You Want to Lose Yourself in Language

First you look for discipline and control. You want to exercise your will, bend the language your way, bend the world your way. You want to control the flow of impulses, images, words, faces, ideas. But there’s a higher place, a secret aspiration. You want to let go. You want to lose yourself in language, become a carrier or messenger. The best moments involve a loss of control. It’s a kind of rapture, and it can happen with words and phrases fairly often—completely surprising combinations that make a higher kind of sense, that come to you out of nowhere. But rarely for extended periods, for paragraphs and pages—I think poets must have more access to this state than novelists do.

DON DeLILLO

Just Broad Strokes

I try really hard, even if there’s a minor character, to hear their memorable lines. They really do float over your head when you’re writing them, like ghosts or living people. I don’t describe them very much, just broad strokes. You don’t know necessarily how tall they are, because I don’t want to force the reader into seeing what I see. It’s like listening to the radio as a kid. I had to help, as a listener, put in all of the details. It said “blue,” and I had to figure out what shade. Or if they said it was one way, I had to see it. It’s a participatory thing.

TONI MORRISON

Don't Write a Novel

If you want to be remembered as a clever person and even as a benefactor of humanity, don't write a novel, or even talk about it; instead, compile tables of compound interest, assemble weather data running back seventy-five years, or develop in tabular form improved actuarial information. All more useful than anything "creative" most people could come up with, and less likely to subject the author to neglect, if not ridicule and contempt. In addition, it will be found that most people who seek attention and regard by announcing that they're writing a novel are actually so devoid of narrative talent that they can't hold the attention of a dinner table for thirty seconds, even with a dirty joke.

PAUL FUSSELL

Do Not Eat Butter

When I first met Philip Roth he told me not to eat butter. I’m not sure that counts as “writing” advice, but it’s kept me squarely in the 128-132 pound zone, which has made me super-hungry as a writer. That last sentence made no sense. I apologize. I’m in an airport lounge and the person next to me is talking about some kind of green Hawaiian turtle. I hate everything.

GARY SHTEYNGART

Stories Require Concentration

Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story. (Though they may have a narcotizing paperback novel in their purse. This is not their fault.) Shockingly, people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.

LORRIE MOORE

Have No Unreasonable Fear of Repetition

Have no unreasonable fear of repetition. True, the repetition of a particular word several times in the same paragraph can strike a jarring note, but ordinarily the problem arises differently. The story is told of a feature writer who was doing a piece on the United Fruit Company. He spoke of bananas once; he spoke of bananas twice; he spoke of bananas yet a third time, and now he was desperate. “The world’s leading shippers of the elongated yellow fruit,” he wrote. A fourth banana would have been better.

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

The Narrator Is the Most Important Character in a Novel

From a technical point of view there are two essential things to solve or create when writing a novel. The first is the invention of the narrator. I think the narrator is the most important character in a novel. In some cases this importance is obvious because the narrator is also a central figure, a central character in the novel. In other cases, the narrator is not a character, not a visible figure, but an invisible person whose creation is even more complicated and difficult than the creation of one of the characters.

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA

The Body Is Our Surest Source of Knowledge

I’ve…come to agree with George Seferis who once said that the poet has only one subject: his own living body. It is the body where we learn our first lessons in pain and pleasure, and our later lessons in betrayal and decay. The body is our surest source of knowledge. I used to be puzzled about why I can rarely remember my dreams. Half-conscious, I can still see that night’s adventure, the passionate scenes, the violent encounter, the eerie mutations of parent or lover. A moment later, fully awake, it’s all vanished. How can something so vivid, so extraordinary be immediately forgotten? Because it didn’t “happen” to our bodies, only to our imaginations. I’ve come to prefer poems that register their appeal to my physical experiences.

J.D. McCLATCHY