day will strike:

“The peculiar thing about those special days is that they sneak in like the regular ones; I never know when I’m going to write a sentence that transports me via some invisible threshold into another world. Now I think of those moments of magic as my reward for pushing through on the days when the process is quite tedious.”

Kazuo Ishiguro

On planning a story:

“I sit in a stuffy room and fill notebooks with possible relationships and situations. In nonfiction, authors have to do a lot of research before they write. I do the equivalent, but my research is not in libraries, or by interviews. I research the world in my head, the people, relationships, and settings.”

On writing the first draft:

“I write first in pen, deliberately illegibly. I pay no attention to style; my only objective is to let the ideas come out, to get past my own defenses. I write quickly and intensely. Ideas change; if I decide a character would be better this way, I make the change and carry on. I write 30-40 pages and stop. The first draft is a total mess.”

And then improving that first draft:

“I ‘pull out’ of the story to see its overall shape, stare at the numbered points, shape the ideas, see what’s original and what’s not, consider the forks in the road in the story going forward. Then I write the draft again, and repeat the whole process 3-4 times, until I write 30 pages I’m happy with. Then I move on to the next 30 pages.”

Literary Hub has many more words of wisdom from Ishiguro.

Stacy Schiff

On getting mired in the impossible middle:

“Somewhere around the midpoint of any manuscript — a point that by no means identifies itself as such at the time, any more than did the Middle Ages — you hit up against the Zeno’s paradox of writing. You can’t seem to get there from here; the end slips irretrievably out of sight. As with exile, or nostalgia, or unrequited love, you find yourself engaged with a place you cannot reach.”

And finally reaching the end:

“It’s all in the endgame. The bulk of the value comes in that final effort, those late-day tweaks, additions, epiphanies. They’re what make a good book a great one, a well-written one a gem. … You polish your first paragraph for the 200th time. You rewrite the entire manuscript, cutting the boring parts. Because of course only at the end do you at last figure out what you were looking for in the first place.”

Jennifer Egan

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz describes Jennifer Egan’s writing process:

“Egan writes her fiction longhand, at a clip of five or six pages a day, sitting in an overstuffed Ikea armchair that lives in her office, or, when the weather is good, in a Zero Gravity recliner that she sets up under the magnolia tree in her back yard. The process quiets her critical brain; she can let herself riff. After a year and a half, she typed up the nearly fourteen hundred handwritten pages she had produced and read them cold.”

Egan herself on the terribleness of the first draft: “The book was bad. … I did one draft that was absolutely unspeakable. But that’s normal.”

But sometimes not even a second draft is enough: “I thought very, very seriously about abandoning it, because I just thought, Hell — the distance between this and something anybody is ever going to want to read is too great for me to span.”

George Saunders

“What writers really do when they write” in its entirety is brilliant and worth a read through from beginning to end. His visualization of how to measure the quality of your writing and make small, continuous improvements is fascinating:

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

Emphasis on without whining. I’m not even sure I’m capable of being so objective about my own work. But the advice to improve your writing by being more specific is perfect:

“Under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving.”

And more

For more minutiae on the lives of writers, I suggest Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, The Paris Review Interviews Volumes I and II, Writing Routines, and The Guardian’s “My writing day” series (which supplied sources for much of this post). And stay tuned for part two!

Spending It All, Every Single Day: Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Still Writing by Dani ShapiroAs a lover of books on the craft of writing, I’d had Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing on my to-read list for several years. It was her recent extraordinary memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage that prompted me to read it finally this fall. Shapiro writes memoir and fiction, which makes Still Writing  an excellent contrast and complement to John McPhee’s Draft No. 4.

It’s almost a memoir itself more than a book on craft and belongs in my mind with other writing classics like The Writing Life (adored it!), Bird by Bird (loved it!)A Writer’s Diary (loved it and heard about years ago via Dani Shapiro’s lovely blog)and Writing Down the Bones (have yet to read it). With McPhee’s book I needed to do some digging to find the advice most useful to me, but with Still Writing nearly every page was relevant to my writing life.

The book is composed of short chapters with titles like Muses, Beginning Again, Second Acts, and Reading Yourself, divided into three sections: Beginnings, Middles, Ends. The chapters are highly digestible and kind of addictive. But it’s worthwhile to take your time and not overindulge. 

The insights into writing are infused with a sense of grace and salvation. A pervasive notion that writing can help you become the best person you can be. There is an urgency to be grateful for and make the most of the combination of gift and curse that writing can be. There is virtue in writing well and shame in not doing the best you can. This feels right for memoir especially, but is relevant to all forms of writing. Many writers (including myself) would benefit from an extra moment or two of self-reflection. In writing and in life.

As I mentioned, nearly every page of Still Writing speaks to me, so it is tough to choose which passages to share. I hope they’ll convince you to give the whole book a chance.

