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05 APRIL, 2013

Malcolm Cowley on the Four Stages of Writing: Lessons from the First Five Years of The Paris Review

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“The germ of a story is a new and simple element introduced into an existing situation or mood.”

The kind of literary voyeurism that concerns itself with why great writers write and how, exactly, they go about it has long held especial mesmerism to aspiring authors and voracious readers alike.

In 1953, a trio of literary enthusiasts founded The Paris Review. Spearheaded by George Plimpton, who edited the magazine from its founding to his death in 2003, it forever changed the face of literary journalism with its singular brand of incredibly in-depth, borderline existential conversations with beloved authors on the art and craft of writing. Five years later, they published the finest of those interviews — featuring such literary luminaries as William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, and James Thurber — in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library). Though The Paris Review has since released all of the archival interviews online, as well as in an irresistible boxed set, what makes this particular volume noteworthy is the lengthy introductory essay by the great Malcolm Cowley, who edited the anthology.

Malcolm Cowley

Among his keen insights on the craft, synthesized from the interviews, is a theory of how the creative process works, outlining the four stages of writing:

There would seem to be four stages in the composition of a story. First comes the germ of the story, then a period of more or less conscious meditation, then the first draft, and finally the revision, which may be simply ‘pencil work’ as John O’Hara calls it — that is, minor changes in wording — or may lead to writing several drafts and what amounts to a new work.

Cowley illustrates each of the four stages with anecdotes from the interviewees.

1. IDEATION

In outlining the first, he echoes Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s insight on where ideas come from, and writes:

The germ of a story is something seen or heard, or heard about, or suddenly remembered; it may be a remark casually dropped at the dinner table (as in the case of Henry James’s story, The Spoils of Poynton), or again it may be the look on a stranger’s face. Almost always it is a new and simple element introduced into an existing situation or mood; something that expresses the mood in one sharp detail; something that serves as a focal point for a hitherto disorganized mass of remembered material in the author’s mind. James describes it as ‘the precious particle … the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at a touch of which the novelist’s imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point,’ and he adds that ‘its virtue is all in its needle-like quality, the power to penetrate as finely as possible.

He goes on to give a specific example of this compelling “sharp detail” in action:

In the case of one story by the late Joyce Cary, the ‘precious particle’ was the wrinkles on a young woman’s forehead. He had seen her on the little boat that goes around Manhattan Island, ‘a girl of about thirty,’ he says, ‘wearing a shabby skirt. She was enjoying herself. A nice expression, with a wrinkled forehead, a good many wrinkles. I said to my friend, “I could write about that girl…”‘ but then he forgot about her. Three weeks later, in San Francisco, Cary woke up at four in the morning with a story in his head—a purely English story with an English heroine. When he came to revise the story he kept wondering, ‘Why all these wrinkles? That’s the third time they come in. And I suddenly realized,’ he says, ‘that my English heroine was the girl on the Manhattan boat. Somehow she had gone down into my subconscious, and came up again with a full-sized story.’

Similarly, he cites Anne Porter:

Any book I write starts with a flash, but takes a long time to shape up.

Georges Simenon

2. INCUBATION

This shaping up takes place during the second stage, which reflects T. S. Eliot’s notion of idea-incubation and the third step, “unconscious processing,” of James Webb Young’s five-step “technique for producing ideas.” Cowley writes:

The book or story shapes up — assumes its own specific form, that is — during a process of meditation that is the second stage in composition. Angus Wilson calls it ‘the gestatory period’ and says that it is ‘very important to me. That’s when I’m persuading myself of the truth of what I want to say, and I don’t think I could persuade my readers unless I’d persuaded myself first.’ The period may last for years, as with Warren’s novels (and most of Henry James’s), or it may last exactly two days, as in the extraordinary case of Georges Simenon. ‘As soon as I have the beginning,’ Simenon explains, I can’t bear it very long . … And two days later I begin writing.’ The meditation may be, or seem to be, wholly conscious. The writer asks himself questions — ‘What should the characters do at this point? How can I build to a climax?’ — and answers them in various fashions before choosing the final answers. Or most of the process, including all the early steps, may be carried on without the writer’s volition. He wakes before daybreak with the whole story in his head, as Joyce Cary did in San Francisco, and hastily writes it down. Or again — and I think most frequently — the meditation is a mixture of conscious and unconscious elements, as if a cry from the depths of sleep were being heard and revised by the waking mind.

