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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

13 DECEMBER, 2013

Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize Interview: Writing, Women, and the Rewards of Storytelling

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“I want my stories to move people … to feel some kind of reward from the writing.”

When Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature, she was too ill to travel and receive the prestigious accolade in person, so instead of delivering the customary Nobel acceptance speech in Stockholm, she was interviewed by the Swedish Academy in her home. The conversation — a wide-ranging dance across the spectrum of literature and life — reveals Munro’s sharp, dimensional, highly self-ware mind driven by equal parts confidence and doubt, and above all by an unflinching faith in literature’s capacity to change us.

It’s rather unnerving and anachronistic — though befitting the Achilles heel of the Nobel Prize — that the interviewer seems so bent on asking Munro questions about “women writers” and what it’s like to be one, but she pushes back beautifully and touches on many other aspects of writing not encumbered by the dated and unnecessary gender narrative. Highlights below.

On receiving her first literary inspiration from the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and using walking as a creative prompt:

The Little Mermaid is dreadfully sad. . . . As soon as I had finished the story, I got outside and I walked around and around the house where we lived … and I made up a story with a happy ending — because I thought that was due to the Little Mermaid.

On being somewhat immune to literature’s women problem:

I never thought of myself as anything but a woman. . . . When I was a young girl, I had no feeling of inferiority at all for being a woman. And this may have been because I lived in a part of Ontario where … women did most of the reading, women did most of the telling of stories — the men were outside doing “important” things and they didn’t go in for the stories. So I felt quite at home.

On the gift of ignorance and growing up in a small town and using the seemingly mundane as material for literature:

I think any life can be interesting — I think any surrounds can be interesting. I don’t think I would’ve been nearly so bold as a writer if I had lived in a [bigger] town and if I had gone to school with other people who were interested in the same things I was … what you might call a “higher cultural level.” I didn’t have to cope with that — I was the only person I knew who wrote stories. . . . I was, as far as I knew, the only person who could do this in the world!

On the parallel universe of the writer’s life:

When you’re a writer, you’re never quite like other people — you’re doing a job that other people don’t know you’re doing and you can’t talk about it, really, and you’re just always finding your way in the secret world and then you’re doing something else in the “normal” world.

On her highest aspiration for her writing, echoing Tolkien’s notion that there are no special audiences in literature when the interviewer asks how she hopes her writing would impact “women especially”:

I want my stories to move people — I don’t care if they’re men or women or children. I want my stories to be something about life that causes people not to say, “Oh, isn’t that the truth,” but to feel some kind of reward from the writing. And that doesn’t mean that it was to have a happy ending or anything — but just that everything the story tells moves [you] in such a way that you feel you’re a different person when you finish.

Complement with Munro on writing, the Nobel Prize acceptance speeches of Ernest Hemingway and Seamus Heaney, and the collected advice of great writers.

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11 DECEMBER, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut on the Writer’s Responsibility, the Limitations of the Brain, and Why the Universe Exists: A Rare 1974 WNYC Interview

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“We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.”

Kurt Vonnegut endures not only as one of the most beloved writers of the past century, but also as a kind of modern sage, with wisdom ranging from his insight on the shapes of stories to his 8 rules for writing with style to his life-advice to his children. In June of 1974, Walter James Miller, host of WNYC’s Reader’s Almanac program, sat down with the celebrated author shortly after the publication of Breakfast of Champions, the tale of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast,” for an interview recently uncovered by William Rodney Allen, editor of the fantastic 1988 anthology Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (public library).

In this wide-ranging and wonderful conversation from the WNYC archives, Vonnegut talks to Miller about everything from the novel to Hemingway and Twain to the responsibility of writers and the origin of the universe. Transcribed highlights below — enjoy:

On the role of the writer in society, touching on E. B. White’s timeless wisdom, and how myth-making shapes culture — pause-giving food for thought amidst the BuzzFeed age of myth-making-for-profit:

It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that writers are not marginal to our society, that they, in fact, do all our thinking for us, that we are writing myths and our myths are believed, and that old myths are believed until someone writes a new one.