You don’t need to know where you’re going

On starting without quite knowing what to write: “I always think I should know more. That I need more information. That I should outline, perhaps. Or do some research. But really, I need to remind myself that this not-knowing is at the heart of the creative endeavour.” 

And you can let the writing surprise you: “Paradoxically, the not-knowing is often what creates the energy, portent, and momentum in the piece of work itself. One of the truest pleasures for the writer alone in a room is when our characters surprise us by doing something unexpected.”

On being uncomfortable: “I’ve learned to be wary of those times when I think I know what I’m doing. I’ve discovered that my best work comes from the uncomfortable but fruitful feeling of not having a clue.

Create something from nothing

On the blank page: “We writers spend our days making something out of nothing. There is the blank page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on that page. There is no shape, no blueprint until one emerges from the page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can’t know. And so we need a sense of structure around us.”

On discovering what you want to write about: “But when we stumble upon it, we know. We know because it shimmers. And if you are a writer, you will find that you won’t give up that shimmer for anything. You live for it. Like falling in love, moments that announce themselves as your subject are rare, and there’s a magic to them. Ignore them at your own peril.”

On the first draft: “The imagination has its own coherence. Our first draft will lead us. There’s always time for thinking and shaping and restructuring later, after we’ve allowed something previously hidden to emerge on the page.”

On being a beginner every day: “Wherever we are in our work, we have never been exactly here, today. Today, we need to relearn what it is that we do. We have to remind ourselves to be patient, gentle with our foibles, ruthless with our time, withstanding of our frustrations. We remember what it is that we need …. Whatever it takes to begin again.”

Don’t wait for inspiration

Getting started even when you’re feeling unprepared can be the difference between doing something (however bad) and nothing.

“If I waited to be in the mood to write, I’d barely have a chapbook of material to my name. Who would ever be in the mood to write? Do marathon runners get in the mood to run? Do teachers wake up with the urge to lecture? I don’t know, but I doubt it. My guess is that it’s the very act that is generative. The doing of the thing that makes possible the desire for it. … A writer sits in her writing space, setting aside the time to be alone with her work. Is she inspired doing it? Very possibly not. Is she distracted, bored, lonely, in need of stimulation? Oh, absolutely.”

But where does the motivation to sit down every day come from, especially on the days where it seems useless and pointless? From gratitude. “I try to remember that to sit down and write is a gift. That if I do not seize this day, it will be lost. I think of writers I admire who are no longer living. I’m aware that the simple fact of being here creates a kind of responsibility, even a moral one, to get to work.”

On blessings and catastrophes

The work of the writer is to pay attention and empathize:  

“It’s the job of the writer to say, look at that. To point. To shine a light. But it isn’t that which is already bright and beckoning that needs our attention. We develop our sensitivity — to use John Berger’s phrase, our ‘ways of seeing’ — in order to bear witness to what is. Our tender hopes and dreams, our joy, frailty, grief, fear, longing, desire — every human being is a landscape. The empathic imagination glimpses the woman working the cash register at a convenience store, the man coming out of the bathroom at the truck stop, the mother chasing her toddler up and down the aisle of the airplane, and knows what it sees. Look at that. This human catastrophe, this accumulation of ordinary blessings, of unbearable losses.”

But how do you know if you’re doing it right? “Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us? Are we climbing on the shoulders of those who paved the way for us? Are we using every last bit of ourselves, living these lives of ours, spending it, spending it all, every single day?

Pain leads to the story

As a memoirist, Shapiro writes about the suffering and tragedies of her life. She quotes Anne Sexton: “pain engraves a deeper memory” and adds: “Pain carves details into us, yes. I would wager, though, that great joy does as well. Strong emotion, Virginia Woolf said, must leave its trace. Start writing, grow still and quiet, press toward that strong emotion and you will discover it anew. … These traces that live within us often lead us to our stories.”

Writing demands that we move toward that pain, again and again: “To write is to have an ongoing dialogue with your own pain. To scream to it, with it, from it. To know it — to know it cold. … To be alone in a room with yourself and the contents of your mind is, in effect, to go to that place, whether you intend to or not.”

The writer goes voluntarily to that place to seek the truth. Why? “Not because I’m a masochist. Not because I live in the past. But because my words are my pickax, and with them I chip away at the rough surface of whatever it is I still need to know.

Creating a world and staying inside it

On the seclusion of writing: “One of the strangest aspects of a writing life is what I think of as going in and out of the cave. When we are in the middle of a piece of work, the cave is the only place we belong.”

