Tag: Writing

Noteworthy Sentences: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

“Here among the quieter lanes he breathed the fumes of blossoms and rot, smouldering charcoal, frying food, and heard the distant roar of jets and the drumming of helicopter gunships, and even the thousand-pound bombs exploding thirty kilometers away, not so much a sound as an intestinal fact – it was there, he felt it, it thudded in his soul.”

Tree of Smoke (p.196), Denis Johnson

Noteworthy Sentences: Fup by Jim Dodge

“It took him a while to get a firm grasp on the obvious: Tiny was devestated by his mother’s death, and since only time and maybe a little tenderness would cure that, he decided to just be who he was and go on about his life, and if the boy wanted to join in, that was fine and welcome, and if he didn’t … well, Jake was used to fishing by himself.”

Fup, p.35

Our Real Power as Writers

“If you accept (even partially) this idea that our real power as writers is located in the split-second decisions we make, and in the way these accumulate in a story over many passes through it, then you’ll see that the beauty of a piece of writing doesn’t depend on what we have decided about it in advance, but in the accumulating quality of those split-second decisions (i.e., how in touch we are with our good instincts) and our willingness to go through it again and again.”

George Saunders, On Worry

One Symptom of Good Writing

“One of the symptoms of good writing—and also one of the causes of good writing—is that it takes the reader and the writer and puts them on the same footing. For example, a bad story is usually one where the writer is talking down to the reader. Leading him around by the nose, manipulating. The reader feels that, and just like if you were in a relationship with somebody who was constantly talking down to you, you would resist. It really is just the old-fashioned stuff of being clear, residing in your text long enough to know if you’re defying logic in some way or if you’re finding the optimal path through the material.

Sometimes there’s a tendency to overdo this idea of empathy, as if you have to make every story a demonstration of selfless compassion or something. But I think the empathy, so called, is mostly in your relation to the reader. You’re trying to imagine that person as being every bit as smart and worldly and talented and curious as you are. If you do that, the level of your discourse will come up, and that person will feel honored by your attention.”

George Saunders, The WD Interview

Why Capitalist Society Discourages Thinking

“It is precisely to prevent us from thinking too much that society pressurizes us all to get out of bed. In 1993, I went to interview the late radical philosopher and drugs researcher Terence McKenna. I asked him why society doesn’t allow us to be more idle. He replied: I think the reason we don’t organise society in that way can be summed up in the aphorism, “idle hands are the devil’s tool.” In other words, institutions fear idle populations because an Idler is a thinker and thinkers are not a welcome addition to most social situations. Thinkers become malcontents, that’s almost a substitute word for idle, “malcontent.” Essentially, we are all kept very busy . . . under no circumstances are you to quietly inspect the contents of your own mind. Freud called introspection “morbid”—unhealthy, introverted, anti-social, possibly neurotic, potentially pathological. Introspection could lead to that terrible thing: a vision of the truth, a clear image of the horror of our fractured, dissonant world.”

Tom Hodgkinson, How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto

How to Think About Writing When You’re Too Busy to Write

” … I found it useful, when I was in those pre-publication, low-available-time phase, to think: 1) productivity is not necessarily in a linear relationship with time spent. (The stress of a busy life will sometimes take you right to some kind of truth and urgency in your work that might be accomplished in, even, ten quick minutes of writing.) So, shortage of time doesn’t necessarily mean impossibility of progress. 2) Even if you’re not actively writing because you are too busy, you are still a writer, because of the way you regard the world – with curiosity and interest and some sort of love. No need, then, to declare that one is or is not a writer. You just are, because of how you think.”

George Saunders, On moments of doubt, again …

Writing & Not-Knowing

“The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.

Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they’ve done a dozen. At best there’s a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch. The anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable. “Nothing to paint and nothing to paint with,” as Beckett says of Bram van Velde. The not-knowing is not simple, because it’s hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives …”

Donald Barthleme, Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews

The Great Gift of Rejection

“[…] part of the process of trying to make something better is to listen open-heartedly to what the world says. Before I was able to start publishing, I was feeling a certain way toward what I was writing – feeling pretty good, working from a certain realist mindset – but the world kept yawning at what I had written.  So, this “allowed” (i.e., forced) me to seek around for a different mindset out of which to write – one that ended up being more truthful to who I actually was as a person. (In short, I’d been keeping the humor out of it, as well as my growing class-awareness.) 

This is the great gift that rejection affords us: it drives us down into a place of deeper and sometimes uncomfortable honesty about what we’ve done – about where the work came from – and might cause us to ask questions like, “Is this how I really feel?” or, “Is this voice related at all to the the person I am in my real life – the way I approach problems, make joy, entertain others?”

George Saunders, “On Rejection”, Story Club

Thousands of Incremental Adjustments

“An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

George Saunders, What Writers Really Do When They Write

Those Immune to Propaganda

“The only communications truly without influence are those that one learns to ignore or never hears at all; this is why Jacques Ellul argued that it is only the disconnected—rural dwellers or the urban poor—who are truly immune to propaganda, while intellectuals, who read everything, insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate.”

Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants