writing

Kurt Vonnegut on the conventions found in plots

From David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, & Richard Rhodes’s interview of Kurt Vonnegut in “The Art of Fiction No. 64” (The Paris Review: Spring 1977, No. 69):

INTERVIEWER Let’s talk about the women in your books.

VONNEGUT There aren’t any. No real women, no love.

INTERVIEWER Is this worth expounding upon?

VONNEGUT It’s a mechanical problem. So much of what happens in storytelling is mechanical, has to do with the technical problems of how to make a story work. Cowboy stories and policeman stories end in shoot-outs, for example, because shoot-outs are the most reliable mechanisms for making such stories end. There is nothing like death to say what is always such an artificial thing to say: “The end.” I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.

Kurt Vonnegut on using our talents

From David Hayman, David Michaelis, George Plimpton, & Richard Rhodes’s interview of Kurt Vonnegut in “The Art of Fiction No. 64” (The Paris Review: Spring 1977, No. 69):

I bawled [my daughter] out one time for not doing more with the talents she had. She replied that having talent doesn’t carry with it the obligation that something has to be done with it. This was startling news to me. I thought people were supposed to grab their talents and run as far and fast as they could.

John Steinbeck on finishing a book

From Nathaniel Benchley’s interview of John Steinbeck in “The Art of Fiction No. 45” (The Paris Review: Fall 1969, No. 48):

I truly do not care about a book once it is finished. Any money or fame that results has no connection in my feeling with the book. The book dies a real death for me when I write the last word. I have a little sorrow and then go on to a new book which is alive. The rows of my books on the shelf are to me like very well embalmed corpses. They are neither alive nor mine. I have no sorrow for them because I have forgotten them…

Joseph Heller on the necessity of limits on writing

From George Plimpton’s interview of Joseph Heller in “The Art of Fiction No. 51” (The Paris Review: Winter 1974, No. 60):

There’s an essay of T. S. Eliot’s in which he praises the disciplines of writing, claiming that if one is forced to write within a certain framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, however, the chances are good that the work will sprawl.

James Dickey on Philip Larkin

From Franklin Ashley’s interview of James Dickey in “The Art of Poetry No. 20” (The Paris Review: Spring 1976, No. 65):

INTERVIEWER: We’ve talked a good deal about American poets, but English poets are always on the scene; some critics contend that the best contemporary English poet is Philip Larkin.

DICKEY: Oh, my Lord. Philip Larkin is a small kind of vers de société writer. He’s one of these Englishmen of the welfare state who write self-effacing poems about how much he hates his record collection. That’s not what we need. We need something that will affirm the basic possibility. This self-effacing stuff is so goddamned easy, it’s tiresome.

James Dickey on the personalities of poets

From Franklin Ashley’s interview of James Dickey in “The Art of Poetry No. 20” (The Paris Review: Spring 1976, No. 65):

INTERVIEWER: You’ve known a great many poets personally. Do you find some common characteristic—in their madness, their vision, their discipline?

DICKEY: I would have to put the answer in the form of a paradox. Most of them are what the world would call weak men and women. They are wayward, licentious, heavy drinkers, irresponsible, unable to maintain a household properly, and subject to unpredictable vagaries of conduct. But, turning the coin to its other side, the best of them are incredibly strong people who will drive headfirst through a steel wall to get their work done. This is the type of person I admire most. I admire the type as I do, I suspect, because I am one of them.

James Dickey on why he wrote Deliverance

From Franklin Ashley’s interview of James Dickey in “The Art of Poetry No. 20” (The Paris Review: Spring 1976, No. 65):

I wrote Deliverance as a story where under the conditions of extreme violence people find out things about themselves that they would have no other means of knowing. The late John Berryman, who was a dear friend of mine, said that it bothered him more than anything else that a man could live in this culture all his life without knowing whether he’s a coward or not. I think it’s necessary to know.

Anthony Burgess on satire

From John Cullinan’s interview of Anthony Burgess in “The Art of Fiction No. 48” (The Paris Review: Spring 1973, No. 56):

Satire is a difficult medium, ephemeral unless there’s tremendous vitality in the form itself—like Absalom and Achitophel, Tale of a Tub, Animal Farm: I mean, the work has to subsist as story or poetry even when the objects of the satire are forgotten.

