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Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience

“It’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.”

Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience

“One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes,” Virginia Woolf lamented in her diary midway through writing To the Lighthouse. And yet: “Nothing and nobody exists in this world whose very being does not presuppose a spectator,” Hannah Arendt — another woman of searing intellect and uncommon insight into the human spirit — observed exactly half a century later in contemplating how the rift between being and appearing rips us asunder. So if the seismic core of being we call soul exists, as I emphatically believe it does, how do we reconcile its elemental demand for spectatorship with the impossibility of writing about the drama that animates it?

That improbable, sublime feat is what cartoonist Alison Bechdel accomplishes in Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama (public library), a psychological sequel of sorts to Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic — Bechdel’s spectacular memoir-turned-Broadway-hit about her childhood and her closeted father’s suicide. In plumbing the catacombine depths of her ambivalent relationship with her mother — which she does with astonishing self-awareness and vulnerability, climaxing in reluctant self-compassion — Bechdel speaks to some of the most elemental and most universal aspects of the human experience: loneliness, love, the perennial perplexities of the child-parent relationship, our longing for unconditional acceptance and adoration, and the pathological onslaught of self-doubt with which those engaged in a creative life live.

I pause here to note that this is one of very few books I’ve encountered which, in addition to being creatively and intellectually superb, I consider absolutely life-changing — so much so, that anything I write here about the book is bound to be a woefully deficient representation of what the book is.

Although she sets out to write a book about her mother’s life, it ends up being a memoir of Bechdel’s own (somewhat like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is really Gertrude Stein’s memoir of her own life, illuminated via a sidewise gleam refracted through her wife’s). Her mother’s resistance to the merits of memoir as a genre only enriches the meta-story of both their relationship and the archetypal yearning for approval in every parent-child relationship:

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(I am reminded here of A.M. Homes and her unforgettable insight into the art of memoir: “Making art is all about humans and our psychology: who we are, how we behave, what we do with the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s closer to your own bone when it’s a memoir, but the bone is still the bone.”)

In one of the opening pages, Bechdel captures the Woolfian paradox of this entire meta-project:

You can’t live and write at the same time.

And yet she has been writing about life, perhaps in order to avoid experiencing life, since childhood. The journal, after all, is a technology of thought and selfhood; like any technology, it is the intention behind its use that determines whether its effect is constructive or destructive. Rather than a medium of creative expression, Bechdel’s early diary became an obsessive compulsion, to the point where her mother had to intervene. In looking back on the episode, she invokes a passage from Virginia Woolf’s diary: “What a disgraceful lapse! Nothing added to my disquision, & life allowed to waste like a tap left running. Eleven days unrecorded.”

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“My mother composed me as I now compose her,” Bechdel observes of one of the many role-reversals that mark their parent-child relationship, and I’m reminded of the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderful phrase “composing a life” — for isn’t every life, after all, a composition?

Bechdel writes:

For a long time I resisted including my present-day interactions with mom in this book precisely because they’re so “ordinary.”

Then I started seeing how the transcendent would almost always creep into the everyday.

Indeed, it is in the most mundane of moments that the monumental is revealed — in Bechdel’s life, as in any life. One such moment: her mother’s unease about the publication of Bechdel’s now-legendary lesbian comic. The tension of their culminant conversation broke open an unexpected ease around Bechdel’s anguishing, elemental, lifelong need she had always experienced as unmet, which was now suddenly revealed as unmeetable:

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The book is a kind of modern-day florilegium composed of Bechdel’s marginalia on books she is consumed with — above all, the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf and the work of pioneering psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott, alongside cultural classics like Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child (“that endlessly consoling ode to sensitive children everywhere”), Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and On Lies, Secrets, and Silence by Adrienne Rich (who sent a personal rejection, uncushioned yet somehow mobilizing, to Bechdel’s first submission to a major literary journal).

It is also a masterwork of dot-connecting — in a testament to my longtime conviction that literature is the original Internet, Bechdel follows the web of “hypertext” references that lead her from one book to the next, from one thinker to another. But, more than that, she links concepts across wildly divergent books with remarkable virtuosity. It takes a rare kind of mind to go from Winnicott’s influential notion of transitional objects to Winnie the Pooh, the iconic stuffed toy being one such object that just so happens to bear a striking linguistic similarity to the pioneering psychoanalyst’s name.

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No doubt the great Vannevar Bush, in contemplating how the future of information will shape human thought in 1945, had in mind rare geniuses like Bechdel when he envisioned “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”

The book is also a sort of elegy for therapy — at once a celebration and a lamentation, reminding us of our inescapable human fragility and of how imperfect even our most refined, best-intentioned mechanisms for fixing our brokenness are.

