George Orwell on the destruction of words

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself.

Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still.

Of course we use those forms already but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word.”

George Orwell in “1984”


Colum McCann on what a writer should read 

“A good book will turn your world sideways. It will also turn your own writing inside out. The prose writers should read the poets. The poets should read the novelists. The playwrights should read the philosophers. The journalists should read the short story writers. The philosophers should read through the entire crew. In fact, we all should read the entire crew. Nobody makes it alone.”

Colum McCann 

David Mamet on the purpose of theater

“The purpose of theater is not to fix the social fabric, not to incite the less perceptive to wake up and smell the coffee, not to preach to the converted about the delights or burdens of the middle class. The purpose of theater, like magic, like religion, is to inspire cleansing awe.”
David Mamet

Kavita Das on the failure narrative

“Time and time again, the literary establishment seizes on the story of a writer who meets inordinate obstacles, including financial struggles, crippling self-doubt, and rejection across the board, only to finally achieve the recognition and success they deserve. The halls of the literary establishment echo with tales of now-revered writers who initially faced failure, from Stephen King (whose early novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before being published), to Alex Haley (whose epic Roots was rejected 200 times in eight years). This arc is the literary equivalent of the American Dream, but like the Dream itself, the romantic narrative hides a more sinister one. Focusing on how individual artists should persist in the face of rejection obscures how the system is set up to reward only a chosen few, often in a fundamentally unmeritocratic way.

“What are we meant to make of the fact that [Marlon} James’s manuscript was rejected 80 times? Sadly, this phenomenon isn’t that uncommon. In fact, there’s a website dedicated to bestsellers that were initially rejected. Was it lack of imagination on the part of those publishers? Was it unconscious bias against a new and unfamiliar narrative—one that they didn’t regard as “mainstream?” Or was it a complex business decision based on multiple factors? As an emerging writer of color, I’m no longer inspired by this narrative. I don’t see much cause to celebrate when writers of James’s profound talent are roundly rejected in the course of normal business.”
Kavita Das

Somerset Maugham on writing a bestseller

“No one can write a bestseller by trying to. He must write with complete sincerity; the clichés that make you laugh, the hackneyed characters, the well-worn situations, the commonplace story that excites your derision, seem neither hackneyed, well worn nor commonplace to him. … The conclusion is obvious: you cannot write anything that will convince unless you are yourself convinced. The bestseller sells because he writes with his heart’s blood.”
Somerset Maugham

James Salter on Flaubert

“Certain writers have the ability to put one word with another or together as a sequence that causes it to bloom in the reader’s mind or to describe things so well that they become for the reader something close or equal to reality. It’s not simply that they are well observed; it’s also in the way of telling.

“So we come into the dining room of Maison Vauquer with its walls of a now unrecognizable color, its chipped and stained decanters, piles of plates on the sticky sideboards, and wine-spattered napkins of the boarders pigeoned in a box. The table is covered with a greasy oilcloth, the grass place mats unraveled almost to the point of disappearance, and the chairs are rickety and broken-backed.

In short, poverty without glamour reigns here, a narrow, concentrated, threadbare poverty. Although actual filth may be absent, everything is dirty and stained; there are no rags and tatters, but everything is falling to pieces with decay. This room is in all its glory at about seven in the morning when Madame Vauquet’s cat appears downstairs, a sign that his mistress is on the way. ”
James Salter

Wallace Stegner on overrated novels

“It has poured all day, if the word “poured” can be used to describe rain that is not vertical but horizontal, mixed with leaves, branches, power failures, and fear for the windows.… It was not the day to entertain Italy’s greatest novelist, the profound anatomist of passion, true heir of D’Annunzio, with a dash of Cellini and a dollop of Casanova. Not the day to entertain anybody. As we set to work to prepare his welcome we alternated between anxiety that we might not be able to do right by him and a wan hope that he wouldn’t come.
“We are fond of Cesare in spite of his books. His books are overrated, but that is because he is completely of his time, and his time overrates itself. He is neither the first nor the worst to make a career out of the verbal exploration of the various bodily orifices… Maybe if I were younger, and my hormones more active, I might appreciate his novels more. As it is, I have to think of them compulsive, theatrical, and decadent even while I find Cesare himself lively, amusing, and full of an attractive kind of Italian blarney.”
Wallace Stegner in his novel “The Spectator Bird”

