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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

28 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Six Motives of Creativity: Mary Gaitskill on Why Writers Write

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The art of integrating the ego and the impulse for empathy in a dynamic call and response.

Why do writers — great writers — write? George Orwell attributed it to four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis ascribes it to the necessary self-delusions of creativity. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. For Susan Orlean, it comes from immutable love.

But one of literary history’s most beautiful answers comes from Mary Gaitskill in her essay “The Wolf in the Tall Grass,” titled after Nabokov’s famous meditation on the art of storytelling and published in the 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (public library) — an altogether fantastic collection, featuring David Foster Wallace’s famous essay “The Nature of the Fun” and other notable reflections on writing from Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rick Bass, Norman Mailer, Rick Moody, and more.

1. To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.

Mary Gaitskill by Ben Handzo

Her second motive reflects Susan Sontag’s assertion that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” Gaitskill continues:

2. To give form to the things we can sense but not see. You walk into the living room where your father is lying on the couch, listening to music. You are small, so he doesn’t hear or see you. His face is reacting to the music, and his expression is soft, abstract, intensely inward. It is also pained. It is an expression that you have never seen. Then he sees you and smiles, but the music still fills the room with that other expression…

Quoting Nabokov’s famous words — “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” — Gaitskill reflects on that ability to give shape to the ineffable as the essence of storytelling:

Stories mimic life like certain insects mimic leaves and twigs. Stories are about all the things that might’ve, could’ve, or would’ve happened, encrowded around and giving density and shape to undeniable physical events and phenomena. They are the rich, unseen underlayer of the most ordinary moments.

Gaitskill contrasts this intense outrospection and sensitivity to the world’s unseen layers with her third reason — which coincides with Orwell’s first motive — and writes:

3. To feel important, in the simplest egotistical sense. … Strong thoughts and feelings about what you see and feel require a distinct point of view and an ego. If you are frequently told that your point of view is worthless, invalid, or crazy, your ego will get really insulted. It will sulk like a teenager hunched in her room muttering, “No one ever listens. No one cares. One day they’ll see!” To make them all see — i.e., see how important I am — was once a big part of why I wrote stories. As a motivation, it’s embarrassing, it’s base, and it smells bad, but it’s also an angry little engine that could: it will fight like hell to keep your point of view from being snatched away, or demeaned, fighting even when there’s no apparent threat.

But just as one begins to raise a skeptical eyebrow and summon Alan Watts for a counterpoint, Gaitskill herself acknowledges the existential paradox therein:

The only problem is, the more your ego fights, the smaller your point of view gets. For a while, I needed to take great pains to make myself feel safe, to the point of extreme social isolation, so I wouldn’t feel like I had to fight. The angry engine quieted down a bit, and I began to learn about other points of view.

Indeed, this impulse for empathy and for giving voice to the marginalized realities of others brings us to Gaitskill’s fourth motive:

4. To reveal and restore things that I feel might be ignored or disregarded. I was once at a coffee shop eating breakfast alone when I noticed a woman standing and talking to a table of people. She was young but prematurely aged, with badly dyed hair and lined skin. She was smiling and joking, but her body had a collapsed, defeated posture that looked deeply habitual. Her spine was curled, her head was slightly receded, and her shoulders were pulled down in a static flinch. She expressed herself loudly and crudely, but also diffidently. She talked like she was a joke. But there was something else to her, something pushing up against the defeat, a sweet, tough, humorous vitality that I could almost see running up her center. I realized that if I hadn’t looked closely, I would not have really seen this woman, that I would not have seen what was most human and lively in her. I wondered how many people saw it, or even if she herself saw it…

That kind of small, new, unrecognized thing is very tender to me, and I hate it when it gets ignored or mistaken for something ugly. I want to acknowledge and nurture it, but I usually leave it very small in the stories. I do that because I think part of the human puzzle is in the delicacy of those moments or phenomena, contrasted with the ignorance and lack of feeling we are subject to.

Gaitskill moves on to her fifth reason, echoing Oscar Wilde’s famous emphasis on receptivity and reflecting on the osmosis of reading and writing:

5. To communicate. … To read well is an act of dynamic receptivity that creates a profound sense of exchange, and I like being on both ends of it.