William Burroughs on how he gathers material for writing

From Conrad Knickerbocker’s interview of William S. Burroughs in “The Art of Fiction No. 36” (The Paris Review: Fall 1965, No. 35):

For exercise, when I make a trip, such as from Tangier to Gibraltar, I will record this in three columns in a notebook I always take with me. One column will contain simply an account of the trip, what happened. I arrived at the air terminal, what was said by the clerks, what I overheard on the plane, what hotel I checked into. The next column presents my memories; that is, what I was thinking of at the time, the memories that were activated by my encounters; and the third column, which I call my reading column, gives quotations from any book that I take with me. I have practically a whole novel alone on my trips to Gibraltar.

James Ellroy on how he writes

From Nathaniel Rich’s “Interviews: James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201” (The Paris Review: Fall 2009):

I begin by sitting in the dark. I used to sleep on the living-room couch. There was a while when that was the only place I felt safe. My couch is long because I’m tall, and it needs to be high backed, so I can curl into it. I lie there and things come to me, very slowly.

[After that] I take notes: ideas, historical perspective, characters, point of view. Very quickly, much of the narrative coheres. When I have sufficient information—the key action, the love stories, the intrigue, the conclusion—I write out a synopsis in shorthand as fast as I can, for comprehension’s sake. With the new novel, Blood’s a Rover, this took me six days. It’s then, after I’ve got the prospectus, that I write the outline.

The first part of the outline is a descriptive summary of each character. Next I describe the design of the book in some detail. I state my intent at the outset. Then I go through the entire novel, outlining every chapter. The outline of Blood’s A Rover is nearly four hundred pages long. It took me eight months to write. I write in the present tense, even if the novel isn’t written in the present tense. It reads like stage directions in a screenplay. Everything I need to know is right there in front of me. It allows me to keep the whole story in my mind. I use this method for every book.

I think of the outline as a diagram, a superstructure. When you see dialogue in one of my outlines, it’s because inserting the dialogue is the most complete, expeditious way to describe a given scene.

I set a goal of outlined pages that I want to get through each day. It’s the ratio of text pages to outline pages that’s important. That proportion determines everything. Today I went through five pages of the outline. That equals about eight pages of the novel. The outline for Blood’s a Rover, which is three hundred and ninety-seven pages, is exponentially more detailed than the three-hundred-and-forty-five-page outline for The Cold Six Thousand. So the ratio of book pages to outline pages varies, depending on the density of the outline.

I need to work just as rigorously on the outline as I do on the actual writing of the text, in order to keep track of the plot and the chronology. But once I’m writing text, I can be flexible, because the outline is there. Take today: I woke up early, at five-thirty. I worked for a couple of hours, took a break for some oatmeal, shut my eyes for a moment, and went back at it. I was overcaffeinated, jittery-assed, panic-attacky. Sometimes I go until I just can’t go anymore. I flatline and need some peace.

2 great examples of Tom Wolfe’s early New Journalism writing style

From Tom Wolfe’s “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” (Esquire: March 1965):

Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua aqua, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-cheek raspberry. Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock-car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields. Mother dog!

Working mash wouldn’t wait for a man. It started coming to a head when it got ready to and a man had to be there to take it off, out there in the woods, in the brush, in the brambles, in the muck, in the snow. Wouldn’t it have been something if you could have just set it all up inside a good old shed with a corrugated metal roof and order those parts like you want them and not have to smuggle all that copper and all that sugar and all that everything out here in the woods and be a coppersmith and a plumber and a cooper and a carpenter and a pack horse and every other goddamned thing God ever saw in this world, all at once.

A fine example of bad writing: repeated details

From Keith Phipps’s “Treasure Of The Black Falcon, by John Coleman Burroughs” (The Onion AV Club: 25 March 2010):

Burroughs’ circuitous prose, which reads as if he absorbed the paid-by-the-word style of his dad’s early work, doesn’t help. Opening the book at random, I found this passage:

The air was warm, humid, sultry. Everywhere the dank, wet smell of rotting vegetation in the jungle by the river was so strong that it could almost be tasted. Except they knew that wild life was all about them and they could see the countless birds overhead, there was no sound. No breeze rustled the palm leaves, the fronds, or the tops of the giant conifers.

It’s humid, get it? And there’s no wind touching every type of vegetation Burroughs can think of. Not the palm leaves. Not the fronds. The giant conifers? No, not them either.

