Category Archives: the writing process

To tell the truth, the writer must lie

The dialogue a writer establishes with the reader is one of artifice and deceit. To tell the truth, the writer must lie in a number of clever and convincing ways; the instrument for doing this is language — the unreliable, manipulated and manipulative, officially sacrosanct in that it purports to say what the dictionary says it says, but in practice subjective and circumstantial. The narrative voice is always a fiction behind which the reader assumes (or is asked to assume) a truth. The author, the leading character, appears to the reader out of nowhere, almost but not quite a creature of flesh and blood, made present by his own words, like the Beckettian voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush, saying, “I am what I am.” This is the absolute, godlike, self-defining, circular identity that every writer grants himself in the first person singular. An identity to which the readers are asked to respond: “ If we, often across miles and centuries, can hear the voice saying ‘I’ on the page, then ‘I” must exist and ‘We’ must be forced to believe in it.”

To say “I” is to place before the reader seemingly irrefutable proof of a speaker whose words can tell the truth or lie, but whose presence vouched for by his voice, must not be doubted. To say “I” is to draw a circle in which writer and reader share a common existence within the margins of the page, where reality and unreality rub off each other, where words and what the words name contaminate each other . . .

Alberto Manguel: A Reader on Reading, p132

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Meditation and writing

[When you’re writing]  . .. You’re meditating on your own text that you wrote on Wednesday. You look at it on Thursday and the trick is to get free of whatever you used to think about it and see what it actually is. So in some small secular way, I think that’s a form of meditation — to be open to whatever energy your text is actually presenting as opposed to what you think it’s presenting. It’s a way of being more awake to things.

Getting Out of Our Normal Crap: George Saunders on Writing and Transcendence (from here) 

Steve Paulson interviews George Saunders

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Exploring the hidden

But nature poetry . . . is usually about culture: what it represses, or ignores, or imperils

Dan Chiasson, Night Thoughts: The poetry of Tomas Tranströmer.The New Yorker oct 231 2011

(from here) 

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Interview with poet

Nightsun: How often in writing a poem do you know when it’s going to work, that you’re going to be able to take the poem to some satisfying conclusion?

[Stephen] Dunn: My barometer for myself is that I’m not even in my poem until the first moment I’ve startled myself. Usually if I’m wise that day I throw away everything that precedes that moment. I’m interested in my life, of course, but when I write poetry I’m not interested in my life, per se. I’m interested in using it to talk about concerns of mine, perhaps ones I didn’t even know I had. I usually trust that I might be able to bring the poem to some fruition when I’ve written myself into some locus of concern. I’m certainly always ready to fictionalize what appears to be my life for the sake of exploring my subject matter. And I’m not aversed to creating some obstacles for myself, creating things that the imagination must reach toward in order to accommodate. That’s the illusion of good writing, I think, that something might finally seem effortless, seamless, which may have once had many disparate parts. Essentially I’m talking about how a poem finds its structure and shape. Often a poem is a problem solved.    (from here)

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The incentive for writing

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s assertion (Critic’s Take, April 30) that a writing workshop “can be a hostile place for women and people of color” no doubt has its degree of truth, but I want to say it can also be a place where the ideas of the very same people are treated with careful attention and respect.. . . women and minority writers, even in hostile cultures, have burdens similar to those the rest of us have: to discover what they didn’t know they knew, and to make something memorable out of whatever it is that’s important to them, whether it’s an act of revenge or a walk in the woods.

Stephen Dunn, May 12 2017 Letter to the Editor The New York Times from here

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Private and public

Interviewer to poet

‘You make work in private, but once it goes public, readers make it their own. They define the work—and, by extension, you—in terms of who they are, what they want or believe. ‘

David L. Ulin, interviewing poet Claudia Rankine, The Paris Review The Art of Poetry No. 102

(from here) 

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A universal truth to be reckoned with

[There is] a truth that sits beneath the surface of the twin, universal facts of our beginnings and endings: the unequivocal triad of mother-father-self. Whether that triad is sturdy or broken, bonded by biology, affection or both, it’s one that most of us must reckon with, in some shifting fashion, all of our lives.

