Writers and Words: Creating a Universe with Words

Writers in conversation and interviews with writers are among my favourite things to read on the internet, whether I’ve read their work or not. I’ve been sharing them in my monthly newsletter for the last several months, but there just isn’t enough room for all of them, so I’m sharing some of them here on the the blog.

Nicole Chung guest-edited Two Bossy Dames with Elena Yip and wrote about her memoir All You Can Ever Know:

“As harsh as I can be about my own stuff, I know writing can be worked on. I know it can be improved. I see it every day, as it’s my job to try to help other writers with it — to believe in the potential of a story and believe the necessary words do exist. So when I was most anxious about or frustrated with this book, I would try to remind myself to trust that process.”

Meg Wolitzer and Andre Dubus III exchange emails about the writing process (all the quotes are ADIII’s but the whole thing is worth a read):

“I am constantly in awe that if we just show up to the desk in an open and receptive state, with faith that something will come, something always does. How do I start a book? Slowly, even with that ‘wired excitement and fear’. I’ve noticed that it tends to go better for me, creatively/artistically speaking, if I know very little before I begin.”

“I write like this until I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, trying to find the causality that makes story itself. This can take me three to five years, working five to six days a week. After all that, is when I begin to fully commit myself to the final structure of the book, which means I start cutting sometimes hundreds of pages, and rearranging the sequence of scenes (plotting, as you know), until I finally end up with what feels like the leanest and truest shape of the story. If I do this structuring too early in the composition process, though, I find that I’m prematurely anticipating someone reading all of this, which keeps me from fully surrendering to the story itself, which I know will lead me down paths and whole passages and characters I will ultimately end up cutting.”

“Because this entire act of creating a universe with words, it seems to me, is not about the writer at all, or even — in the first stages of the novel’s creation anyway — the reader; it’s about unearthing and setting into flight these nearly sacred beings called characters, no matter how flawed or reprehensible many of them may be. Blaise Pascal writes: ‘Anything written to please the author is worthless.’ Such a harsh line, but true, I believe. This is not to say that we writers cannot take pleasure in the daily act of writing; I certainly do, and I know you do, too. But it truly does seem to me that if a life of writing creatively is nothing else, it is a sustained act of practiced empathy, where we keep stepping into the question: ‘What’s it like to be you?’”

Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Powers in conversation at a farmhouse in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia where BK lives:

BK: “As novelists we’re looking for the universal that makes a reader understand that a human person is a human person regardless of where and when and how.”

RP: “Very few people writing now are as absolutely, viscerally persuasive at the level of the scene and the character and the transactional vignettes while still in the service of grand architecture and a thematic preoccupation that manifests itself in all kinds of ingenious ways across the journey.”

BK: “That’s one of the many things I love about revision: Any weak parts, if their motivations aren’t clear you can back up all the way to the beginning, and you can begin building up motivation right from the start. And you get to connect things across time, across place. I would so much rather revise. I wish I could just pay someone to write my first draft, and then I would just revise.”

Alice Adams asks, Why does anyone write?

“Writing a novel is a painful and bloody process that takes up all your free time, haunts you in the darkest hours of night and generally culminates in a lot of weeping over an ever-growing pile of rejection letters.”

Ursula Le Guin on labels:

“Where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

See also: Labels be damned.

The novel and short story in dialogue.

Authors on the stories behind their novels. 

A bonus for anyone needing more books for their to-read list: One month reading feminist classics, and a thread of the best overlooked books of the last ten years.

I Don’t Want to Know Why I Write: Orwell and Deborah Levy

Last month I read Deborah Levy’s short literary memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing, which uses George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” as a point of departure.

Things I Don't Want to Know - Deborah Levy

I read Orwell’s essay years ago in school, like you do. But I rediscovered it recently via an article on Open Culture around the same time as seeing something about Levy’s book in relation to the upcoming follow-up The Cost of Living, the second part of what she calls her “living memoir.” 

Orwell says some very kind things about writers:

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”

The four qualities or motives of a writer, according to Orwell, are sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. In more peaceful times, Orwell says, he may have been the type of writer with only the first three qualities. But the fourth, political purpose, became the motive that he says ultimately brought his writing to life.

“I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

These four motives form the chapter titles in Things I Don’t Want to Know, but Levy doesn’t write much about writing itself. She writes about femininity and motherhood, the utopia a woman creates when she makes a home for husband and children. At a time in her life when she finds herself unhappy and crying on escalators, she takes a solo trip to a hotel in Majorca. Maria, the woman who runs the hotel and runs away while Levy is visiting, attracts her scrutiny. While there, she recalls a time in her childhood in apartheid South Africa with the women in her life during her father’s imprisonment. 

