Chekhov on what to cut out

“My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.”
Anton Chekhov


Dillard on keeping company with a piece of paper

“It should surprise no one that the life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.  This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood.  A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience. Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper.”
Annie Dillard

Dillard on where to write

“Write about winter in the summer.  Describe Norway as Ibsen did, from a desk in Italy; describe Dublin as James Joyce did, from a desk in Paris.  Willa Cather wrote her prairie novels in New York City; Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in Hartford, Connecticut.  Recently, scholars learned that Walt Whitman rarely left his room.”
Annie Dillard

Faulkner on arresting motion

“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.  Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move.  This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion  through which he must someday pass.”
William Faulkner

John McPhee on Hemingway’s Theory of Omission

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Ernest Hemingway

“Ernest Hemingway’s Theory of Omission seems to me to be saying to writers, “Back off. Let the reader do the creating.” To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.” John McPhee

Sensory deprivation

“It should surprise no one that the life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.  This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood.  A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience. Writers read literary biography, and surround themselves with other writers, deliberately to enforce in themselves the ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper.”
Annie Dillard


“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
Ernest Hemingway

The rhythm of a writer’s day

“What is the rhythm of a writer’s day? First, you enter your imagined world. As characters speak and act, you write. What’s the next thing you do? You step out of your fantasy and read what you’ve written. And what do you do as you read? You analyze. “Is it good? Does it work? Why not? Should I cut? Add? Reorder?” You write, you read; create, critique; impulse, logic; right brain, left brain; re-imagine, rewrite. And the quality of your rewriting, the possibility of perfection, depends on a command of the craft that guides you to correct imperfection. An artist is never at the mercy of the whims of impulse; he willfully exercises his craft to create harmonies of instinct and idea.”
Robert McKee

Layers of truth

Julian Barnes was once asked why he chose to write fiction:

“Well, to be honest I think I tell less truth when I write journalism than when I write fiction. I practice both those media, and I enjoy both, but to put it crudely, when you are writing journalism your task is to simplify the world and render it comprehensible in one reading; whereas when you are writing fiction your task is to reflect the fullest complications of the world, to say things that are not as straightforward as might be understood from reading my journalism and to produce something that you hope will reveal further layers of truth on a second reading.”

Why master the craft

“Without craft, the best a writer can do is snatch the first idea off the top of his head, then sit helpless in front of his own work, unable to answer the dreaded questions: Is it good? Or is it sewage? If sewage, what do I do? The conscious mind, fixated on these terrible questions, blocks the subconscious. But when the conscious mind is put to work on the objective task of executing the craft, the spontaneous surfaces. Mastery of craft frees the subconscious.”
Robert McKee

The human heart in conflict with itself

William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature 66 years ago. The printed version of his speech is worth reading in its entirety, not only for the universal truths expressed but for the counsel on how to write when our world is gripped by the physical fear of being blown up:

“Ladies and gentlemen,

“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

“He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

“Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

“I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

The art of intelligent appreciation

“Contrary to what might be assumed, it is far easier for the critic to revile than to reveal;
to deride and dismiss than to illuminate, especially when difficult work is being considered.
In ordinary language, to be ‘critical’ means to find fault, justly or unjustly.
In fact, is there an art more exacting, more risky, more vulnerable to censure, than the art of intelligent appreciation? . . . Such criticism requires of the critic not only intelligence and taste, but a more rare talent for self-effacement.”

Taking off

I recently read “Outline” by Rachel Cusk, a novel about a writer who travels to Athens to teach a writing seminar. It’s a meditation on failure, specifically marriage failures, with people talking at length about their marriages and relationships. If you like a more plot-driven story, you might want to look elsewhere. I found it difficult to sustain interest in the characters.
But the novel started strong, with a literal, and vividly written, take-off:

“Outside, the turgid summer afternoon lay stalled over the runway; little airport vehicles raced unconstrained across the flat distances, skating and turning and circling like toys, and further away still was the silver thread of the motorway that ran and glinted like a brook bounded by the monotonous fields. The plane began to move, trundling forward so that the vista appeared to unfreeze into motion, flowing past the windows first slowly and then faster, until there was the feeling of effortful, half-hesitant lifting as it detached itself from the earth. There was a moment in which it seemed impossible that this could happen. But then it did.”
–Rachel Cusk, “Outline”

Why it takes so long

“The answer about why it took so long to get the novel out is that learning to write is a long process, and while I wish I could have been the blazing star of youth that the literary publishing industry likes, the reality is what it is.

