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Celebrated Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

Reflections on the value of recording our inner lives from Woolf, Thoreau, Sontag, Emerson, Nin, Plath, and more.

“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers. W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”

Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives. As a dedicated diarist myself, I’ve always had an irresistible fascination with the diaries of artists, writers, scientists, and other celebrated minds — those direct glimpses of their inner lives and creative struggles. But, surely, luminaries don’t put pen to paper for the sake of quenching posterity’s curiosity — at least as interesting as the contents of those notable diaries is the question of why their keepers keep them. Here are a few perspectives from some of history’s most prolific practitioners of this private art.

Anaïs Nin was perhaps the most dogged diarist in recorded history — she began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse, timeless, and timely subjects as love and life, embracing the unfamiliar, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In a 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, she spoke about the role of the diary as an invaluable sandbox not only for learning the craft of writing but also for crystallizing her own passions and priorities, from which all creative work springs:

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.

Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

It was also her way of learning to translate the inner into the outer, the subjective into the universal:

This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.

A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.

In her extensive meditation on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, found in the altogether absorbing A Writer’s Diary (public library), 37-year-old Virginia Woolf speaks to the value of journaling in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing:

The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.

[…]

I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.

A diary, she observes at the age of forty-eight, also builds a bridge between our present selves and our future ones, which are notoriously cacophonous in their convictions. She writes with a wink:

In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.

At the outset of The Journals of André Gide (public library), the 21-year-old future Nobel laureate ponders what would become a six-decade commitment:

Whenever I get ready to write really sincere notes in this notebook, I shall have to undertake such a disentangling in my cluttered brain that, to stir up all that dust, I am waiting for a series of vast empty hours, a long old, a convalescence, during which my constantly reawakened curiosities will be at rest; during which my sole care will be to rediscover myself.

A year later, Gide offers a meta-remark on the endeavor already underway:

A diary is useful during conscious, intentional, and painful spiritual evolutions. Then you want to know where you stand… An intimate diary is interesting especially when it records the awakening of ideas; or the awakening of the senses at puberty; or else when you feel yourself to be dying.

Henry David Thoreau was among history’s greatest and most lyrical diarists, as evidenced by The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that endlessly revisitable compendium, full of Thoreau’s timeless meditations on everything from the true meaning of success to the greatest gift of growing old to the meaning of human life. In an entry from October of 1857, Thoreau considers the allure of the diary not for the writer but for the reader:

Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Thoreau’s and a keen observer of the human experience, illuminated the question of diary-writing with a beautiful sidewise gleam, observing in The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library):

The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.

In her eternally moving The Diary of a Young Girl (public library), Anne Frank at first questioned the very act that immortalized her and touched the lives of millions:

For someone like me, it is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a thirteen year old schoolgirl.

Oscar Wilde, a man of strong opinions and even stronger passions, exercised his characteristic wit in The Importance of Being Earnest (public library):

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

In a 1957 diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the same volume that gave us Susan Sontag on marriage, life and death, the duties of being 24, and her 10 rules for raising a child — 24-year-old Sontag writes under the heading “On Keeping a Journal”:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 B[oulevar]d S[ain]t-G[ermain] to check for her mail) in H’s [Sontag’s lover ] journal about me — that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant.

A few years later, Sontag revisits the subject in an essay about Albert Camus’s notebooks, found in her 1966 collection Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (public library):

Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.

In an entry from April of 1823, the influential French artist Eugène Delacroix writes at the age of twenty-five:

I am taking up my Journal again after a long break. I think it may be a way of calming this nervous excitement that has been worrying me for so long.

But by the following spring, he is anguished by the inability to sustain this fruitful habit despite its clear creative and spiritual benefits:

I have hurriedly re-read the whole of my Journal. I regret the gaps. I feel as though I were still master of the days I have recorded, even though they are past, whereas those not mentioned in the pages are as though they had never been.

How low have I fallen? Am I then so weak that those flimsy pages will be the only record of my life remaining to me? The future is all blackness. The past, where I have not recorded it, is the same.

