What 25 Famous Authors Want Us to Know About the Writing Process, Part I

(Thanks to onlinephdprograms for sending me this post).

Before hunkering down and hammering out the agony and the ecstasy that will launch you to literary stardom (and probably a Nobel Prize), it might be a good idea to try and see what your predecessors have to teach about the craft. Not everything they share will necessarily stick, given the nature of writing, but opening yourself up to the possibility of inspiration can only improve your output. Explore some of the following quotes, and, of course, the context from which they hail, and see where they might take your art.

  1. “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  -Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

    Honestly, this advice could apply to authors across the gender spectrum. But when Virginia Woolf published her seminal book-length essay, it stood as a strong feminist statement empowering fiction-writing women who wanted to succeed despite the odds.

  2. “I’m not advocating disobedience to authority in general — because that doesn’t necessarily lead to anything  — but knowing the difference between your own intelligence and somebody handing you a set of things you should believe. It’s important to understand their motivations, their intentions, where those beliefs derive from and then having a set of questions to make sure that what they give to you is equally important and meaningful to you.” – Amy Tan, interview with Academy of Achievement, June 28, 1996

    Rebellion and questioning propels literature and other creative pursuits, but they ultimately yield empty results when only posed for posing’s sake. Bestselling brain behind The Joy Luck Club Amy Tan believes the best writers know how to make the distinction between genuine establishment challenging and its more self-congratulating counterpart.

  3. “The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen.” – James Baldwin, “The Creative Process,” Creative America

    Both artists and writers, according to the celebrated author behind the revealing Go Tell It on the Mountain, are responsible for serving as mouthpieces for social commentary. Without them, the insight necessary for change cannot take place.

  4. “It never gets easier; it’s always hard, it’s always a test. I’ve reached a point in my life where if a sentence seems easy, I distrust it.” – Amitav Gosh, The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2009

    Acclaimed authors always seem to make the whole penning and publishing thing seem effortless, but in reality the process is painfully, sometimes cripplingly, grueling. Amitav Gosh of The Glass Palace and Sea of Poppies fame thinks readers and writers should realize just how grueling the literary arts can be — and that they’re really in for a nasty shock if they think hammering out manuscripts will get better with experience.

  5. “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” – Stephen King, On Writing

    Quite possibly the most intense anxiety an author in any medium, any genre will face is his or her own anxiety about launching a brand new project.

  6. “… I kind of look around and see what’s going on and take it a few steps further.” – Octavia Butler, “‘Devil Girl From Mars’: Why I Write Science Fiction”

    One of the most groundbreaking writers in the science fiction genre considers an openness to education (formal or not) and the ability to synthesize ideas from real-life scenarios essential to the creative process. This advice quite obviously transcends the science fiction and fantasy genres.

  7. “Out of the neglected riches of this dream the poet fetches his wares. He dips into the chaos that underlies the rational shell of the world and brings up some superfluous image, some emotion dropped by the way, and reattaches it to the present object; he reinstates things unnecessary, he emphasizes things ignored, be paints in again into the landscape the tints which the intellect has allowed to fade from it. If he seems sometimes to obscure a fact, it is only because he is restoring an experience.” – George Santayana, “The Elements and Function of Poetry”

    Poetic types will no doubt find this lyrical distillation of their craft an at once romantic and realistic depiction — and one they might very well find inspiring when the words just don’t seem to properly flow.

  8. “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” – Kurt Vonnegut, “8 Rules for Writing Fiction,” Bagombo Snuff Box

    All of Kurt Vonnegut’s straightforward bits of writerly advice offer something to the reader, but they obviously lean more towards the fictitious end. His very first tip, however, applies to pretty much every medium and genre out there.

  9. “I think the philosophy training, four years of reading really dense, difficult things, where the statements, the information packed within these words is not so obviously stated, but it’s available if you know how to dissect it…that’s been very useful in doing the type of comedy that I find myself doing and doing the type of writing that I find myself doing, which is reinterpreting the world and restating some things that people may be loosely aware of but with your own additional twist and perspective and joke.” – Baratunde Thurston, interview with Stay Out of School, April 18, 2011

    What makes comedian, political commentator, and of course writer Baratunde Thurston so piquant doesn’t exclusively come from a terrifically enjoyable philosophy class. But it still led him to realize that the most effective works come when tweaking and perceiving the world in some interesting, insightful new ways.

  1. “If you try hard to listen, to like them, to love them, then their stories become interesting. Everyone has his own story.” – Haruki Murakami, University of California at Berkeley, Oct.10, 2008

    Despite stemming from a discussion of the nonfiction work Underground, this soundbite from one of the world’s preeminent postmodernists encourages writers to pay close attention to the people around them; they just might inspire all kinds of interesting tales.

