February 21, 2013

Motivational Words From 10 Writers

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What is the issue?
This weekend, you are going to go where the Internet can’t find you for six hours and start writing a memoir, a novel, or a book of poems. But wait! Before you go, read these ten motivational quotes from ten of my favorite writers.

Dave Eggers
Interview with The Guardian, May 2010

This interview with Dave Eggers, following the release of his book Zeitoun, has haunted me for three years. The idea of writing requiring so much sustained concentration that it is equivalent to a “deep-sea dive,” as Eggers describes it, is the most useful concept I’ve come across to describe something that sucks so profoundly but is so generous with its rewards. I think about this concept basically every day. Here’s what he says:

“I need eight hours to get maybe 20 minutes of work done. I had one of those yesterday: seven hours of self-loathing. I used to write in the middle of the night. I suppose I was surprised by the sedentary nature of writing: like, wow, most of this is sitting down and typing! So I used to add a bit of adventure by starting at midnight and working until five. That was excitement! But now I have two kids…So it’s bankers hours for me…Writing is a deep-sea dive. You need hours just to get into it: down, down, down. If you’re called back to the surface every couple of minutes by an email, you can’t ever get back down. I have a great friend who became a Twitterer and he says he hasn’t written anything for a year.”

Jennifer Egan
In conversation with Heidi Julavits in BOMB Magazine, Summer 2010

Egan is known as the novelist who changes her style whenever she feels so inclined. In an interview with the also-fantastic novelist Heidi Julavits in BOMB in 2010, Egan lets us in on the motivation behind never being pinned down by one’s previous work. A lack of fear can go a long way: Egan’s adventurousness several books into her career, nabbed her two of the biggest literary awards this country bestows. And it’s the same adventurousness she longs to see in other people’s books.

“If I’ve read it or done it before, then I’m not interested. My aesthetic, or my method, is basically guided by curiosity and desire. Again, there’s nothing very sophisticated about that. There’s no theory there. And I don’t know what the novel should be, but I do know that—well, I was a National Book Award judge last year, and I read some great stuff. But I also found myself thinking that a lot of novels feel really constrained and unaware of the possibilities at hand. I find that curious, because the novel began as this explosion of craziness. I mean, look at Cervantes and Sterne. Two of the first novelists. There’s nothing holding them back. They haven’t learned to be afraid to do anything. You do need to be in control, and, in a way, the more chances you’re taking the more you need to control them. But now I feel like the control is coming before the chances. For example, this idea that you can’t change the point of view.What? Why? If you can make it work, you can do anything.”

Sheila Heti
Interview with The Awl, June 2012

Sheila Heti’s delightful novel(ish) How Should A Person Be?, released last year, is a kick in the pants for any young writer. Last summer I described it on this website as “rocket fuel for the fearful artist.” Why? Because its self-consciousness, its amusing self-absorption, is chillingly relatable, and provokes us to step outside our own minds and create something meaningful, to stop asking questions, to stop watching what everybody else is doing and to just do. In an interview with Jessica Ferri on The Awl last year, she explored these issues further. But my favorite part is her thoughts on becoming hardier with age:

“[T]he older I get, the more I realize it’s possible to make art in any condition: traveling, in one place, in a good relationship, a miserable one, sleeping around, sad, content. One’s state doesn’t matter as much as one imagines. When I was twenty, I was always trying to find or create the perfect condition in which to write. Now I don’t think it exists—the perfect condition—and I don’t even think it’s important. Possibly it’s even better to be in an uncomfortable spot.”

