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The Best Books on Writing, NYC, Animals, and More: A Collaboration with the New York Public Library

A celebration of timelessly wonderful reads in an elaborate diorama of papercraft book sculptures.

As an enormous lover and patron of public libraries, I was beyond delighted when the fine folks at the New York Public Library asked me to curate a selection of books for their bookstore and gave me free range to do whatever I wished. My original thought was to do a single reading list around a specific theme, much like I had been doing for the TED bookstore. But my chronic maximalism soon kicked in — the single reading list swelled into four reading lists (wisdom on writing, great reads about New York City, heart- and brain-stirring books on pets and animals, and timeless treats for young readers) and the simple tabletop display became an elaborate installation in the bookstore’s main window. That’s when I reached out to the impossibly talented Kelli Anderson, with whom I’d previously collaborated on the Curator’s Code and The Reconstructionists projects, and invited her to bestow her singular gift for disruptive wonder upon the library as we both donated our time and resources to the project.

Kelli, with her own brand of idealistic maximalism, decided to turn the reading lists into a magnificent papercraft wonderland featuring oversized three-dimensional sculptures of each of the books amidst an intricate paper cityscape of the Manhattan skyline.

Yes, it is just as incredibly time-consuming as it sounds — Kelli and her team spent countless hours cutting and hand-gluing each of the letters onto the books, engineering the physics of the suspension, and masterminding the minutest detail of this enormous labor of love. The ever-talented Debbie Millman provided the hand-lettering and Jacob Krupnick of Wild Combination (the team behind Girl Walk // All Day) photographed the process and filmed this beautiful timelapse of the assembly:

And the end result, up close and personal:

Here are the four reading lists, along with my original text that appears in the library bookshop window, followed by some production photos to give you an idea of the incredible love and energy Kelli and her team poured into bringing this to life.

Why I Write (public library) by George Orwell: Literary legend Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, remains best remembered for authoring the cult-classics Animal Farm and 1984, but he was also a formidable, masterful essayist. Among his finest nonfiction feats is this 1946 masterpiece, in which Orwell traces how the painful experiences of his childhood steered him towards writing and lays out what he believes to be the four universal motives for writing, most of which resonate with just about any domain of creative work. Sample it with the fantastic title essay on the four universal motives for writing.

The Elements of Style (public library) illustrated by Maira Kalman: For anyone who thinks grammar can’t be fun, here comes beloved artist Maira Kalman, whose colorful whimsy breathes new life into Strunk and White’s indispensable 1959 style guide to create an instant classic in its own right. More here.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) by Anne Lamott: This 1994 classic is as much a practical guide to the writer’s life as it is a profound treasure-trove of wisdom on the life of the heart and mind, brimming with insight on everything from overcoming self-doubt to navigating the osmotic balance of intuition and analytical thought. More here.

The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) by Henry Miller: “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Miller writes in the title essay of the anthology, and indeed his singular orientation to life permeates this sublime collection of his short stories, profiles, and literary criticism. Sample it with his meditation on the art of living.

Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (public library) by Walter Benjamin: “The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself,” legendary German literary critic, philosopher, and essayist Walter Benjamin advises in his indispensable dictum “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” one of the many gems in this compendium of his essays, aphorisms and autobiographical writings.

Zen in the Art of Writing (public library): Here, our beloved Bradbury shares not only his wisdom and experience in writing, but also his contagious excitement for the craft. Blending practical how-to’s on everything from negotiating with editors to finding your voice with snippets and glimpses of the author’s own career, the book is at once a manual and a manifesto, imbued with equal parts edification and enthusiasm. More here.

Writers On Writing (public library): This remarkable collection of 46 timeless essays from The New York Times features contributions from such literary icons as Saul Bellow, Ann Patchett, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, spanning the entire spectrum from the playful to the profound, the practical to the philosophical. Sample it with Mary Gordon on the joy of notebooks and writing by hand as creative catalyst.

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews (public library) by Samuel Delany: “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t,” argues celebrated author and literary critic Samuel Delany — who, for a fascinating factlet, penned the controversial 1972 “women’s liberation” issue of Wonder Woman — in this synthesis of his most valuable insights from thirty-five years of teaching creative writing. Sample this volume with Delany’s wisdom on talented writing vs. good writing.