Like artist Maira Kalman has attested, this gestational period can take place during activities wholly unrelated to one’s creative craft. Cowley writes:

Often the meditation continues while the writer is engaged in other occupations: gardening, driving his wife to town (as Walter Mitty did), or going out to dinner. ‘I have never quite known when I’m not writing,’ says James Thurber. ‘Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a dinner party and says, “Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.” She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” “No,” my wife says, “He’s writing.”‘

James Thurber

3. FIRST DRAFT

Next comes the third stage, the writing of the preliminary plight of putting words down on paper:

The first draft of a story is often written at top speed; probably that is the best way to write it. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who is not among the authors interviewed, once compared the writing of a first draft with skiing down a steep slope that she wasn’t sure she was clever enough to manage. … Frank O’Connor explains the need for haste in his own case. “get black on white,’ he says, ‘used to be Maupassant’s advice — that’s what I always do. I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it.’ There are other writers, however, who work ahead laboriously, revising as they go. William Styron says, ‘I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph — each sentence, even — as I go along.’ Dorothy Parker reports that it takes her six months to do a story. “I think it out and then write it sentence by sentence — no first draft. I an’t write five words but that I change seven.’

Frank O'Connor

4. REVISION, REVISION, REVISION

In the fourth and last stage, rewriting and revision — something the current U.S. children’s poet laureate has advocated — take the reins:

There is no stage of composition at which these authors differ more from one another than in this final stage of preparing a manuscript for the printer. Even that isn’t a final stage for O’Connor. ‘I keep on rewriting,’ he says, ‘and after it’s published, and then after it’s published in book form, I usually rewrite it again. … Françoise Sagan, on the other hand, spends ‘very little’ time in revision. Simenon spends exactly three days in revising each of his short novels. Most of that time is devoted to tracking down and crossing out the literary touches — ‘adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence — cut it. Joyce Cary was another deletionist. Many of the passages he crossed out of his first drafts were those dealing explicitly with ideas. ‘I work over the whole book, ‘ he says, ‘ and cut out anything that does not belong to the emotional development, the texture of the feeling.’ Thurber revises his stories by rewriting them from the beginning, time and again. ‘A story I’ve been working on,’ he says, ‘… was written fifteen complete times. There must have been close to two hundred and forty thousand words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished story can’t be more than twenty thousand words.’ That would make it about the longest piece of fiction he has written. Men like Thurber and O’Connor, who rewrite ‘endlessly, endlessly,’ find it hard to face the interminable prospect of writing a full-length novel.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Cowley then dichotomizes how novelists and short story writers approach the process and its stages:

For short-story writers the four stages of composition are usually distinct, and there may even be a fifth, or rather a first, stage. Before seizing upon the germ o fa story, the writer may find himself in a state of ‘generally intensified emotional sensitivity … when events that usually pass unnoticed suddenly move you deeply, when a sunset lifts you to exaltation, when a squeaking door throws you into a fit of exasperation, when a clear look of trust in a child’s eyes moves you to tears.’ I am quoting again from Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who ‘cannot conceive,’ she says, ‘of any creative fiction written from any other beginning.’ There is not much doubt, in any case, that the germ is precious largely because it serves to crystallize a prior state of feeling. Then comes the brooding or meditation, then the rapidly written first draft, then the slow revision; for the story writer everything is likely to happen in more or less its proper order. For the novelist, however, the stages are often confused. The meditation may have to be repeated for each new episode. The revision of one chapter may precede or follow the first draft or the next.

Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series is worth a read even if only for Cowley’s deeply insightful, wide-ranging twenty-page introductory essay, covering many more facets of the creative process and the techniques of various literary greats. Complement it with these 9 books to help you write better, then follow up with the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas.

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05 APRIL, 2013

Beloved Film Critic Roger Ebert on Writing, Life, and Mortality

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“Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to.”

What a cultural loss to bid farewell to beloved critic Roger Ebert at the age of 70, after a long battle with the cancer that first claimed his jaw and, now, his life. Though I’d followed Ebert’s writing for some time, with the sort of detached appreciation one directs at cultural commentators, it wasn’t until I encountered him in the flesh at TED 2011, where he delivered his brave and stirring talk about learning to speak again, that I found myself in sheer awe of his spirit. A few months later, his memoir, Life Itself (public library), was released and I absorbed it voraciously. Today, some of its most resonant parts come back to mind, a bittersweet reminder of the incredible mind we’ve lost.

Roger Ebert (photograph by Anne Ryan, USA Today)

Ebert begins with an apt and beautiful metaphor for his existence:

I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.

In recalling the mismatch between his memory of his childhood home and the reality of the house once he returned as an adult, he captures that ineffable feeling of questioning the very fabric of reality:

I got the feeling I sometimes have when reality realigns itself. It’s a tingling sensation moving like a wave through my body. I know the feeling precisely. I doubt I’ve experienced it ten times in my life. I felt it at Smith Drugs when I was seven or eight and opened a nudist magazine and discovered that all women had breasts. I felt it when my father told me he had cancer. I felt it when I proposed marriage. Yes, and I felt it in the old Palais des Festivals at Cannes, when the Ride of the Valkyries played during the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now.

