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William Faulkner on 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.”

When The Paris Review launched in 1953, it revolutionized the art of the interview. Over the decades that followed, the revered publication offered unprecedented glimpses of literary history’s greatest minds, which yielded such timeless gems as E. B. White on the responsibility of the writer and the daily routines of famous authors. But among the Paris Review’s most radical interviews was one with William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962), conducted exactly four decades after his days as a Jazz Age artist and nearly thirty years after he penned his little-known children’s book, published in the spring of 1956. Found in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us Malcolm Cowley on the four stages of writing — and also available online in the Paris Review archive, the wide-ranging interview explores with curmudgeonly conviction everything from the secret of great writing to the purpose of art to the meaning of life.

Faulkner begins with a case against the artist’s individual ego, citing the controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship and arguing instead that art transcends the artist:

If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.

When asked whether there’s any formula for being a good novelist — a timely question in our age of endless appetite for the odd habits and practical advice of famous authors, as if replicating those would somehow effect genius — Faulkner shoots back a crankily argued case for work ethic and creative doggedness, taking Zadie Smith’s contention that a writer should be resigned “to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied” to an extreme:

Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

Drawing by young William Faulkner. Click image for more.

When the interviewer inquires about the best environment for a writer — something to which E. B. White famously replied that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” — Faulkner illustrates his point with a personal anecdote that outshines even his typical penchant for being a provocateur:

Art is not concerned with environment either; it doesn’t care where it is. If you mean me, the best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel. In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in. It gives him perfect economic freedom; he’s free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police. The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored; it gives him a certain standing in his society; he has nothing to do because the madam keeps the books; all the inmates of the house are females and would defer to him and call him “sir.” All the bootleggers in the neighborhood would call him “sir.” And he could call the police by their first names.

So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.

When the interviewer follows up on the mention of economic freedom, asking whether it’s essential for the writer, Faulkner shoots back with his characteristic absolutism, adding to history’s most memorable definitions of art:

The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money. The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something. If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom. Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes. People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are.

Drawing by young William Faulkner. Click image for more.

Despite the questionable comment on gender, Faulkner adds a poignant meditation on the false deity of prestige and how chasing commercial success warps a writer’s gift:

Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich. Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.

Faulkner furthers his point about integrity vs. success in addressing whether working in the movies can help or hurt a writer:

Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much. The problem does not apply if he is not first rate because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.

When asked about the role of technique, Faulkner scoffs and offers some advice for aspiring authors, later echoed in Neil Gaiman’s fantastic commencement address on making mistakes, calling for a curious blend of humility and arrogance:

Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.

Illustration from William Faulkner’s ‘The Wishing Tree.’ Click image for more.

Reflecting on whether writing should be based on personal experience, Faulkner offers his trifecta of literary essentials, reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s model of the four people every writer should be:

A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination — any two of which, at times any one of which — can supply the lack of the others.

He shares his secret to writing a great story:

A story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.

Most poignant of all, however, is Faulkner’s meditation on the meaning of life:

Life is not interested in good and evil. Don Quixote was constantly choosing between good and evil, but then he was choosing in his dream state. He was mad. He entered reality only when he was so busy trying to cope with people that he had no time to distinguish between good and evil. Since people exist only in life, they must devote their time simply to being alive. Life is motion, and motion is concerned with what makes man move — which is ambition, power, pleasure. What time a man can devote to morality, he must take by force from the motion of which he is a part. He is compelled to make choices between good and evil sooner or later, because moral conscience demands that from him in order that he can live with himself tomorrow. His moral conscience is the curse he had to accept from the gods in order to gain from them the right to dream. … The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.

Complement with the curious and controversial story of Faulkner’s only children’s book and treat yourself to the irresistible boxed set of the best Paris Review interviews, then revisit the collected wisdom of great writers.

BP

Anaïs Nin on Writing, the Future of the Novel, and How Keeping a Diary Enhances Creativity: Wisdom from a Rare 1947 Chapbook

“It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately.”