Levy connects these pieces of memoir to say something about what the world holds for women, in particular for women who write. For women who deserve more than what they have, who are looking for more and better in their lives, searching for the life they have a right to have. These connections form an idea of why she writes and what qualities and experiences have made her a writer.

“We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics, from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off. The way we laugh. At our own desires. The way we mock ourselves. Before anyone else can. The way we are wired to kill. Ourselves. It doesn’t bear thinking about.”

There is a violence in facing what is really going on in a life, and this is what drives Levy in her writing. She considers her novel Swimming Home: “I realized that the question I had asked myself while writing this book was (as surgeons say) very close to the bone: ‘What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we don’t want to know?’”

I haven’t read Swimming Home, but it seems like the source of writing here is not quite addressed by Orwell’s four motives. They aren’t enough to explain that sense of, as a woman, writing in order to face what would otherwise be impossible to bear. What do you call the quality that works to make real the parts of life we would otherwise try to ignore? This is perhaps beyond history and aesthetics and politics and egoism, at least in the way Orwell means. Her questions continue:

“Should I accept my lot? If I was to buy a ticket and travel all the way to acceptance, if I was to greet it and shake its hand, if I was to entwine my fingers with acceptance and walk hand in hand with acceptance every day, what would that feel like? After a while I realized I could not accept my question. A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.”

Those last words quote Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “She will write in a rage when she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot.”

Sheer egoism, historical impulse, aesthetic enthusiasm, and political purpose are perhaps the central factors that motivate a writer. But Levy explores how, for a women writer, it might be more complicated than Orwell suggests.

You can read an excerpt from and a review of The Cost of Living, an interview with Deborah Levy and an essay on her writing day, which I quoted previously here and in which she gives a quote from E. M. Forster as her writing mantra: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

Be Awkward, Quick, Insolent: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

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If You Want to Write - Brenda Ueland

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, written in 1938, is a precursor generally to the various books on the writing craft which I love so much and more specifically to The Artist’s Way (which I wrote about here). The three central messages of the two books are the same. Anyone can be an artist. Everyone has heaps of creativity inside them and probably need help to get access to it. And the only way to make real art is to find your true self, be kind to it, and tell the truth.

Unless you’re prepared for a fully loaded dose of affirmation, inspiration, optimistic encouragement, earnestness, and repetition, proceed with caution! If that doesn’t scare you, watch out for the old-fashioned conversational tone and slightly odd punctuation and grammar. Writers of the present century, aspiring or otherwise, are more likely to enjoy contemporary books on the writing craft.

Even aside from all of that, it might have been a bit much for me to read If You Want to Write so soon after finishing The Artist’s Way. Like Julia Cameron’s book, If You Want to Write is more about discovering that you can write, even if you think you can’t or aren’t good. The focus is on working toward becoming what you might call good, whatever that may be for you. It’s not about crafting beautiful sentences or a compelling plot or engaging characters. It’s about finding the thing inside of you that you want to write and getting it out on the page in an honest and truthful way. Reading two similar books about this so close together has pushed me to a saturation point.

But that’s not to say there aren’t some nuggets of insight to be found. Here are some of my favourite parts.

Being careless

Before Julia Cameron came along, Brenda Ueland had her own version of the morning pages:

“Write every day, or as often as you possibly can, as fast and carelessly as you possibly can, without reading it again, anything you happened to have though, seen or felt the day before. In six months look at it. A drawer full of paper will have accumulated. You will see that what you have written with the most slovenly freedom — in those parts there will be vitality, brilliance, beauty. By being careless, by taking it off on paper as fast as you can, you will not write what is dutiful and boring to you. You will not lumberingly over-explain, as they all do in political speeches and articles on economics. You will go straight to the point— be awkward, quick, insolent. Oh, this over-explaining! It is the secret of all boredom.”

I also like this advice about writing as though you will throw away what you create: “I don’t think we trust our imaginations enough, use them rightly. Self-trust is so important. When you launch on a story, make your neck loose, feel free, good-natured. And be lazy. Feel that you are going to throw it away. Try writing utterly unplanned stories and see what comes out.”

All should work

“Everybody in the world has the same conviction of inner importance, fire, or the god within,” she writes.

“The tragedy is that either they stifle their fire by not believing in it and using it; or they try to prove to the world and themselves that they have it, not inwardly and greatly, but externally and egotistically, by some second-rate thing like money or power or more publicity. Therefore all should work. First because it is impossible that you have no creative gift. Second: the only way to make it live and increase is to use it. Third: you cannot be sure that it is not a great gift.” 