And in some ways, things worked out, because the novel is infinitely better for being written when it was, after many years of practicing the craft and doing the scholarship and thinking about the political, ethical, moral, and aesthetic issues that inform the novel.”
Việt Thanh Nguyễn

Incarnation and metaphor

“If it sounds too religious to call metaphor an incarnation, then let’s call it a manifestation,
for it makes available to the senses what is often intangible, invisible, unknown, obscure;
metaphor brings to light, it reveals, it unifies the fragmented,
it is an act of creation indeed.”
–Mark Jarman

The writing vocation

“You have to decide if you’re a writer or not. I’m a writer because I’m a writer. I can’t say it didn’t make any difference to me whether I was published or not, but I was rejected for ten years before I was ever published. Publishers would suggest ways I could make this more marketable, and I knew I couldn’t do that. I have to write honestly about what I’m doing, and most of those books that were rejected were later published—sometimes by the same publishers.

A lot of people ask me that question, “How can you do all you did and still write?” Well, how does an alcoholic drink and still hold down a job? That’s what you do. You have 3×5 cards in your pocket, and you’re stopped for a red light, and there’s a phrase and you’ve got it down. Or you’re sitting in an emergency room in the hospital, and it takes two hours before your patient is ready to see you, but you’re writing.

Writing is a vocation; it’s not just a way to get published. I knew from early on that I was a writer. I didn’t know what that meant.”
Eugene Peterson

What writers are like

“Writers are far less interesting than everyone would have them. They have typewriters and will travel. They sit at desks in a clerklike way. What may or may not be interesting is what we write. The same applies to any artist; we are the tools and instruments of our talent.

We are outsiders; we have no place in society because society is what we’re watching, and dealing with. Other people make their way in the world. They climb up ladders and get to the top. They know ambition, they seek power. I certainly don’t have any ambitions, nor am I in the least interested in power. I don’t think fiction writers tend to be. Certainly not as a civil servant may be, or an engineer. Fiction writers don’t want in the same way; their needs are different.

Personally, I like not being noticed. I like to hang about the shadows of the world both as a writer and as a person; I dislike limelight, and the center of things is a place to watch rather than become involved in.”
William Trevor

“By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate…offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel….

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.”
Susan Sontag

Write your heart out

“Write your heart out.
Never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for your subject.
Your “forbidden” passions are likely to be the fuel for your writing….
Your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art; these emotions are the fuel that drives your writing and makes possible hours, days, weeks, months and years of what will appear to others, at a distance, as “work.” Without these ill-understood drives you might be a superficially happier person, and a more involved citizen of your community, but it isn’t likely that you will create anything of substance.
What advice can an older writer presume to offer to a younger? Only what he or she might wish to have been told years ago. Don’t be discouraged! Don’t cast sidelong glances, and compare yourself to others among your peers! (Writing is not a race. No one really “wins.” The satisfaction is in the effort, and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any.) And again, write your heart out.
Joyce Carol Oates

The best way to tell the truth

Julian Barnes was asked what literature is for him. His response:
“There are many answers to that question. The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet.”

Attending to the real work

“I loved taking off. In my own house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide – sometimes from the children but more often from the jobs to be done and the phone ringing and the sociability of the neighborhood. I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself. I lived in a state of siege, always losing just what I wanted to hold onto.”
Alice Munro in “Miles City, Montana”

Why write

“Wherever there is life, there is a continual interchange of taking in and giving out, receiving and restoring.
The nourishment I take is given out again in the work I do; the impressions I receive, in the thoughts and feelings I express. The one depends on the other–the giving out ever increases the power of taking in. In the healthy exercise of giving and taking is all the enjoyment of life.”
Andrew Murray

Avoiding wishful thinking

“One of the novelist’s two primary obligations, in my opinion, is to avoid easy answers. That means not only telling the truth about the human condition and its place in the natural world, but also eschewing the kind of wishful thinking, whether expressed through traditional religion or New Agey spiritualism or medicinal consolations, that obfuscates hard truths. This, Stegner, and to a lesser extent his character Joe Allston, do.  

The other obligation — too often overlooked, in my opinion — is, in craft and imagery and resourcefulness of language and figure of speech, to be genuinely enjoyable to read.”
Michael Antman reviewing Wallace Stegner’s All the Little Live Things

The wider view

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”
Annie Dillard.