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Each chapter begins with a strange and particularly psychologically illuminating dream Bechdel has at an existentially pivotal point, then unfolds into the strangeness of her waking life, as if to remind us that the “sleeping counterpart” who does our dreaming springs from the same self that also does our living.

Her sleeping self is stranded by her father at a picnic, falls off an icy cliff that melts to reveal her childhood home, and marvels at a perfect spider’s web on a blanket. Her wakeful self tries to dissipate a fight with her girlfriend by walking into a mass service only to get trapped in a Christmas pageant, kicks a hole in the wall in a fit of jealous rage over an infidelity before falling asleep cuddling her childhood teddy bear, and contends with the fact that her father killed himself by jumping in front of a bread truck. Which world is the stranger of the two?

Anyone who attends to his or her life with the same granular attention with which Bechdel constructs her memoir knows that the answer lies in the thin membrane of consciousness and selfhood separating the two worlds — a membrane as porous and permeable as the one separating our so-called personal and professional lives.

At the end, as she nears the completion of this meta-memoir, Bechdel comes full circle to the paradox with which she began, newly illuminated:

I would argue that for both my mother and me, it’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.

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Complement the brilliant, layered, and immeasurably insightful Are You My Mother? with Bechdel’s magnificent Design Matters interview, in which she discusses her life, her work, and the constant dynamic interaction between the two:

I do think there is something about just the fact of being able to show stuff that enables you to convey an order of meaning that, once you attach language to it, something gets lost.

BP

Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths

“See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true… That’s a great place to try to be.”

Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths

“The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it,” Dani Shapiro wrote in her beautiful meditation on the pleasures and perils of the creative life. How to inhabit that pleasurable, perilous place of uncertainty is what George Saunders explores throughout his conversation with Deborah Eisenberg, found in Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore (public library) — that marvelous record of public encounters between literary titans at the Rare Book Room of New York’s iconic Strand bookstore, which gave us Junot Díaz on our limiting mythos of success and which features such celebrated writers as Alison Bechdel, A.M. Homes, Renata Adler, Wendy Lesser, and Mark Strand (who is not related to the famed bookstore but is, via paternity, to the volume’s editor, Jessica Strand).

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Two generations after William Faulkner asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that the role of the writer is “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Saunders shares a reflection wonderfully countercultural amid our era of marketable tragedy and rampant cynicism:

When I was younger, I was for some stupid reason really taken aback by the realization that capitalism could be harsh. It had never occurred to me before. So my work tended to be a little preoccupied with that notion, maybe. My wife and I fell head over heels, and had our daughters pretty quickly. Now we’ve been married for twenty-six years and our daughters are grown up and wonderful. So lately my feeling is there ought to be a place for some fictional corollary of the fact that sometimes things actually work… An artist can sometimes represent the idea that things can be wonderful.

Responding to the observation that a line from a short story of his — “Can goodness win?” — encapsulates an undergirding concern across all of his work, Saunders adds:

Why not? Yes, it can win. But it can also lose — can get humiliated. It can also cause other people problems, by morphing into self-righteousness. I think what a fiction writer does is represent different viewpoints vividly. And without necessarily seeming to prefer one over the other. “Can goodness win?” “Yes, it does all the time.” “No, it cannot: it loses all the time.” Both true.

[…]

See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true. You, little mind, actually don’t have to decide. That’s a great place to try to be. And for a fiction writer, that’s the best place to be: you’ve put two apparently opposing truths in the air and you’re just letting them hang there, knowing that the real truth is … that opposition.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Denise Levertov’s notion of the midwifery of creative work, Saunders suggests that even if one were to inhabit that opposition, one can’t forcibly wrest out of it the sort of aliveness that makes art. Rather than trying to will it, one ought to be willing to let it come into a life of its own. He reflects on having this pivotal realization when he was starting out as a writer and finding his own voice:

I found out that the same minute I had an idea about what I wanted to write, life would go out of it. I’m a Bear of Little Brain, as Winnie the Pooh would say. My challenge is to try to keep the themes out of what I’m writing as long as possible… Einstein said it better: “No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception.” … It’s got more integrity if it comes in of its own accord.