Citing one of her favorite passages in literature, from Saul Bellow’s The Victim, she captures the highest potentiality of literature:

It opens life up down to the pit; when I read that, I can’t ignore how extraordinary it is to be alive.

In her sixth and final reason, Gaitskill returns to Nabokov:

6. To integrate; to love. One of Nabokov’s early novels, Laughter in the Dark, has an apparently simple, almost hackneyed plot: a foolish, wealthy middle-aged man (Albinus) falls in love with a vulgar, heartless sixteen-year-old girl (Margot). She and her lover, Rex, proceed to destroy Albinus and his family in a ruthless, ultimately grotesque fashion. On the face of it, it’s a soap opera, but what makes it extraordinary, aside from the beauty of the prose, is the author’s gift for inhabiting every energetic strain of his breathing animal creations. Rex and Margot are absolutely evil, but they are also full of fierce life, with, and supple, eel-like charm. Nabokov can step inside their cruelty and vitality almost as if it were an electrical current, then step out again and enter the much slower, cooler ambience of their poor stooge Albinus, or the person of Albinus’s bland, taffy-sweet wife, and emerge again, all in a flash. … The ability to do this requires a great understanding of and regard for life that is, I think, a kind of love.

Gaitskill concludes by reflecting on this “kind of integration [that] requires holding many disparate elements together in a fluid mosaic” in her own experience of writing, from the depths of which emerges the light of the creative impulse:

When I start writing a story, I don’t feel like I’m integrating anything; I feel like I’m marching through mud. But at least some of the time when there comes a moment when I feel I’m carrying all the elements I’ve just described and more in a big, clear bowl. It doesn’t feel like I’m containing them. It feels like I’m bringing them into being and letting them be, exactly as they are. My perplexity and upset may still be there, but they are no longer the main event. I feel sadness because much of what is in that bowl is sad. But because of that tender sadness, I also feel humility and joy and love. It’s strange because much of what I write about does not seem loving. But to write it makes me feel love.

Why I Write, while out of print, is still findable and very much worth the hunt. Complement it with its contemporary counterpart, one of 2013’s best books on writing, then revisit famous writers’ advice on writing.

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21 FEBRUARY, 2014

Vladimir Nabokov on Writing, Reading, and the Three Qualities a Great Storyteller Must Have

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“Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”

“Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself,” Umberto Eco observed in his magnificent atlas of imaginary places. Indeed, our capacity for self-delusion is one of the most inescapable fundamentals of the human condition, and nowhere do we engage it more willingly and more voraciously than in the art and artifice of storytelling.

In the same 1948 lecture that gave us Vladimir Nabokov’s 10 criteria for a good reader, found in his altogether fantastic Lectures on Literature (UK; public library), the celebrated author and sage of literature examines the heart of storytelling:

Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.

Vladimir Nabokov by William Claxton, 1963

He considers this essential role of deception in storytelling, adding to famous writers’ wisdom on truth vs. fiction and observing, as young Virginia Woolf did, that all art simply imitates nature:

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

Going back for a moment to our wolf-crying woodland little woolly fellow, we may put it this way: the magic of art was in the shadow of the wolf that he deliberately invented, his dream of the wolf; then the story of his tricks made a good story. When he perished at last, the story told about him acquired a good lesson in the dark around the camp fire. But he was the little magician. He was the inventor.

What’s especially interesting is that Nabokov likens the writer to an inventor, since the trifecta of qualities he goes on to outline as necessary for the great writer — not that different from young Susan Sontag’s list of the four people a great writer must be — are just as necessary for any great entrepreneur:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three — storyteller, teacher, enchanter — but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.

To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet — this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts… Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.

The three facets of the great writer — magic, story, lesson — are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought. There are masterpieces of dry, limpid, organized thought which provoke in us an artistic quiver quite as strongly as a novel like Mansfield Park does or as any rich flow of Dickensian sensual imagery. It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.

