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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.”

James Baldwin’s Advice on Writing

In 1989, Paris Review founding editor and trailblazing interviewer George Plimpton edited a wonderful collection titled The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library). Among them was novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987), whom Plimpton had interviewed on two separate occasions in early 1984, half a century after Baldwin read his way out of Harlem and into the pantheon of literary greatness.

In a fantastic addition to the collected wisdom of celebrated writers, Baldwin looks back on his formidable career and shares what he has learned about the creative process, the psychological drivers of writing, and the habits of mind one must cultivate in order to excel at the craft.

James Baldwin writing

Reflecting on what motivates great writers to write — an enduring question also addressed beautifully by George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Baldwin sides with Bukowski and argues that the supreme animating force of the writer is the irrepressible impossibility of not-writing:

Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that. 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.

Endurance, indeed, is perhaps the sole common denominator among successful authors. Any aspiring writer, he admonishes, should have no illusion about the endurance required but should want to write anyway. A generation after Jack Kerouac considered the vital difference between talent and genius, Baldwin notes:

If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)

In a sentiment reminiscent of Joan Didion’s observation that she writes in order to gain better access to her own mind, Baldwin speaks to the consciousness-clarifying function of the creative impulse:

When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

Much of that self-revelation, Baldwin points out, happens not during the first outpour of writing but during the grueling process of rewriting. Echoing Hemingway’s abiding wisdom on the crucial art of revision, he adds:

Rewriting [is] very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it… The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. You have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

But as essential as that sense of incompleteness may be in guiding the revision process, it must be mediated by the awareness that completeness is a perennial mirage. (Decades later, Zadie Smith would observe in her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”) Baldwin offers:

When you’ve finished a novel, it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.

Adding to the endlessly fascinating daily rhythms of great writers, which reflect the wide range of differences in the cognitive conditions of the ideal writing routine, Baldwin shares his work habits:

I start working when everyone has gone to bed. I’ve had to do that ever since I was young — I had to wait until the kids were asleep. And then I was working at various jobs during the day. I’ve always had to write at night. But now that I’m established I do it because I’m alone at night.

Complement The Writer’s Chapbook — a treasure so wisdom-packed that it is a tragedy to see it fall out of print — with Joseph Conrad on what makes a great writer, Willa Cather on the life-changing advice that made her a writer, and Jane Kenyon on what remains the finest ethos to write and live by, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s role in society and his terrifically timely conversation with Margaret Mead about race and identity.

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Patti Smith, Umberto Eco, and Other Celebrated Contemporary Authors Offer Their Advice to Aspiring Writers

“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money… If you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

For several years, I’ve been compiling an evolving library of timeless advice on writing from more than one hundred of the craft’s greatest masters, dead and alive — authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and dozens more.

Now, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel offers a bite-sized counterpart of advice to aspiring writers from eleven acclaimed contemporary authors from around the world: Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Alaa Al-Aswany, Herbjørg Wassmo, Richard Ford, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Lars Norén, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith, Sjón, and Kjell Askildsen. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

Patti Smith, whose most recent memoir remains one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, on maintaining creative integrity, not compromising, and the best advice she ever got, from none other than William S. Burroughs, which stayed with her for life:

Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.

Umberto Eco, who has offered his more extensive advice to aspiring writers elsewhere, on working your way up rather than aiming straight for grandeur:

You cannot become a General if you [have not] been before a corporal, a sergeant, a lieutenant… So, go step by step.

Alaa Al-Aswany, echoing Jack Kerouac’s thoughts on whether writers are born or made, on talent and dedication:

You are talented, but you must know that the talent is not the end — it is just the beginning, and you must keep the writing as the most important thing in your life. And whenever you feel that the writing is not the most important thing in you life, you’d better stop writing — because you will never make any difference.

Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, in a sentiment reminiscent of Leonard Cohen on hard work and the creative process, on doggedness as the route to refinement:

The secret of writing is this: Write, write, write, and write again — and you will get it right.

Kjell Askildsen, with all of his 87 years’ worth of wisdom, echoes Steinbeck’s counter-advice and offers:

Don’t take any advice. Write based on who you are and what you’ve learned from the books you have enjoyed the most.

Lars Norén on letting your life speak:

If you want to become a poet, an artist — you can’t fight it. If you want to be that, you will. It’s not about desire — it’s about necessity. There’s no other way.

[…]

You have to trust your inner drive, for the disappointments and the efforts are so tough that you must have an inner conviction that this is what you want.

Sjón, calling to mind Maurice Sendak’s insistence on keeping our inner child alive, on the raw material of our individual inspiration:

My advice to a young writer would be that he or she works with he or she is made of, and by that I mean that we should not be afraid of working with the things that fascinated us when we were at our most impressionable… We are all informed by the things that fascinate us and excite us when we are quite young.

Lydia Davis, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s spirited defense of creative integrity over commercial success, on working with love:

Don’t ever cave in to the pressure of publishers or agents… Do what you want to do and don’t worry if it’s a little odd or doesn’t fit the market.

Complement with Seamus Heaney’s words of wisdom to the young, Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Hemingway’s reading list for those starting out, and Jane Kenyon’s magnificent advice on writing, which doubles as some of the finest life-advice you’ll ever receive.