At the end of the event, in answering a reader’s question, Saunders returns to the inherent duality of life and the notion that although we’re animated by conflicting impulses and irrepressible moral imperfection, we can still live rich and beautiful lives. Echoing Parker Palmer’s ennobling assertion that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life,” Saunders observes:

At any given moment you’re failing to see the way things actually are. The manifestation is that you’re failing to be kind. You’re anxious. You’re neurotic. I don’t think it’s so much about external things. I think you could be a very happy, high-functioning person and still note the moment-to-moment failures.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly terrific Upstairs at the Strand — a trove of unscripted wisdom on literature and life from some of the greatest writers of our time — with George Saunders’s moving commencement address about the power of kindness, then revisit this evolving library of notable wisdom on writing, including Hemingway’s advice to young writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, and Grace Paley on the value of not understanding everything.

BP

Junot Díaz on the Complexities Beneath the Blanket Term “Race,” Our Limiting Mythologies of Success, Why Dictatorships Are Like Reddit, and How Artists Survive

“I don’t think we can safely say just because someone has some sort of visible markers of success that in any way they have avoided any of the dysfunctions… We don’t know anything about anybody.”

Junot Díaz on the Complexities Beneath the Blanket Term “Race,” Our Limiting Mythologies of Success, Why Dictatorships Are Like Reddit, and How Artists Survive

“Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her magnificent meditation on the magic of real human conversation. “Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.” Nowhere is this connective tissue of participation stronger than when we listen to two people of enormous intellectual potency converse about ideas of deep relevance to every dimension of existence, from the granular immediacy of our daily lives to the most abiding macro-truths of the human experience. Those are the types of conversations that have unfolded upstairs at The Strand.

Since 1927, The Strand bookstore has endured as a bastion of literature and an iconic New York institution — a “monument to the immortality of the written word,” in Fran Lebowitz’s words. The sole survivor of the city’s famous Book Row, this living landmark whose famed red awning boasts “18 miles of books” has continued to grow in size and scope. In 2003, it was crowned with a Rare Book Room occupying the newly built top floor — a spacious portal into a different era, with its oriental rugs and velvet curtains and Edwardian leather armchairs and shelves overflowing with treasures ranging from signed Hemingway first editions to esoteric Victorian encyclopedias of botany.

It was there that some of the greatest writers of our time began convening for a series of revelatory public conversations — titans like George Saunders, Renata Adler, A.M. Homes, David Shields, Alison Bechdel, Mark Strand, Paul Auster, and Edward Albee. The record of these extraordinary encounters now appears as Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore (public library).

Jessica Strand, who masterminded the series and who currently hosts the wonderful Books at Noon program at the New York Public Library, writes in the preface:

It was this feeling — the serendipity, the variety, the happy collision of books, ideas, and people — that we tried to capture in our reading series up in the Rare Book Room. The goal was to match writers with other writers: two (or more) equals on stage for freewheeling, candid conversations on their work, their craft, their likes, their dislikes.

The pairings span an enormous range of relationships — dear friends who had loved each other for decades, admiring strangers who had never met in person before, writers who teach each other’s work, thinkers linked by a common thread not readily visible. Each conversation is governed by a different self-determined dynamic — some become interviews, with one writer assuming the role of the revealer and the other of the revealed; some are two-way celebrations, where the mutual goodwill and deep admiration become the lens through which both writers’ work is illuminated; some are dynamic interactions of ideas bouncing between two formidable minds and radiating into a winding, layered, nuanced conversation about, oh, everything.

Junot Díaz (Photograph: Carolyn Cole)
Junot Díaz (Photograph: Carolyn Cole)

One of the most electrifying pairings is of two good friends, New Yorker critic Hilton Als and Pulitzer-winning Dominican American writer Junot Díaz, in which Als takes on the role of interviewer as Díaz reflects on his becoming as a person, his evolution as a writer, and the interplay between the two. What emerges is a refreshingly candid yet considered perspective on the nuanced complexities we flatten into the blanket term “race,” the pernicious mythology of success to which we all too automatically subscribe, and the burdens, responsibilities, and rewards of the artist as a public persona and a private person.

Nearly half a century after James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s terrifically timely conversation about race, Díaz points to the lamentable ways in which we’ve lost rather than gained dimension in how we think and talk about this elemental reality of human life:

We’ve lost so many words to talk about race, we don’t even have a conversation about it, we have lost it. Yet, in the Caribbean, there are more than twelve words that I can come up with to describe people’s skin color, at least in the neighborhood where I grew up in. In some ways I think that is useful, because it helps when it comes time to approach the question of privilege. People don’t claim amnesia. Some can think my uncles are super-backwards because the didn’t go to Ivy League schools, but they don’t cop to any of that ridiculous liberal amnesia. The sort of thing that translates into statements like, “Oh, it’s not race, it’s class.” I think you can’t have class without race. It’s called colonialism. Some people come right off the bat and say, a guy is ignorant. My uncles would never make those claims, but rather say it’s about black people. But I find that level of frankness, even if it’s considered regressive and messed up, a better starting point than the constant illusion of the sort of liberal moment that we have.