And yet he sees in the diary a way of better inhabiting his own life, and sets out to do just that:

I grumble at having to perform this task, but why always be indignant at my weakness? Can I spend a single day without food or sleep? So much for my body. But my mind the evolution of my soul are to be destroyed because I do not want to owe what is left of them to the necessity of writing. Nothing is better than having some small task to perform every day.

Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it. By keeping a record of my experiences I live my life twice over. The past returns to me. The future is always with me.

Delacroix proceeded to fill more than twenty notebooks with this daily task for the remainder of his life, preserved for posterity in The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (public library).

Sylvia Plath, like Nin, began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and penned nearly ten volumes, which were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — that vibrant and bittersweet compendium that gave us Plath on life and death, wholeheartedness, and the reverie of nature. She saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing, but perhaps the most ensnaring passage from her published journals is one of strange synchronicity as two literary legends of staggering genius and staggering tragedy meet across space and time through the pages of their diaries. In February of 1957, six years before her suicide, Plath captures the role of the diary as a lifeline for the writer with poignancy utterly harrowing in history’s hindsight:

Just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less! – – – and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her , somehow. I love her – – – from reading Mrs. Dalloway for Mr. Crockett – – – and I can still hear Elizabeth Drew’s voice sending a shiver down my back in the huge Smith class-room, reading from To The Lighthouse. But her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy. Only I’ve got to write. I feel sick, this week, of having written nothing lately.

But perhaps the most important meta-point on the subject comes from Woolf herself, who considered the impact of reading a writer’s diaries on how we experience his or her formal work, an impact the magnitude of which she argues is ours to decide on:

How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

Indeed, if there is one thing I’ve learned about diaries, both by having read tens of thousands of pages of artists’ and writers’ journals and by having frequently revisited my own from the distance of time, is that nothing written in a diary is to be taken as the diarist’s personal dogma. A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient — something the most prolific diarist in modern literary history articulated herself in her elegant defense of the fluid self. We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.

This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves are chronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.

BP

How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century

Wisdom and wit from Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, William Styron, Truman Capote, and other literary titans.

How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century

“Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Criticism,” artist Ai Weiwei told an interviewer, “is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.” The truth, of course, is that it’s both — criticism is a technology of thought and, like any technology, it can be put to constructive or destructive use depending on the intention of its originator and the receptivity of its object. One thing is certain: For every artist — that is, for every human being who gives form to his or her inner life and shares that form with the outside world — critical response is inevitable, for every successful act of engaging with the world guarantees that the world will engage back. How to relate to criticism in a healthy way is therefore one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit.

That’s what some of the most celebrated writers of the past century address in a section of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library) — George Plimpton’s wonderful 1989 collection of wisdom from Paris Review interviews, which also gave us James Baldwin’s advice on writing.

Illustration from Enormous Smallness, a picture-book about the life and genius of E.E. Cummings

Two centuries after David Hume contemplated the only good response to critics and half a century before “don’t feed the trolls” became the self-protection mantra of the Internet, Truman Capote offers:

Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion… There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.

Aldous Huxley reflects on why he doesn’t read reviews of his own work:

They’ve never had any effect on me, for the simple reason that I’ve never read them. I’ve never made a point of writing for any particular person or audience; I’ve simply tried to do the best job I could and let it go at that. The critics don’t interest me because they’re concerned with what’s past and done, while I’m concerned with what comes next.

John Irving inverts and subverts this notion, quoting Cocteau:

Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.

William Styron considers an inescapable yet professionally inconvenient byproduct of our humanity:

I think it’s unfortunate to have critics for friends. Suppose you write something that stinks, what are they going to say in a review? Say it stinks? So if they’re honest they do, and if you were friends you’re still friends, but the knowledge of your lousy writing and their articulate admission of it will be always something between the two of you, like the knowledge between a man and his wife of some shady adultery.

[…]

There’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader. And that doesn’t mean any compromise or sell-out. The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I”m getting along all right.

Kurt Vonnegut laments critics’ growing taste for blood as a writer’s reputation grows. He recounts how critics who had previously praised him on his way up began tearing him down once he reached a certain tipping point of success:

All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug… It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the poet Donald Hall’s terrific advice to writers, Thornton Wilder offers the most lucid disposition of all:

The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work.