Why We Write (public library) edited by Meredith Maran: Twenty acclaimed authors — including Jennifer Egan, James Fray, and Michael Lewis — pop the hood of the literary machine to probe the internal engine of writing. Sample this volume with some fantastic contributions by Susan Orlean, Mary Karr, and Isabel Allende.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library) edited by Sontag’s son, David Rieff: An intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices, revealing in the process her immeasurable insight on writing. It has given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, her illustrated wisdom on art, and her bulletpointed bodily self-portrait.

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by Caroline Paul, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton: From firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton comes a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love. Devour a taste of this impossibly lovely treasure here, and hear an interview with Wendy and Caroline on the delicate balance of combining a creative collaboration with a romantic relationship here.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library): “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell writes in the introduction to this magnificent compendium of canine-themed gems — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — culled from the New Yorker magazine archives, also one of the best art books of 2012. What unites the contributing titans — among them E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl — is a trifecta of love for dogs, for literature, and for this dog-loving literary city. Sample it with ample visuals and excerpts here.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (public library) by T. S. Eliot, illustrated by Edward Gorey: In the 1930s, legendary poet T. S. Eliot penned a handful of marvelous verses about feline psychology and social order in a series of letters to his godchildren. The poems, first collected and published in 1939, eventually became the basis for the famed Broadway musical Cats. But nowhere do they shine with more whimsical charisma than in this special 1982 edition illustrated by the great Edward Gorey. Peek inside a rare signed original edition here.

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (public library) by Jon Mooallem: “Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything,” writes Jim Mooallem as he treks across mountains and wildlife reserves to trace the fates of three endangered species — a bear, a butterfly, and a bird. This isn’t the typical story designed to make us better by making us feel bad, to scare us into behaving, into environmental empathy; Mooallem’s is not the self-righteous tone of capital-K knowing characteristic of environmental writing but the scientist’s disposition of not-knowing, the poet’s penchant for, as T. S. Eliot famously put it, “negative capability.” Dive inside here.

What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend (public library) by John Homans: “If you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience,” writes John Homans in his remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog’s journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts warmth and scientific rigor. Sample the soul-stirring goodness here.

Creature (public library) by Andrew Zuckerman: With his signature style of crisp yet tender portraits, Zuckerman captures the spirit of Earth’s diverse creatures, from panthers to fruit bats to bald eagles, making them appear familiar and fresh at the same time, and altogether breathtaking. Peek inside here.

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library) by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods: This absorbing survey of radical research on canine cognition explores such fascinating questions as how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence and what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. What emerges, in fact, is a necessary revision of our narrow definition of what genius itself means, not just canine but human as well. Get a taste here.

The Animal Fair (public library) by Alice and Martin Provensen: Alice and Martin Provensen began their collaboration when they got married in 1944 and went on to produce a wealth of vibrantly illustrated stories of curiosity and kindness. This is one of their most delightful gems, originally published in 1952 — a collection of 22 original stories and poems by the Provensens, from a lively journey to the farmyard, zoo, and forest to humorous advice on “how to sleep through the winter” and “how to recognize a wolf in the forest.” Peek inside this vintage gem here.

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (public library) by Virginia Morell: Most people who have observed animals even briefly wouldn’t question their emotional lives and their thriving inner worlds. While anthropomorphic animal tales have populated storytelling for as long as humanity has existed, science writer Virginia Morell takes us on an unprecedented tour of laboratories around the world and explores the work of pioneering animal cognition researchers to reveal the scientific basis for our basic intuition about what goes on in the hearts and minds of our fellow beings, from the laughter of rats to the intellectual curiosity of dolphins.

What Pete Ate from A to Z (public library) by Maira Kalman: In this heart-warming and utterly refreshing take on the traditional alphabet book, the inimitable Maira Kalman — one of New York’s living creative treasures — unleashes her signature wordplay and expressive visual whimsy on the story of the charmingly shaggy, omnivorous, and hopelessly lovable Pete, based on Kalman’s own beloved pup.