Delilah Dawson on what failure is

“I sent queries to every agent on my list. I got some full requests, but ultimately, I had to accept that that book wasn’t good enough. But that didn’t mean I’d failed. That meant that it was time to write the next book.
Failure is part of the system. There is a good chance your first book sucks. You are probably querying too early. You’re going to get rejected. And that’s how you learn. That’s how you level up. That’s how you become a better writer and a stronger person.
The only failure is when you give up.
It might take years. You might have to write several books. You might even get so far as to nab an agent and then fail to sell your book on submission. But that is not failing. Failing is when you stop writing. When you stop learning. When you do nothing. When you don’t show up in the first place.”

Delilah Dawson

Michael Korda on the challenge of writing in Hungarian

“Few things are more painful than being a successful writer born in a small country with an impenetrable language. It’s one thing to be writing in South or Latin America, where, except for Brazil, every country, however small and hard to find on a map, speaks Spanish, but quite another to be writing in, say, Hungary, a landlocked nation of 10 million people, with a language that very few people outside Hungary can read or speak.”
Michael Korda [whose father was born in Hungary]
Case in point: have you ever heard of Sandor Marai?

Brian Doyle on being a storycatcher

“I am here to witness. I was sent to sing. I am here to catch and tell the story of the teacher who ran with a child on her shoulders out of the ash and fire of September 11. I am here to tell you that a man and a woman reached for each other at the high windows in the south tower, and they held hands as they leapt into the void. I am here to tell you that a man carried a colleague 80 floors to the street and then went back in. I am here to marvel at a pope praying with his almost-assassin, to marvel at victims forgiving the murderers of their children in South Africa, to be riveted by all the thin bony nuns who have carried the church on their shoulders for centuries and hardly anyone ever shouted my God without those women there would be no church whatever whatsoever absolutely! I am here to hear all the stories of all the women who have bent every ounce of their souls to love, which is pretty much all the women who ever lived. I am here to see illogical courage and faith. I am here to sing grace under duress.

“I am a storycatcher, charged with finding stories that matter, stories about who we are at our best, who we might be still, because without stories we are only mammals with weapons. I am here to point at shards of holiness. That’s all. That’s enough.”
Brian Doyle

Martha McPhee on the writer’s paradox

“This was the writer’s paradox—ego fueled the belief that one was about to become the exception. This is what kept me writing, the humongous ego, a necessity of the trade.
“Didn’t Twain go bankrupt? Didn’t Melville bet his farm on his work and lose?” she asked. “Don’t forget Shelley, who made precisely forty pounds from his writing, and most of that was for a novel he wrote while still in school.” We enjoyed this game. “Joyce, Pound, Milton, they all died in miserable, impoverished circumstances.”
Martha McPhee in her novel, “Dear Money”

Irving on writing like dog-paddling

­ In John Irving’s novel “Avenue of Mysteries, a character named Juan Diego compares writing a novel to treading water and dog-paddling: “It feels like you’re going a long way, because it’s a lot of work, but you’re basically covering old ground—you’re hanging out in familiar territory.”
John Irving

Salter on the simplicity of writing

“At bottom, writing is simple. It’s fundamental, like a hammer and nails, or putting it another way, like singing a song. Or talking to yourself. It does have rules of order. It has grammar and syntax, the form and structure of sentences and the relationship and arrangement of words, most of which you learn even if incorrectly as a child by listening and imitating, repetition.”
James Salter

Oates on failure

“Failure may be a truth, or at any rate a negotiable fact, while success is a temporary illusion of some intoxicating sort, a bubble soon to be pricked, a flower whose petals will quickly drop . . . . From this pragmatic vantage point, ‘success’ is but a form of ‘failure,’ a compromise between what is desired and what is attained.”
-Joyce Carol Oates

George R.R. Martin on stories of the heart

“Stories of the human heart in conflict with itself transcend time, place, and setting. So long as love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are present, it matters not a whit whether that tall, lean, stranger has a proton pistol or a six-shooter in his hand. Or a sword.” George R. R. Martin

Jenny Offill on living for art

From Jenny Offill’s novel, “The Dept. of Speculation”:
“My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”


“The truth is she has good impulse control. That is why she isn’t dead. Also why she became a writer instead of a heroin addict. She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw, not a virtue.”

