Writing Is a Kind of Exorcism

An admirable line of Pablo Neruda’s, “My creatures are born of a long denial,” seems to me the best definition of writing as a kind of exorcism, casting off invading creatures by projecting them into universal existence, keeping them on the other side of the bridge… It may be exaggerating to say that all completely successful short stories, especially fantastic stories, are products of neurosis, nightmares or hallucination neutralized through objectification and translated to a medium outside the neurotic terrain. This polarization can be found in any memorable short story, as if the author, wanting to rid himself of his creature as soon and as absolutely as possible, exorcises it the only way he can: by writing it.

JULIO CORTÁZAR

Don't Try

You don't try. That's very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It's like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.

CHARLES BUKOWSKI

Stop Aspiring and Start Writing

Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.

ALAN WATTS

A Story Is a Story Is a Story

As a storyteller, I get very confused by the notion of genre. Even now, if you put a gun to my head I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. If there is a talking robot is it science fiction? If there is a dwarf with an axe and a cappuccino is it fantasy? I mean what even is YA anymore? Smaller words? Less complex emotional situations? No sodomy? Mostly genre is a shortcut for publishers and readers looking to categorize stories. Good writers rarely take shortcuts so genre doesn’t seem to be a very helpful discourse for us. A story is a story is a story.

REIF LARSEN

Examine Your Motives

Examine your motives. Are you drawn to fiction writing because it can be performed cheaply at home? Are you an alcoholic looking for an excuse to sleep late? Writing is for compulsive storytellers. So are a lot of things—police work, diplomacy, counseling the needy, etc. Before you commit to writing as a career, make sure you’re not simply agoraphobic or depressed.

NELL ZINK

Never Dumb Things Down

I tell my students that when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down. You won’t have to explain things that don’t need explaining. You’ll assume an intimacy and a natural shorthand, which is good because readers are smart and don’t wish to be condescended to.

JEFFREY EUGENIDES

Finish Your First Draft

The best advice on writing was given to me by my first editor, Michael Korda, of Simon and Schuster, while writing my first book. "Finish your first draft and then we'll talk," he said. It took me a long time to realize how good the advice was. Even if you write it wrong, write and finish your first draft. Only then, when you have a flawed whole, do you know what you have to fix. 

DOMINICK DUNNE

Story Is Emotion Based

When we’re under the spell of a compelling story, we undergo internal changes along with the protagonist, and her insights become part of the way we, too, see the world. Stories instill meaning directly into our belief system the same way experience does—not by telling us what is right, but by allowing us to feel it ourselves. Because just like life, story is emotion based. As Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert said, “Indeed, feelings don’t just matter, they are what mattering means.” In life, if we can’t feel emotion, we can’t make a single rational decision—it’s biology. In a story, if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. It is emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning, thus emotion is what your novel must be wired to transmit, straight from the protagonist to us.

LISA CRON

Read It Out Loud

How can you actually see the work in order to judge it? One way is to read it out loud—to somebody who you’re a little afraid of, whose opinion matters to you. When you read it aloud, there are parts you might skip over—you find yourself not wanting to speak them. Those are the weak parts. It’s hard to find them otherwise, just reading along. But you can judge the work more clearly when you hear and feel its sound.

JESSE BALL