This impoverishing of vocabulary and perspectives, Díaz argues, has seeded our woefully artificial binary view of the role of race in art:

Whenever I read about people of color as artists I think it is so overly simplified. We tend to be reduced to the cultural element… Or we’ll be reduced to simplistic visions that say that in these works of art, this artist is talking about this crucial moment, or about the problem of race. [Critics will] use these terms that mean nothing, because they don’t want to approach what exactly a person is getting at in their work. If white artists were discussed along racial terms as often as people of color, we would be a better country. I never see a white dancer discussing how their whiteness impacts their dance. The first question out of an interviewer’s mind when they talk to a white artist is never if they have experienced racism. But as an artist, I must say it’s incredible the amount of times these questions come up, and when they ask me, I’m always ready to ask back, “Have you been racist lately?”

Art by Leo and Diane Dillon from Blast Off by Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum, a visionary vintage children's book that envisioned a black female astronaut decades before that became a reality.
Art by Leo and Diane Dillon from Blast Off by Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum, a vintage children’s book that envisioned a black female astronaut decades before that became a reality.

And yet, in a strangely assuring way, the wellspring of that reality-warping cultural amnesia is also the wellspring of our grounds for hope — our collective memory and our collective imagination are equally flawed in both directions of the time continuum. Myopically fixated on the present, we are just as unable to imagine a marvelously different future as we are to admit a damningly different past. Díaz observes:

One of the best things about art, as anyone who’s studied a Victorian text knows, is that the future comes faster than we imagine, and there is a future coming up, of young artists and young critics and young scholars, who are thinking in ways that make the current conversation about our art look incredibly reductive.

Even so, such emergent voices are tasked with reconciling opposing impulses and ideals — a balancing act so tremendously taxing that it borders on the impossible:

People want to read stories by “marginal artists” as universal in the exact wrong way we want them to be read. I want to be read as universal not because this stands in for all Dominicans… All art, because it scales to the human, because of that human-level distortion, is disqualified from becoming a stand-in for a nation, or a time.

[…]

On the one hand, we don’t want to be called out for that, but on the other hand, we want all the banners and prizes and privileges that come with that. It’s a terrible, terrible two-headed dragon to serve.

Echoing Ralph Ellison, Díaz considers the power of fiction in enlarging our collective imagination to encompass precisely these previously unimagined and conditionally unimaginable alternative futures for ourselves, as individuals and as a society:

It’s really helpful to assemble selves not always deploying realism. Realism cannot account for my little brother and my grandmother, but Octavia Butler’s science fiction can. Samuel Delany’s generic experiments can explain them. I read his book and that range is present, not only present, but what is unbearable about trying to hold the two together in one place. So it helps not to have realism as the only paradigm to really understand yourself.

But the quest to understand oneself, Díaz cautions, can be horribly impeded by the compulsion to be liked by others:

The engine that propels me is one that doesn’t want me to be anybody’s friend, doesn’t want popularity.

[…]

I grew up in a post-dictatorship dictatorship society. The axis of likability is how dictatorships survive. Becoming popular is part of what dictatorships hijack to remain in power. For me to write things from the same toxic axis that made stronger the dictatorship that completely disfigured my family and my society, it just wasn’t going to happen. My father was a Dominican military police apparatchik. He was emblematic of that culture. And I lived in a place where it was so much better to be liked because your shirt was ironed, or because you had a good posture. It was just insane, the way a military dictatorship is like Reddit… My experience of living in a post-dictatorship society is that everybody believes that they’re going to be the Reddit article that gets pushed all the way up. The like axis is just very, very powerful and I needed to tilt a different way. I needed to say that it is possible to say things, to be involved in a conversation with people where the relationship is determined by things more complicated than whether you like me or not. Maybe the content of my communication would be in itself worthy of discussion, regardless of how you felt at an emotional level about the person bringing the news. In a dictatorship, the two things get quickly put together. The news you bring stands as a moral judgment about you, and this is the way you keep critics silent, because you basically say, “If you criticize the dictatorship, it’s not only your thinking, your body is out of order, which is why we must destroy your body.”

