Writing

Pico Iyer
The best writing advice
I ever received

picoiyer"The reader wants to travel beside you, looking over your shoulder." It was such matter-of-fact, practical advice, but my wise first book-editor, Charles Elliott at Knopf, had the rare gift of writing with such directness and concreteness that it was hard not to listen to what he said. I'd begun to learn how to become a writer by moving from grad school (where I had only one reader I was keen to impress, myself) to Time magazine, where I tried to absorb certain basic lessons about clarity and communication (the reader wants to learn about what happened last week in Beirut, not Pico Iyer's prose style). Friends and elders offered me plenty of sage counsel about following one's bliss and working with the subconscious and the hazards of the freelance writer's life. It was all sound advice, but something I needed to learn for myself, the hard way, by doing everything wrong. Chuck's advice, by contrast, was as precise, as portable as a doctor's crisp diagnosis and prescription. I sent him the first two chapters of my first book, and he wrote back, "You write, 'Every morning, I would wake up in Tibet and walk to a temple.' If you just changed it to a specific instance, 'One morning I woke up and went to such-and-such a place,' it would come into much sharper focus.'" Twenty-seven years on, his six-sentence typed letter informs every other sentence I write, and reminds me not to drift into poetic vagueness when immediacy and specificity would be so much more welcome to a reader. Becoming a writer, I suspect, involves not even thinking of being a "writer," but simply confiding one's most intimate experiences to the page, in a way that, through training, makes sense to an unmet stranger.

John Banville
On the sentence

johnbanville"When I finish a sentence, after much labor, it's finished. A certain point comes at which you can't do any more work on it because you know it will kill the sentence. The rhythm is set. The meaning is set. Occasionally I will leave behind a sentence that I know is missing a word, and I'll go back to it later. I wrote a sentence like that yesterday. A man is talking about his wife, who's a singer. She has just woken up in the morning, and he says, 'Even half asleep like this, she sounded a true, dark note, a thrilling ". . .I put in 'cadence,' but I know it's not the right word so the sentence is just sitting there, waiting for me to find the right, the exact, the only word

 

Philip Roth, On writing

philiproth"I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then
I turn it around. Then I look at it
and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I'm frantic with boredom and a sense of waste."

George W. Bush
On an essay he wrote
at Andover

georgebush"I remember the first paper I wrote. I thought I was in over my head, so I consulted the Roget's Thesaurus mother had given me, searching for some big, impressive words. I wanted to show off for my Eastern professors. It was a story about emotions, and I was trying to find a unique way to describe 'tears' running down my face. My discussion of 'lacerates' falling from my eyes did catch the teacher's attention, but not in the way I had hoped. The paper came back with a 'zero' marked so emphatically that it left an impression visible all the way through to the back of the blue book. So much for trying to sound smart."

 

Kurt Vonnegut
The Shape of Stories

 

Writer TC Boyle

Stephen King, Fear

stephenking"I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one's own pleasure, that fear may be mild— timidity is the word Iove used here. If, however, one is working under deadline—a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample—that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was in him.[... Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as 'good' and other sorts as 'bad,' is fearful behavior."

 

Eudora Welty, On risk

eudorawelty"No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk— experiment—is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all [writers] are willing to work as hard as they do. The open mind and the receptive heart — which are at last and with fortune's smile the informed mind and the experienced heart— are to be gained anywhere, any time, without necessarily moving an inch from any present address."


Famous writers' draft pages, or the messy business of writing
(clicking an image enlarges it)