What to avoid

“A person afflicted with poetic longings of one sort or another searches for a kind of intellectual and spiritual privacy in which to indulge his strange excesses. To achieve this sort of privacy, this ariel suspension of the lyrical spirit, he does not necessarily have to wrench himself away, physically from everybody and everything in his life, but he does have to forswear certain easy rituals, such a earning a living and running the world’s errands.”


Focus, focus

“The most important thing in a work of art is that it should have a kind of focus, i.e. there should be some place where all the rays meet or from which they issue. And this focus must not be able to be completely explained in words. This indeed is one of the significant facts about a true work of art—that its content in its entirety can be expressed only by itself.”

Fuel for your writing

“Your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art; these emotions are the fuel that drives your writing and makes possible hours, days, weeks, months and years of what will appear to others at a distance, as ‘work’.  Without these ill-understood drives you might be a superficially happier person, and a more involved citizen of your community, but it isn’t likely you will create anything of substance.”
Joyce Carol Oates

Just five minutes…

Here is Charles Dickens, rejecting an invitation from a friend:
“‘It is only half an hour’ — ‘It is only an afternoon’ — ‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day …
Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

And here is my modern updating on refusing an invitation from the internet:
“‘It is only five minutes–I only want to see if someone has responded–I’m only checking the news’ — I say to myself over and over again; but I keep forgetting that it is impossible to command myself only to look at one webpage, or that the mere consciousness that the internet is there, waiting, can shadow a whole day.
…Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if the world suspects me of not wanting to engage with it, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

Confidence and humility

“We must have strong self-confidence combined with deep humility. Some of the greatest works of art and the most important works of peace were created by people who had no need for the limelight. They knew that what they were doing was their call, and they did it with great patience, perseverance, and love.”
Henri Nouwen

Preparing to commit again

“I had written a lot, done work of much difficulty; had worked under pressure more or less since my schooldays. Before the writing, there had been the learning’ writing had come to me slowly. Before that, there had been Oxford; and before that, the school in Trinidad where I had worked for the Oxford scholarship.

There had been a long preparation for the writing career! And then I discovered that to be a writer was not [as I had imagined] a state–of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content–at which one arrived and where one stayed. There was a special anguish attached to the career: whatever the labor of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it.

And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigor, now past for good. Emptiness, restlessness built up again; and it was necessary once more, out of my internal resources alone, to start on another book, to commit myself to that consuming process again.”
V.S.Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival

How to keep them reading

“Scheherazade avoided her fate because she knew how to wield the weapon of suspense—the only literary tool that has any effect upon tyrants and savages.
Great novelist though she was—
exquisite in her descriptions,
tolerant in her judgments,
ingenious in her incidents,
advanced in her morality,
vivid in her delineations of character,
expert in her knowledge of three oriental capitals—
it was yet on none of these gifts that she relied when trying to save her life from her intolerable husband.
She only survived because she managed to keep the king wondering what would happen next.”
E.M. Forster

The struggle

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a think if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
George Orwell

A servant

“The writer is not a leader. He or she is not, as some 19th century poets may have believed, always the best seer. The writer, when he is most authentic, is a servant who, seeing what others perhaps have missed, gently and persuasively informs them of a meaning by making them feel its presence in the theater of fiction.”
Charles Johnson

Not to forget

“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”
Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park

Dear Tournament of Books, Dear Jonathan Miles

(Two years into Glimmers from the World of Story, I thought it was time for something a little different. For those readers who just want the weekly quote, scroll down to the bottom.)

It’s the middle of March. That means the annual Tournament of Books, a literary response to March Madness, is going full throttle, and I find myself composing imaginary emails to the tournament directors likes these:
“Dear Tournament of Books,
What? How could you fail to put Lila on the short list??? Is it because the slot for ‘protagonist named Lila’ was taken by Ferrante’s novel? A latent prejudice against winners of the Pulitzer Prize? The Idaho quota was filled by Anthony Doerr? Help me out here. I remain baffled.”

“Dear TOB,
Dept. of Speculation falls to a work of sci-fi? I read Offill’s little masterpiece *twice* in a month, it was so good. Just because the victorious novel is called Annihilation doesn’t mean it should do that to its most worthy competitor.”

