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‘Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish’: John Steinbeck’s advice on writing
06.11.2014
12:42 pm

Topics:
Books
Literature

Tags:
John Steinbeck
Writing

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Responding to a letter from Robert Wallsten, who was “experiencing a kind of stage fright about actually starting to write a biographical work,” John Steinbeck, author of those longtime staples of high school syllabi, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, gave the following advice.
 

Villa Panorama
Capri
February 13-14, 1962

Dear Robert:

Your bedridden letter came a couple of days ago and the parts about your book, I think, need an answer…

...let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find the reason it gave trouble is it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of the scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Well, actually that’s about all.

I know that no two people have the same methods. However, these mostly work for me…

love to all there

John

 
1962 was a good year for Steinbeck, as he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. At his acceptance speech, given at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1962, Steinbeck said:
 

Literature was not promulgated by a pale and emasculated critical priesthood singing their litanies in empty churches—nor is it a game for the cloistered elect, the tinhorn mendicants of low calorie despair. Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.

 
Steinbeck’s speech can be viewed below.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
The Mark E. Smith Guide to Writing
11.12.2013
03:59 pm

Topics:
Amusing
Pop Culture

Tags:
Mark E. Smith
Writing

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It’s time Manchester did the decent thing and honored its most celebrated son. If their Merseyside rivals can honor John Lennon by renaming their international airport after the sarky mop top, then Manchester should do something similar and at least rename its bus station after Mark E. Smith. 

But let’s not stop there. A local holiday should be adopted on his birthday, with street parties and free beer, with a statue erected in his birthplace of Broughton. Not much to ask for the man whose band The Fall have been essential listening over the past thirty-odd years.

Thirty odd years indeed, with Smith the only constant in The Fall’s ever-changing line-up through a long, difficult, but productive, and brilliant career. How the great Mancunian has survived the bitter fights, spiked drinks, broken bones and riots says it all about Smith’s ambition and touched-by-genius talents.

Yea, let us rejoice, for we are alive in the days of Mark E. Smith.

This little gem is from Grenwich Sound Radio in 1983, when Smith gave his “guide to writing guide.” Not the kind of toss you’ll get from those writing-by-numbers courses, no, but something far more oblique and entertaining.

Here’s how it goes:

“Hello, I’m Mark E. Smith, and this is the ‘Mark E. Smith Guide to Writing Guide.’

Day by Day Breakdown.

Day One: Hang around house all day writing bits of useless information on bits of paper.

Day Two: Decide lack of inspiration due to too much isolation and non-fraternization. Go to pub. Have drinks.

Day Three: Get up and go to pub. Hold on in there as style is on its way. Through sheer boredom and drunkenness, talk to people in pub.

Day Four: By now people in the pub should be continually getting on your nerves. Write things about them on backs of beer mats.

Day Five: Go to pub. This is where true penmanship stamina comes into its own as by now guilt, drunkenness, the people in the pub and the fact you’re one of them should combine to enable you to write out of sheer vexation. To write out of sheer vexation.

Day Six: If possible, stay home. And write. If not, go to pub.”

I must remember this the next time I have writer’s block…
 

 

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Writers on Writing: Martin Amis, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen and more

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Why I Write was George Orwell’s essay answering that perennial question asked of most authors and novelists.

Orwell was a 5-year-old when he first thought of becoming a writer. It was an idea he clung to throughout his childhood—writing stories in his head, rather on paper, imitating the styles of his favorite authors. Then, between the ages of seveteen and 25, Orwell attempted to abandon his vocation.

He joined the Imperial Indian Police. He affected a philistinism. Denounced literature, and literary magazines—in particular the Adelphi, which he considered ‘scurrilous,’ and used for target practice. Ironically, it was the Adelphi that later gave Orwell his first encouragement as a writer, publishing some of his early essays under his name Eric Blair.

It was only on his return to England that Orwell started writing in earnest. He apprenticed himself, writing every day, developing a style, and submitting articles to magazines.

Writing, he discovered, was something he had to do.

Most authors would say the same: writing is something they have to do.

It’s the having to do it that starts them off. But it’s the keeping to it that is the difficult part.

I once asked the playwright Peter McDougall, ‘How do you write?’ ‘You write about what you know,’ he replied. I told him I had been to half-a-dozen funerals before I was twelve. ‘There you go—that’s what you should write about.’

But I was scared, because it meant writing about how I felt, how I thought. It meant revealing something about myself that I didn’t necessarily want to share. And that’s a major hurdle for writers starting out—having the nerve to put down on paper their true thoughts and feelings.

The author Max Frisch once wrote, “a writer only betrays himself.” Which is true, for a writer must be honest enough to tell the truth no matter how painful. And that was something Orwell knew.

In this short selection of interviews conducted by Charlie Rose, authors Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen and Fran Lebowitz give their answers to the question ‘How do you write?’ They also answer that other favorite, ‘Where do ideas come from?’ and explain how best to write successfully.
 

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A Writer’s Life: Ray Bradbury on writing and the importance of the subconscious

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‘A writer moves about, observing, seeing as much as he can, trying to guess how man will play the game,’ Ray Bradbury said in Story of a Writer, a documentary on his life and work from 1963.

‘Constantly measuring the way life is, against the way he feels it ought to be. He is a magnet passing through a factual world, taking from it what he needs.’