Here Is New York (public library) by E. B. White: In the sweltering summer of 1948, E. B. White sat down in a hotel room and penned what endures as the most heartening love letter to New York — a roaming essay full of wit, wisdom, and immutable affection for the city as an icon, a friend, an intricate ecosystem of triumphs and tragedies, a canvas for the vibrancy of life. “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” he writes. “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.” Sample this gem with Literary Jukebox.

New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library): This dimensional mosaic portrait of the city, one of the best history books of 2012, draws on the private journals of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in Gotham’s grid over the past four hundred years. Culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections, these engrossing entries invite us into the private worlds of such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Jack Kerouac, Simone de Beauvoir, and Mark Twain, leaving us with an ever-deeper appreciation of our shared existence in this glorious city. Sample some of the entries here.

Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers (public library) edited by Becky Cooper: A tender cartographic love letter to this timeless city of multiple dimensions, parallel realities, and perpendicular views, featuring 75 hand-drawn memory maps from both strangers and famous New Yorkers alike, including cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson, artist-philosopher Yoko Ono, wire-walked Philippe Petit, author Malcolm Gladwell, and chef David Chang. See some of the hand-drawn cartographic goodness, including my own addition, here.

This Is New York (public library) by Miroslav Šašek: Though this lovely 1960 gem, the first American city in Sašek’s legendary This Is series, was originally designed with a child-reader in mind, the vibrant vintage illustrations leap off the pages to enchant children and grown-ups in equal measure, New Yorkers and visitors, admirers of big bustling streets and lovers of quiet little corners.

Changing New York (public library) by Berenice Abbott: Between 1935 and 1939, pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott made 307 black-and-white prints of New York City that endure as some of the most iconic images of Gotham’s changing face. In advance of the 1939 World’s Fair, 200 of them were gathered in this collection, along with a selection of variant images, line drawings, period maps, and background essays — a lavish time-capsule of urban design organized in eight geographical sections, documenting the social, architectural, and cultural history of the city. See some of her extraordinary photographs here.

All the Buildings in New York (That I’ve Drawn So Far) (public library) by James Gulliver Hancock: When Australian illustrator James Gulliver Hancock moved to New York City, he set out to “own” his new home in a unique way: by drawing every single building in town. Collected here are the best of these drawings — a charmingly illustrated tour of Gotham’s cityscape and architecture, from icons to oddities, spanning the entire urban spectrum in between. Peek inside here.

Manhattan ’45 (public library) by Jan Morris: Jan Morris paints a remarkably dynamic portrait of the city as it was on June 25, 1945 — the day 14,000 American servicemen and women, the first contingent returning from the victory over Nazi Germany, sailed into New York aboard the British liner Queen Mary — reconstructed in 1987, when the book was originally published. From the novelty of stockings to the technological marvel of high-rise elevators to the class-equalizing power of a heat wave, she blends the mesmerism of time-travel with the absorbing voyeurism of travel writing, transporting us to a city at once curiously foreign and comfortably familiar. Sample it with this lovely abstract depicting Gotham’s heat wave as the ultimate class equalizer (plus a curious biographical detail about Morris, who was born James and became Jan).

Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities (public library) by Vahram Muratyan: Graphic designer Vahram Muratyan, a self-described “lover of Paris wandering through New York,” chronicles the peculiarities and contradictions of the two cities through “a friendly visual match” of minimalist illustrated parallel portraits — vibrant visual dichotomies and likenesses, from beverages to beards, hands to houses, that capture the intricacies of cultural difference with equal parts humor and affection. This gem was one of the best art books of 2012 — peek inside it and chuckle here.

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (public library) by Eric Sanderson: Landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson spent more than a decade trying to reconstruct what Henry Hudson saw on that fateful day of September 12, 1609, when he first set foot on the island that would become Manhattan. His is a masterful feat of a kind of analog augmented reality — using an 18th-century map geographically overlaid upon the layout of modern-day Manhattan and troves of historic documents and scientific data, Sanderson takes us on a lavishly illustrated tour of the wild forests of Times Square, the sunny meadows of Harlem, and the soggy swamps of Soho.