Complement this particular bit of the wholly magnificent The Writer’s Chapbook with Neil Gaiman on the only adequate response to critics — some of the most lucid and luminous advice on the creative life ever articulated — and Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s brilliant strategy for preempting criticism.

BP

Why We Write About Ourselves: Some of Today’s Most Celebrated Writers on the Art of Telling Personal Stories That Unravel Universal Truth

“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.”

Why We Write About Ourselves: Some of Today’s Most Celebrated Writers on the Art of Telling Personal Stories That Unravel Universal Truth

“Oh, let’s not be petty, seeking sincerity in memoirs doesn’t make much sense,” the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska wrote in one of her wonderful prose pieces, adding: “It’s worth asking what version of his self and world the author’s chosen — since there’s always room for choice.”

In another piece, she elaborates:

In his work, every memoirist leaves behind a better or worse likeness of the people he knew, alongside two self-portraits. The first of these two is painted intentionally, while the second is unplanned, accidental. It goes without saying that the first is more flattering than the second, and the second is more faithful than the first. The better the writer, the more attention we should pay to this discrepancy.

But what is it about this polarity of control and surrender that makes the dual self-portrait so alluring and so abiding in its allure? Why are we, both as readers and as writers, so intensely drawn to memoir, from St. Augustine’s Confessions to the Internet’s deluge of personal narratives? Perhaps some of it has to do with our longing, to borrow Joan Didion’s unforgettable words, for keeping “on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings

But surely there is something more than self-reconciliation, something larger than the ego’s conversation with itself, that impels writers to open their hearts and wounds to strangers, and impels readers to plunge into the open hearts and wounds of strangers.

The enigmatic substance of that something is what editor Meredith Maran explores in Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (public library) — a terrific compendium of insight into the practical craft and philosophical dimensions of how and why the magnetism of memoir works over us and works us over, featuring contributions from such masters of the genre as Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Nick Flynn, Meghan Daum, Pat Conroy, Edmund White, and A.M. Homes.

Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry
Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry

Novelist, memoirist, and artisan of nuance Dani Shapiro — whose memoir of the creative life, Still Writing, is one of the most vitalizing books I’ve ever read — begins by disabusing us of the common misconception that writing memoir is an act of catharsis:

It’s a misapprehension that readers have that by writing memoir you’re purging yourself of your demons. Writing memoir has the opposite effect. It embeds your story deep inside you. It mediates the relationship between the present and the past by freezing a moment in time.

Echoing Oliver Sacks’s admonition against the malleability of memory, she adds:

The idea of truth in memoir is absurd. Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can’t fact-check memory.

In a sentiment that calls to mind legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom’s assertion that “a penalty of the creative artist [is] wanting to make order out of chaos,” Shapiro writes:

One of the greatest gifts of writing memoir is having a way to shape that chaos, looking at all the pieces side by side so they make more sense. It’s a supreme act of control to understand a life as a story that resonates with others. It’s not a diary. It’s taking this chaos and making a story out of it, attempting to make art out of it. When you’re a writer, what else is there to do?

[…]

It’s like stitching together a quilt, creating order that isn’t chronological order — it’s emotional, psychological order.

That emotional and psychological dimension, Shapiro suggests, is the very fabric of the creative life — and it is indivisible from even the most mundane aspects of an artist’s life. (Amanda Palmer addressed this in her spectacular BBC open letter about the choice to become a mother as a working artist.) In a necessary counterpoint to the tyrannical notion of “work/life balance,” Shapiro observes:

More and more I feel there’s no contradiction and no delineation between my domestic life and my creative life. One can’t exist without the other. There is this life and there is this driving need to dive into that place that then expands, and that world is as large and encompassing when I’m inside it as the world that’s all around me.

In accordance with the anthology’s format of ending each contribution with a concentrated dose of essential advice to aspiring memoirists, Shapiro offers:

Know your reasons for embarking on this memoir. If one of your reasons is revenge, stop. Wait. Writing from rage, or from the sting of betrayal, or whatever it might be that is motivating you, will produce an incoherent story. Be sure you have enough distance from your material so that you are able to think of yourself as a character.

