Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Good advice




Write about China, Greence, Tibet or the Argentine pampas — anyplace you've never seen and know nothing about. Never write about anything you know, your home town, or your home folks, or yourself.

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The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

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Every writer faces the problem of the person that he is writing for, and I think nobody has ever been able to imagine satisfactorily who this “homme moyen sensuel” will be. I try to aim at as wide an audience as I can so that as many people as possible will read my poetry. Therefore I depersonalize it, but in the same way personalize it, so that a person who is going to be different from me but is also going to resemble me just because he is different from me, since we are all different from each other, can see something in it. You know — I shot an arrow into the air but I could only aim it.

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Many writers who are no longer young claim, for various reasons, to read very little, indeed, to find reading and writing in some sense incompatible. Perhaps, for some writers, they are. It's not for me to judge. If the reason is anxiety about being influenced, then this seems to me a vain, shallow worry. If the reason is lack of time — there are only so many hours in the day, and those spent reading are evidently subtracted from those in which one could be writing — then this is an asceticism to which I don't aspire.

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A good writer should be so simple that he has no faults, only sins.

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As if I have to earn the right to write by being a good girl—all about me must be perfectly rinsed and dusted before I can start working.

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I sat in small room with Robert Lowell, then my teacher, and asked him how I might lift from its doldrums a particular poem. Lowell had spent about fifteen minutes showing me why this poem was horseshit, something I already knew, for I had come to him not for praise but for help. He had just paused in his steady assault on my poem, when I asked him how I might go about making it better. We sat in silence for over a minute. Then he looked at me, a little resigned smile on his face, and said, "You know, it's damned hard to make sense and keep the rhythm."

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Everybody gets told to write about what they know. The trouble with many of us is that the earlier stages of life we are often unaware of the scope and structure of our ignorance. Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person's mental map. It has contours and coherence, and for all I know rules of operation as well. So as a corollary to writing about what we know, maybe we should add getting familiar with our ignorance...

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Every writer must have common sense. He must be sensitive and serious. But he must not grow solemn. He must not listen to himself. If he does, he might as well be under a tombstone. When he takes himself solemnly, he has no more to say. Yet he must despise nothing, not even solemn people.

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As we're no longer supposed to be capable of authentically altruistic feelings, we're not supposed to be capable of writing about anyone but ourselves.

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One writes what one can write. One writes up, though one man’s up is another man’s basement.


The foregoing is excerpted from an incredible anthology of writing advice, "How and Why to Write," online at This Recording, which features James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck, Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, W.B. Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Roberto Bolaño, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, and Stanley Elkin.  See if you can match the bits above with the cited quotations in the full collection!  As far as the value of the good advice given therein, see the Allan Sherman video above.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

May I be frank. I've found in my experience of writing around men, they've become hot headed, especially if one should have a crush on the one penning, and the object of their affection.

To be fair, on the flip-side this dilemma has struck me too!

As to "good advice", wonder if there is such a remedy in these cases--

Lady B.

Russ said...

A good writer should be so simple that he has no faults, only sins. - W. B. Yeats