On Writing Fiction & Memoirs
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," Samuel Johnson once said. Nevertheless many people, not blockheads, do write for other reasons.
In the late 1930s, my grandmother wrote the beginning of a novel, and a brief memoir of her and her family's life in frontier Wisconsin in 1867. She died before I was born; but when I discovered her manuscripts, I got a sense of who she was and where I came from that nobody else could have given me.
This 1904 photo shows Grandmother Cameron and her family. My father is the little boy between her and Grandfather. Even having the picture does not make her seem as alive as her manuscripts do.
The poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald told those of us in his writing seminar, "The newspapers present life as it happens to nobody." Honest personal writing is the only writing that can give us true history--life as it actually felt to someone.
Honesty–that's a simple word but a big question. Our minds are full of stereotypes; clichés; protective generalizations we use to prevent ourselves from feeling; attitudes we've been told we ought to maintain; worthy tired maxims that we maybe even believe we do believe. The journey to expressing actual experience is always a voyage of discovery.
Writing is Work
Why is it so easy to sit down to watch TV, yet so hard to "sit down to write?" Part of the reason is that writing is really thinking, and thinking is work. (George Bernard Shaw said, "Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.")
Maybe also, we're wrongly convinced of our ordinariness, think we have to be "great minds" and "worthy" to write, and suffer a painful lack of belief in ourselves, for which television serves most people as an anaesthetic.
When I started out writing I felt that some ultimate authority loomed over me. Who was it really? The shadow of my mother? The most intimidating of my professors? In any case, he, she or it stood behind my shoulder, allowing me no privacy, ready to pounce on my words, proclaim them and me--conclusively and for all time--worthless, meaningless.
Something close to what I feared did happen to Franz Kafka as a young teenager. His family was gathered at his grandparents' house on a Sunday afternoon. He was thinking of reading them a page from a story he'd just written:
"I sat at the round table in the familiar room and could not forget that I was young and called to great things out of this present tranquility. An uncle who liked to make fun of people finally took the page that I was holding only weakly, looked at it briefly, handed it back to me without even laughing, and only said to the others who were following him with their eyes, ‘the usual stuff.' To me he said nothing. To be sure I remained seated and bent as before over the now useless page of mine, but with one thrust I had in fact been banished from society, the judgment of my uncle repeated itself in me with what amounted almost to real significance."
How to get around the clichés, the critical voices? For me, fantasy helped. When I began to write The Stories Julian Tells, the sight of a neighborhood New York City school playground utterly intimidated me. I couldn't believe anything I could write could ever reach the little screamers rushing around that asphalt. To overcome my fears, I decided to pretend no books existed–none, for anybody of any age! I was writing the first and only book. The whole world was waiting for it, needed it, couldn't afford to be critical–and had no basis for criticism anyway, since there were no other books. As for me, I felt tender with responsibility, writing the one and only book, trying to put as much of life and truth into it as I could, knowing, for certain, that it and I were needed.
If you have similar problems writing, perhaps you can make yourself some sort of counter-fantasy to your fears–a fantasy perhaps of a faithful, a loving, an understanding reader in whom you can believe long enough for him or her to protect you as you work.
Or you might write as Mark Twain wrote much of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--lying in bed, propped up against pillows. I don't know why he did it, but clearly it would have been a way to squash whoever might have otherwise stood looming behind his shoulders.
I've been a reader all my life and the thoughts and rhythms of thousands of books are probably buried deep in my brain. Also, most important to writing for children, I have vivid, detailed and still emotion-filled memories of my own childhood.
Before writing for children, I didn't peruse any books about "how to write." I didn't read or re-read other authors' children's books either. Other authors, though, find inspiration in doing just that.For me uncovering a good story is like mining for gold. I sense a vein of something precious under the surface of my life or in my surroundings–but usually tons of rubble have to be excavated and pitched aside before I get to the gold. I dig and persevere.
Just as mining is chancy, all fiction is experimental. I write something down-- find that it doesn't seem true, doesn't sound right, that it has no life. So I throw down another line. To change the simile, it's as if I am fishing and feeling for a tug on the line, the tug of aliveness, interestingness. In the area where I've felt the tug, I cast more lines. With luck, maybe I'll catch something big and vital, even get into the water and swim with it, become it and let it speak through me. That's the glory and the joy of writing–merging at last with your subject.