Central Park: An Anthology (public library) edited by Andrew Blauner: Twenty of the New York’s most celebrated authors — including Adam Gopnik, Mark Helprin, Colson Whitehead, and Francine Prose — pay homage to one particular, and particularly beloved, part of the city, inviting us on a literary walk through the park with some of the most intensely interesting companions imaginable. Sample the absorbing tales here.

People (public library) by Blexbolex: Celebrated French illustrator Blexbolex captures the human condition in its diversity, richness and paradoxes — from mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies. His signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing. One of the best children’s and picture books of 2011 — see for yourself with a peek inside.

Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain (public library) by Mark Twain, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky: In 1865, when he was only 30, Mark Twain penned a little-known and lovely children’s story, in which he challenged kids to digest the intelligent humor that had captivated his adult audiences and mischievously encouraged girls to think independently rather than blindly obey social mores. Nearly a century and a half later, beloved Russian children’s illustrator Vladimir Radunsky brings Twain’s irreverent gem to life, envisioned in the style of the Victorian scrapbooks that children of that era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera. Sample this treasure, a pet project of mine two years in the making, here.

You Are Stardust (public library) by Elin Kelsey, illustrated by Soyeon Kim: With its whimsical 3D paper dioramas and enchanting verses, this exquisite picture-book sets out to inspire in kids the kind of cosmic awe that would spark in them a profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today. Peek inside here.

Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library) edited by Gemma Elwin Harris: The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, Alain de Botton, and many more — to answer them. The result is a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, from what we’re made of to why we fall in love to how dreams work, and was among the best children’s books of 2012 as well as among readers’ overall favorites. Read some of the wonderful questions and answers here.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (public library) by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat: In this infinitely inspired intersection of greatness, Angelou’s simple, strong words are paired with drawings by legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose signature style of child-like fancy and colorful emotional intensity offers a perfect match for Angelou’s courageous verses. Peek inside, and hear Angelou herself reading from the book, here.

Drawing from the City (public library) by Tejubehan: For nearly two decades, Indian independent publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books celebrating Indian folk art traditions. Here, self-taught artist Tejubehan weaves a partly autobiographical, partly escapist, whimsically illustrated tale of a woman trapped between unimaginable poverty and a wildly imaginative inner world in a patriarchal society. Also one of the best children’s books of 2012 — see for yourself with a peek inside.

And Tango Makes Three (public library) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole: This is the heartening, tenderly illustrated true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo, who fell in love in 1998 and started a family, raising little Tango — the zoo’s first and only baby-girl with two daddies. Peek inside here.

My Brother’s Book (public library) by Maurice Sendak: Half a century after Where The Wild Things Are comes this bittersweet posthumous farewell to the world, illustrated in vibrant, dreamsome watercolors and written in verse inspired by some of Sendak’s lifelong influences: Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, and the music of Mozart. Though on the surface about the beloved author’s own brother Jack, who died 18 years prior to the book’s publication, the story is also about the love of Sendak’s life and his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. One of the loveliest books of all time — see for yourself.

To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (public library) by Gertrude Stein, illustrated by Giselle Potter: In 1940, the grand dame of experimental literature penned a manuscript for an alphabet book that was rejected by publisher after publisher as being too complex for children. In 1957, more than a decade after Stein’s death, Yale University Press published a text-only version. In 2011, more than half a century later, came this first illustrated version true to Stein’s original vision, with exquisite artwork by New Yorker illustrator Giselle Potter. Peek inside here.

Why We Have Day and Night. (public library) by Edward Gorey: Edward Gorey, mid-century illustrator of the macabre and fanciful, has influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Long after his death, Gorey still manages to charm us with his signature style of darkly delightful illustrations that illuminate young readers on the mystery of why we have night and light in one of the best children’s and picture books of 2011. Take a peek here.

Read more about the nitty-gritty of it on Kelli’s blog. Meanwhile, here’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the magic:

If you’re in New York, stop by the NYPL bookstore sometime to see the installation in its analog glory, and join me in supporting the library here. (You’re also always welcome to support Brain Pickings here.)