In December of 1946, Anaïs Nin was invited to give a lecture on writing at Dartmouth, which received an overwhelming response. The following summer, after receiving countless requests, Nin adapted the talk in chapbook titled On Writing, which she printed at her own Gremor Press — the small publishing house Nin founded in 1942 out of disillusionment with mainstream publishing, which led her to teach herself letterpress and self-publish a handful of elegant manually typeset books with gorgeous engravings by her husband.

On Writing, in which Nin considers the future of the novel and reflects on what keeping her famous diaries since the age of eleven taught her about writing, was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, 750 of which were for sale. Only a few are known to survive. I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of them — here is its gist, for our shared enrichment.

Nin, with insight at once incredibly timely and subtly heartbreaking in our age of mass-produced commercial fiction coexisting with bold independent experimentation with the form, begins by considering the evolving role of the modern novelist:

In the presence of a collective neurosis it is all the more essential for the novelist not to share with the neurotic this paralyzing fear of nature which has been the cause of so much sterility in life and in the writing of today.

[…]

While we refuse to organize the confusions within us we will never have an objective understanding of what is happening outside.

We will not be able to relate to it, to choose sides, to evaluate historically, and consequently we will be incapacitated for action.

Today a novelist’s preoccupation with inner psychological distortions does not stem from a morbid love of illness but from a knowledge that this is the theme of our new reality.

[…]

Like the modern physicist the novelist of today should face the fact that this new psychological reality can be explored and dealt with only under the conditions of tremendously high atmospheric pressures, temperatures and speed, as well as in terms of new time-space dimensions for which the old containers represented by the traditional forms and conventions of the novel are completely inadequate and inappropriate.

That is why James Joyce shattered the old form of the novel and let his writing erupt in a veritable flow of associations.

Most novels today are inadequate because they reflect not our experience, but people’s fear of experience. They portray all the evasions.

Nin reiterates her conviction that emotionality is essential to creativity:

In order to take action full maturity in experience is required. Novels which contribute to our emotional atrophy only deepen our blindness.

And nothing that we do not discover emotionally will have the power to alter our vision.

The constant evasion of emotional experience has created an immaturity which turns all experience into traumatic shocks from which the human being derives no strength or development, but neurosis.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s faith in the creative benefits of keeping a diary, later famously articulated by Joan Didion as well, Nin reflects on her experience as a prolific diarist:

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.

The Diary dealing always with the immediate present, the warm, the near, being written at white heat, developed a love of the living moment, of the immediate emotional reaction to experience, which revealed the power of recreation to lie in the sensibilities rather than in memory or critical intellectual perception.

The Diary, creating a vast tapestry, a web, exposing constantly the relation between past and present, weaving meticulously the invisible interaction, noting the repetitions of themes, developed in the sense of the totality of personality, this tale without beginning or end which encloses all things, and relates all things, as a strong antidote to the unrelatedness, incoherence and disintegration of the modern man. I could follow the inevitable pattern and obtain a large, panoramic view of character.

The Diary also taught her that the ideal of “objective” writing is an oppressive standard that only drains literature, which is inherently subjective, of its vitality:

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.

But her greatest insight from the Diary has less to do with writing and more to do with human nature:

It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. … The heightened moments … are the moments of revelation. It is the moment when the real self rises to the surface, shatters its false roles, erupts and assumes reality and identity. The fiery moments of passionate experience are the moments of wholeness and totality of the personality.

Touching on the concept of the “fourth culture” and the ever-timely idea that science and philosophy need each other, Nin observes:

The new dimension in character and reality requires a fusion of two extremes which have been handled separately, on the one side by poets, and on the other by the so called realists.

Another learning from her diary experience captures the same idea Ray Bradbury articulated in arguing that ideation should flow uninhibited from the intuitive mind, and the intellect-as-editor should only come later. Nin considers the discipline this requires:

To achieve perfection in writing while retaining naturalness it was important to write a great deal, to write fluently, as the pianist practices the piano, rather than to correct constantly one page until it withers. To write continuously, to try over and over again to capture a certain mood, a certain experience. Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy. Sheer playing of scales, practice, repetition — then by the time one is ready to write a story or a novel a great deal of natural distillation and softing has been accomplished.