Colson Whitehead, “The Underground Railroad”

“The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always – the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”
Colson Whitehead in “The Underground Railroad”

Elizabeth Strout on not defending your work

“Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

Elizabeth Strout in “My Name Is Lucy Barton”

Viet Thanh Nguyen on time

“Saigon time was fourteen hours off, although if one judged time by this clock, it was we who were fourteen hours off. Refugee, exile, immigrant— whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures, as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen in “The Sympathizer”

Marilynne Robinson on watching

“Two questions I can’t really answer about fiction are (1) where it comes from, and (2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute. There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without.

But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself— forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true.”

Marilynne Robinson

John Mullan on plot

“Plot is not just a sequence of connected events (in this sense, every TV drama or novel equally has a plot). It is something rarer: the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, “What will happen next?” as, “What has already happened?” The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her. Perhaps this is why such enjoyment has often been thought suspect.”
John Mullan

C.E. Morgan on bearing witness

“I don’t believe love is real love if it remains cloistered within the confines of an intimate relationship; it should transcend the private sphere. As an artist that means training an eye on the suffering in the world, then acting on behalf of others. Bearing witness is one of the most excruciating aspects of working in a long form… Sitting with suffering—others’ and one’s own—is the challenge of a lifetime. But this is our practice.”
C.E. Morgan

Gina Frangello on the conflict between writing and parenting

Gino Frangello on why writing seems to be in conflict with parenting:
“Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”    
“I recalled an interview I read with one of my first writing teachers, Deborah Eisenberg, in which she says, ‘Art itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.’ Oscar Wilde said it is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known. Hippocrates tells us ‘Art is a revolt.’
People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families.”
source: Kim Brooks

Rave and mediocre reviews

Two mentions of the same novel by Heidi Julavits:
The Mineral Palace was published in 2000 to rave reviews.”
“Her first novel, The Mineral Palace, a depression-era story of sexual corruption and infanticide, was published in 2000 to mediocre reviews.”


James Salter on Flaubert

“He usually wrote in this room from early afternoon into early morning, stopping only for dinner, and he was tireless, writing, rewriting, revising, and slowly producing perhaps’ a page a week or one in four days or thirteen in three months….[for Madame Bovary] there are some forty-five hundred pages of drafts for the three hundred in the book.”
James Salter on Flaubert

Martha McPhee on what a writer wants

“The thing about a writer is that want is part of the job description. Without want, a writer is nothing. A writer must want to sit alone at a desk for days on end. A writer must close out the world and wait. The reward is the chuckle, the quiet laugh that only the writer hears alone at her desk. She is laughing at her own work, her own imagination nailing a particular phrase because she knows, as one just knows some things, that the phrase, the scene, the story will make others laugh. Who among us, no matter her trade, has not made something bigger, at some point, simply by virtue of sticking with it? She must want this even while knowing that few others will care.

“But want, as we say, has a problem with boundaries. It bleeds. What young writer, sitting at her desk, doesn’t also crave to be in the world? The blue day, the summer heat, they pull her outside, toward shops and cafés, toward the land where life is real and filled with temptation and expensive desire: the cappuccino, the magazine, the taxi, the pretty dress. Want proliferates with age: she wants a baby, then another, then a babysitter to go with them, a house, a car, a good school for the kids, lessons, camps, more of those nice dresses, perhaps a better neighborhood to settle in. She’ll become practical, money for retirement, stocks, perhaps some bonds. She’ll want theater tickets, to dine with her friends, an office, books, a vacation, a new wedding band, another bedroom. On it will go from one thing from the next.”
Martha McPhee in “Dear Money”

Theroux on Naipaul

“He was a solitary man. He knew everyone, but he had no close friends. His loneliness had made him intensely observant, as though this studious scrutiny were a remedy for being lonely. He knew the most obscure details of the paintings in the museums. He would lunge at the pictures, pointing out brush strokes. “It’s a tiny smear. Now step back. It’s a person – is it a child? Back farther. It’s a man. Look at the hat!”I could only think how many afternoons he had spent looking at these pictures on his own and discovering these secrets. I liked him, I was grateful for his friendship, and I admired his writing; but his isolation frightened me. I wanted my life to be different.”
Andy Parent on S. Prasad known as Raj, in Paul Theroux’s “My Secret History”

(For the full story, see “Sir Vidia” by Theroux)