Cheryl Strayed on Richard Ford’s Masterly Memoir of His Parents May 1, 2017 The New York Times (from here) 

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Putting real people into memoirs and novels

Germaine Greer to Primo Levi, discussing his book The Periodic Table on his experiences in the concentration camps.

. . .  Would Sandro recognize himself from the account you give of him in The Periodic Table? [Sandro Delmastro is the hero of a section of The Periodic Table. He was the first of the Piedmontese Resistance group to be killed in 1944.]

Primo Levi: No, he wouldn’t recognize himself. He’d have protested. As his nephews in fact did protest. They attacked me violently, for stupid reasons: because I wrote that his father was a capomastro and in fact he was an industrial surveyor. It’s always dangerous, transforming a person into a character. No matter how good the author’s intentions, no matter how much he tries not to distort anything, or tries to improve the character of the person, to make it more noble or more beautiful, the person is always disappointed. Because everyone has an image of himself which is different from the image that other people have of them. It’s as if I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a different face from the usual one. A human being is a ‘unique’, complicated object. When that object is reduced to a page, even by the best writers, it’s reduced to a skeleton. It took Flaubert five hundred pages to describe Emma Bovary. I think if Sandro had lived, and I’d made him read the portrait of himself, he would have burst out laughing. He would have thought it comical that he’d turned into a written page. He was a young man who so loathed all forms of rhetoric that he’d have been afraid to find himself described as a hero, a saint, a warrior. He’d have laughed and said something in dialect, ‘Balls!’ probably.

Now that I’m retired I go to a swimming pool and nearly every Tuesday I meet Sandro’s brother there. We greet each other, talk about the weather but he has always refused to talk to me about Sandro.

Germaine Greer: It is dreadful, isn’t it? A writer’s like a parasite whose excrement lasts longer than the thing it fed on.

Primo Levi: That’s true. But the writer’s not only a parasite, he’s also a creator. In the best cases, the book lasts longer than the man who wrote it and transmits a reality which isn’t the true one.

Germaine Greer: And no matter what he confesses to, the narrator is always invulnerable.

Primo Levi: Because he is in control. The author is omnipotent and can create the reality he wants.

(from here) 

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What is a quote?

“What is a quote? A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice of someone’s orange. You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away.”

Anne Carson, Decreation

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The power of what can’t be spoken

Poets, and maybe most writers, struggle to relay experiences or insights that may be fundamentally unspeakable, beyond the reach of language. . . .  Ben Lerner argues poems are “always a record of failure,” tangible proof of the great chasm between what the human spirit wants to convey and what it is able to. This is also a plausible explanation for the intense reward that comes with quoting poetry, snapping it off into its best bits for a unit that can stand alone or else be embedded like a strut inside one’s own writing.

To pull the most evocative phrases from a piece also creates the illusion that the whole is as seamlessly powerful as that isolated part, a hammer-strike of sustained perfection. As Lerner puts it, “lines of poetry quoted in prose preserve the glimmer of the unreal […] the echo of poetic possibility,” but this phenomenon is not unique to poems. Something similar is at work when friends text each other pictures of paragraphs from a novel, or when a blogger quotes a passage of an essay on tumblr. I keep an ever-expanding document of the lines I’m most struck by in whatever I’m reading at the moment. This tendency of mine is probably the reason I’m still so annoyed with Richard Sikken’s complaint about readers who lift phrases: “I crafted poems — units made out of lines placed in a specific order — and the poems have disappeared. My loveseats have been broken into chairs, into matchsticks.”

Charlotte Shane, Anne Carson’s Splintered Brilliance: On the pleasures of poetry that deliberately defies our comprehension, 

(from here) 

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