Indeed, Nin considers the inner censor that so often stands in the way of this flow to be the gravest peril of writing, one that the diary taught her to bypass:

There is another great danger for the writer, perhaps the greatest one of all: his consciousness of the multiple taboos society has imposed on literature, and his inner censor. … It is surprising how well one writes if one thinks no one will read [the writing].

This honesty, this absence of posturing, is a most fecund source of material. The writer’s task is to overthrow the taboos rather than accept them.

In elaborating on this, Nin adds to history’s most profound definitions of art:

Naked truth is unbearable to most, and art is our most effective means of overcoming human resistance to truth. The writer has the same role as the surgeon and his handling of anaesthesia is as important as his skill with the knife.

Human beings, in their resistance to truth, erect fortresses and some of these fortresses can only be demolished by the dynamic power of the symbol, which reaches the emotions directly.

Reflecting on the power of ancient stories and fairy tales, Nin returns to the critical role of sensuality in art, once again asserting that emotion and logic coexist — but only if the artist or writer is able to fully inhabit his or her own emotionality, thus understanding its underlying patterns:

In the human unconscious itself there is an indigenous structure and if we are able to detect and grasp it we have the plot, the form and style of the novel of the future.

In this apparently chaotic world of the unconscious there is an inevitability as logical, as coherent, as final as any to be found in classical drama.

In this new dimension of character the form is created by the meaning, it is born of the theme. It is created very much as the earth itself is created, by a series of inner convulsions and eruptions, dictated by inner geological tensions.

It is an organic development.

Concluding with an example of her own creative process — an anecdote about how a sudden memory of a sight at a concert she had heard in Paris years earlier inspired a key section in her novel Ladders to Fire — Nin speaks to the importance of unconscious processing in how creativity works and remarks:

How creative the unconscious can be if one allows it to work spontaneously.

For more wisdom on the written word, see this omnibus of 50+ famous authors’ advice on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, 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.

Complement with Nin’s timeless wisdom from her now-published diaries, including her reflections on the meaning of life, how inviting the unfamiliar helps us live more richly, Paris vs. New York, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and how our objects define us.

BP

Famous Writers on New York: Timeless Private Reflections from Diaries, Letters and Personal Essays

Mark Twain, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, E. B. White, Washington Irving, Anaïs Nin, Italo Calvino, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

New York City has been the subject of poetic love letters, essayistic homages, emotional cartographies, and artistic tributes. But hardly anything captures the gritty, unfiltered magic of the world’s greatest city than the private recollections of beloved authors, recorded in their journals and correspondence, untainted by the prospect of an evaluating audience. Collected here are some of my favorite such impressions, culled from years of my personal marginalia in famous diaries, letters, and the occasional personal essay.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from ‘Changing New York.’ Click image for details.

Mark Twain — in between dispensing advice to little girls and criticizing the popular press — makes a laconic note of New York’s unmanageable scale in an 1867 reflection included in the vintage anthology Mirror For Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present (public library):

The only trouble about this town is, that it is too large. You cannot accomplish anything in the way of business, you cannot even pay a friendly call, without devoting a whole day to it — that is, what people call a whole day who do not get up early. Many business men only give audience from eleven to one; therefore, if you miss those hours your affair must go over till next day. Now if you make the time at one place, even though you stay only ten or fifteen minutes, you can hardly get to your next point, because so many things and people will attract your attention and your conversation and curiosity, that the other three quarters of that hour will be frittered away. You have but one hour left, and my experience is that a man cannot go anywhere in New York in an hour. The distances are too great — you must have another day to it. If you have got six things to do, you have got to take six days to do them in.

In the recently released Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us the author’s wisdom on writing, America, and the meaning of lifeItalo Calvino writes to his friend Paolo Spriano on Christmas Eve 1959, shortly after receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation to travel around America for six months alongside six other young writers:

New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).

From the fantastic New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library) — one of the best history books of 2012, which you can sample here — comes this 1947 celebration of New York’s defiant diversity by Simone de Beauvoir:

I’m utterly taken with New York. It’s true that both camps tell me, “New York is not America.” V. irritates me when he declares, “If you like New York, it’s because it’s a European city that’s strayed to the edge of this continent.” It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I’m even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York — a city of foreigners and Jews — to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard “the real France” praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.