Writing notes about where I want to go can help, but only if I'm willing to alter them or discard them entirely. I planned to write my fourth book, More Stories Julian Tells, about a river trip my heroes Julian and Huey would take with their father. This, I thought, would be easy. I outlined the chapters: Father suggests river trip; An old boat is found and fixed up for the trip; The trip begins; Wonderful day on the water, wonderful night by the campfire; A return home.
When I sat down to fill in this outline, in my favorite writing refuge of the time, a coffee house in Greenwich Village, the whole idea withered before my eyes. It bored me intensely. It was a cold November day. My thoughts wandered to the intermittent boredom of childhood summers. To the heat of those summers. What would the hottest day be? I wondered. A day so hot that frogs wore shoes was what came to me. Then came the questions, who would say that line, and why? I was off into aliveness.
"I'll wait to the next chapter to start into the business about the river trip," I thought. I began chapter two of the book firmly intending to take up the river trip. Once again I couldn't; and luckily, something else came to me spontaneously. In pretty short order the whole book was finished, without my ever getting around to the river trip--or consciously giving it up..
Only later did I understand myself. When I was ten, my father, whom I sometimes hated but mostly adored, told me we'd go on a river trip, just the two of us, canoeing, camping out. That was something I really wanted to do–but the trip never came about, and my father died 15 years later. What I was calling boredom as I studied my outline was the edge of an enormous sadness that I bumped against at age 40 but didn't want to touch–a sadness so great that it precluded my writing any happy story about a river trip.
I think I still have in me a good story about such a trip that's never taken–not a happy story, but one with life and real feeling in it.
The source of a good story is often other than what comes to me in conscious planning. Some have come to me from stories people have told me. I've found that if someone tells me an inspiring story, I may be well on my way. No work, good or bad, has ever come to me from reading books on writing.
I think we all want to write because we feel uniqueness in ourselves and we want to express that uniqueness in such a way that we feel free. So the minute that we read instructions on how to write, and praises of the already published, no matter how great, we are disanimated, we lose our impulse.
There's only one book I would recommend to all writers--Strunk and White's Elements of Style. It helps one to see strong sentences from weak ones. Having read Strunk and White, then turn to your own favorite writers, and experiment with their sentences. Add an adjective or remove one, change the order of some sentences. That will show you something about how power enters writing word by word.
If, after writing your own work, you get stuck, there are some books on writing that might be helpful, or at least consoling. Here's my personal list of the best:
Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (which has lots of valuable insights into all kinds of writing)
Stephen King, On Writing
Danell Jones, The Virginia Woolf Writers' Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing
Barbara Abercrombie, Courage and Craft: Writing your Life into Story
Alan Bennet, The Uncommon Reader, a charming short novel about a woman–the Queen of England--who discovers reading and finds it changes her life.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Want to Write Them. With a bibliography of fiction by outstanding writers and a close reading of passages from many, it's a marvelous introduction to how language can draw us into stories and establish character. However, some of the passages Prose admires leave me cold--they may inform me but I find no feeling in them. The Zen Buddhists have a saying: "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him." Their point is that you don't find your freedom or your enlightenment by imitating someone else; and when you're tempted to do so, you lose your discovery of your own path, your own unique way of being, which finally is the one thing of value that's worth living for. Similarly as a writer, don't bother about the supposed virtues of writers who bore you--and if you meet Shakespeare on the road, kill him!
The briefest of observations from some masters can be bright as a lightning flash. Below are my favorites.
There are many ways to be free. One of them is to transcend reality by imagination, as I try to do.
It is impossible to discourage the real writers - they don't give a damn what you say, they're going to write.
If you don't write your books, nobody else will do it for you. No one else has lived your life.
Don't listen to any advice, that's what I'd say. Write only what you want to write. Please yourself. YOU are the genius, they're not. Especially don't listen to people (such as publishers) who think that you need to write what readers say they want. Readers don't always know what they want. I don't know what I want to read until I go into a bookshop and look around at the books other people have written, and the books I enjoy reading most are books I would never in a million years have thought of myself. So the only thing you need to do is forget about pleasing other people, and aim to please yourself alone. That way, you'll have a chance of writing something that other people WILL want to read, because it'll take them by surprise. It's also much more fun writing to please yourself.
Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.
-- Jorge Luis Borges
One of the problems we have as writers is we don't take ourselves seriously while writing; being serious is setting aside a time and saying if it comes, good; if it doesn't come, good, I'll just sit here.
— Maya Angelou
To be a writer is to sit down at one's desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone — just plain going at it, in pain and delight. To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again, and once more, and over and over.
— John Hersey
Read, read, read. Read everything--trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window.
A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.
— William Faulkner
The writer by nature of his profession is a dreamer and a conscious dreamer. He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love?
— Carson McCullers
You know how sometimes there's just a certain slant of sunlight, the fragrance of a certain flower, and a whole world will open up in your head? You think, "What is that?" That's what I go for, an explanation of the signals that make you feel that way.
I highly recommend notebooks for writers, a small one if one has to be out on a job all day, a larger one if one has the luxury of staying at home. Even three or four words are often worth jotting down if they will evoke a thought, an idea, or a mood. In the barren periods one should browse through the notebooks. Some idea may suddenly start to move. Two ideas may combine, perhaps because they were meant to combine in the first place.
Of course this is quite the wrong thing to do, but here is an idea: select the background first and then the action. If you can summon enough courage to select your background and your incident, you will find you have something really interesting to work out.
By development I mean the process that must take place between the germ of a story and the detailed plotting. And that is a great deal. For me, it can take from six weeks to three years, not three years of constant work, but three years of slow brewing while I am working on other things... The developing of an idea is often not at all logical and there is such an element of play in it, I can't call the process a serious activity, though it may involve spots of hard thinking...
If the writer thinks about his material long enough until it becomes part of his mind and his life, and he goes to bed and wakes up thinking about it–then at last when he starts to work, it will flow as if by itself.
The First Draft
Every writer I know has trouble writing.
I think it's bad to talk about one's present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.
Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.
Planning to write is not writing. Outlining … researching … talking to people about what you're going to write, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.
--E. L. Doctorow
To me, being a writer is like being an athlete. You can't pause to analyze the game while you're in it.
What is an experience? What actually does it feel like? Not, how will I sum it up to myself, or how will I sum it up to the reader, but what is going in my nerve endings? What's going on in this strange, sloshing organ that's encased in my skull? ... The implicit task is always, "What does it feel like to be a human being?"
Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really good.
Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on.
One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily.
--Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Style and Clarity
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
--William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White
If you force yourself to think clearly you will write clearly. It's as simple as that. The hard part isn't the writing; the hard part is the thinking.
"How am I to know," the despairing writer asks, "which the right word is?" The reply must be . . "The wanted word is the one most nearly true." True to what? Your vision and your purpose.
-- Elizabeth Bowen
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.
Words are always getting conventionalized to some secondary meaning. It is one of the works of poetry to take the truants in custody and bring them back to their right senses.
–William Butler Yeats
You understand it at once when I say, "The man sat on the grass." You understand it because it is clear and makes no demands on the attention. On the other hand it is not easily understood if I write, "A tall, narrow-chested, middle-sized man, with a red beard, sat on the green grass, already trampled by pedestrians, sat silently, shyly, and timidly looked about him. That is not immediately grasped by the mind, whereas good writing should be grasped at once–in a second.
– Anton Chekhov
It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object they actually see.
— Flannery O'Connor
Most people won't realize that writing is a craft. You have to take your apprenticeship in it like anything else.
--Katherine Anne Porter
You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence."
...One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.
The illusion of art is to make one believe that great literature is very close to life, but exactly the opposite is true. Life is amorphous, literature is formal.
To write simply is as difficult as to be good.
--W. Somerset Maugham
Pace and Suspense
Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.
Pace in a film is made entirely by keeping the mind of the spectator occupied.
Timing: it's just like designing composition in a painting. There is nothing accidental, there should never be anything accidental about these things.
"The MacGuffin" – my own term for the key element of any suspense story–has obviously got to change. It can no longer be the idea of preventing the foreign agent from stealing the papers.
What is an experience? What does it actually feel like? What is the consistency of that moment in the mind? What is actually occurring? What does it actually feel like? Not, how will I sum it up to myself, or how will I sum it up to the reader, but what is going on in my nerve endings? What's going on in this strange, sloshing organ that's encased in my skull?