Robert A. Heinlein on writing

From Cory Doctorow’s “How Heinlein plotted” (Boing Boing: 22 July 2010):

My notion of a story is an interesting situation in which a human being has to cope with a problem, does so, and thereby changed his personality, character, or evaluations in some measure because the coping has forced him to revise his thinking. How he copes with it, I can’t plot in advance because that depends on his character, and I don’t know what his character is until I get acquainted with him.

Luther & Poe both complained about too many books

From Clay Shirky’s “Does The Internet Make You Smarter?” (The Wall Street Journal: 5 June 2010):

In the history of print … complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”

David Foster Wallace on what’s wrong with memoirs, celebrity profiles, & academic writing

From Dwight Garner’s “We Are In a State of Three-Alarm Emergency” (The New York Times Paper Cuts Blog: 11 September 2007):

In his brooding and kaleidoscopic introduction to the new “Best American Essays 2007” – a 5,000-word chunk of it is online – David Foster Wallace doesn’t write so much as shred (in the Jerry Garcian manner) about the idea of compiling collections like this one.

He explains, for example, why he tended to exclude:

A) Memoirs: “The sense I get from a lot of contemporary memoirs is that they have an unconscious and unacknowledged project, which is to make the memoirists seem as endlessly fascinating and important to the reader as they are to themselves.”

B) Celebrity profiles: “Some sort of personal quota was exceeded at around age 35. I now actually want to know less than I know about most celebrities.”

C) Academic writing: “As someone who has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent, I tend to be allergic to academic writing, most of which seems to me willfully opaque and pretentious.”

Religion, God, history, morality

From Steve Paulson’s interview with Robert Wright, “God, He’s moody” (Salon: 24 June 2009):

Do you think religions share certain core principles?

Not many. People in the modern world, certainly in America, think of religion as being largely about prescribing moral behavior. But religion wasn’t originally about that at all. To judge by hunter-gatherer religions, religion was not fundamentally about morality before the invention of agriculture. It was trying to figure out why bad things happen and increasing the frequency with which good things happen. Why do you sometimes get earthquakes, storms, disease and get slaughtered? But then sometimes you get nice weather, abundant game and you get to do the slaughtering. Those were the religious questions in the beginning.

And bad things happened because the gods were against you or certain spirits had it out for you?

Yes, you had done something to offend a god or spirit. However, it was not originally a moral lapse. That’s an idea you see as societies get more complex. When you have a small group of hunter-gatherers, a robust moral system is not a big challenge. Everyone knows everybody, so it’s hard to conceal anything you steal. If you mess with somebody too much, there will be payback. Moral regulation is not a big problem in a simple society. But as society got more complex with the invention of agriculture and writing, morality did become a challenge. Religion filled that gap.

For people who claim that Israel was monotheistic from the get-go and its flirtations with polytheism were rare aberrations, it’s interesting that the Jerusalem temple, according to the Bible’s account, had all these other gods being worshiped in it. Asherah was in the temple. She seemed to be a consort or wife of Yahweh. And there were vessels devoted to Baal, the reviled Canaanite god. So Israel was fundamentally polytheistic at this point. Then King Josiah goes on a rampage as he tries to consolidate his own power by wiping out the other gods.

You make the point that the Quran is a different kind of sacred text than the Bible. It was probably written over the course of two decades, while the stories collected in the Bible were written over centuries. That’s why the Bible is such a diverse document.

We think of the Bible as a book, but in ancient times it would have been thought of as a library. There were books written by lots of different people, including a lot of cosmopolitan elites. You also see elements of Greek philosophy. The Quran is just one guy talking. In the Muslim view, he’s mediating the word of God. He’s not especially cosmopolitan. He is, according to Islamic tradition, illiterate. So it’s not surprising that the Quran didn’t have the intellectual diversity and, in some cases, the philosophical depth that you find in the Bible. I do think he was actually a very modern thinker. Muhammad’s argument for why you should be devoted exclusively to this one God is very modern.

Are you also saying we can be religious without believing in God?

By some definitions, yes. It’s hard to find a definition of religion that encompasses everything we call religion. The definition I like comes from William James. He said, “Religious belief consists of the belief that there is an unseen order and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting to that order.” In that sense, you can be religious without believing in God. In that sense, I’m religious. On the God question, I’m not sure.

Malcolm Gladwell on training to be a journalist

From Alex Altman’s “Q&A: Author Malcolm Gladwell” (TIME: 20 October 2009):

If you had a single piece of advice to offer young journalists, what would it be?

The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he’s one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He’s unique. Most accountants don’t write articles, and most journalists don’t know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.