[…]

I think writers should be more responsible than they are, as we’ve imagined for a long time that it really doesn’t matter what we say. I also often have First-Amendment schizophrenia — there’s a lot that I wish wasn’t popular and in circulation, I think there is a lot of damaging material in circulation. . . I think it’s a beginning for authors to acknowledge that they are myth-makers and that if they are widely read, will have an influence that will last for many years — I don’t think that there’s a strong awareness of that now, and we have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.

On science, our brush with eternity, the limitations of our cognitive awareness, how the universe came to be, and our fluid experience of time:

I do have a strong idea about the limitations of the computer in our skulls — it’s just large enough to take care of our lives and must ignore an awful lot of what is going on around us. . . . I have a very primitive approach to science — I wonder how the universe originated, how could it have originated … how could you make something out of nothing … and sophomoric ideas like that. And so, after having banged around with that — how do you make a universe out of nothing — I have decided, just logically, that it can’t be done and therefore it must always have existed. And so, from that, I get a sense of permanence and, also, an annoyance with the limitations of my head. And I really do think that what we perceive as time is simply a processing device in our heads to let us consider a little of reality at a time — we couldn’t let it all come in at once.

(On the question of how the universe originated, John Updike would come to echo Vonnegut in asserting that “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain.”)

For more of Vonnegut’s undying wisdom, do track down a copy of the (sadly) out-of-print Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut — it spans the practical and the philosophical, and lives up to Vonnegut’s promise:

I’ve worked with enough students to know what beginning writers are like, and if they will just talk to me for twenty minutes I can help them so much, because there are such simple things to know. Make a character want something — that’s how you begin.

Thanks, super-Alex

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04 DECEMBER, 2013

Hemingway on Not Writing for Free and How to Run a First-Rate Publication

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Find the best writers, pay them to write, and avoid typos at all costs.

Recent discussions of why writing for free commodifies creative work reminded me of an old letter Ernest Hemingway sent to his friends Ernest Walsh and Ethel Moorhead when they were about to launch This Quarter — the influential experimental Paris-based literary journal that would go on to publish work by such greats as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Kay Boyle, William Carlos Williams, Marcel Duchamp, Rainer Maria Rilke, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Hemingway himself over the course of its run between 1925 and 1932.

Dated January 7, 1925 and found in The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 (public library) — the impressive sequel to the first volume, which also gave us young Papa’s thoughts on how New York can drive you to insanity — the letter rings with remarkable prescience in today’s publishing microcosm where major publications expect writers to work for free in exchange for “exposure.” The result, unsurprisingly, is mediocre writing at best — not because good writing is motivated by money, but because nothing demotivates a writer more than feeling like her writing is vacant filler for pages meant not to delight or enrich the reader but to sell advertising.

Hemingway counsels Walsh and Moorhead:

One of the most important things I believe is to get the very best work that people are doing so you do not make the mistake the Double Dealer and such magazine made of printing 2nd rate stuff by 1st rate writers.

I see by your prospectus that you are paying for [manuscripts] on acceptance and think that is the absolute secret of getting the first rate stuff. It is not a question of competing with the big money advertizing magazines but of giving the artist a definite return for his work. For his best work can never get into the purely commercially run magazines anyway but he will always hold on to it hoping to get something for it and will only give away stuff that has no value to any magazine or review.

Before closing the letter, he adds a timeless admonition that, despite his own meta-violation, stands all the timelier in today’s age of rapid-fire publishing:

And watch proof reading and typography — there is nothing can spoil a persons appreciation of good stuff like typographical errors.

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway is full of such evergreen wisdom from one of the most celebrated writers in modern history. Complement it with Hemingway on how to become a good writer and his pithy Nobel Prize acceptance speech, then revisit the collected advice of great writers.

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