“All real living hurts as well as fulfils. Happiness comes when we have lived and have a respite for sheer forgetting. Happiness, in the vulgar sense, is just a holiday experience. The life-long happiness lies in being used by life, hurt by life, driven by life and goaded by life, replenished and overjoyed with life, fighting for life’s sake. That is real happiness. In the undergoing, a large part of it is pain.”D.H Lawrence, The Boy in the Bush
“One day not too long ago I sat down at the desk, determined to sit there until at least one thought clarified itself sufficiently to serve the essay I was writing. I failed. Next day I sat down again. Again, I failed. Three days later, same thing. But the day after that the fog cleared out of my head. I solved a simple writing problem, one that had seemed intractable, and a stone rolled off my chest. Once again, and perhaps for the 4000th time since leaving analysis, I thanked the daily effort, my gratitude profuse. I saw what by now I’d seen many times before: It wasn’t the writing itself that was everything, it was sitting down to it every day that was everything. It’s the miserable daily effort that is everything. It is when I am honoring it that I become a woman still set on inhabiting a serious life.” (emphasis mine)Vivian Gornick, A Serious Woman (cited in Mason Currey’s Subtle Maneuvers newsletter)
“[…] in your life, if you’re a good artist, you have one good idea. But if you’re a genius, you maybe have two good ideas.”Marina Abramović (quoting her professor of art history), quoted in Mason Curry’s Subtle Manouvers newsletter (11.07.22)
“[…] part of the solution is not being so precious about ideas and accepting that they’re just a starting point. The other part—maybe the bigger part—is learning to tolerate discomfort. Is that, in fact, the most important skill for any writer? (Or visual artist or musician or fill-in-the-blank creative person?) It might be. Because so much of the process is just really, really uncomfortable. It requires butting up against your own shortcomings over and over and over.”Mason Curry, Subtle Manouvers newsletter (11.07.22)
Last week I browsed Brevity, a website dedicated to the brief essay form, and I chanced upon a blog post by Kate Walter called ‘Rotating the Writing Crops‘. After working long and hard during the pandemic to publish her memoir Kate, naturally, ran dry. Some time afterwards an editor commissioned her for an assignment and while writing it a metaphor occurred to her: farming and rotating crops.
“The writing equivalent of rotating my crops is switching genres from essays to journalism or maybe to back to fiction. I have been planting and harvesting the essays and memoir fields for decades. I realized it was necessary to let those be fallow at least for a few months. That specific soil needed to rest.”
A few months ago I was working hard on an essay of my own, but after three months work something gave out. I couldn’t continue with it. Diminishing returns. I took a while for me to recognise what happened but I took it as my body’s way of saying enough. Yes, work ethic goes a long long way in sustaining creative output, more so than inspiration, but sooner or later something will give. So, for now, I’m working on lighter (but no less loved) forms like haiku and haibun while my own essay crop lies fallow.
A few quotes on, as Robert D. Richardson put it, “the daily struggle for adequate expression”.
“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”William Goldman
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”William Zinsser
“The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
“What I wish I could have told myself when I was hopeless about my writing prospects is that I should have defined artistic success in ways that weren’t shaped by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, success is getting a handful of words you don’t totally hate on the page. Sometimes success is working a full-time job to support your family and raising your kids and finding a way, over several years, to write and finish a novel. Sometimes it’s selling a book to a small press for 25 copies of your book and a vague promise of royalties you may never see. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, artistic success is marked by the glittery things so many of us yearn for — the big money deals, the critical accolades, the multicity book tours, the movie options.
Writing and publishing are two very different things. Other writers are not your measure. Try not to worry about what other people your age or younger have already accomplished because it will only make you sick with envy or grief. The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work. […] All the other writers in the world are not having more fun than you, no matter what it might seem like on social media, where everyone is showing you only what they want you to see.
Write as well as you can, with as much heart as you can, whenever you can.”Roxane Gay, ‘Ask Roxane: Is It Too Late to Follow My Dreams?‘
“The most subversive thing you can do is to write clearly and directly, asserting the facts as you understand them, your perceptions as you’ve gathered them.
Part of the trouble may be this: you’re afraid your ideas aren’t good enough, your sentences not clever or original enough.
But what if your ideas are coherent and thoughtful? What if allowing us to see what is accurate and true is among the best work writing can do?
One purpose of writing -its central purpose- is to offer your testimony about the character of existence at this moment.”Several Short Sentences About Writing (p.132-133), Verlyn Klinkenborg
“A writer’s real work is the endless winnowing of sentences,
The relentless exploration of possibilities,
The effort, over and over again, to see in what you started out to say
The possibility of saying something you didn’t know you could.”
“The emotional power the reader feels
Depends on how clearly you know what your words
That clarity isn’t natural.
It’s artificial, the result of hard work.”
“Style is an expression of the interest you take in the
making of every sentence.
It emerges, almost without intent, from your engagement
with each sentence.
It’s the discoveries you make in the making of the prose
itself.”Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, pages 14, 82, 84
“Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.”
A writer may write painstakingly, assembling the work slowly, like a mosaic, fitting and refitting sentences and paragraphs over the years. And yet to the reader the writing may seem to flow.
The reader’s experience of your prose has nothing to do with how hard or easy it was for you to make. You’re not writing for a reader in the mirror whose psychological state reflects your own. You have only your own working world to consider. The reader reads in another world entirely.Several Short Sentences About Writing, p.67
My copy of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book came in the post today. It’s full of craft wisdom like the above. Wow.
The novelist Ann Patchett once said that writing a novel (or anything really) is like killing a butterfly. The novel in our heads (the butterfly) is perfect because our imagination isn’t subject to the limits of reality, but eventually we have to pluck that butterfly out of the air and pin it down on the page with (at first) imperfect words. In my experience, rewriting revives the butterfly. While it may not be the same butterfly of our imagination, it’s real.
. . . I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down on my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.Ann Patchett