“Dear Kevin and John,
Those who Stay and Those who Go matched against Everything I Never told You?? Who seeds your brackets? Could you please give them sowing lessons? Why not put each of these stellar novels against lesser choices in the first round? Or do you secretly enjoy gladiator fights? I expect Tayari Jones is not sleeping well these nights.”

“Dear TOB editors and contributing writers,
Bending the rules to allow for Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See? The rationale sounds perfectly rational. It goes something like this: ‘We used to have a rule that forbid editors’ or contributing writers’ books to be considered. But then a contributing writer wrote a book so brilliant we decided it was time to break the rule.’ Hmmm, sounds great unless you’re a contributing writer whose novel wasn’t quite good enough to break the rules. Though you were right to include Doerr’s novel.”

The emails never get beyond my brain. Eventually the growlies subside and I turn to a work of fiction for consolation. In a pique, I decide to conduct a temporary boycott of TOB and choose a novel that is currently not suffering the capricious indignities of a cultural athletic beauty contest. (Temporary because I really do appreciate what these guys are doing.)

Dear American Airlines is the winner, a book that has been on my bookshelf for quite some time. Yes, I have an actual printed copy covered in real dust which is yet another reminder of why ebooks, for all of their virtues, have real limitations. I mean how do you know the number of years a book has been patiently waiting to be read if you can’t see the dust on it? However, since I’m not the kind of person who goes looking for dust, it’s no surprise that the book’s physical condition didn’t influence my choice. Nor did its location in one of the towering ‘books I want to read, really I do, that’s why I bought them” stacks that are located in just about every room in my house. Nor even because it failed to make the Tournament playoffs in 2008 when I would have slipped it into On Chesil Beach‘s spot. (“Dear TOB, Is On Chesil Beach really Ian McEwan at the top of his game?”) No, I chose Dear American Airlines because it was available on a digital library website. But I digress.

So does Jonathan Miles, the author of my winning choice. A failed poet is stuck at O’Hare on the way to his daughter’s wedding. Indignant at this capricious travel delay (air traffic control and the TOB having something in common), he begins to compose a letter to American Airlines; a very, very long letter so witty and effervescent, it is published and goes on to become a New York Times Notable Book.

Confession: I’m not reading this novel. I’m listening to the audio version, and that may be the ideal way to absorb Miles’ vivacious prose. On the page, he tends towards paragraph-long sentences. Perhaps that’s why a few years ago I put the book down. (I use the vague word ‘few’ because I’m not going to carbon date the dust on it.) My bookmark, fashioned from the sticker I peeled off the back of the book which left a smudge of dirty adhesive on the cover, remains stuck– literally–on page 28. (Though there could be other reasons why the bookmark didn’t progress: tempus fugit, I got distracted by another book, or I had to go see the elephants in Thailand. Take your pick.)

However, listening to the narrator, Mark Bramhall, read these sentences in a perfect-pitch New Orleans accent is like rocking on a front porch while sipping rum punch in between inhaling little breaths of sultry afternoon air. As it happens, I am not in the deep south as I listen. Nor am I in Boston where the snow could use the novel’s literary heat. Or parked in Los Angeles smaffic [what better way to describe smog in traffic?), or tooling a straight flat line through Kansas.

Instead I’m picking my way through sidewalk construction on a North African street, an obvious foreigner in this foreign country where I live. Today I stand out not only because of my clothes and skin color and visible hair, but also because of the grin that takes over my usual dull expression every time Miles hits another funny note. Like this one:

“Of late I’ve been suffering weird pains in my lower back and these airport chairs with their gen-u-ine Corinthian Naugahyde upholstery are only aggravating the pain. Throughout my life I vowed I would never be the sort of geezer reduced to conversing about nothing save his health maladies. This was until the day I developed maladies of my own to converse about. Truly, they’re endlessly fascinating and impossible to keep to oneself! How can you talk about anything else when your physical being is disintegrating, when you can feel everything below your neck going steadily kaput? You certainly wouldn’t think of discussing, say, Lacanian theory on a jumbo jet spiraling earthward. Unless of course you were Lacan, but even then Jacques, call the kiddos.”

Dear Jonathan Miles,
Thank you.


Digressing links:
Tournament of Books
a literary response to March Madness
the other Lila
Dept. of Speculation
I expect Tayari Jones is not sleeping well these nights
Bending the rules to allow for Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See?
Dear American Airlines
the Tournament playoffs in 2008
Jonathan Miles, the author of my winning choice
the audio version
listening to the narrator, Mark Bramhall