Díaz considers how so-called marginalized artists make their way through the dominant culture even in non-dictatorial societies:

It’s an old pattern, but one that is super-reliable. We’re so erased. If you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you come from a poor background, if you come from a family who worked like dogs and never got any respect or a share of the profits, you know that ninety percent of your stories ain’t told. And yet we still have to be taught to look and to tell our stories. Many of us have to stumble our way through this. Despite the utter absence of us, it’s still an internal revolution to say, “Wait a minute. We are not only worthy of great art, but the source of.” It takes a lot of work to get there.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

But his most salient, most uncomfortable-making, most intensely important point deals with our limiting mythology of the getting-there. With his characteristic large-hearted but fiery candor, Díaz pushes back against an audience question about how he was able to transcend a childhood of deprivation and “succeed so beautifully” as an artist:

This is the mythography of America, progressive, where you have this idea that everything moves upward, and people are always on this journey to improvement. So, “How did you make it?” Listen, this is very important to understand, I don’t speak the language of “make it.” Our moment, in late capital, has no problems, through its contradictions, occasionally granting someone ridiculous moments of privilege, but that’s not what matters. In other words, we can elect Obama, but what does that say about the fate of the African-American community? We have no problem in this country rewarding individuals of color momentarily as a way never to address the structural cannibalistic inequalities that are faced by the communities these people come out of.

In a sentiment that gave me particular pause both culturally and personally — having grown up in a communist dictatorship and now living in America as a woman and a queer person and a generation-zero immigrant, I belong to a number of the groups Díaz enumerates — he adds:

I don’t think we can safely say just because someone has some sort of visible markers of success that in any way they have avoided any of the dysfunctions. That is the kind of Chaucerian, weird physiognomy-as-moral-status. We don’t know anything about anybody. Yes, I have made a certain level of status as an artist and as a writer, but what I am reminded of most acutely is not of my “awesomeness,” or some sort of will to power that has led me through the jungle. What I am aware of, being here, is that I am representative of a structural exclusion.

He reflects on how living with such systematic “structural exclusion” counters the transcendence narrative undergirding the popular mythology of success:

We accept too much at face value these ideologies of transcendence… I just knew, from everything that I saw, that there is no transcending the human experience. You’ve got to realize that most of us feel permanently displaced and savagely undone. Most of us try everything we can to manage our fears and our insecurities. Most of us are profoundly inhuman to ourselves and other people, and that makes us no less valuable, and no less worthy of attention and love. I didn’t transcend all this stuff, you just got to live with [it], man, and there’s nothing like trying to run away from all that stuff to guarantee its supremacy… The transcendence myth will just do you in, in the long run.

To live with it, Díaz intimates, requires a willingness to hold the ephemeral and the eternal in both hands while marching forward — requires that we contact both the impermanence of outward successes and the immutability of art’s intrinsic rewards:

Only one person attended my first reading at Boston, my best friend, Shuya Ohno… [The United States] is not like Latin America, that tends to be much more committed to its artists, and you could be thirty years in the game and not publish one book and people still think you matter. We are a fickle, fickle nation, and today’s arrival is tomorrow’s “See, I told you, what a fraud.” Somebody will come along and that’s the reality of it. I know that I’m back to reading to my boy Shuya, always in my heart, because that’s the place where most of us end up as artists, and you have to be comfortable there, no matter what your fantasies of supremacy and success are, because tomorrow that’s where you’ll be at.

The best part about art is that as long as the civilization survives, somebody out here will keep one copy of your text, and perhaps that will give comfort, inspiration, and more importantly a space for an individual to be in touch with their humanity. To be temporally in touch with their best selves, which is fragile, flawed, weak, scared… That’s worth working, and that’s the moment why most of us go this very long, shadowed path into producing art, because we fundamentally believe that what we do is the best of what we call human, the best of us, even if at times we don’t like to recognize it.

Upstairs at the Strand is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring eleven other equally yet very differently stimulating pairings, including A.M. Homes and Leigh Newman, Renata Adler and David Shields, and George Saunders and Deborah Eisenberg. Complement this particular portion with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on identity, race, and the immigrant experience and poet Sarah Kay on how we measure artistic success.

BP

Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers

Hemingway, Didion, Baldwin, Fitzgerald, Sontag, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Morrison, Orwell, Le Guin, Woolf, and other titans of literature.

By popular demand, I’ve put together a periodically updated reading list of all the famous advice on writing presented here over the years, featuring words of wisdom from such masters of the craft as Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Orlean, Ernest Hemingway, Zadie Smith, and more.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton from our visualization of great writers’ sleep habits vs. literary productivity.

Please enjoy.

