You Have to Work with What You've Got

I don't write like my mother, but for many years I spoke like her, and her particular, timorous relationship with language has shaped my own. There are people who move confidently within their own horizons of speech; whether it is cockney, estuary, RP or valley girl, they stride with the unselfconscious ease of a landowner on his own turf. My mother, Rose, was never like that. She never owned the language she spoke. Her displacement within the intricacies of English class, and the uncertainty that went with it, taught her to regard language as something that might go off in her face, like a letter bomb. A word bomb. I've inherited her wariness, or more accurately, I learnt it as a child. I used to think I would have to spend a lifetime shaking it off. Now I know that's impossible, and unnecessary, and that you have to work with what you've got.

IAN McEWAN

The Serious Fiction Writer Always Writes About the Whole World

There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it…. People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

FLANNERY O’CONNOR

Writing Is Not Exactly a Scarce Resource

Writer’s block, if that’s the name for it, happens when I am boring, when my mind is flat, when I have nothing to add to what has been said and done. Therefore it happens nearly all of the time. It happens when writing is an obligation and not a desire. And I really don’t mind. It’s not clear that I am meant to pump out writing at all costs. The opposite is true. The world will be just fine without anything I might write. Writing is not exactly a scarce resource. There is far too much out there that hasn’t been read enough. So I don’t try to solve this silence. To me it is necessary.

BEN MARCUS

There Is Much in All of Us

There is much, much in all of us, but we do not know it. No one ever calls it out in us, unless we are lucky enough to know intelligent, imaginative, sympathetic people who love us and have the magnanimity to encourage us, to believe in us, by listening, by praise, by appreciation, by laughing. If you are going to write, you must become aware of this richness in you and come to believe in it and know it is there so that you can write opulently with self-trust. Once you become aware of it, have faith in it, you will be all right. But it is like this: if you have a million dollars in the bank and don't know, it doesn't do you any good.

BRENDA UELAND

To Understand Is to Tremble

I distrust summaries, any kind of gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts; I think someone who claims to understand but is obviously calk, someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquility, is a fool and a liar. To understand is to tremble. To recollect is to re-enter and be riven.... I admire the authority of being on one's knees in front of the event.

HAROLD BRODKEY

A Novel Takes Over a Writer's Life

I just write what I want to write. Quiet is very beautiful to me, the medium of everything that matters. I'm grateful for the patience of my readers, certainly. But the fact is that a novel takes over a writer's life for literal years. What I write, day by day and word by word, is much of my felt life. It would be a terrible capitulation to give up my explorations of quiet because of anxiety about the receptiveness of readers. I have found that readers are very much to be trusted.

MARILYNNE ROBINSON

There's No Use Revising Something Bad

I tell these students there’s no use in revising something that’s bad. I believe that, for short stories. It’s brief, very brief, from four to twelve pages, getting something done. I don’t believe in rewriting this one goddamned story. If the first draft is no goddamned good, it’s no good. It’s stupid to revise it, to me. The first draft has got to be loaded with most of it. Does it not? It can’t just be a shell of what’s going to be. I think it’s got to be exciting.

BARRY HANNAH

Get the Big Truth First

A novel has all kinds of pitfalls because it takes longer and you are around people, and if you’re not careful you will talk about it. The novel is also hard to write in terms of keeping your love intense. It’s hard to stay erect for two hundred days. So, get the big truth first. If you get the big truth, the small truths will accumulate around it. Let them be magnetized to it, drawn to it, and then cling to it.

RAY BRADBURY