Indeed, as important to the success of literature as the great writer is the wise reader, whom Nabokov characterizes by a mindset that blends the receptivity of art with the critical thinking of science:

The best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one. The enthusiastic artist alone is apt to be too subjective in his attitude towards a book, and so a scientific coolness of judgment will temper the intuitive heat. If, however, a would-be reader is utterly devoid of passion and patience — of an artist’s passion and a scientist’s patience — he will hardly enjoy great literature.

Lectures on Literature is a wealth of wisdom in its entirety. Also see Nabokov on the six short stories everyone should read, then revisit famous writers’ collected insights on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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19 FEBRUARY, 2014

Joan Didion on Telling Stories, the Economy of Words, Starting Out as a Writer, and Facing Rejection

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“Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus.”

In her otherwise prolific and acclaimed career as one of the greatest writers of the past century, Joan Didion only ever wrote three short stories. They are collected in Telling Stories (public library) — a tiny 1978 treasure, the 26th in a series of keepsakes issued by the Bancroft Library for its members, which I found thanks to the curatorial magic of the wonderful Honey & Wax. Prefacing the three short stories included in this slim volume, Didion recounts her reluctant foray into the genre as a junior at Berkeley. It took place in the fall of 1954, shortly before her twentieth birthday, when she was admitted into celebrated literary critic and writer Mark Schorer’s English 106A class — a “writers’ workshop” that required each student to produce five short stories over the course of the semester. She was instantly immersed into a cesspool of self-doubt and comparative adolescent insecurity:

I remember each other member of this class as older and wiser than I had hope of ever being (it had not yet struck me in any visceral way that being nineteen was not a long-term proposition), not only older and wiser but more experienced, more independent, more interesting, more possessed of an exotic past — marriages and the breaking up of marriages, money and the lack of it, sex and politics and the Adriatic seen at dawn; the stuff not only of grown-up life itself but, more poignantly to me at the time, the very stuff which might be substantiated into five short stories.

[…]

I had no past, and, every Monday-Wednesday-Friday at noon in Dwinelle Hall, it seemed increasingly clear to me that I had no future. I ransacked my closet for clothes in which I might appear invisible in class, and came up with only a dirty raincoat. I sat in this raincoat and I listened to other people’s stories read aloud and I despaired of ever knowing what they knew. I attended every meeting of this class and never spoke once.

In her ratty raincoat, Didion coasted through the class, mustering three of the five required short stories and earning, by the mercy of Schorer, “a man of infinite kindness to and acuity about his students,” a course grade of B. She wrote no more short stories for the next ten years, then she penned the ones collected in Telling Stories.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Mary Lloyd Estrin, 1977

But there’s some essential fine print to Didion’s career trajectory, which might resonate with paralyzing familiarity for many aspiring writers today:

When I say I wrote no more stories for exactly ten years, I do not mean that I wrote nothing at all. In fact I wrote constantly. I wrote, once I left Berkeley, for a living. I went to New York and I wrote merchandising copy for Vogue and I wrote promotion copy for Vogue (the distinction between the two was definite but recondite, and to try to explain it would like giving the AFL-CIO definition of two apparently similar jobs on the line at the Ford assembly plant in Pico Rivera, California) and after a while I wrote editorial copy for Vogue. A sample of the latter: “Opposite, above: All through the house, colour, verve, improvised treasures in happy but anomalous coexistence. Here, a Frank Stella, an art nouveau stained-glass panel, a Roy Lichtenstein. Not shown: a table covered with frankly brilliant oilcloth, a Mexican find at fifteen cents a yard.”

But rather than deriding this type of word-mongering with the privilege of hindsight, Didion cherishes the learning ground it provided in mastering the art of conciseness and precision with the written word:

It is easy to make light of this kind of “writing,” and I mention it specifically because I do not make light of it all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words (as well as with people who hung Stellas in their kitchens and went to Mexico for buys in oilcloth), a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted.

This leaves one wondering whether easily derided modern forms of forcibly concise non-literary writing might engender similar benefits — perhaps there’s a reason why some of today’s greatest writers, from Joyce Carol Oates to Neil Gaiman, have embraced Twitter.

