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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

Why I Write: Joan Didion on Ego, Grammar, and the Creative Impulse

“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”

Why I Write: Joan Didion on Ego, Grammar, and the Creative Impulse

The question of what propels creators, especially great creators, is the subject of eternal fascination and cultural curiosity. In “Why I Write,” originally published in the New York Times Book Review in December of 1976 and found in The Writer on Her Work, Volume 1 (public library), Joan Didion — whose indelible insight on self-respect is a must-read for all — peels the curtain on one of the most celebrated and distinctive voices of American fiction and literary journalism to reveal what it is that has compelled her to spend half a century putting pen to paper.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Mary Lloyd Estrin, 1977

Didion begins:

Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
I
I
I
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

She goes on to attest to the character-forming importance of living the questions and trusting that even the meaningless moments will add up to one’s becoming:

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas — I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in The Portrait of a Lady as well as the next person, ‘imagery’ being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention — but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. I did this. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

She stresses the power of sentences as the living fabric of literature:

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.

It tells you.
You don’t tell it.

Didion concludes with a quick shot of her signature wry wit:

Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, 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, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing

“­Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing originally published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian asked some of today’s most celebrated authors to each produce a list of personal writing commandments. After 10 from Zadie Smith and 8 from Neil Gaiman, here comes Margaret Atwood with her denary decree:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see this evolving compendium of notable advice, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules 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, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Photograph courtesy of Random House

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