Category Archives: the writing process

The power of what we forbid ourselves from telling

Often that which we are unable to tell ourselves coincides with that which we do not want to tell, and if a book offers us a portrait of those things, we feel annoyed, or resentful, because they are things we all know, but reading about them disturbs us. However, the opposite also happens. We are thrilled when fragments of reality become utterable.

Elena Ferrante (from here) 

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The most difficult things to tell

The writer  pushes ‘the protagonist much farther than I thought I myself, writing, could bear.

Leda says:” The most difficult things to tell are those which we ourselves can’t understand.”

It’s the motto — can I call it that?— which is at the root of all my books.

Writing should always take the most difficult path. The narrating “I” in my stories is never a voice giving a monologue; she is writing — that is, struggling to organize in a text what she knows but doesn’t have clear in her mind.’

Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia: A  Writer’s Journey, p 257

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The ennoblement of shame

[The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre] interpreted Genet above all as a writer, who took control of the contingencies of his life by writing about them. But where did Genet get this ability to transform the events of his life into art, asked Sartre? Was there a definite moment when Genet, a despised and abused child abandoned by his unmarried mother and taken in by an orphanage, began to turn into a poet?

Sartre found the moment he was looking for in an incident that occurred when Genet was ten years old and living with a foster family. Such a child was expected to be humble and grateful, but Genet refused to comply, and showed his rebellion by stealing small objects from the family and their neighbours. One day, he was sticking his hands in a drawer when a family member walked in on him and shouted, ‘You’re a thief!’ As Sartre interpreted it, the young Genet was frozen in the gaze of the Other: he became an object slapped with a despicable label. Instead of feeling abashed, Genet took that label and changed its meaning by asserting it as his own. You call me a thief? Very well, I’ll be a thief.

. . . . he owned his outsider identity as thief, vagrant, homosexual and prostitute. He took control of his oppression by inverting it, and his books take their energy from that inversion . .

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, p 219

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A philosopher speaks

[Simone de] Beauvoir sees every element of women’s situation as conspiring to box them in to mediocrity, not because they are innately inferior, but because they learn to become inward-looking, passive, self-doubting and overeager to please. Beauvoir finds most female writers disappointing because they do not seize hold of the human condition; they do not take it up as their own. They find it difficult to feel responsible for the universe. How can a woman ever announce, as Sartre does in Being and Nothingness, ‘I carry the weight of the world by myself ’?

Sarah Bakewell: At the Existentialist Café

(from here) 

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Writing the truth of a life

The American poet Edward Hirsch wrote a poem about his only son who died of a seizure after taking drugs at a party. He was twenty-one. Hirsch is asked what his son would make of the poem about him.

“You can’t answer what your son would make of a poem about him because your son is not there . . . A lot of my friends have been reassuring about this in that they say Gabriel’s personality comes through. Gabriel was not a shrinking violet, he imposed himself on a room. He wanted people to know him.

I am also aware that there are things he didn’t like to talk about and wouldn’t have wanted known, but which are also part of his story. If you tell his story without talking about his disabilities, which he was embarrassed about, you wouldn’t be telling his story. He had all these tics, for example, which he didn’t like to acknowledge; but he had turned all those things quite triumphantly into a working person. It is me telling the story of Gabriel as a father. You go ahead because it is what you think is accurate.”

Tim Adams interview with Edward Hirsch, “Many of us carry the dead around with us. We shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.’ 14 Sept 2014, The Guardian

(from here) 

 

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Giving up control

My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.

In this book, [Lincoln in the Bardo]  the only thing I knew at the beginning was that Lincoln had to come and hold Willie’s body and then he had to stop doing that. And that it had to happen in one night. Then the whole thing became more about orchestrating the motion through the graveyard, and the motion through the graveyard would tell me who could talk and who you encountered. Something like that. (from here)  George Saunders interviewed by Kate Harloe in The Rumpus Interview , Feb 20, 2017

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The artist’s responsibility

Interview with George Saunders

What is the intersection between your duty as a citizen and as a novelist?