These people were born in my head and not out of ocean spray, or preconceived ideas, nor out of "intellectuality," and not by sheer accident. They are the result of observation and the study of life.
I don't write what people say. I write what they ought to have said.
Whoever the character is, how far can I crawl into the mental processes of that character? It's very rare that one says to oneself, "This is what's happening, this is what this moment is. It means blah-blah..." That's just not the experience of being alive, the experience of a moment.
When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.
I have never thought of myself as a good writer. . . . But I'm one of the world's great re-writers.
I don't write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn't work, or what simply is not alive.
-- Susan Sontag
First when I've got my story I like to strip it right down to the bones–just take the essentials and write them down so they only cover about a single sheet of paper. When I have made the picture I like to feel that if a man in the audience is asked what it's about he will describe it just as I did on this one sheet.
Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.
The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.
I wish I were faster and more fluent, that I knew much sooner what I was going for. I wish I were more efficient in every way. I'm just not, and I can't seem to do anything about it. It just takes many months of scrabbling around in swampy territory to figure out what it is that I want. There's always a point at which I think I have a final draft, then I read it and ask myself "Why have I written this?" Then I go back and write it again and that's the final draft.
Every failure teaches something. You should have the feeling every experienced writer has, that there are more ideas where that one came from, more strength where the first strength came from, and that you are inexhaustible as long as you are alive. This requires an optimistic turn of mind to say the least, and if you don't have it by nature, it has to be created artificially. You have to talk yourself into it sometimes.
In fiction, the goal changes as you're working. It's very elastic, and I think your shortcomings and incapacities are your friends in fiction. They teach you both what you can do and what you can't do. If you can't do such-and-such a thing you're trying to do, you find yourself pushed into something you can do which you didn't even recognize as a possibility.
Evaluating Oneself and Being Evaluated
When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn't matter much to me. Only, I don't want to think about names: I can see that if I am asked "a small writer like who?" it would sadden me to think of the names of other small writers. I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be. The important thing is to be convinced that this really is your vocation, your profession, something you will do all your life.
There's a kind of problem between critics and writers. A writer falls in love with an idea and gets carried away. A critic looks at the finished product and ignores the rush of a river that went into the writing, which has nothing to do with the kind of temperate thoughts you have about it. If you can imagine the sheer bloody pleasure of having an idea and taking it! It's one of the great pleasures in my life. My god, an idea!
Had we any criticism, I would know that I provide material to work with–good or bad, it doesn't matter–and that to people devoting themselves to the study of life I am as necessary as a star to an astronomer.
Literary criticism can be no more than a reasoned account of the feeling produced upon the critic by the book he is criticizing. Criticism can never be a science: it is, in the first place, much too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores. The touchstone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else.
–D. H. Lawrence
The Grandest Summing Up
from "The Art of Fiction" (1884) by Henry James
The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting. That general responsibility rests upon it, but it is the only one I can think of. The ways in which it is at liberty to accomplish this result (of interesting us) strike me as innumerable and such as can only suffer from being marked out, or fenced in, by prescription. They are as various as the temperament of man, and they are successful in proportion as they reveal a particular mind, different from others. A novel is in its broadest definition a personal impression of life; that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression. But there will be no intensity at all, and therefore no value, unless there is freedom to feel and say. The tracing of a line to be followed, of a tone to be taken, of a form to be filled out, is a limitation of that freedom and a suppression of the very thing that we are most curious about.
It is equally excellent and inconclusive to say that one must write from experience... What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius-it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.
The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military. Greater miracles have been seen than that, imagination assisting, she should speak the truth about some of these gentlemen. I remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pastor, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience.
Catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life, that is the attempt whose strenuous force keeps Fiction upon her feet. In proportion as in what she offers us we see life without rearrangement do we feel that we are touching the truth; in proportion as we see it with rearrangement do we feel that we are being put off with a substitute, a compromise and convention.
It appears to me that no one can ever have made a seriously artistic attempt without becoming conscious of an immense increase-a kind of revelation-of freedom. One perceives, in that case--by the light of a heavenly ray--that the province of art is all life, all feeling, all observation, all vision. ... it is all experience.