BP

Raymond Chandler on Writing: A Lifetime of Wisdom on the Craft from His Private Letters

“Writers … have to fight the impulse to live up to someone else’s idea of what they are.”

Last week, while researching this omnibus of what famous authors wrote about their beloved pets in their letters and journals, I came upon the irresistible 1981 anthology Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (public library). Among Chandler’s many musings, exchanged with his agents, publishers, and literary friends are a number of timeless insights on writing, culled here as a fine addition to this master-list of famous writers’ advice on writing.

In a 1937 letter to the editor of The Fortnightly Intruder, Chandler echoes Virginia Woolf’s case for the evolution of language:

That you should have pride in your purer American heritage of language seems to me a slight thing. Latin became corrupt, but French is a sharper language than Latin ever was. The best writing in English today is done by Americans, but not in any purist tradition. They have roughed the language around as Shakespeare did and done it the violence of melodrama and the press box. They have knocked over tombs and sneered at the dead. Which is as it should be. There are too many dead men and there is too much talk about them.

In a 1948 letter to Hamish Hamilton, Chandler’s English publisher, he revisits the subject:

If I hadn’t grown up on Latin and Greek, I doubt if I would know so well how to draw the very subtle line between what I call a vernacular style and what I should call an illiterate or faux naif style. There’s a hell of a lot of difference, to my mind.

In a vital meditation on defining one’s own success, Chandler admonishes against pursuing prestige rather than authenticity, which for him is a serious creative block:

I can’t seem to get started on doing anything. Always very tough for me to get started. The more things people say about you the more you feel as if you were writing in an examination room, that it didn’t belong to you any more, that you had to protect critical reputations and not let them down. Writers even as cynical as I have to fight the impulse to live up to someone else’s idea of what they are.

In a 1951 letter to his agent, Carl Brandt, Chandler once again shares his creative block but, like Rilke, welcomes the state of creative doubt and uncertainty, which Keats famously called “negative capability”:

I am having a hard time with the book. Have enough paper written to make it complete, but must do all over again. I just didn’t know where I was going and when I got there I saw that I had come to the wrong place. that’s the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.

In March of 1957, at the age of 69 and critically acclaimed, Chandler revisits this state of creative restlessness and uncertainty as a pillar of his identity as a writer:

I am the same man I was when I was a struggling nobody. I feel the same. I know more, it is true, break all the rules and get away with it, but that doesn’t make me important. I may have written the most beautiful American vernacular that has ever been written (some people think I have), but if it is so, I am still a writer trying to find his way through a maze. Should I be anything else? I can’t see it.

In the closing lines of a letter dated May 5, 1939, Chandler offers a meta-observation full of that typical writerly self-awareness bordering on self-consciousness:

And here I am at 2:30 A.M. writing about technique, in spite of a strong conviction that the moment a man begins to talk about technique, that’s proof he is fresh out of ideas.

On October 17, 1939, he comments on the ever-elusive alignment of lucrative and fulfilling work, the disconnect between authentic work and popular taste:

I have never made any money on writing. I work too slowly, throw away too much, and what I write that sells is not at all the sort of thing I really want to write.

In a delightfully curmudgeonly 1944 letter to Charles Morton, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Chandler casually grumbles that “the civilized intelligence is pretty rare out west” where “very few people … are not half-baked in one way or another,” then delivers his exquisite critique of literary pompousness:

I never really had a great urge to write fiction, which is becoming more and more of a pseudo-art. … But you guys have an obligation … to avoid pompously bad writing and the kind of dullness that comes from letting flatulent asses pontificate about things they know no more about than the next man, if as much. There is a (to me) shocking example of this in the November Harper’s, called “Salute to the Litterateurs.” Consider:

“For writers are people of peculiar sensitivity to the winds of doctrine which blow with especial violence in a time of rapid change — some more so than others, but none, except the outright hacks, completely immune.”

I regard that sentence as a disgrace to English prose. It says nothing and says it ponderously, in a cliched manner, and without syntax.