  1. Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem
    “One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.”
  2. Rachel Carson on Writing and the Loneliness of Creative Work
    “If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people.”
  3. Jeanette Winterson’s 10 Tips on Writing
    “Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.”
  4. Jennifer Egan on Writing, the Trap of Approval, and the Most Important Discipline for Aspiring Writers
    “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”
  5. T.S. Eliot on Writing: His Warm and Wry Letter of Advice to a Sixteen-Year-Old Girl Aspiring to Become a Writer
    “Don’t write at first for anyone but yourself.”
  6. Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

    Mastering the essential complementarity of compassion and total objectivity.
  7. The Only Story in the World: John Steinbeck on Kindness, Good and Evil, the Wellspring of Good Writing
    “Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”
  8. Zadie Smith on What Writers Can Learn from Some of History’s Greatest Dancers
  9. “Between propriety and joy choose joy.”

  10. The Continuous Thread of Revelation: Eudora Welty on Writing, Time, and Embracing the Nonlinearity of How We Become Who We Are
  11. “Greater than scene… is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.”

  12. The Effortless Effort of Creativity: Jane Hirshfield on Storytelling, the Art of Concentration, and Difficulty as a Consecrating Force of Creative Attention
    “In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”
  13. Ted Hughes on How to Be a Writer: A Letter of Advice to His 18-Year-Old Daughter
    “The first sign of disintegration — in a writer — is that the writing loses the unique stamp of his/her character, & loses its inner light.”
  14. Colette on Writing, the Blissful Obsessive-Compulsiveness of Creative Work, and Withstanding Naysayers
    “A lack of money, if it be relative, and a lack of comfort can be endured if one is sustained by pride. But not the need to be astounded.”
  15. Auden on Writing, Originality, Self-Criticism, and How to Be a Good Reader
    “It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.”
  16. Stephen King: Writing and the Art of “Creative Sleep”:
    “In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”
  17. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing
    “If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”
  18. Michael Lewis: Writing, Money, and the Necessary Self-Delusion of Creativity
    “When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.”
  19. Annie Dillard on Writing
    “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”
  20. Susan Sontag on Writing
    “There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”
  21. Ray Bradbury: How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity
    How to feel your way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of your skull.
  22. Anne Lamott: Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Creativity
    “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”
  23. Italo Calvino on Writing: Insights from 40+ Years of His Letters
    “To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being… what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.”
  24. Ernest Hemingway : Writing, Knowledge, and the Danger of Ego
    “All bad writers are in love with the epic.”
  25. David Foster Wallace: Writing, Death, and Redemption
    “You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”
  26. Isabel Allende: Writing Brings Order to the Chaos of Life
    “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
  27. Stephen King: The Adverb Is Not Your Friend
    “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
  28. Malcolm Cowley: The Four Stages of Writing
    “The germ of a story is a new and simple element introduced into an existing situation or mood.”
  29. Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing
    “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”
  30. Advice on Writing: Collected Wisdom from Modernity’s Greatest Writers
    “Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.”
  31. Kurt Vonnegut: 8 Rules for a Great Story
    “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
  32. Susan Orlean on Writing
    “You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.”
  33. Zadie Smith: 10 Rules of Writing
    “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”
  34. John Steinbeck: 6 Tips on Writing, and a Disclaimer
    “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.”
  35. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Secret of Great Writing (1938)
    “Nothing any good isn’t hard.”
  36. E. B. White: Egoism and the Art of the Essay
    “Only a person who is congenially self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays”
  37. E. B. White: Why Brevity Is Not the Gold Standard for Style
    “Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.”
  38. Ray Bradbury: Creative Purpose in the Face of Rejection
    “The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.”
  39. Mary Karr: The Magnetism and Madness of the Written Word
    “Be willing to be a child and be the Lilliputian in the world of Gulliver.”
  40. Kurt Vonnegut: How to Write With Style and the 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word (1985)
    “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”
  41. Ann Patchett: What Now?
    “Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”
  42. Mary Gordon: The Joy of Notebooks and Writing by Hand as a Creative Catalyst
    “However thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.”
  43. H. P. Lovecraft: Advice to Aspiring Writers (1920)
    “A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”
  44. Henry Miller: Reflections on Writing
    “Understanding is not a piercing of the mystery, but an acceptance of it, a living blissfully with it, in it, through and by it.”
  45. Margaret Atwood: 10 Rules of Writing
    “­Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”
  46. David Foster Wallace: The Nature of the Fun and Why Writers Write
    “Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable.”
  47. Joy Williams: Why Writers Write
    “A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”
  48. Joan Didion: Ego, Grammar, and the Impetus to Write