BP

Believe the Praiser and Dismiss the Praise: Donald Hall’s Advice on Writing

“Rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.”

Believe the Praiser and Dismiss the Praise: Donald Hall’s Advice on Writing

“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon wrote in what remains the finest advice on the creative life I’ve ever encountered. But what, exactly, are the practicalities of that stewardship?

Incidentally, Kenyon was married to Donald Hall (b. September 20, 1928), another poet of enduring wisdom on writing, who addresses this question in the advice peppered throughout his Essays After Eighty (public library) — the terrific volume that gave us Hall on growing old and our cultural attitude toward the elderly.

Generations after Hemingway extolled the rewards of revision, Hall writes:

The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.

[…]

Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.

donaldhall4

Hall goes on to offer some practical advice on composition and structure:

As I work over clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey. Sentences can be long, three or more complete clauses dancing together, or two clauses with one leaning on the other, or an added phrase of only a few syllables. Sentences and paragraphs are as various as human beings. I like the effect — see John McPhee — of a paragraph three pages long, glued together by transitions that never sound like transitions.

After a three-page paragraph, maybe a one-line blurt.

Half a century after Jack Kerouac contemplated whether writers are born or made, Hall wastes no time on the unanswerable question of genius and instead considers the “problems in writing one can learn to avoid”:

Almost always, in my poems or essays, the end goes on too long. “In case you don’t get it, this is what I just said.” Cut it out. Let the words flash a conclusion, then get out of the way. Sometimes the writer intrudes — me, myself, and I — between the reader and the page. Don’t begin paragraphs with “I.” For that matter, try not to begin sentences with the personal pronoun. Avoid “me” and “my” when you can. Writing memoir, don’t say, “I remember that in my childhood nothing happened to me.” Say, “In childhood nothing happened.”

In a sentiment that calls to mind Cheryl Strayed’s assertion that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” Hall adds:

Avoid the personal pronoun when you can — but not the personal. My first book of poems said “I,” but the word was distant, a stiff and poetic “I.” In my best poems and prose I’ve become steadily more naked, with a nakedness that disguises itself by wearing clothes. A scrupulous passion of style — word choice, syntax, punctuation, order, rhythm, specificity — sets forth not only the writer’s rendering of barns and hollyhocks, but the writer’s feelings and counterfeelings.

But Hall’s finest point of advice deals with the psychology rather than the practicality of the craft — and it applies as much to writing as it does to every field of human endeavor. With an eye to the fine line between gratification and grandiosity, he counsels:

It’s okay to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treats you as deathless, but you must not believe it… It is best to believe the praiser and dismiss the praise.

Complement Essays After Eighty with this evolving collection of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, and Grace Paley on the value of not understanding everything.

BP

A Different Kind of Progress: The Poetry and Philosophy of Rilke, Rumi, Mary Oliver, and Tagore, Set to Song

A beautiful musical homage to the eternal dance of life and death.

“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay exclaimed in a letter. “Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed in contemplating the singular power of music. Given this aesthetic envy, how befitting and redemptive that some of history’s greatest poetry and philosophy should become the creative seed for beautiful music in singer-songwriter Shannon Hawley’s debut album, A Different Kind of Progress — an exquisite thirteen-song cycle, five years in the making, inspired by the poetry and philosophy of beloved writers like Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, Rumi, and Tagore.

“Rainer’s Song (The World You Carry Within You)” is based on Rilke’s timeless clarion call for embracing uncertainty and living the questions — one of the wisest things a human being could live by, which penetrates the psyche all the more deeply as Hawley fuses Rilke’s appeal to the mind with music’s enchantment of the heart, embodying Oliver Sacks’s assertion that “music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation”:

Another track, “Mollusk and Slug Interlude,” was sparked by Rilke’s abiding wisdom on love:

“Kidnapping a tree” is based on a poem of Tagore’s, celebrating trees, those perennial poetic muses:

“How Real” is based on Rumi’s poem “Float, Trust, Enjoy,” found in The Soul of Rumi:

FLOAT, TRUST, ENJOY

Muhammad said no one looks
back and regrets leaving this
world. What’s regretted

is how real we thought it was!
How much we worried about
phenomena and how little

we considered what moves
through form. “Why did I spend
my life denying death? Death

is the key to truth!” When you
hear lamenting like that, say,
not out loud, but
inwardly, “What moved you
then still moves you, the same
energy. But you understand

perfectly now that you are not
essentially a body, tissue, bone,
brain, and muscle. Dissolve

in the clear vision. Instead of
looking down at the six feet of
road immediately

ahead, look up: see both worlds,
the face of the king, the ocean
shaping and carrying

you along. You’ve heard
descriptions of that sea. Now
float, trust, enjoy the motion.”

“Winter’s White Owl” is inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field,” found in her New and Selected Poems, Volume One — an immensely enlivening perspective on death:

WHITE OWL FLIES INTO AND OUT OF THE FIELD

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

Complement A Different Kind of Progress, also available on CD Baby, with Jack Kerouac set to song by Patti Smith, E.E. Cummings set to song by Tin Hat, William Blake set to song by The Wraiths, W.B. Yeats set to song by Christine Tobin, Allen Ginsberg’s musical adaptation of Blake, and Natalie Merchant’s songs based on Victorian nursery rhymes.

BP

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