[…]

Is there anything said here that could not be said better with a simple after-dinner belch?

In another letter to fellow detective novelist Earle Stanley Gardner, dated January 29, 1946, Chandler dives even deeper into his distaste for such writing and shares in Susan Sontag’s sentiments about literary criticism, voicing a concern about popular taste that David Foster Wallace would come to echo some half a century later:

I probably know as much about the essential qualities of good writing as anybody now discussing it. I do not discuss these things professionally for the simple reason that I do not consider it worthwhile. I am not interested in pleasing the intellectuals by writing literary criticism, because literary criticism as an art has in these days too narrow a scope and too limited a public, just as has poetry. I do not believe it is a writer’s function to talk to a dead generation of leisured people who once had time to relish the niceties of critical thought. …. The reading public is intellectually adolescent at best, and it is obvious that what is called “significant literature” will only be sold to this public by exactly the same methods that are used to sell it toothpaste, cathartics and automobiles.

(One can only imagine how the era of Fifty Shades of Grey might stir Chandler’s indignation.)

He then articulates beautifully the essence of a book:

When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball.

And though his opinion of “the public” might appear dismal, Chandler shares in E.B. White’s belief in the responsibility of the writer to “lift people up, not lower them down.” In a 1951 letter, he writes:

My theory has always been that the public will accept style provided you do not call it style either in words or by, as it were, standing off and admiring it. There seems to me to be a vast difference between writing down to the public (something which always flops in the end) and doing what you want to do in a form which the public has learned to accept.

In a March 1947 letter to the editors of Harper’s, Chandler seconds H. P. Lovecraft’s defiance to the distinction between “amateur” and “professional” writers, something all the more timely today in the age of democratized publishing:

There is not much point in all this pseudo-elaborate differentiation between the professional and the amateur. No such difference exists, or ever did.

[…]

All this talk about “pros” is itself sheer amateurism. There is no such thing as professionalism in writing.

In June of 1949, he shares with Hamilton a reflection on literary gimmickry and the secret of great fiction:

To say little and convey much, to break the mood of the scene with some completely irrelevant wisecrack without entirely losing the mood — these small things for me stand in lieu of accomplishment. My theory of fiction writing … is that the objective method has hardly been scratched, that if you know how to use it you can tell more in a paragraph than the probing writers can tell in a chapter.

In September of 1957, approaching his seventieth birthday, in a letter to Helga Greene, Chandler’s last literary agent and subsequent heir, Chandler lists all his gripes about the superficialities of the literary world and concludes with what’s perhaps his most poignant meditation on writing:

I haven’t seen the New Yorker for months, just got tired of it. … But I think I may have become a bit crotchety from loneliness, worry, illness and physical suffering. My ideas of what constitutes good writing are increasingly rebellious. I may even end up echoing Henry Ford’s verdict on history, and saying to unlistening ears: “Literature is bunk.”

[…]

I may satisfy myself with Richard II or a crime novel and tell all the fancy boys to go to hell, all the subtle-subtle ones that they did us a service by exposing the truth that subtlety is only a technique, and a weak technique at that; all the stream-of-consciousness ladies and gents, mostly the former, that you can split a hair fourteen ways from the deuce, but what you’ve got left isn’t even a hair; all the editorial novelists that they should go back to school and stay there until they can make a story come alive with nothing but dialogue and concrete description: oh, we’ll allow them one chapter of set-piece writing per book, even two, but no more; and finally all the clever-clever darlings with the fluty voices that cleverness, like perhaps strawberries, is a perishable commodity. The things that last — or should — I admit they sometimes miss — come from deeper levels of a writer’s being, and the particular form used to frame them has very little to do with their value. The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.

And here we are today, reading Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler. Pair his wisdom with more insights on the written word from Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Henry Miller, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Orlean, Ernest Hemingway, and Zadie Smith.

BP

Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers

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

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

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

Please enjoy.

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

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

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

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

H.P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Aspiring Writers: Timeless Counsel from 1920

“Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn… If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible.”

“If there is a magic in story writing,” Steinbeck admonished, “and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” And yet, famous advice on writing abounds.