    “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”
  49. David Ogilvy: 10 No-Bullshit Tips on Writing
    “Never write more than two pages on any subject.”
  50. George Orwell: The Four Motives for Writing (1946)
    “Sheer egoism… Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.”
  51. Ezra Pound: A Few Don’ts for Those Beginning to Write Verse (1913)
    “Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.”
  52. Ray Bradbury: Storytelling and Human Nature (1963)
    “Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer.”
  53. Joseph Conrad: Writing and the Role of the Artist (1897)
    “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.”
  54. Helen Dunmore: 9 Rules of Writing
    “A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.”
  55. E. B. White: The Role and Responsibility of the Writer (1969)
    “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
  56. Jack Kerouac: 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life
    “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.”
  57. Raymond Chandler on Writing
    “The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.”
  58. Walter Benjamin: The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses
    “The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself.”
  59. 28-Year-Old Susan Sontag on the Four People a Great Writer Must Be
    “A great writer has all 4 — but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2.”
  60. 10 Tips on Writing from Joyce Carol Oates
    “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.”
  61. Neil Gaiman: 8 Rules of Writing
    “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
  62. Anaïs Nin: Why Emotional Excess is Essential to Writing and Creativity
    “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
  63. Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers
    “You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”
  64. Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews
    “A writer’s work is the product of laziness.”
  65. Herbert Spencer: The Philosophy of Style, the Economy of Attention, and the Ideal Writer (1852)
    “To have a specific style is to be poor in speech.”
  66. Charles Bukowski on Writing and His Insane Daily Routine
    “Writing is like going to bed with a beautiful woman and afterwards she gets up, goes to her purse and gives me a handful of money.”
  67. Samuel Johnson on Writing and Creative Doggedness
    “Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.”
  68. Edgar Allan Poe: The Joy of Marginalia and What Handwriting Reveals about Character
    “In the marginalia … we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit.”
  69. Kurt Vonnegut: The Writer’s Responsibility, the Limitations of the Brain, and Why the Universe Exists: A Rare 1974 WNYC Interview
    “We have such a young culture that there is an opportunity to contribute wonderful new myths to it, which will be accepted.”
  70. Ernest Hemingway on Not Writing for Free and How to Run a First-Rate Publication
    Find the best writers, pay them to write, and avoid typos at all costs.
  71. How to Be a Writer: Ernest Hemingway’s Advice to Aspiring Authors
    “As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.”
  72. Eudora Welty: The Poetics of Place and Writing as an Explorer’s Map of the Unknown
    “No art ever came out of not risking your neck.”
  73. Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize Interview: Writing, Women, and the Rewards of Storytelling
    “I want my stories to move people … to feel some kind of reward from the writing.”
  74. Samuel Delany: Good Writing vs. Talented Writing
    “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.”
  75. William Faulkner: Writing, the Purpose of Art, Working in a Brothel, and the Meaning of Life
    “The only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost.”
  76. Anaïs Nin: Writing, the Future of the Novel, and How Keeping a Diary Enhances Creativity: Wisdom from a Rare 1947 Chapbook
    “It is in the movements of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately.”
  77. John Updike: Writing and Death
    “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
  78. Charles Bukowski Debunks the “Tortured Genius” Myth of Creativity
    “unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don’t do it.”
  79. Mary Gaitskill: Why Writers Write and The Six Motives of Creativity
    The art of integrating the ego and the impulse for empathy in a dynamic call and response.
  80. Vladimir Nabokov: Writing, Reading, and the Three Qualities a Great Storyteller Must Have
    “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.”
  81. Joan Didion: Telling Stories, the Economy of Words, Starting Out as a Writer, and Facing Rejection
    “Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus.”
  82. Herman Melville’s Daily Routine and Thoughts on the Writing Life
    “A book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism.”
  83. William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: The Writer as a Booster of the Human Heart
    “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
  84. John Updike: Making Money, How to Have a Productive Daily Routine, and the Most Important Things for Aspiring Writers to Know
    “In a country this large and a language even larger … there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”
  85. Susan Sontag : Writing, Routines, Education, and Elitism in a 1992 Recording from the 92Y Archives
    “To make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master.”
  86. Chinua Achebe: The Meaning of Life and the Writer’s Responsibility in Society
    The difference between blind optimism and the urge to improve the world’s imperfection.
  87. Leonard Cohen: Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting
    “The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”
  88. Ray Bradbury: What Failure Really Means, Why We Hate Work, and the Importance of Love in Creative Endeavors
    How working for the wrong motives poisons our creativity and warps our ideas of success and failure.
  89. Joyce Carol Oates: What Hemingway’s Early Stories Can Teach Us About Writing and the Defining Quality of Great Art
    On the elusive gift of blending austerity of craft with elasticity of allure.
  90. Willa Cather: Writing Through Troubled Times