[…]

Remember that you’re telling a story. Not everything belongs… Just because it happened to you does not make it relevant. Choose carefully what to put in and what to leave out.

Cheryl Strayed by Graeme Mitchell
Cheryl Strayed by Graeme Mitchell

Cheryl Strayed, masterful pearlfinder in the subterranean river of emotion and purveyor of no-nonsense advice on writing, speaks to the singular potency of memoir’s currency, truth:

There’s a great amount of power present in reading something where the writer is standing right there behind the sentences, saying, “This is true.”

In a refreshing refusal to indulge the false humility behind which we all too often hide the vulnerable zeal of our creative egos, Strayed considers the impetus that animates her — the impetus, one might argue, that animates every true artist:

I aspire to greatness. I want to write literature that moves people, that looks them in the eye and reaches into their guts. My biggest worry is fulfilling the mission of literature, which is to tell us what it means to be human… I’m fueled by the desire to give beauty and truth to the world via the sentences I construct. I really want that in this deep, core, essential way. There’s an ache inside me that’s soothed only by writing.

[…]

I’m not talking about confession. I’m talking about necessity, about telling the deepest truth at the right moment and being in command of that.

[…]

My work doesn’t hinge on shock value. I tell only what needs to be told for the work to reach its full potential. I’m not interested in confession. I’m interested in revelation.

Echoing her previous observation that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” she counsels aspiring writers:

The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality. It’s tapping into your universality. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be original in your writing — you are the only one who can write that universal experience in just that way. Trust that.

[…]

Good writing is built on craft and heart… You must do your work and it must cost you everything to do it.

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott, who writes with uncommon grace and generosity of spirit about such messy subjects as grief, friendship, how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing, and what gives us meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, sees memoir as a private act of public service:

I write memoirs because I have a passionate desire to be of even the tiniest bit of help. I like to write about the process of healing, of developing, of growing up, of becoming who we were born to be instead of who we always agreed to be. It’s sort of a missionary thing, to describe one person’s interior, and to say we’re probably raised not to think this or say it, but actually all of us feel it and have gone through it, and we all struggle with it. I feel like it’s a gift I have to offer to people, to say, “This is what it’s like for me, who you seem to like or trust. We’re all like this. We’re all ruined. We’re all loved. We all feel like victims, we all feel better than.”

There’s no shame in that. Anybody you’d ever want to be friends with has had a tremendous amount of wounding in their past.

Meghan Daum by Laura Kleinhenz

Meghan Daum, who has written beautifully about how we become who we are and who describes herself as “a personal essayist more than a memoirist,” examines the delicate art of heeding the line between intimacy and oversharing:

To me, writing personal narrative nonfiction should be an act of generosity toward the reader.

It’s an invitation. The writer is saying to the reader, “Come along with me while I tell you a few things and explore a few ideas.” The writer is saying, “Come a little closer and I’ll confide in you about a few things.”

The hope is those confidences will inspire the reader to unearth some of his own feelings or insights. None of this has to do with spilling your guts or handing your whole, unedited and unprocessed life story over to the reader to digest. That’s just bad manners, bad hostessing. When you write about yourself — actually, when you write about anything — the goal is to offer up just the right ingredients in just the right portions. You’re not dumping out the contents of the pantry. You’re serving up a finished meal.

In her advice to writers, Daum takes a page out of John Steinbeck’s book and offers a kind of meta-disclaimer:

Take most advice with a grain of salt, including mine. In literature, as in life, most advice says more about the giver than the receiver. So always consider the source. And if they’re good ones, don’t forget to thank them in your acknowledgments.

A.M. Homes
A.M. Homes

For A.M. Homes, writing memoir springs from “the impulse to organize the information and the experience — to put it in a container, if only to set the container aside for a while.” But the very construction of the container may require the violent shattering of a Pandora’s box. Looking back on the experience of writing The Mistress’s Daughter — her exquisitely disconcerting memoir of meeting her biological parents thirty years after they had given her up for adoption at birth — she reflects:

I wasn’t who I thought I was, and yet I didn’t know who I was. It was interesting to realize how fragile your identity is. Even when you’re thirty-something years old, and you’ve written a bunch of books, and you think you know who you are, the reveal of a piece of information, an addition or subtraction to your known narrative, can yank it all out from under you.

