Category Archives: the writing process

The need for stories

We all find in others, as we find in ourselves, certain moments of being unreal, of floating free, of not getting to grips. In some people we find it as a whole affliction, someone detached at the very root of existence. We recognise them in the workplace as people with vast schemes that never come to fruition; in relationships, as those who won’t commit to one life path over another. From the parents’ group to the football club, such people, after a period of assessment, are quietly worked around. It is part of the continuous whole-personality assessments we all make of each other, building models, revising them. The fact that we can be “wrong” about someone is a demonstration of the process.

We build such narratives of character all the time. We build them in art, in high culture and popular, and we can go back and forth between the great and the small. As well as the rule of England, Shakespeare’s Henry VI is obviously about the running of a small theatre company – you can hear Shakespeare’s bitching about how hard it is to bring it all together all the way through. The Office, a bitter plaint at the life wasted by time commodified, is about the failure of democratic socialism, from Harold Wilson to the coming of Thatcher.

People have been doing it about Malcolm Turnbull for months now, making stories that explain him out of the things they know. Turnbull is the wanker from head office, the bloke who sold them a timeshare, the guy who seems to have an agenda, teeth-clenched, bearing all before him.

Guy Rundle, Character actors, The Saturday Paper, November 18-24

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Story :The genesis for a novel

About eight years ago a girl in distress came to my door, a stranger, and asked me for help. Said she needed money – so I gave it to her. Later I found out that it was probably a scam of some sort. A lot of questions followed from this in my mind. Was the girl really desperate? Was I a fool to give her the money? But wouldn’t you have to be really desperate to come up with such a scam? The episode, tiny as it was, stayed with me. It became a fruitful sort of problem – connecting with ideas I’d had for a long time about class and desperation and ethics – and eight years later a whole novel sprang from it.

Zadie Smith Thursday 1 August 2013 The Guardian (from here) 

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Using oneself as a laboratory

 [as a poet] . .  you’re going to write that which most concerns you, which most quickens your mind, and then to turn those subjects over with as resourceful and complex a touch as possible. I am endlessly irritated by the reading of my poems as autobiography. I draw on the materials my life has given me, but what interests me isn’t that they happen to me, what interests me is that they seem, as I look around, paradigmatic. We’re all born mortal. We have to contend with the idea of mortality. We all, at some point, love, with the risks involved, the vulnerabilities involved, the disappointments and great thrills of passion. This is common human experience, so what you use is the self as a laboratory, in which to practice, master, what seem to you central human dilemmas.

Louise Glück in interview with Grace Cavalieri (from here) 

 

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Qualities necessary for a writer

My father wanted to be a writer. But he lacked certain qualities: lacked the adamant need which makes it possible to endure every form of failure: the humiliation of being overlooked, the humiliation of being found moderately interesting, the unanswerable fear of doing work that, in the end, really isn’t more than moderately interesting, the discrepancy, which even the great writers live with (unless, possibly, they attain great age) between the dream and the evidence.

Louise Glück, Education of the Poet

(from here) 

 

 

 

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A story throws a tantrum

Interviewer: What would you say is the most frustrating moment for a writer and how do you overcome it?

George Saunders:  I love this quote from Einstein: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” And I try to think that any frustration I feel when writing is, essentially, the story telling me that my current vision of it is too small. It has higher aspirations for itself and my attempts to control it — my attempts to handle (and limit) it with my conceptual apparatus — is causing the story to throw a small tantrum, until I adjust my vision upwards.

(from here) 

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Invented stories as truth

“There’s this strong belief, almost a dogma, that novels are finished and reality’s outstripped fiction and therefore the only true literary form is the literary memoir, because you can only describe what happened to yourself . . But really, we’re constantly imagining and reimagining who we are. Most of what we choose to recall is selection and invention. I liked the idea of taking some facts from my life and creating a complete invention around them and in that way questioning what a memoir is.

“I wanted to reinforce the necessity and power of invented stories, because what’s happened isn’t that reality’s outstripped fiction. It’s that fiction has outstripped reality. From the claims of climate-change denialists to the £350 million per week that the Brexiteers were going to get back from the EU, to Donald Trump’s claims of the size of his inauguration crowds, none of these things were reality. They were fictions designed to bolster power and deny people the fundamental truth of the world. The fiction you get in novels speaks to that truth. Lies are a pernicious form of fiction, while novels are a liberating form of fiction that we need more than ever. In a way, my book is an argument for the necessity of novels.”