    “The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please.”
  91. Anthony Trollope: Witty and Wise Advice on How to Be a Successful Writer
    “My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”
  92. William Styron: Why Formal Education Is a Waste of Time for Writers
    “For a person whose sole burning ambition is to write — like myself — college is useless beyond the Sophomore year.”
  93. Madeleine L’Engle: Creativity, Censorship, Writing, and the Duty of Children’s Books
    “We find what we are looking for. If we are looking for life and love and openness and growth, we are likely to find them. If we are looking for witchcraft and evil, we’ll likely find them, and we may get taken over by them.”
  94. Saul Bellow: How Writers and Artists Save Us from the “Moronic Inferno” of Our Time
    “The writer cannot make the seas of distraction stand still, but he [or she] can at times come between the madly distracted and the distractions.”
  95. Mary Oliver: The Mystery of the Human Psyche, the Secret of Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive
    “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter.”
  96. Schopenhauer on Style
    “Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.”
  97. Flannery O’Connor: Why the Grotesque Appeals to Us, Plus a Rare Recording of Her Reading
    “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”
  98. Annie Dillard: The Art of the Essay and Narrative Nonfiction vs. Poetry and Short Stories
    “Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.”
  99. C.S. Lewis: The 3 Ways of Writing for Children and the Key to Authenticity in All Writing
    “The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.”
  100. Nietzsche: 10 Rules for Writers
    “Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.”
  101. William Faulkner: Writing, the Human Dilemma, and Why We Create
    “It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do.”
  102. David Foster Wallace: The Redemptive Power of Reading and the Future of Writing in the Age of Information
    The fun of reading as “an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.”
  103. Zadie Smith: The Psychology of the Two Types of Writers
    “It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word.”
  104. George Orwell: Writing, How to Counter the Mindless Momentum of Language, and the Four Questions a Great Writer Must Ask Herself
    “By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”
  105. Italo Calvino: The Art of Quickness, Digression as a Hedge Against Death, and the Key to Great Writing
    “Success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search… for the sentence in which every word is unalterable.”
  106. Ursula K. Le Guin: Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work
    “All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”
  107. Gabriel García Márquez on His Unlikely Beginnings as a Writer
    “If you’re going to be a writer you have to be one of the great ones… After all, there are better ways to starve to death.”
  108. Roald Dahl: How Illness Emboldens Creativity: A Moving Letter to His Bedridden Mentor
    “I doubt I would have written a line … unless some minor tragedy had sort of twisted my mind out of the normal rut.”
  109. Robert Frost: How to Read Intelligently and Write a Great Essay
    “The sidelong glance is what you depend on.”
  110. Lewis Carroll: How to Work Through Difficulty and His Three Tips for Overcoming Creative Block
    “When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on.”
  111. Mark Strand: The Heartbeat of Creative Work and the Artist’s Task to Bear Witness to the Universe
    “It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”
  112. John Steinbeck: The Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work
    “Just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.”
  113. E.B. White: How to Write for Children and the Writer’s Responsibility to All Audiences
    “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”
  114. Virginia Woolf: Writing and Self-Doubt
    Consolation for those moments when you can’t tell whether you’re “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
  115. Cheryl Strayed: Faith, Humility, and the Art of Motherfuckitude
    “Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”
  116. Ann Patchett: Writing and Why Self-Forgiveness Is the Most Important Ingredient of Great Art
    “The ability to forgive oneself … is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”
  117. Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers
    “If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will…
  118. Grace Paley: The Value of Not Understanding Everything
    “Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious.”
  119. Jane Kenyon: Some of the Wisest Words to Create and Live By
    “Be a good steward of your gifts.”
  120. Joseph Conrad on Art and What Makes a Great Writer, in a Beautiful Tribute to Henry James
    “All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms persuasive, enlightening, familiar and surprising, for the edification of mankind.”
  121. How to Save Your Soul: Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity, Selling Out, and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer
    “It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or the stock exchange.”
  122. Hemingway’s Advice on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision, and His Reading List of Essential Books for Aspiring Writers
    “In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”
  123. James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing
    “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
  124. Alison Bechdel on Writing, Therapy, Self-Doubt, and How the Messiness of Life Feeds the Creative Conscience
    “It’s by writing… by stepping back a bit from the real thing to look at it, that we are most present.”
  125. Elizabeth Alexander on Writing, the Ethic of Love, Language as a Vehicle for the Self, and the Inherent Poetry of Personhood
    “You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others.”
  126. Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths
    “See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true… That’s a great place to try to be.”
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