Adichie on writing about race

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy.”

A character in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah


T. Geronimo Johnson on going big in art

“Having a Civil War reenactment without slaves is like setting a love story during a bubonic plague outbreak and never having anyone get sick. Gabriel García Márquez never wrote a novel called Love in the Time of Cold and Flu Season.” T. Geronimo Johnson in Welcome to Braggsville

Trevor on life in the shadows

“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

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani on landlords

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s first novel,I Do Not Come to You by Chance, is about a Nigerian who tries to establish a career and ends up writing email scams. It’s a funny, smart, and engaging read. If you haven’t read a novel recently written by a non-American/non-European, this is a good option to take a trip out of the Western literary ghetto.
“All through the night, the mosquitoes came riding in on horseback. The males hummed shrill love songs into our ears, the females sucked blood from our exposed arms and feet. Tired of swatting the air and scratching her limbs, my mother shut the windows against them. Minutes later, we were almost at the point of asphyxiation. She opened them again. The mosquitoes were clearly the landlords.”
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

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

Seth Godin on being generous with one’s writing

“I wonder why anyone would hesitate to be generous with their writing. I mean, if you really want to make a living, go to Wall Street and trade oil futures … We’re writers. We’re doing something that is inherently a generous act. We’re exposing ourselves to the muse and to the things that frighten us. Why do that if you’re not willing to be generous? And paradoxically, almost ironically, it turns out that the more generous you are, the more money you make. But that’s secondary. For me, the privilege of being generous is why I get to do this.”
Seth Godin

Philip Yancey on social re-entry

“After a week of intense writing, I feel a need for “social re-entry”: on Friday I go out to dinner with my wife and another couple and find that I have lost the skills of knowing how to slide in and out of conversation.  Every time I open my mouth I seem to be interrupting.  I sit mute, dazed, staring at all the people who know what to do and say in this strange world out here—a world where people speak on their own without my having to write their dialogue.  (Usually by Sunday I have recovered, just in time to return to my artificial reality.)”
Philip Yancey

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

Philip Roth on turning sentences around

Philip Roth, in Zuckerman Bound, gives a perfect description of my daily routine:
  “I turn sentences around.  That’s my life. I write a sentence and 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.” 

Francine Prose on reading like a writer

“Another time, in yet another graduate classroom, the students asked, as they sometimes do, “What are you reading?” I said, “I’m rereading Crime and Punishment.” And there’s this feeling you get when there’s nothing coming back at you from the room. That’s the feeling I was getting. So I said, “Have any of you read Crime and Punishment?” Silence. “Have any of you read anything by Dostoevsky?” More silence. And these were graduate students.

I don’t quite get it. On a very basic level, I can’t figure out why people would want to write unless they like to read. I mean, what would be the point? For the incredibly glamorous fast track lifestyle? I don’t think so.”
Francine Prose

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

Javier Marias on possibilities and ideas

“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”
Javier Marias in “The Infatuations”, a mesmerizing novel about an editor at a publishing house who is drawn in to the murder of a casual acquaintance

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

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer”

Finally, a novel about the Vietnam War and its aftermath written by…a Vietnamese American. Reviewed not once but twice in the New York Times, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer” still deserves an even wider audience. Here’s hoping that the judges in this year’s Tournament of Books will give this novel its due.

Like all great literature, the historical events in the novel are less important than the timeless truths about war and refugees and making a life after losing everything:

“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.”


“Surely we cannot be the only ones awake, even if we are the only ones with a single lamp lit. No, we cannot be alone! Thousands more must be staring into darkness like us, gripped by scandalous thoughts, extravagant hopes, and forbidden plots. We lie in wait for the right moment and the just cause, which, at this moment, is simply wanting to live. And even as we write this final sentence, the sentence that will not be revised, we confess to being certain of one and only one thing— we swear to keep, on penalty of death, this one promise: We will live!”

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.”

Listening to “Writers on Writing”

Recently, I discovered a podcast/radio show about writing. The title pretty much sums it up: “Writers on Writing.” Each week, two writers [or sometimes literary agents] are interviewed individually, discussing their work and their writing process. I find it helpful, inspiring, and informative. You can check it out at:
Writers on Writing
and on Facebook

[I listen to it via the Apple app “Podcasts” where each weekly episode downloads automatically.]

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”

On ‘new’: why literary journals matter

“If we don’t write to matter, then what are we doing? If a magazine is not on a mission, what is its purpose? And if it is on a mission, that mission needs to be a vital one. For missions are nothing if not vital. If they are not vital, they are only errands.
… it is the fresh encounter between the reader and the expressive new work that ultimately runs the juice through the whole vast lit-mag circuit. That “new” is a big part of the point of it all, for without new there is no deeper reason for being for these shiny compendia. Their point is that they are our collective sensors, the essential early warning system alerting us to the writers who can give something of the world as it is back to us — and do so long before we hear what the agented and contracted writers have to say.”
Sven Birkets, editor of Agni

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

Expansion rather than completion

“Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out. When the symphony is over we feel that the notes and tunes composing it have been liberated, they have found in the rhythm of the whole their individual freedom. Cannot the novel be like that? Is there not something of it [that can bring us to] a larger existence than was possible at the time?”
E.M Forster

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

The overparented character

“The story’s initial surprises began to seem less wonderful, even though its details were excellent, and the story was never anything but truthful. But the story had begun to read itself too early, and before very long it was always and only about one thing, with the result that all the details fit in perfectly. All the arrows pointed in the same direction. When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story. It is too meaningful too fast.

Its meaning is overdetermined and the characters overparented. When writers overparent their characters, they understand them too quickly. Such characters aren’t contradictory or misfitted. The writer has decided what her story is about too early and has concentrated too fixedly on that one truth.”
Charles Baxter in “On Defamiliarization” from Burning Down the House

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

The impeded stream

“There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form.

It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Wendell Berry

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