The shape-shifting quality of memory is something Ebert returns to again and again:

One of the rewards of growing old is that you can truthfully say you lived in the past. … In these years after my illness, when I can no longer speak and am set aside from the daily flow, I live more in my memory and discover that a great many things are safely stored away. It all seems still to be in there somewhere. … You find a moment from your past, undisturbed ever since, still vivid, surprising you. In high school I fell under the spell of Thomas Wolfe: ‘A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.’ Now I feel all the faces returning to memory.

[…]

I remember everything. All my life I’ve been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment. These retrieved moments I consider and replace on the shelf. When I began writing this book, memories came flooding to the surface, not because of any conscious effort but simply in the stream of writing. I started in a direction and the memories were waiting there, sometimes of things I hadn’t consciously thought about since.

Thomas Wolfe was, in fact, a big part of how fell in love with reading shortly after his high school graduation:

I read endlessly, often in class, always late at night. There was no pattern; one book led randomly to another. The great influence was Thomas Wolfe, who burned with the need to be a great novelist, and I burned in sympathy. I felt that if I could write like him, I would have nothing more to learn. I began to ride my bike over to campus and steal quietly into the bookstores.

Roger Ebert

Echoing E. B. White’s famous admonition that “writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” and Isabel Allende’s counsel to “show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Ebert shares some invaluable advice:

My colleague late at night, a year or two older, was Bill Lyon, who covered Champaign High School sports and became a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. … Bill and I would labor deep into the night on Fridays, composing our portraits of the [football] games. I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing. … Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

Much like his ability to summon memories without deliberate effort, Ebert’s mastery of the writing process is largely an unconscious act, a state of mesmerism experienced in finding your purpose and doing what you love:

When I write, I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share: In doing something I enjoy and am expert at, deliberate thought falls aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note.

He marvels at how the social web, despite his initial skepticism, liberated his impulse for self-expression as his writing took on an autobiographical life of its own:

My blog became my voice, my outlet, my ‘social media’ in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of. Into it I poured my regrets, desires, and memories. Some days I became possessed. The comments were a form of feedback I’d never had before, and I gained a better and deeper understanding of my readers. I made ‘online friends,’ a concept I’d scoffed at. Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to. I didn’t intend for it to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way. … the Internet encourages first-person writing, and I’ve always written that way. How can a movie review be written in the third person, as if it were an account of facts? If it isn’t subjective, there’s something false about it.

The blog let loose the flood of memories. Told sometimes that I should write my memoirs, I failed to see how I possibly could. I had memories, I had lived a good life in an interesting time, but I was at a loss to see how I could organize the accumulation of a lifetime. It was the blog that taught me how. It pushed me into first-person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself in manageable fragments. Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog forms. Most are here for the first time. They come pouring forth in a flood of relief.

Roger Ebert and wife Chaz, 2011 (photograph by Fred Thornhill/Reuters via The New York Times)

He captures the diverse spectrum of what we call “journalism,” sharply aware of where he plants his own stake:

I used journalism to stay at one remove from my convictions: I wouldn’t risk arrest but would bravely report about those who did. My life has followed that pattern. I observe and describe at a prudent reserve.

At the heart of cinema, Ebert sees a deep resonance with the human condition:

If you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be.

On the art of the interview:

My secret as an interviewer was that I was actually impressed by the people I interviewed … I am beneath everything else a fan. I was fixed in this mode as a young boy and am awed by people who take the risks of performance. I become their advocate and find myself in sympathy.

On writing as a substitute for the human pleasures that were taken from him by his illness:

What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.

On our relationship with mortality, at once rather complex and rather simple:

We’re all dying in increments.

Complement Life Itself with Ebert’s unforgettable TED talk:

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04 APRIL, 2013

The Art of Living: A 1924 Guide

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“Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts.”

The art of living has occupied such celebrated minds as Henry Miller, Leo Tolstoy, Ray Bradbury, Anaïs Nin, Viktor Frankl, Montaigne, and Steve Jobs. That’s precisely what Karl De Schweinitz explores in the first chapter of The Art of Helping People Out of Trouble (public library) — an early manifesto for social case work, originally published in 1924:

Living has yet to be generally recognized as one of the arts. Being born and growing up are such common experiences that people seldom consider what they involve. As most readers of books pass from cover to cover, realizing not at all that the letters which form the words are the product of painstaking craftsmanship and that the imposition of the type upon the page, the composition of the title-piece, the binding of the volume, are the result of centuries of study and design, so also we take as a matter of course the miracle of being alive, and the comings and goings of the men and women about us.

At the crux of the art of living De Schweinitz places the skill of nimbleness and adaptation to circumstances, or what he calls “the fundamental question of adjustment”:

For man is not born into a world made to fit him like a custom tailored suit of clothes, or a house built to order. He enters a universe that was eons old before his appearance, and that in all likelihood will continue for eons after his departure an infinitely complex, eternally changing universe that evolves its processes unmindful of his presence. It sets the conditions. It is man who must do the fitting.