Didion continues:

At Vogue one learned fast, or one did not stay, how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely thirty-nine characters. We were connoisseurs of synonyms. We were collectors of verbs. (I recall “to ravish” as a highly favored verb for a number of issues, and I also recall it, for a number of issues more, as the source of a highly favored noun: “ravishments,” as in tables cluttered with porcelain tulips, Faberge eggs, other ravishments.) We learned as reflex the grammatical tricks we had learned only as marginal corrections in school (“there are two oranges and an apple” read better than “there were an apple and two oranges,” passive verbs slowed down sentences, “it” needed a reference within the scan of the eye), learned to rely on the OED, learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. “Run it through again, sweetie, it’s not quite there.” “Give me a shock verb two lines in.” “Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.” Less was more, smooth was better, and absolute precision essential to the monthly grand illusion. Going to work for Vogue was, in the late nineteen-fifties, not unlike training with the Rockettes.

It’s a poorly kept cultural secret that most aspiring writers who take, with the intention of doing so temporarily, such placeholder or springboard jobs never actually replace them with or spring into a full writing career. But Didion eventually managed to carve out time for writing something other than perfectly measured captions:

Gradually, I began, in the evenings and in between deadlines in lieu of lunch, to play with words not for Vogue but for myself. I began to make notes. I began to write down everything I saw and heard and remembered and imagined. I began to write, or so I thought, another story.

Didion thought it was a story about a man and a woman living in New York, but after several false starts, she peered into her notes and beaming back at her came a wholly different story:

What I actually had on my mind that year in New York — had on my mind as opposed to in my mind — was a longing for California, a homesickness, a nostalgia so obsessive that nothing else figured. In order to discover what was on my mind I needed room. I needed room for the rivers and for the rain and for the way the almonds came into blossom around Sacramento, room for irrigation ditches and room for the fear of kiln fires, room in which to play with everything I remembered and did not understand.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Dominick Dunne, 1964

What Didion had initially intended as a story about a woman and a man in New York thus became her first novel, Run River, about the wife of a hop grower on the Sacramento River. Reflecting on why her originally devised short story never worked, Didion contemplates the heart of the genre and illustrates it with a gripping example:

Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus. Let me give you an example. One morning in 1975 I found myself aboard the 8:45 a.m. Pan American from Los Angeles to Honolulu. There were, before take-off from Los Angeles, “mechanical difficulties,” and a half-hour delay. During this delay the stewardess served coffee and orange juice and two children played tag in the aisles and, somewhere behind me, a man began screaming at a woman who seemed to be his wife. I say that the woman seemed to be his wife only because the tone of his invective sounded practiced, although the only words I heard clearly were these: “You are driving me to murder.” After a moment I was aware of the door to the plane being opened a few rows behind me, and of the man rushing off. There were many Pan American employees rushing on and off then, and considerable confusion. I do not know whether the man reboarded the plane before take-off or whether the woman went on to Honolulu alone, but I thought about it all the way across the Pacific. I thought about it while I was drinking a sherry-on-the-rocks and I thought about it during lunch and I was still thinking about it when the first of the Hawaiian Islands appeared off the left wing tip. It was not until we had passed Diamond Head and were coming in low over the reef for landing at Honolulu, however, that I realized what I most disliked about the incident: I disliked it because it had the aspect of a short story, one of those “little epiphany” or “window to the world” stories, one of those stories in which the main character glimpses a crisis in a stranger’s life — a woman weeping in a tea room, quite often, or an accident seen from the window of a train, “tea rooms” and “trains” still being fixtures of short stories although not of real life — and is moved to see his or her own life in a new light. Again, my dislike was a case of needing room in which to play with what I did not understand. I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story. I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and I still do. I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself. I wanted everything in the picture. I wanted room for flowers, and reef fish, and people who might or might not have been driving one another to murder but in any case were not impelled, by the demands of narrative convention, to say so out loud on the 8:45 a.m. Pan American from Los Angeles to Honolulu.

