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F. Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret to Great Writing: Letters of Advice to a Friend’s Teenage Daughter and to His Own

“Nothing any good isn’t hard.”

What is the secret of great writing? For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. For Henry Miller, about discovery. Susan Sontag saw it as self-exploration. Many literary greats anchored it to their daily routines. And yet, the answer remains elusive and ever-changing.

In the fall of 1938, Radcliffe College sophomore Frances Turnbull sent her latest short story to family friend F. Scott Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896–December 21, 1940). His response, found in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (public library) — the same volume that gave us Fitzgerald’s heartwarming fatherly advice and his brilliantly acerbic response to hate mail — echoes Anaïs Nin’s insistence upon the importance of emotional investment in writing and offers some uncompromisingly honest advice on essence of great writing:

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories ‘In Our Time’ went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In ‘This Side of Paradise’ I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming — the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is ‘nice’ is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’ You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent — which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

Two years prior, in another letter to his fifteen-year-old daughter Scottie upon her enrollment in high school, Fitzgerald offered more wisdom on the promise and perils of writing:

Grove Park Inn
Asheville, N.C.
October 20, 1936

Dearest Scottina:

[…]

Don’t be a bit discouraged about your story not being tops. At the same time, I am not going to encourage you about it, because, after all, if you want to get into the big time, you have to have your own fences to jump and learn from experience. Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one. If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.

Let me preach again for one moment: I mean that what you have felt and thought will by itself invent a new style so that when people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it, because they think that is only style that they are talking about, when what they are talking about is the attempt to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought. It is an awfully lonesome business, and as you know, I never wanted you to go into it, but if you are going into it at all I want you to go into it knowing the sort of things that took me years to learn.

[…]

Nothing any good isn’t hard, and you know you have never been brought up soft, or are you quitting on me suddenly? Darling, you know I love you, and I expect you to live up absolutely to what I laid out for you in the beginning.

Scott

For more wisdom on the writing life, see Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

What Will Survive of Us Is Love: Helen Dunmore’s 9 Rules of Writing

“A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.”

Nearly two years ago, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times a decade earlier, The Guardian invited some of today’s most celebrated authors to share their personal writing rules. After 10 commandments from Zadie Smith, another 10 from Margaret Atwood, and 8 from Neil Gaiman, here is a wonderful list from British novelist, poet, and children’s author Helen Dunmore:

  1. Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.
  2. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.
  3. Read Keats’s letters.
  4. Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.
  5. Learn poems by heart.
  6. Join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.
  7. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
  8. If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.
  9. Don’t worry about posterity — as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed ‘What will survive of us is love’.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, dive into Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, Joy Williams on why writers write, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Image via The Guardian

BP

Joy Williams on Why Writers Write

“A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”

Why do writers write? Some of literary history’s most famous and timeless answers have come from George Orwell, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and Charles Bukowski. In her beautiful essay “Uncanny Singing That Comes from Certain Husks,” published in the 1998 anthology Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (public library), Joy Williams considers the impetus for writing with equal parts insight, irreverence, and that blend of anguishing ambivalence and convulsive conviction so characteristic of the writer’s mind.

It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?

[…]

A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. (Making contact with the self — healing the wound — is even less satisfactory.) Writers end up writing stories — or rather, stories’ shadows — and they’re grateful if they can but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough.

She considers the generative power of awareness:

The significant story possesses more awareness than the writer writing it. The significant story is always greater than the writer writing it. This is the absurdity, the disorienting truth, the question that is not even a question, this is the koan of writing.

[…]

A writer’s awareness must never be inadequate. Still, it will never be adequate to the greater awareness of the work itself, the work that the writer is trying to write. The writer must not really know what he is knowing, what he is learning to know when he writes, which is more than the knowing of it. A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light. The writer is separate from his work but that’s all the writer is — what he writes. A writer must be smart but not too smart. He must be dumb enough to break himself to harness.

On complacency:

The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered. The writer’s style is his doppelgänger, an apparition that the writer must never trust to do his work for him.

Recounting critical reactions to some of her essays, Williams offers:

But a writer isn’t supposed to make friends with his writing, I don’t think.

On language, and the metaphor from which the essay title comes:

Language accepts the writer as its host, it feeds off the writer, it makes him a husk. There is something uncanny about good writing — uncanny the singing that comes from certain husks. The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him. The work is a stranger, it shuns him a little, for the writer is really something of a fool, so engaged in his disengagement, so self-conscious, so eager to serve something greater, which is the writing. Or which could be the writing if only the writer is good enough. The work stands a little apart from the writer, it doesn’t want to go down with him when he stumbles or fails to retreat. The writer must do all this alone, in secret, in drudgery, in confusion, awkwardly, one word at a time.

[…]

The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life. The work — this Other, this other thing — this false life that is even less than the seeming of this lived life, is more than the lived life, too. It is so unreal, so precise, so unsurprising, so alarming, really. Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, either is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face. Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three o’clock in the morning, it’s always three or four or five o’clock in the morning in his head. Those horrid hours are the writer’s days and nights when he is writing. The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve…something. Somethingness. The somethingness that is sheltered by the wings of nothingness — those exquisite, enveloping, protecting wings.

Williams ends with a direct yet wonderfully poetic answer:

Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve — hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve — not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.

A writer I very much admire is Don DeLillo. At an awards ceremony for him at the Folger Library several years ago, I said that he was like a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment, at apocalyptic ease in the very elements of our psyche and times that are most troublesome to us, that we most fear.

Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.

For more wisdom on the writing life, see Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

So You Want To Be a Writer: 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.”

Why do writers — great writers — write? We’ve heard from George Orwell, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag. But one of the most poignant answers comes from a somewhat unlikely source: Charles Bukowski (August 16, 1920–March 9, 1994) — he both cynical and soulful, and always unapologetically irreverent.

With lines like “unless the sun inside you is / burning your gut,” reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, and “unless it comes out of / your soul like a rocket,” reminiscent of Anaïs Nin, “so you want to be a writer,” from the altogether fantastic volume Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way: New Poems (public library), is a necessary reminder that, contrary to the culturally toxic tortured-genius myth, to create is to celebrate rather than bemoan life.

Enjoy this beautiful reading by Tom O’Bedlam, who also gave us Dorianne Laux’s sublime “Antilamentation”:

so you want to be a writer

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
else,
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of
you,
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
love.
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
sleep
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

For more first-hand insight on the writing life, see Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

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