Richard Flanagan on his new novel,

Malcolm Knox The Age 27 Sept 2017 After the Booker: why Richard Flanagan isn’t playing safe

(from here) 

 

 

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The power of a single word

Think how much any individual mind, any brain, is enlarged by what we can know through books and through literature — places, people, ideas that we would never otherwise experience, things much larger than anyone could contain in his or her own person. People crave this. You go way back into antiquity and everybody is memorizing Homer, everybody is memorizing “The Epic of Gilgamesh” — works of literature that build the cultural mind and make it capacious. Most of us are not the creators of those things, but we possess ourselves of them — or they possess us of them. And each successive work of literature expands the possibilities of our language, deepening our expressive capacity. In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people. That is the great potential of any art.

Viewed this way, our language — and especially literature, that special, potent case — has incredible power. I was very struck by something that I came across in my reading of Jonathan Edwards. I recall him quoting a writer who talks about how whatever we say lives on after us, that we continue to exist so long as any word we say exists in a living mind. And that there should be two judgments: one when we die, and one when the full impact of our lives has played itself out. That is, when every word that we’ve said, for good or ill, basically ceases to be active.

We’re not in the habit of thinking of ourselves as people of influence in this way. We don’t think that if we say something cruel and destructive now, it can go down generations in terms of its consequences. But it strikes me that this is true — and the thought makes me experience a certain fear and trembling about our political life at the moment. When we speak, we should ask ourselves: How will this ultimately play out? What will be the moral consequence of the fact that so many people have resorted to such crude, cruel language? We know it won’t be neutral. We know it won’t evaporate. It’ll be in people’s minds for generations.

Coming across this idea as eloquently expressed as it was by this writer really made me stop, and think, and recognize the obvious truth of what he says — as if I’d known it before, but never felt it so sharply as when he articulated it well. I have an experience of recognition, not just in response to others’ ideas, but on the order of a single word. It happens, in my own writing, in those moments when you know there’s a perfect word, even though you have not written it yet. You cast about for it, and over time, some obscure word will come to you — your mind knows it’s there. Often, it’s a word with such an extraordinary precision that you wonder how it survived. You think, This must have come down from early modern English or Anglo-Saxon — how did it come to birth? How did it survive? Who was it that needed this word first and coined it? It’s amazing. You wonder how many people have had any use for it over the last 300 years, but there it is.

Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise.

Marilynne Robinson on Finding the Right Word, The New York Times 22, 2017  (from here) 

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Putting out shoots of green thought

So he would write a poem of life, of all life, of what he did not know but knew . . . Little bits of coloured thought, that he had suddenly, and would look at for a long time, would go into his poem, and urgent telegrams, and the pieces of torn letters that fall out of metal baskets. He would put the windows that he had looked inside. Sleep, of course, that blue eiderdown that divides life from life. His poem was growing. It would have the smell of bread, and the rather grey wisdom of youth, and his grandmother’s kumquats, and girls with yellow plaits exchanging love-talk behind their hands, and the blood thumping like a drum, and red apples, and a little whisp of white cloud that will swell into a horse and trample the whole sky once it gets the wind inside it.

As his poem mounted in him he could not bear it, or rather what was still his impotence. And after a bit, not knowing what else to do but scribble on the already scribbled trees, he went back to the house in which his grandfather had died, taking with him his greatness, which was still a secret.

So that in the end there were the trees. The boy walked through them with is head drooping as he increased in stature. Putting out shoots of green thought. So that, in the end, there was no end.

Patrick White, The last few paragraphs of his novel The Tree of Man

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Reading

Sometimes when you read, it’s like certain sentences strike home and knock you flat. It’s as if they say everything you have tried to say, or tried to do, or everything you are. As a rule, what you are is one simmering, endless longing.

Gunnhild Øyehaugm Knots (from here) 

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The beauty on the other side of damage

[review of a book of poetry ]

The book is wild in both imagery and language, full of fury and incredulity; reading its descriptions of love and bodies is like trying to see flowers through bullet-riddled glass—the beauty on the other side of damage.

The New Yorker September 11, 2017 Hilton Als: Frank Bidart’s Poetry of Saying the Unsaid A collection of poems about the gay body, in childhood and adulthood.

from here

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