In January of 1920, iconic science fiction and fantasy author H. P. Lovecraft published a short guide titled “Literary Composition” for United Amateur Press Association — a grassroots literary education collective that dubbed itself an “exponent of amateur journalism,” an early version of today’s blogs and citizen journalism. Found in the anthology Writings in the United Amateur (free download; public library), the essay offers aspiring writers technical tips and big-picture wisdom on the art and craft of the written word.

Much like Jennifer Egan did nearly a century later, Lovecraft stresses the vital osmosis between reading and writing:

No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. … All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.

Lovecraft notes the equal importance of non-reading as intellectual choice:

It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style. If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible. An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible. For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes.

He advocates for cultivating a love of uncommon words:

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it. The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony. In reading, the novice should note the varied mode of expression practiced by good authors, and should keep in his mind for future use the many appropriate synonymes he encounters. Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.

But in enlarging the vocabulary, we must beware lest we misuse our new possessions. We must remember that there are fine distinctions betwixt apparently similar words, and that language must ever be selected with intelligent care.

Like Thoreau, Lovecraft finds in nature a literary muse:

For the purpose of securing epithets at once accurate and felicitous, the young author should familiarize himself thoroughly with the general aspect and phenomena of Nature, as well as with the ideas and associations which these things produce in the human mind.

He offers a meditation on fact and fiction, with a cautionary note about narrative sequence:

In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential. A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation. In real life, odd and erratic things do occasionally happen; but they are out of place in an ordinary story, since fiction is a sort of idealization of the average. Development should be as lifelike as possible, and a weak, trickling conclusion should be assiduously avoided. The end of a story must be stronger rather than weaker than the beginning; since it is the end which contains the denouement or culmination, and which will leave the strongest impression upon the reader. It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be. In this way he will be able to concentrate his freshest mental vigour upon the most important part of his narrative; and if any changes be later found needful, they can easily be made. In no part of a narrative should a grand or emphatic thought or passage be followed by one of tame or prosaic quality. This is anticlimax, and exposes a writer to much ridicule.

Lovecraft enumerates the twenty most common mistakes of young authors, “aside from those gross violations of syntax which ordinary education corrects,” and offers a common cure for all:

  1. Erroneous plurals of nouns, as vallies or echos.
  2. Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep.
  3. Want of correspondence in number between noun and verb where the two are widely separated or the construction involved.
  4. Ambiguous use of pronouns.
  5. Erroneous case of pronouns, as whom for who, and vice versa, or phrases like “between you and I,” or “Let we who are loyal, act promptly.”
  6. Erroneous use of shall and will, and of other auxiliary verbs.
  7. Use of intransitive for transitive verbs, as “he was graduated from college,” or vice versa, as “he ingratiated with the tyrant.”
  8. Use of nouns for verbs, as “he motored to Boston,” or “he voiced a protest.”
  9. Errors in moods and tenses of verbs, as “If I was he, I should do otherwise,” or “He said the earth was round.”
  10. The split infinitive, as “to calmly glide.”
  11. The erroneous perfect infinitive, as “Last week I expected to have met you.”
  12. False verb-forms, as “I pled with him.”
  13. Use of like for as, as “I strive to write like Pope wrote.”
  14. Misuse of prepositions, as “The gift was bestowed to an unworthy object,” or “The gold was divided between the five men.”
  15. The superfluous conjunction, as “I wish for you to do this.”
  16. Use of words in wrong senses, as “The book greatly intrigued me,” “Leave me take this,” “He was obsessed with the idea,” or “He is a meticulous writer.”
  17. Erroneous use of non-Anglicised foreign forms, as “a strange phenomena,” or “two stratas of clouds.”
  18. Use of false or unauthorized words, as burglarize or supremest.
  19. Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.
  20. Errors of spelling and punctuation, and confusion of forms such as that which leads many to place an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its.

Of all blunders, there is hardly one which might not be avoided through diligent study of simple textbooks on grammar and rhetoric, intelligent perusal of the best authors, and care and forethought in composition. Almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, since the sources of correction are so numerous and so available.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter of advice, 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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