Personality and the true self

A lot of what Ueland has to say about writing is about finding your true self and writing from there, not putting on a character or trying to be someone you’re not. But how, she asks, “to single out your true self, when we are all so many selves?” Her answer:

“The only way to find yourself is by recklessness and freedom. If you feel like a murderer for the time being, write like one. In fact, when you are in a fury it is a wonderful time to write. It will be brilliant — provided you write about what you are furious at, and not some dutiful literary bilge.

Gradually by writing you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize. But only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.” 

Learning about yourself is what gives your writing that coveted personality:

“The personality behind the writing is so important. This is what I call the Third Dimension. On the paper there are all the neatly written words and sentences. It may be completely objects, with ‘I’ not written there once. But behind the words and sentences, there is this deep, important, moving thing — the personality of the writer. And whatever that personality is, it will shine through the writing and make it noble or great, or touching or cold … or supercilious or whatever the writer is.”

Planning before writing

A friend asks Ueland if she has planned the book and made an outline. She vehemently answers in the negative. “For when you begin to plan such a huge edifice of words,” she writes, “your heart fails you. It is too hard, it will never get done, it is too complex and frightful. No, write what comes to you now. More will come later. The river will begin to flow through you.”

I’m not sure this is useful advice for all writers. Sometimes it helps to know the big picture before you begin to write each chapter. Many writers are very capable of dealing with an ambitious work. There’s no need to tell them that it should seem difficult if they don’t actually feel that way.

It’s obvious from this book that Ueland followed this advice while writing it. Each chapter is a thing by itself, without much sense of a cohesive whole, and there is a lot of repetition and even some contradiction. It’s still readable, but a little haphazard. If You Want to Write itself isn’t a strong argument for not planning before you start writing.

“No, I wouldn’t think of planning the book before I write it. You write, and plan it afterwards. You write it first because every word must come out with freedom, and with meaning because you think it is so and want to tell it. If this is done the book will be alive.” 

This advice is useful for starting with an exploratory first draft. But it’s not going to help people who already have an idea of what their book is about but need to do the work to figure out how to put it together. Planning is helpful for avoiding that scramble in the dark every time you sit down to write.

But it’s equally true that if you don’t know what you’re writing and how you’re going to start, outlining and planning isn’t really going to get you anywhere. Sometimes you just have to stop making excuses, stop living inside the hazy world of your grand ideas, stop pretending that one day the story is going to write itself. Sometimes you just need to get down to the work.

The way to make it better

Although so much of the book is about finding your inner artist and facing the fear that you can’t write, If You Want to Write also has some excellent concrete advice about writing.

How to get better: “Don’t be afraid of writing bad, mawkish stories for that will show you many things about yourself, and your eye and taste and what you really feel and care about will become clearer to you. If you write a bad story, the way to make it better is to write three more. Then look at the first one. You will have grown in understanding, in honesty. You will know what to do to it. And to yourself.”

How to revise a story: “When you have written a story and it has come back a few times and you sit there trying to write it over again and make it more impressive, do not try to think of better words, more gripping words. Try to see the people better. It is not yet deeply enough imagined. See them — just what they did and how they looked and felt. Then write it. If you can at last see it clearly the writing is easy.”

How to be interesting: “The secret of being interesting is to move along as fast as the mind of the reader (or listener) can take it in. Both must march along in the same tempo. That is why it is good to read your writing aloud to yourself. As soon as your voice drags, cross that part out.”

Related

There is another book about writing with a lot of similarities to If You Want to Write that came out just a few years before, in 1934: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (available as a PDF), which I first heard about via Writing about Writing. Here’s a preview:

“There is a sort of writer’s magic. There is a procedure which many an author has come upon by happy accident or has worked out for himself which can, in part, be taught. To be ready to learn it you will have to go by a rather roundabout way, first considering the main difficulties which you will meet, then embarking on simple, but stringently self-enforced exercises to overcome those difficulties. Last of all you must have faith, or the curiosity, to take one odd piece of advice which will be unlike any of the exhortations that have come your way in classrooms or in textbooks.”

If You Want to Write, Here’s the Book for You at Literary Hub.
Brenda Ueland at Wikipedia.
Buy the book directly from Graywolf Press.

How Writing Has Been Going Lately

I wrote the first drafts of two novels last year. I wrote them quickly — the first in three and a half months at around 800 words a day, and the second in less than two months at about 950 words a day. I started the draft of a third novel in early December. I expected it to come out as quickly as the other two, but so far it hasn’t. 