In another reflection from the same volume, de Beauvoir further marvels at New York’s singular character and medley of complementary contradictions:

In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn’t have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of the giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.

Illustration from ‘Paris vs. New York’ by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

In a 1934 letter to her lifelong friend and then-lover Henry Miller, found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932–1953 (public library), Anaïs Nin echoes de Beauvoir’s affection for the city:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

But five years later, Nin grows diametrically disillusioned and writes in her diary — which also gave us her timeless wisdom on anxiety and love, how emotional excess fuels creativity, and embracing the unfamiliar — she contrasts New York to her native Paris:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

In another diary entry a year later, she revisits the contrast with growing fervor:

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.’ Click image for details.

In a September 22, 1917, letter to her mother and sister — found in the same superb out-of-print anthology that gave us the poet’s reflections on the love of music, her playfully lewd self-portrait, and the story of how she was almost banned from her own graduation — 18-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay grumbles with her signature wry wit:

There is no air on 5th Avenue, there is nothing but oil & old gasoline & new gasoline — there is never one breath of pure air — nothing but gas, gas, gas — but people who live in New York walk there to get air. Probably they do get it — all of it — & that’s why it blows to me so scummily.

She later adds:

There is a beautiful anonymity about life in New York.

Three years later, in another letter to her mother, Millay grows exasperated with the city:

New York life is getting too congested for me — too many people; I get no time to work.

Washington Irving shares Millay’s frustration with the city’s density. How endearing and comic to consider that, in this 1847 letter to his sister who hadn’t seen her native city in over forty years, he compares New York (current population: 8.3 million) to Frankfurt (current population: 691,000) in an effort to capture its bustling expansiveness:

I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives. New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city ; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt — all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair. Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.

Unlike Irving, E. B. White found in the city’s exuberant turmoil cause for awe rather than distress. In Here Is New York (public library), one of the best books about Gotham, he captures the city’s vibrant whimsy in his breathlessly beautiful prose:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Malcolm Gladwell’s hand-drawn personal memory map of Manhattan. Click image for details.

26-year-old Susan Sontag writes in an 1959 diary entry, found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library), which also gave us her meditations on art, marriage, life, and the four people any great writer must be:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here … In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Adjusting to the city vs. making the city answer better to the self.

Also in New York Diaries, Randy Cohen notes Gotham’s curious customs, which take on a wholly different context than their practice anywhere else:

New York is not Mexico City, but twice a year, we parents at the 96th Street school-bus stop collect money for Mr. R., the driver. “You have to give, or he’ll drop your kid in Times Square alone,” someone jokes. And it is a joke. New York is not Lagos, Mr. R. is a responsible man, and the money is a gift.

The Chrysler Building by James Gulliver Hancock from ‘All the Buildings in New York.’ Click image for details.

But perhaps most poignant and timeless of all is this meta-meditation on writing about New York from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library). In a diary entry dated April 3, 1976, the celebrated author and literary sage reflects:

The impulse of every writer is to create a fictional world that represents the “real” world in abbreviated, heightened, poetic fashion. … Philip Roth’s New York is his own no less than Beckett’s interior landscapes are his own. Otherwise there would be little pleasure in art: it would be a mere attempt at reportage.

New York, to Oates, is the realest and most pleasurable of worlds. In another diary entry several weeks later, she rejoices in the city’s imminent promise:

Leaving tomorrow for my parents’, then to NYC… Poetry reading Monday evening. Then: freedom to explore New York. Our favorite city. The only city.

After the “totally enjoyable, many-faceted visit,” Oates captures New York’s polarizing mesmerism:

The undeniable attraction of that city: its pulse, atmosphere, people. (NYC is much maligned by the rest of the country out of resentment, one suspects. There is only one city in the United States and the others are envious.)

For more on the private joys and tribulations this “only city” has afforded some of literary history’s greatest icons, revisit the wonderful New York Diaries, then celebrate its dimensional magic with these 10 favorite books on Gotham’s glory.

BP

Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews

“A writer’s work is the product of laziness.”

Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) is the most celebrated and influential Latin-American author of the twentieth century, his literary legacy resounding loud as ever and exuding far-reaching philosophical reverberations. In 1972, when Borges was in his seventies and completely blind, a bright and earnest young Argentinian man of letters by the name of Fernando Sorrentino, only thirty at the time, sat down with the beloved author for seven afternoons in a tiny, secluded room in the National Library and recorded their conversations — “low-key, casual chats, free from any bothersome adherence to a rigid format” — on tape. Published in 1974 as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library), the conversations, spanning everything from literature to politics, couldn’t be commercially distributed until the overthrow of Isabel Perón in 1976 due to the author’s anti-establishment political convictions and the frankness with which he discussed them with Sorrentino.

Culled here from the seven lengthy and meandering conversations is Borges’s wisdom on writing — a fine addition to famous writers’ collected advice on the craft.

On why, as Joyce Carol Oates elegantly put it, it’s toxic to imagine an ideal reader, defying Michael Lewis’s assertion that the awareness of an audience’s existence exerts “invisible pressures” on the writer:

An absurd statement; how is a person going to write better or worse because he’s thinking about who’s going to read him?

On finding one’s purpose and trusting the “intuition pumps” of life, and the yin-yang of reading and writing:

Before I ever wrote a single line, I knew, in some mysterious and therefore unequivocal way, that I was destined for literature. What I didn’t realize at first is that besides being destined to be a reader, I was also destined to be a writer, and I don’t think one is less important than the other.

On literature as a gateway to the human condition:

I believe in psychological literature, and I think that all literature is fundamentally psychological.

On not mistaking anonymous authorship for lack of creative exertion, and why fairy tales exemplify the refinement of storytelling:

Each year a person hears four or five anecdotes that are very good, precisely because they’ve been worked on. Because it’s wrong to suppose that the fact that they’re anonymous means they haven’t been worked on. On the contrary, I think fairy tales, legends, even the offcolor jokes one hears, are usually good because having been passed from mouth to mouth, they’ve been stripped of everything that might be useless or bothersome. So we could say that a folk tale is a much more refined product than a poem by Donne or by Góngora or by Lugones, for example, since in the second case the piece has been refined by a single person, and in the first case by hundreds.

On not getting lost in movements:

I no longer believe in literary schools now; I believe in the individual.

On the advantage of writing about history:

I believe that a writer should never attempt a contemporary theme or a very precise topography. Otherwise people are immediately going to find mistakes. Or if they don’t find them, they’re going to look for them, and if they look for them, they’ll find them. That’s why I prefer to have my stories take place in somewhat indeterminate places and many years ago.

On Shakespeare’s singular gift, echoing Virginia Woolf’s timeless meditation on craftsmanship, and the limitations of translation:

I think of Shakespeare above all as a craftsman of words. For example, I see him closer to Joyce than to the great novelists, where character is the most important thing. That’s the reason I’m skeptical about translations of Shakespeare, because since what is most essential and most precious in him is the verbal aspect, I wonder to what extent the verbal can be translated.

On why free verse is more challenging to write than metered poetry, the former embodying Bukowski’s poetic admonition that the only worthwhile writing is the kind that “comes out of your soul like a rocket”:

I find it harder to write free verse. Because if there isn’t some kind of inner drive it can’t be done. On the other hand, using a regular meter is a matter of patience, of application . . . Once you’ve written one line, you’re forced to use certain rhymes, the number of rhymes is not infinite; the rhymes that can be used without incongruity are few in number . . . That is, when I have to fabricate something, I fabricate a sonnet, but I wouldn’t be able to fabricate a poem in free verse.

Touching on Italo Calvino’s meditation on what makes a classic, Borges defines what makes a book timeless:

A timeless book … would be just as admirable if it had been published a hundred years before or if it were published a hundred years later. A book that can only be defined by its perfection.

On why the explicit pursuit of prestige warps the integrity of writing and how commercial pressures commodify literature:

It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.

On trusting your inner compass for merit, in literature and in life:

I believe that whenever one does wrong, he knows he’s doing wrong. Still, he does it. I believe that no one thinks his own behavior is exemplary. And this holds true in literary matters as well.

On writing and aging:

To reach the point of writing in a more or less uncluttered manner, a more or less decorous manner, I’ve had to reach the age of seventy.