A page from Didion's manuscript of A Book of Common Prayer, 1977

Despite her distaste for the genre, however, Didion did write the short stories included in Telling Stories, and all in the same year — 1964, as Didion turned thirty, months after Run River was published. She explains the reluctant impulse:

My first novel had just been published, and I was suffering a fear common among people who have just written a first novel: the fear of never writing another. (As a matter of fact this fear is also common among people who have just written a second novel, a third novel, and, for all I know, a forty-fourth novel, but at the time I considered it a unique affliction.) I sat in front of my typewriter and believed that another subject would never present itself. I believed that I would be forever dry. I believed that I would “forget how.” Accordingly, as a kind of desperate finger exercise, I tried writing stories.

Of the three stories — “Coming Home,” “The Welfare Island Ferry,” and “When Did Music Come this Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?” — the first two found a home fairly quickly, in the Saturday Evening Post and Harper’s Bazaar, respectively. The third, however, was an exercise in weathering the storm of rejection. Didion, who was represented by the William Morris Agency at the time, traces the downward spiral of the story’s fate in a series of letters from her agent in New York beginning on October 9, 1964:

As you probably know, [Esquire fiction editor] Rust [Hills] wrote to a great many writers regarding stories for the children’s issue and the guarantee for everyone is a flat $200. On the price for the story itself, they will pay $1750, or a $250 increase over your last price. Please let me know whether this is agreeable and if so we’ll confirm the terms on your behalf…”

Seven weeks later, the horizons begin to dim:

I’m really disappointed not to have better news for you, but Rust Hills has returned “When Did Music Come this Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?” … We’ll of course send the guarantee check off to you just as soon as we receive it. Since you indicated that you wanted to do some further work on the story, I am wondering whether you would like the manuscript returned to you at this point…”

Over the following months, Didion’s agent pitched a revised version of the story to several prestigious publications, but to no avail. Then, in a letter from August 25, 1965, the avalanche of rejections reaches tragicomic proportions, rendering Didion’s story one of the most evasively and euphemistically yet prolifically and consistently rejected works by famous writers. Her agent tabulates the rejections, which give a peculiar taste of each publication’s general editorial tone and culture, beginning with the Saturday Evening Post:

Many of us read it and a great many were excited and insistent in their admiration of it. Others, and they include Bill Emerson who has the final vote, also admired it but felt that it was wrong for the Post, not so much because of its subject matter, but also because of the oblique method of narration.

The New Yorker:

As a whole it just isn’t effective enough.

Ladies’ Home Journal:

Too negative for us.

McCall’s:

I feel very bad about rejecting this story — not because I think it’s really a well worked-out story but because the writing is so awfully good. She has a very special way of involving the reader… but I’m turning this down, reluctantly, because I don’t think it’s a successful story in the end.

Redbook:

Just too brittle.

Harper’s Bazaar:

While “The Wellfare Island Ferry” is almost my favorite among the stories we have published… I feel that “When Did Music Come this Way?” is not quite as good.

Vogue:

Not quite right for us.

Mademoiselle:

Unable to use this particular story.

The Atlantic Monthly:

I hope you’ll be sending us more of Joan Didion’s work, but this didn’t make it, so back to you.

The Reporter:

Alas, not right for The Reporter.

Cosmopolitan, to whom the story was submitted twice due to changes in editorial staff:

Too depressing.

But the best — for the sheer anomalous coexistence of professional compliments and personal editorial indignation — came from Good Housekeeping:

Marvelously written, very real, and so utterly depressing that I’m going to sit under a cloud of angst and gloom all afternoon… I’m sorry we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time.

Surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly, given their institutionally indoctrinated gender attitudesEsquire was the only publication that didn’t respond at all to the revised story.

In the end, the agent began submitting the story in the trade reviews, until it was eventually accepted by the Denver Quarterly, which paid $5 per page, for a total of $50 for Didion’s 10-page story — $1,700 less than what Didion originally billed. “When Did Music Come this Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?” was published in the Winter 1967 issue of the Denver Quarterly. Didion never wrote another short story.

Joan Didion with her Corvette Stingray, 1970. Photograph by Julian Wasser.

But despite the unfortunate fate of that story — or perhaps precisely because of it — the trio included in Telling Stories are an absolute delight to read. Complement it with Didion on self-respect, keeping a notebook, and grief, then revisit famous writers’ collected wisdom on the craft.

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