Writing lately

Writing lately has been slow. I try to work on it every day, and sometimes I fail. My average pace is somewhere around 200 words a day, and I’m nowhere close to the end of the story. There are many days where I’ve written nothing at all and other days where 300 words feels like a feat of incredible strength. It’s been months since I’ve written several hundred or a thousand words in one session.

That sounds like a lot, but on a day like that, the majority of the words are terrible. The volume is important, though. The point is getting inside the writing, moving forward, thinking of new ideas while in the thick of it, not from the outside. In the middle of a thought about something else finding insight into what is really going on in a scene. There need to be a lot of words because it’s often only at the end of a long stretch of sentences that something good or useful emerges.

Most mornings I type up a few sentences and call it progress. I feel lucky if I manage more than one paragraph. Sometimes that tiny beginning turns into something bigger and I get a few hundred words down in a morning, but most of the time it’s just words that reiterate something I’ve already written, that add a silly thought on top of another silly thought, that carry on a conversation with nothing in it. I don’t feel like it counts as progress.

Shifting form

Part of my problem with writing lately is that the story doesn’t even feel like a novel anymore. Somewhere along the way, the part I’m working on turned into a short story. Part of me wants to continue the novel, while another part wants to cut out this piece and work it into a thing that stands on its own. 

I’m meandering on the outskirts of the story, looking backward at what I’ve already written, wishing I could make something of that, rather than continuing to move ahead. But having begun a novel that shows signs of going somewhere, I am compelled to continue it. Yet having a vision in my head of a short story, I am compelled to consider what it would mean to have a short story finished, done, without having to commit to an entire novel yet again.

A novel is fundamentally different from a short story. I can’t hold them both in my head at once. I’m finding it impossible to have it both ways. So I creep cautiously along, barely making any headway. And I keep thinking: what if it were a short story, something I could submit somewhere for publication on its own?

Writing lately

One step at a time

It feels so important, the piece of fiction you choose to be the first thing you send out into the world with your name attached to it. So I’m trying not to think about it. There are no limits to the kind of writer I can imagine myself being. I have not chosen a voice, a genre, a geography, a set of themes, a primary concern. Those choices shouldn’t be important. I feel nearly as likely to publish a contemporary romance novel as a book of prose poetry or an obscure literary novel or a self-help book. And with thinking about what I want to try to get published first, I feel like I have to choose. It’s a decision I don’t want to make. Is that why I’ve been slowing down?

After all the first drafts I’ve been writing lately, I really just want to finish something that I can put in front of other people. I don’t know what will happen after that, but that’s the first step. I have a sentence-generating itch in my fingers that won’t go away, not even on those zero-sentence mornings. The inevitable feelings of inadequacy and frustration and fear should make me want to quit. Instead they’re the motivators for continuing to work at it until I make something that I can maybe, if I squint and tilt my head and not think too hard, be proud of.

The Artist’s Way in Daily Doses

I’m reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I started and abandoned it years ago after reading just the first section on Morning Pages, which is a daily practice of writing three longhand pages first thing in the morning. The point is basically to dump the contents of your brain on paper. They are a fundamental part of the creative journey that is The Artist’s Way. At the time, however, that first chapter was enough for me.

It took me a while to start, but now I’ve been doing Morning Pages for nearly two years, although I only do one page, not three. It’s a shame I didn’t stick with the book long enough back then to read about the other key practice: the weekly Artist Date (time alone to do something you enjoy, just for you, like visiting an art gallery, exploring an antique shop, or going to a concert). So many hours of quality time with my inner creative, forever lost!

The book is written as a 12-week course, with exercises and tasks every week, but I’m not using the book that way. (Not unlike how I love reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but I’ve never actually tidied up in the way Marie Kondo prescribes.) The Artist’s Way is full of valuable ideas, insights, resources, quotations, and a not unhefty dose of spirituality. It’s a solid read in the genre of creativity and writing manuals even if you’re not interested in a course of “creative recovery” modelled on recovery from addiction.

The Artist's Way Every Day by Julia CameronWhat convinced me to pick up the book again was The Artist’s Way Every Day, which I borrowed at random from the library. I was looking for something else, noticed it, and thought I would give it a try. After enjoying A Year with Thomas Merton earlier in the year, I was up for another day-at-a-time kind of book.

But I’m not good at reading books a day at a time. You start this kind of book thinking you’ll read the day’s entry in bed at the end of the day as a tonic before falling immediately and blissfully to sleep, but it rarely turns out like that. Instead I binge several days’ worth at once and feel a little ill afterward.

When I manage to avoid such self-destructive behaviour, I use my lunch break to consume a handful of page-a-day snippets at a time. I can only read so many pages while waiting for food and/or eating it within my half hour break, so I often reach my capacity for page-a-day wisdom at just the moment I finish eating, which works out well for all involved.