[…]

Since publishing the memoir, the biggest personal shift is that I now feel a greater sense of legitimacy. I feel I have the right to be alive, the right to exist. I felt very peripheral as a kid; it was an uncomfortable way to live.

One of the primary qualities great memoirs share, and a centripetal force of the magnetism that draws us to them, is this craftsmanship of legitimacy — the act of conferring dignity and validity upon the experiences of strangers via the writer’s own private experience. Homes speaks to this beautifully:

Writing my memoir was unpleasant, like being a doctor examining myself: Does it hurt here? Which part hurts the most? Oops! I made you bleed again.

There were many points at which I thought, I don’t really want to be doing this. I want to stop.

What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer — finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for their adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.

But although memoir’s form is molded of the deeply personal, its substance is animated by the universality of the creative impulse — something Homes captures with electrifying exactitude:

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.

Complement Why We Write About Ourselves with master-memoirist Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Maran’s previous anthology, the marvelous Why We Write — a compendium of twenty celebrated writers’ reflections on why they do what they do and an excellent addition to this evolving archive of timeless advice on the craft.

BP

The Value of Not Understanding Everything: Grace Paley’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

“Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious.”

“As a person she is tolerant and easygoing, as a user of words, merciless,” the editors of The Paris Review wrote in the introduction to their 1992 interview with poet, short story writer, educator, and activist Grace Paley (December 11, 1922–August 22, 2007). Although Paley herself never graduated from college, she went on to become one of the most beloved and influential teachers of writing — both formally, through her professorships at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, Syracuse University, and City College of New York, and informally, through her insightful lectures, interviews, essays, and reviews. The best of those are collected in Just As I Thought (public library) — a magnificent anthology of Paley’s nonfiction, which cumulatively presents a sort of oblique autobiography of the celebrated writer.

Grace Paley by Diana Davies

In one of the most stimulating pieces in the volume — a lecture from the mid-1960s titled “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” which does for writing what Thoreau did for the spirit in his beautiful meditation on the value of “useful ignorance” — Paley examines the single most fruitful disposition for great writing:

The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.

[…]

What the writer is interested in is life, life as he is nearly living it… Some people have to live first and write later, like Proust. More writers are like Yeats, who was always being tempted from his craft of verse, but not seriously enough to cut down on production.

Therein, she argues, lies the key to why writers write. Echoing Joan Didion — “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write,” she wryly observed in the classic Why I Write — Paley reflects:

One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it. He’s like an idealist who marries nearly the same woman over and over. He tries to write with different names and faces, using different professions and labors, other forms to travel the shortest distance to the way things really are.

In other words, the poor writer — presumably in an intellectual profession — really oughtn’t to know what he’s talking about.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from ‘Enormous Smallness’ by Matthew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

With a skeptical eye to the familiar “write what you know” dictum of creative writing classes, Paley makes a case for the opposite approach in extracting the juiciest raw material for great writing:

I would suggest something different… what are some of the things you don’t understand at all?

[…]

You might try your father and mother for a starter. You’ve seen them so closely that they ought to be absolutely mysterious. What’s kept them together these thirty years? Or why is your father’s second wife no better than his first? If, before you sit down with paper and pencil to deal with them, it all comes suddenly clear and you find yourself mumbling, Of course, he’s a sadist and she’s a masochist, and you think you have the answer — drop the subject.

In classic Paley style, where what appears to be subtle sarcasm turns out to be a vehicle for great sagacity, she adds:

If, in casting about for suitable areas of ignorance, you fail because you understand yourself (and too well), your school friends, as well as the global balance of terror, and you can also see your last Saturday-night date blistery in the hot light of truth — but you still love books and the idea of writing — you might make a first-class critic… In areas in which you are very smart you might try writing history or criticism, and then you can know and tell how all the mystery of America flows out from under Huck Finn’s raft; where you are kind of dumb, write a story or a novel, depending on the depth and breadth of your dumbness…

When you have invented all the facts to make a story and get somehow to the truth of the mystery and you can’t dig up another question — change the subject.