The difficulty is sustaining the world you create and maintaining the seclusion needed to do so:

“A writer in the midst of a story needs to find a way to keep her head there. She can’t just pop out of the cave, have some fun, go dancing, and then pop back in. The work demands our full attention, our deepest concentration, our best selves. If we’re in the middle — in the boat we’re building — we cannot let ourselves be distracted by the bright and shiny. The bright and shiny is a mirage, an illusion. It is of no use to us.”

On the optimal state of flow as a writer: “To forget oneself — to lose oneself in the music, in the moment — that kind of absorption seems to be at the heart of every creative endeavor. It can be the deepest pleasure, though it doesn’t always feel like pleasure. Not exactly.”

She goes on to describe Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s definition of flow or “optimal experience”. Then: “We don’t always get to feel unadulterated joy when we are in the midst of an optimal experience. Think of it as joy deferred. The work itself can be challenging to the point of physical and psychic pain.” She quotes Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Feeling pleasure isn’t the point of writing. It’s tough but satisfying, better than pleasure.

The seed of something new

One of my favourite parts of Still Writing is where Shapiro describes staying with friends after a winter storm takes out the electricity in her home. She finds a spot in the home to write, away from everyone else, a room of her own. Although the point of the anecdote was the importance of a good writing space, it was a hint that opened up a larger story in my mind as I read. It was a seed that grew in my imagination. Or perhaps it was the water that sprouted the seed. 

That is my favourite kind of writing, the kind that somehow contains something that combines with my mind in a sort of chemical reaction and sends me spinning off into my own world. It’s one of the reasons I read so much, what I’m always hoping for. The world of the book itself can be immersive, but what really makes a book extraordinary is when it allows me to create a new world of my very own. And in a book about writing, that feels like magic.

Drawing Boxes Around Words: Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

Draft No. 4 - John McPheeJohn McPhee has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since the 1960s. His work has been collected in dozens of books. Draft No. 4 is a collection of his essays on the craft of writing.

I’ve never read any of his other work, and although I hear good things about it, I don’t have plans to read any of his other writing. So the fact that I finished Draft No. 4 is a testament to my love of books about writing.

I read Draft No. 4 in two chunks. After the first chapter and a half, I stalled due to boredom with the in-depth examples McPhee gives from his own work on subjects that didn’t interest me. I stalled for so long that my library copy expired, so I had to wait for it to become available again. I did, to my own surprise, want to finish it. When it renewed, though, I again delayed picking it up until it was again nearly due. So I finished the remainder in a few days.

I rarely read books that way, but then I usually abandon books that bore me partway through the second chapter. The book is worth sticking with to the end, though, if you have patience or make no bones about skimming the boring bits.

John McPhee’s genre is creative nonfiction, which is to say he finds an idea that interests him, goes out into the world and spends time with people to research that idea, and then comes home with lots of notes and puts together a long article about it. This is the kind of writing he focuses on in Draft No. 4. It’s not the kind of writing I do. 

There is a lot of value in this book for writers of nonfiction, especially regarding structure and the process of creating a piece of writing out of piles and piles of notes. Selfishly, however, I’m going to share the parts that were relevant to me. 

Getting started

On first drafts: “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? … At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out.”

From a letter to his daughter when she had difficulty getting started on a writing assignment:

“For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.”

Priming the pump

On writing by hand: “Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand. Keep a legal pad, or something like one, and when you are struck at any time — blocked to paralysis by an inability to set one word upon another — get away from the computer, lie down somewhere with pencil and pad, and think it over.”

On getting past writer’s block:

“What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

The insecure writer

On lacking confidence even after selling several pieces to The New Yorker: “You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.”

On insecurity: “Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help.”

Competing with yourself

On the writer’s development: “No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.”

On letting the reader do some of the work:

“The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader.”

The fourth draft

“After reading the second draft aloud,” McPhee writes, “and going through the piece for the third time (removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading), I enclose words and phrases in pencilled boxes for Draft No. 4. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them.”

Which reminds me of a practice Annie Dillard taught in her creative writing classes, as described by Alexander Chee, with the focus on verbs:

“We counted the verbs on the page, circled them, tallied the count for each page to the side and averaged them. Can you increase the average number of verbs per page, she asked. … Have you used the right verbs? Is that the precise verb for that precise thing? Remember that adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader.”

John McPhee goes beyond the verb in a process that, were I to follow it, would probably never end:

“You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one.” 

Dictionary, not thesaurus

We’ll finish with his excellent advice about using a dictionary instead of a thesaurus for draft no. 4. Searching for a synonym tends to result in complicated and uncommon words, whereas a dictionary, by giving the word’s meaning, will steer you in the direction of a stronger and more precise word. Better still, use a paper dictionary.

“Thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste,” McPhee writes. “Your destination is the dictionary.”

Additional reading

Wishing I Were John McPhee at Lithub. John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction No. 3 at the Paris Review. Who Can Afford to Write Like John McPhee? The Mind of John McPhee.