On the advice his father gave him about when not to take advice:

My father gave me that advice. He told me to write a lot, to discard a lot, and not to rush into print, so that the first book I had published, Fervor de Buenos Aires, was really my third book. My father told me that when I had written a book I judged to be not altogether unworthy of publication, he would pay for the printing of the book, but that it was each man for himself and I shouldn’t ask anyone for advice.

On the metric of literary merit:

A writer should always be judged by his or her best pages.

On his distaste for novels, a form Borges believed would eventually die out, and the advantage of short stories over them:

I never thought of writing novels. I think if I began to write a novel, I would realize that it’s nonsensical and that I wouldn’t follow through on it. Possibly this is an excuse dreamed up by my laziness.

[…]

The essential advantage I see in it is that the short story can be taken in at a single glance. On the other hand, in the novel the consecutive is more noticeable. And then there’s the fact that a work of three hundred pages depends on padding, on pages which are mere nexuses between one part and another. On the other hand, it’s possible for everything to be essential, or more or less essential, or — shall we say — appear to be essential, in a short story. I think there are stories of Kipling’s that are as dense as a novel, or of Conrad’s too. It’s true they’re not too short.

When Sorrentino pushes back against Borges’s self-alleged laziness — an incongruous notion given his prolific literary output — the author replies with a sublime affirmation that creative labor never feels like work and, to the extent that “laziness” is the avoidance of work, the best way to avoid work is by making a living out of what you love:

A writer’s work is the product of laziness, you see. A writer’s work essentially consists of taking his mind off things, of thinking about something else, of daydreaming, of not being in any hurry to go to sleep but to imagine something . . . And then comes the actual writing, and that’s his trade. That is, I don’t think the two things are incompatible. Besides, I think that when one is writing something that’s more or less good, one doesn’t feel it to be a chore; one feels it to be a form of amusement. A form of amusement that doesn’t exclude the use of intelligence, just as chess doesn’t exclude it, and chess is a game I’m very fond of and would like to know how to play — I’ve always been a poor chess player.

Towards the end of the final interview, Borges offers his counterpart to H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers and shares his own bit of wisdom:

I would advise that imaginary young man to study the classics; let him not try to be modern, because he already is; let him not try to be a man of a different epoch, to be a classical writer, because, indubitably, he cannot be this, since he is irreparably a young man of the twentieth century.

His parting words reflect on creativity, aging, hope, and legacy:

I believe one must not lose hope after fifty years. Besides, one learns by hard knocks, isn’t that so? I think I’ve committed all the literary errors possible and that this fact will allow me to succeed some day.

[…]

The image that I shall leave when I’m dead — we’ve already said that this is part of a poet’s works — and maybe the most important — I don’t know exactly what it will be, I don’t know if I’ll be viewed with indulgence, with indifference, or with hostility. Of course, that’s of little importance to me now; what does matter to me is not what I’ve written but what I am writing and what I’m going to write. And I think this is how every writer feels. Alfonso Reyes said that one published what he had written in order to avoid spending his life correcting it: one publishes a book in order to leave it behind, one publishes a book in order to forget it.

Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a treasure trove of insight in its entirety, its magic best captured by Borges himself in the prologue, penned on July 13, 1972:

Paradoxically, the dialogues which take place between a writer and a journalist bear less resemblance to a question-and-answer session than to a kind of introspection. For the interviewer, they can be a chore which is not entirely free of fatigue and tedium; for the interviewee, they are like an adventure in which the hidden and the unforeseeable lie in wait. Fernando Sorrentino knows my work — let us use that term — much better than I do; this is due to the obvious fact that I have written it one single time and he has read it many times, a fact which makes it less mine than his. As I dictate these lines, I do not wish to slight his kindly perspicacity: how many afternoons, speaking face to face, has he guided me, as though it were unintentional, to the inevitable answers which later astonished me and which he, no doubt, had prepared.

Fernando Sorrentino is, in a word, one of my most generous inventors. I wish to take advantage of this page to tell him of my gratitude and the certainty of a friendship that will not be erased by the years.

Complement with Susan Sontag’s transcendent letter to Borges.

BP

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