Here are some of the passages that convinced me to give The Artist’s Way another chance. Just a taste, mind you, not enough to make you feel ill (I hope).

Obsessions with time and perfection

On accepting that you will spend a lot of time writing badly:

“We all have time to write. We have time to write the minute we are willing to write badly, to chase a dead end, to scribble a few words, to write for the hell of it instead of for the perfect and polished result. The obsession with time is really an obsession with perfection. We want enough time to write perfectly. We want to write with a net under ourselves, a net that says we are not foolish spending our time doing something that might not pay off.”

On making use of whatever time you have to write:

“One of the biggest myths around writing is that in order to do it we must have great swathes of uninterrupted time. Speaking for myself, I have never had such silken bolts of time. The myth that we must have ‘time’ — more time — in order to create is a myth that keeps us from using the time we do have. If we are forever yearning for ‘more,’ we are forever discounting what is offered.”

On avoiding perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop — an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity. ‘Do not fear mistakes,’ Miles Davis told us. ‘There are none.’”

Working always

On not waiting for inspiration (this is something that comes up again and again and again):

“We often make the mistake of thinking that we ‘have’ to be the ‘right’ mood to write. The truth is, any mood can be used for writing. Any mood is a good writing mood. The trick is to simply enter whatever mood like a room and sit down and write from there.”

On the importance of consistency as the one thing we can control:

“As artists, we wish we could always work well, but we must settle for working always. The ‘always’ we can control. The ‘well’ we cannot control. For this reason, we do well to simply serve, to focus more on the process of doing our work than on the ‘product’ of work produced.”

On having compassion for our imperfections:

“Who says (besides our Inner Perfectionist, who is always doing sit-ups) that we have to feel calm and centered to write out a piece of music? Maybe we can feel and be a wreck and do it anyway. Maybe we can do it and do it wrong and fix it later. Maybe we do not have to be or perform perfectly. Maybe we are allowed to have a learning curve. Maybe part of what we need to learn is a little compassion.”

The bit about sit-ups was a rare moment when Julia Cameron made me laugh. Personally, my Inner Perfectionist does squats and lunges!

Honesty and attention

On the importance of telling the truth:

“Writing is about honesty. It is almost impossible to be honest and boring at the same time. Being honest may be many other things — risky, scary, difficult, frightening, embarrassing, and hard to do — but it is not boring. Whenever I am stuck in a piece of writing, I ask myself, ‘Am I failing to tell the truth? Is there something I am afraid to say?’ Telling the truth on the page, like telling the truth in a relationship, always takes you deeper.”

But telling the truth is hard:

“As artists, we are perpetually seeking to penetrate the veil of cultural prescriptions and arrive at personal truth. In order to do this, we need to be brave enough with — and open enough to — our own internal territory that our art can express it. In other words, we must be able to face down shame and choose self-disclosure. This takes courage.”

It takes hard work and attention:

“It takes an effort to be clear about things. It is easier and much sadder to be muddy, to never take the time to clarify our thoughts and connect our own perceptions. The act of paying attention is what brings us peace.”

The artist and her trainer

I love this idea of a writer having to be both artist and trainer:

“In order to succeed as an artist we must have two well-developed functions: our artist and its trainer. The trainer is steady and adult. It keeps its eye on the course and the long run. It coaxes, wheedles, begs, cajoles, and occasionally disciplines our artist which, childlike, proceeds in spurts and sometimes not at all. The trick is setting the jumps low enough that our artist can be lured into action. If I am writing nonfiction, I set my goal at a modest three pages. Almost anyone can write three pages of something and my artists knows that. If we set our jumps low enough, our artist can be lured into cooperation.”

This applies to many things in life, not just creating (like, oh, eating well, exercising, saving money, getting out of bed). You need to allow for two very different sides of yourself to exist simultaneously. You need more than one way to talk to yourself and think about the work you have done or need to do.

Forward motion

The important thing is to keep moving forward, keep working at it:

“Writing is the act of motion. Writing is the commitment to move forward, not to stew in our own juices, to become whatever it is that we are becoming. Writing is both the boat and the wind in the sails. Even on the days when the winds of inspiration seem slight, there is some forward motion, some progress made.”

Further reading

Similar themes about writing in Still Writing by Dani Shapiro. “The Artist’s Way in an Age of Self-Promotion” in The New Yorker. Changing your life and overcoming writer’s block with The Artist’s Way. Letters from an artist working through the program. Brain Pickings has a post about it and the Books of Titans podcast has an episode about it. Julia Cameron herself has a website with about a million related works in book and video format.