Bradbury was always generous with his advice and encouragement, always willing to explain his method of writing to those who wanted to know. Writing was like a love affair.

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

Bradbury worked his apprenticeship as a writer in libraries, which he later described as places where:

...anything could happen there and always did. All you had to do was pull a book from the shelf and suddenly the darkness was not so dark anymore.

In the “The Importance of Being Startled,” the afterword to his final novel, Farewell Summer, Bradbury described the process by which he wrote:

The way I write my novels can best be described as imagining that I’m going into the kitchen to fry a couple of eggs and then find myself cooking up a banquet. Starting with very simple things, they then word-associate themselves with further things until I’m up and running and eager to find out the next surprise, the next hour, the next day or the next week.

Surprise is everything with me. When I go to bed at night I give myself instructions to startle myself when I wake in the morning.

As Bradbury explained in Story of a Writer, allowing the ‘subconscious time to think’ was essential.

‘The time we have alone; the time we have in walking; the time we have in riding a bicycle; are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.

‘I never consciously set out to write a certain story. The idea must originate somewhere deep within me and push itself out in its own time. Usually, it begins with associations. Electricity. The sea. Life started in the sea. Could the miracle occur again? Could life take hold in another environment? An electro-mechanical environment?’

This was the kind of thinking that made Bradbury’s book so irresistible. Anything was possible with Bradbury. He had a joyous, child-like enthusiasm for life that infused his books, with a brilliance and pleasure, that makes them so very, very special.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Harry Crews on Writing: Four Quotes and an Interview
12.25.2010
11:41 am

Topics:
Literature

Tags:
Books
Writing
Harry Crews

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The best advice on writing is to write about what you know, and few writers have done this as well as Harry Crews, author of The Gospel Singer, Childhood and Scar Lover. He’s a legendary figure with a brave and exceptional literary voice. The playwright and author, Max Frisch once wrote, “A writer never betrays anyone but himself.” By that he meant a writer never reveals anything in his writing but himself, and this is true of Crews, a man who has revealed his heart, mind and soul as a brilliant writer.

One

I decided a long time ago—very long time ago—that getting up at four o’clock to start work works best for me. I like that. Some people don’t like to get up in the morning. I like to get up in the morning. And there’s no place to go at four o’clock in the morning, and nobody’s gonna call you, and you can’t call anybody. Back when I was a drunk, at least in this little town, there’s no place to go buy anything to drink. So it was just me and the writing board.

“So, I write until eight or eight-thirty, then I go over to the gym and work out on the weights for a couple hours, then I go to the karate dojo and, as a rule, spar with a guy who consistently whups my ass. It’s point karate—we’re not going full force, we don’t wear pads on out feet and hands, but—even then—when you’re just touching a guy, and you think a guy’s gonna move one way and you kick, and he doesn’t move that way, he moves the other way, he moves right into your kick, you can get hurt. Well, not hurt bad, as a rule. Maybe bloody a nose or something like that. But you can end up pretty sore.

“Then I come home, eat a light lunch, then just go straight back to the thing. I might work till three o’clock . . . there comes a time of diminishing returns. You’re just jerking yourself off thinking you’re doing some good work, then you go back to it the next day and you think, ‘Oh, my God,’ and you have to throw away two or three pages. But the way I do it—I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of anyone doin’ it quite this way.

“I write on a great big square board. sit in a big overstuffed chair with this board on my lap, put a legal pad on top of that and write long hand. After that’s done, at some point I run it through a typewriter that’s older than I am—but it’s a beautiful machine, great action, huge keys, I love it—and then when I get through with that, I put it through the computer to revise, which is the only thing . . . I dunno . . . the only thing a computer is good for is to revise. Because, as you very well know, none of us need to go faster, we all need to go slower. I first among them.

“But the computer is a godsend for revisions. I don’t quite understand how we did it before we had the computer. I seem to remember a lot of tape and scissors.”

Two

“If you’re crazy enough to read yourself, and almost no writer reads his own novel once he finishes it. He never looks at it again. I’ve never read a novel of mine, a whole novel that I did, after it’s published. Never. Why would you?”

Three

“Graham Greene—you’ve probably heard me quote before, because god knows, it’s true—“The writer is doomed to live in an atmosphere of perpetual failure.” There it is. There it is. Nah, you write things and write things—write a book for instance—and write and write and write and write and write, and you know, it’s not—every writer writes with the knowledge that nothing he writes is as good as it could be. Paul Valery: “A poem’s never finished, only abandoned.” The same thing with a novel. It’s never finished, only abandoned. I’ve had any number of novels where I’ve just at some point said to myself, well, unless you’re going to make the career out of this book—spend the rest of your goddamn life chewing on it—you might as well just package it up and send it on to New York. Go on to something else. Because between conception and execution there is a void, an abyss, that inevitably fucks up the conception. The conception never gets translated to the page. It just doesn’t. I don’t think it ever does.

I think [Gustave] Flaubert kept Madame Bovary for nine years. Took him nine years to write it, well, he didn’t write it all in nine years. He could have written it in nineteen years, and he would still have felt the way he felt, and that was that it was a fine piece of work, but it was not as good as it could be. Same old same old.

Four

“There is something beautiful about all scars of whatever nature. A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.”

 

 
More from Harry Crews plus bonus clip after the jump…
 

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