He offers a metaphor for the art of navigating life:

Man is like a canoeist directing his course through waves. One after another he meets them. They may be heavy and powerful or they may be light ruffles of a sunshiny day in midsummer. He must ride them all. To each one he must slant his craft, dipping his paddle at just the right moment, giving it just the right twist, putting just the right amount of force into the stroke. Each wave requires a decision. Let him fail in judgment, or in skill an d strength, and his canoe may ship water until it fills, or, in the lift of some great breaker, overturn immediately.

He goes on to consider various challenging adjustments across the different stages of life — from childhood to young adulthood, from health to illness — including a particularly prescient meditation on the evolution of marriage:

The adjustment to marriage involves an institution that, ever changing, is yet ever the same. It varies as human beings vary. In the homes of neighbors it may exist in the tradition of one hundred years ago and as a prophecy of what it may be to-morrow.

[…]

Marriage is the most complicated of adjustments. … Two individuals, two sets of likes and dislikes … two products of different inheritance and experience, must combine to give expression to a new entity, the family. It is the most intimate of relationships. In it there is no such thing as the impersonality which simplifies association with human beings in other situations. Always there is the intangible emotional factor, capable of thwarting every attempt at adjustment or of making easy the adaptation of personalities whose union would otherwise be impossible. Analyze it though one may, marriage will continue to escape definition.

De Schweinitz also considers women’s growing “adjustment” to single living — bear in mind, in 1924:

To chart a straight course through the shoals and reefs of single life, to attain to the happiness of dignified and affectionate friendships, to keep a sense of proportion and balance, to maintain a tolerance of temperament an attitude is truly an achievement. Yet women are making this adjustment, developing in the process richer personalities, and sounding new depths of understanding and appreciation.

He then goes on to explore work, making an eloquent case for avoiding work-work by finding your purpose and doing what you love:

Work is one of the most important of adjustments because it is chief among the mediums through which a man expresses his personality.

He illustrates the height of vocational bliss by citing Colas Breugnon, a character in a Dmitry Kabalevsky novel-turned-opera:

There is one old chum that never goes back on me, my other self, my friend — my work. How good it is to stand before the bench with a tool in my hand and then saw and cut, plane, shave, carve, put in a peg, file, twist and turn the strong fine stuff, which resists yet yields — soft smooth walnut, as soft to my fingers as fairy flesh; the rosy bodies or brown limbs of our wood-nymphs which the hatchet has stripped of their robe. There is no pleasure like the accurate hand, the clever big fingers which can turn out the most fragile works of art, no pleasure like the thought which rules over the forces of the world, and writes the ordered caprices of its rich imagination on wood, iron, and stone. … To serve my art the elves of sap push out the fair limbs of the trees, lengthen and fatten them until they are polished fit for my caresses. My hands are docile workmen, directed by their foreman, my old brain here, and he plays the game as I like it, for is he not my servant too? Was ever man better served than I?

De Schweinitz remarks:

Here was a well-adjusted workman. He had what every one needs: an employment in which his faculties had the freest possible play. Happy is that person who finds this in his pursuit of a livelihood. A man cannot expend too great pains in the search for appropriate employment. Sometimes it is a quest of years, involving many trials. The more encouragement, therefore, should we offer the youth who, after leaving school or college, experiments with a number of different occupations. Instead of being reminded of the dismal proverb about the rolling stone, he should be received with sympathy and with interest and should be helped to discover the best channel for self-expression and service.

But not all can enjoy the freedom Breugnon extols. To those confined to restrictive occupations, De Schweinitz offers a loophole:

Sometimes this means creating in [your] present employment the desired opportunity. Imagination and invention can often delve into their own environment and find the seeds of growth. There are, however, many jobs that are so mechanical, so limited in scope, and so monotonous in the activities which they require, that there is little hope for self-expression in them. Those who earn their living in such ways, if they cannot change their work, would seek place for the play of their faculties in an avocation. There are many examples of this. Hawthorne’s interest was writing, but he supported himself for years by clerkship in a customs house. A man may be an operative in a factory and yet may make the art of photography his work.

“On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Henry Miller famously wrote and, indeed, De Schweinitz concludes the chapter with an affirmation:

Event succeeds event; accidents, people, happenings, one after another come toward us. Each must be met and dealt with, and upon the manner of our ealing depends the issue of our lives. If successful, men say that we are happy. If unsuccessful, they say we are in trouble. For this process of adjustment is life, and the mastery of it is the art of living which, who that considers the stakes, will deny to be the greatest of all the arts.

Complement The Art of Helping People Out of Trouble with the 1949 gem How to Avoid Work, then wash down with the modern-day handbook for living, How To Stay Sane.

Public domain photographs via The Library of Congress

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