  2. “I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist. They’re very stringent rules, but they are, in my estimation and experience, what makes it easier for the audience.” – David Mamet, interview with The Art of Theater, Spring 1997

    Whether whipping up plays, screenplays, or something else entirely, writers should always keep asking themselves what they want readers and viewers to carry away from their works.

  3. “I like a certain amount of randomness. The truth, in my opinion, is unavoidably strange.” – Zadie Smith, Tufts University, March 27, 2012

    All of Zadie Smith’s novels, from White Teeth to On Beauty, stay firmly grounded in reality. She doesn’t feel the need to include anything fantastic, as she thinks the world as we know it is crammed with enough oddities.

  4. “You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again…When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love.” – Ernest Hemingway, interview with The Paris Review, Spring 1958

    This famous discussion with one of America’s most beloved writers yielded numerous points of advice for aspirant authors. One of the more useful snippets warns against using up too much creativity and ideas in a single sitting.

  5. “And though the rewriting — and the rereading — sound like effort, they are actually the most pleasurable parts of writing. Sometimes the only pleasurable parts. Setting out to write, if you have the idea of ‘literature’ in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit.” – Susan Sontag, “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed.” The New York Times, Dec. 18, 2000

    Reframing the often nerve-shattering process of editing manuscripts and pieces as a wholly refreshing — even invigorating — necessity certainly makes it far more palatable! Keep Susan Sontag’s words in mind when painstakingly changing your work starts growing a little too overwhelming.

  6. “… what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes — yet one writes not what one would like to write but what one is able to write.” – Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse

    Long-standing writing advice posits reading as a fundamental activity for anyone hoping to see their work land on the shelves, and one of the most celebrated Argentine writers of all time eloquently summarizes why.

  7. “Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.” – Jeanette Winterson, “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” The Guardian, Feb. 19, 2010

    Don’t jump into a writing project expecting to wind up on bestseller lists and showering in Pulitzers and Bookers and Nobels. Write because you have something to say and want to share with the world; you’ll be a whole lot happier keeping that in mind as the end.

  8. “Most writers have certain things that they decide quite consciously, and other things they decide less consciously. In my case, the choice of narrator and setting are deliberate. You do have to choose a setting with great care, because with a setting come all kinds of emotional and historical reverberations. But I leave quite a large area for improvisation after that.” – Kazuo Ishiguro, interview with The Paris Review, Spring 2008

    The details may change, but most writers’ processes typically follow the structure Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day author Kazuo Ishiguro outlines and subsequently illustrates, using himself as an example.

  1. “As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them — that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same thing as ‘being a writer.’ Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger.” – Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

    In keeping with the importance of humility, wannabe writers need to know their limits — some might just not work out in a commercial or literary sense, and they have to face that possibility and try anyways. Alternately, this quote makes an excellent rebuttal when your parents start complaining (and if they aren’t complaining, they’re thinking about complaining) about how you shouldn’t even bother because the industry is flooded with others just like you.

  2. “i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

    – George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

    Like all of the arts, writing’s core tenets are often far more flexible than composition teachers will admit without a few drinks in them. No less than George Orwell himself stuck to this tenet when crafting classics such as Animal Farm and 1984.

  3. “… the rhythm thing is important, that you have to just get into the rhythm of it and not get out of it. Because you can’t just jump back in — it will take you several days if you break the stride.” – Salman Rushdie, interview with About.com, March 3, 2009

    Every writer’s rhythm differs, but the consequences of letting it fall away remain pretty much the same across the board. Try to work in an environment conducive to keeping up the pace as long as possible

  4. “I perceived that to express those impressions, to write that essential book, which is the only true one, a great writer does not, in the current meaning of the word, invent it, but, since it exists already in each one of us, interprets it. The duty and the task of a writer are those of an interpreter.” – attributed to Marcel Proust

    Michelangelo often considered his lush sculptures as already sitting inside blocks of marble — all he had to do was free them from their rocky prisons. Centuries later, the reclusive, celebrated author of In Search of Lost Time is said something similar about the art of novel writing.

  5. “The successful novel, on the other hand, has a shape much like a bell. We begin at the top of the bell, its tight curve. Every detail has purpose here: the way a woman tilts her head, the slant of light as one exits the subway, the repetition of a phrase. As soon as we have gained our bearings, we notice things beginning to open up, flaring outward the way a bell does.” – Chitra Divakaruni, “New Insights Into the Novel? Try Reading 300.” The New York Times, Feb. 12, 2001

    After downing 300 books while sitting on the National Book Awards judging committee, poet and novelist Chitra Divakaruni took painstaking notes on what makes a great read great. Keeping this particular form in mind might help current and future writers better plan their literary output.

  6. Read pat II of these quotes on Friday, May 18th, 2012.


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