As an artist, you have to have no responsibilities. Art has to radically have the right to be useless, and that way it discovers its true use. I don’t do a lot of thinking about these different roles. It’s just trusting that whatever you’ve got in your thought cloud is going to find its way in organically.

(from here)

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The journalist’s lawnmower

That spring when life was very hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn’t see where that was to get to, I seemed to cry most on escalators at train stations. Going down them was fine but there was something about standing still and being carried upwards that did it. From apparently nowhere tears poured out of me and by the time I got to the top and felt the wind rushing in, it took all my effort to stop myself from sobbing. It was as if the momentum of the escalator carrying me forwards and upwards was a physical expression of a conversation I was having with myself. Escalators, which in the early days of their invention were known as ” travelling staircases” or “magic stairways”, had mysteriously become danger zones.

I made sure I had lots to read on train journeys. This was the first time in my life I had ever been pleased to read newspaper columns about the things that happened to the journalist’s lawnmower.

Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing

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Truth in literature

Literary truths may have little or nothing to do with historical truth. The Furies and Satan are mythical figures brought to life by the power of their authors imaginations, and the fact that many people once took them for actual human beings has no effect, one way or the other, on how strongly I now credit them when I read the House of Atreus trilogy or Paradise Lost. Shakespeare borrowed his Cleopatra and his Richard 11 from history, but for me they are no more real than his Juliet and his Othello, whom he made up wholesale. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Cervantes’s Sancho Panza never existed or else existed in a thousand quotidian forms, but either way, each of them ahs a strongly marked individuality which transcends that of most individuals I have met. This is not to denigrate life, which must in some way be the source —‑if only a vaporous, indirect source — of all literary authority. It is simply to comment on the extent to which the made-up sometimes trumps the actual in terms of believability.

Wendy Lesser, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, p. 91

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The nature of influence

Well, essayists can go where scholars dare not tread—a key lesson to take from Montaigne—and this essayist finds it impossible to imagine that Shakespeare had not absorbed Montaigne fully, and decisively, right around 1600. It is evident not in the ideas alone but in a delighted placement of opposites in close relation, even more apparent in Shakespeare’s prose than in his verse. Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation of ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting. Hamlet says:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

And the balancing of opposites, the rhythm of assertion and counter-assertion, the sudden questioning turns, all of it seems irresistibly like Florio’s Montaigne, notably in the springy, self-surprised beat:

How often do we pester our spirits with anger or sadness by such shadows and entangle ourselves into fantastical passions which alter both our mind and body? What astonished, flearing, and confused mumps and mows doth this dotage stir up in our visages! What skippings and agitations of members and voice!

It’s not merely in the steady (and modern) use of exclamation points but in the sudden turns and reversals, without the mucilage of extended argument—the turn-on-a-dime movements, the interjections, the tone of a man talking to himself and being startled by what his self says back. The alteration in the inner lives of Shakespeare’s characters around 1600, as evident in “As You Like It” as in “Hamlet,” bears his mark—as in Jaques’s speech on the seven ages of man, which very much resembles Montaigne’s insistence that life-living is role-playing. (“We must play our parts duly, but as the part of a borrowed personage.”)

Indeed, the Frenchman Jaques, even more than Hamlet, and from the same year, is Montaignean man. In this case, a specific relation seems to exist between Montaigne’s great essay “On Cruelty” and the scene in “As You Like It” where Jaques is reported brooding on the death of a deer. Montaigne’s point is that when it comes to cruelty we should subordinate all other “reasoning”—stoic, of degree and dependency—to the essential fact of the stag’s suffering. We can reason our way past another creature’s pain, but, as we do so, such “reason” becomes the indicted evil. Jaques feels the same way. “We are mere usurpers, tyrants, and what’s worse / To fright the animals and kill them up,” he says, while “weeping and commenting upon the sobbing deer.” We are meant to find Jaques’s double occupation of weeping and commenting, feeling and keeping track of his feelings, mildly comic—Shakespeare being always convinced, in his English way, that the French are hypersensitive and overintellectual. But Jaques is not a ridiculous figure. He is conscience speaking through contradiction.

Adam Gopnik, reviewing a new biography of Montaigne.

from here

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