Cautioning that writing fails when “the tension and the mystery and the question are gone,” she concludes:

The writer is not some kind of phony historian who runs around answering everyone’s questions with made-up characters tying up loose ends. She is nothing but a questioner.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘The Big Green Book’ by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

A few years later, Paley revisits the subject in a 1970 piece from the same volume titled “Some Notes on Teaching,” in which she offers fifteen insights as useful to aspiring writers as they are to professional writers like herself “who must begin again and again in order to get anywhere at all.” Noting that she aims to “stay as ignorant in the art of teaching” as she wants her students to be in the art of writing, she observes that the assignments she gives are usually questions which have stumped her, ones which she herself is still pursuing.

She first turns to the integrity of language, so often squeezed out of writers by their education:

Literature has something to do with language. There’s probably a natural grammar at the tip of your tongue… If you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful. Still, if you weren’t a tough, recalcitrant kid, that language may have been destroyed by the tongues of schoolteachers who were ashamed of interesting homes, inflection, and language and left them all for correct usage.

She then offers an assignment that puts into practice this essential art of “ununderstanding,” with the instruction of being repeated whenever necessary:

Write a story, a first-person narrative in the voice of someone with whom you’re in conflict. Someone who disturbs you, worries you, someone you don’t understand. Use a situation you don’t understand.

Paley raises a dissenting voice in literary history’s many-bodied chorus of celebrated writers who extol the creative benefits of keeping a diary:

No personal journals, please, for about a year… When you find only yourself interesting, you’re boring. When I find only myself interesting, I’m a conceited bore. When I’m interested in you, I’m interesting.

(It is worth offering a counterpoint here, by way of Vivian Gornick’s excellent advice on how to write personal narrative of universal interest and Cheryl Strayed’s observation that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”)

Ignoring John Steinbeck’s admonition — “If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is,” he asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” — Paley offers if not a recipe then a pantry inventory of the two key ingredients necessary for great storytelling:

It’s possible to write about anything in the world, but the slightest story ought to contain the facts of money and blood in order to be interesting to adults. That is, everybody continues on this earth by courtesy of certain economic arrangements; people are rich or poor, make a living or don’t have to, are useful to systems or superfluous. And blood — the way people live as families or outside families or in the creation of family, sisters, sons, fathers, the bloody ties. Trivial work ignores these two facts.

Art from the original edition of Henry Miller’s ‘Money and How It Gets That Way.’ Click image for more.

She returns to the essential fork in the vocational road that separates writers from critics:

Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious. Luckily for artists, they don’t require art to do a good day’s work. But critics and teachers do. A book, a story, should be smarter than its author. It is the critic or the teacher in you or me who cleverly outwits the characters with the power of prior knowledge of meetings and ends.

Stay open and ignorant.

Echoing Nadine Gordimer’s enduring wisdom on the writer’s task “to go on writing the truth as he sees it,” Paley adds:

A student says, Why do you keep saying a work of art? You’re right. It’s a bad habit. I mean to say a work of truth.

What does it mean To Tell the Truth?

It means — for me — to remove all lies… I am, like most of you, a middle-class person of articulate origins. Like you I was considered verbal and talented, and then improved upon by interested persons. These are some of the lies that have to be removed:

a. The lie of injustice to characters.
b. The lie of writing to an editor’s taste, or a teacher’s.
c. The lie of writing to your best friend’s taste.
d. The lie of the approximate word.
e. The lie of unnecessary adjectives.
f. The lie of the brilliant sentence you love the most.

She ends by urging aspiring writers to learn from the masters of this art of truth-telling:

Don’t go through life without reading the autobiographies of
Emma Goldman
Prince Kropotkin
Malcolm X

To that, I would heartily add the autobiography of Oliver Sacks — had she lived to read it, Paley may well have concurred.

Complement Paley’s Just As I Thought with this growing archive of great writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, William Zinsser on how to write well about science, and Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing.

BP

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