Joyce Carol Oates
Twitter, generally

I still think the most effective way of motivating to write, next to actually writing, is to read books, particularly Joyce Carol Oates’ books. Oates is probably my favorite living novelist, and evidently even though she is an avid Twitter user, social media hasn’t slowed down her staggering prolificacy (she essentially releases a book every year). When I go on Twitter now it’s mostly to see what Oates is up to. She joined last year and often posts funny, moving and sometimes biting tweets about writing, teaching, and Twitter itself. My recent favorites:

“Choose your travel companions with care,” indeed. There is also this gem, which points to the importance of standing by your voice and vision:

T.C. Boyle
Interview in The New York Times Magazine, October 2012

Pretty much everything T.C. Boyle says or writes delights me, and his interview in The New York Times Magazine last fall, around the release of his most recent novel, San Miguel, is no exception. I love the playful stubbornness of Boyle; it’s not unlike the playful stubbornness Joyce Carol Oates displayed in her tweet about the violence in her work. And Boyle, like Jennifer Egan, can do all kinds of things. He wrote brilliantly (and fictitiously) about the founder of Kellogg’s in The Road to Welville and chillingly about the war over the eradication of black rats (which my brain insists on calling “eratication”) in the Channel Islands in When The Killing’s Done. His singular archness makes its way into every answer of this interview. Andrew Goldman asks him about the relative conventionality of San Miguel compared to some of his other novels. He says:

“You want as an artist to be pushing yourself to do what you haven’t done before. I had never done a conventional historical novel or anything entirely from the point of view of women. Early on my wife would criticize me because my women characters were barely existent. I pointed out to her that the male characters were barely existent, too. I was much more interested in wildness of design and language than characterization.”

Cheryl Strayed
In conversation with Elissa Bassist in Creative Nonfiction, January 2013

In a follow-up to their inspiring correspondence via Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column for The Rumpus, Strayed and fellow writer Elissa Bassist discuss the writing craft at Creative Nonfiction. In their original correspondence, Bassist wrote to “Dear Sugar” asking for advice on how to be a writer. Strayed, then writing anonymously as Sugar, responded that Bassist had to stop feeling fearful about the type of writing she wanted to do, given that she hadn’t really done it yet, and that she had to “write like a motherf—er.” In this interview, Strayed, now a bestselling, Oprah-touted author thanks to her memoir Wild, fairly simply addresses the great Problem of the Internet. Here’s their exchange:

BASSIST:If I could add a postscript sub-question to my letter of two years ago, I’d address “heartbreak torture machines”—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr—websites I blame for 80 percent of my writing inertia. When I become overwhelmed with all that I feel and everything I must say—it is almost too much that I must artfully arrange the internal mess—when the feelings are firing and the chair is beginning to get warm and the words are positioning themselves, what I’ll do, without hesitation, is check my email. If someone died each time I checked my inbox, there would be no one left. How do you cancel the noise of social networking and get back down on the ground to produce?

STRAYED: The whole planet would be dead if someone died every time either one of us checked our email. It’s a real problem for me, a huge distraction not only from my writing, but from everything else I love to do, too. When it comes to getting to work, my trick is to conjure my inner-nun-with-a-ruler-in-hand and simply force myself to begin. Beginning is about three-quarters of the battle for me. Once I’m into the work, it’s so much more interesting than anything happening on Facebook.

Liz Meriwether
Interview with Emma Straub in Rookie, November 2012

Liz Meriwether, the creator of New Girl and an accomplished playwright, had a ridiculously prolific 20s. She wrote and put on hit plays, dabbled in TV pilots, and eventually moved to Los Angeles from New York to pursue television writing full time. In an interview with the novelist Emma Straub in Rookie, Meriwether describes how she got her start. From the time she was in college, Meriwether says she was always writing something and trying to get it staged, rather than hiding it away on her computer. When Emma Straub asks her to advise young readers aspiring to a similar career, she says:

“There was a writer who came to my high school and gave a lecture and said, ‘A lot of people say they’re writers, but not everybody is actually writing.’ I always remembered that. Keep making things. Keep writing, and don’t be precious about what you write—just continue to write. Instead of sitting around and perfecting one play, or one story, just keep making more and more. Also, try to put stuff on its feet—if it’s a play, grab your friends and put it up. Do a reading or a full production of it. Work on someone else’s play—be an actor, or do the lights. Just be around people who are making things. Being surrounded by other people who are also doing theater is so important—when you see how actors work, and how directors work, and what dramatic writing looks and sounds like when it’s performed, you’ll start to become a better writer.”

Patti Smith
In Conversation with Jonathan Lethem at the PEN American Center, 2010

In this much-linked-to conversation between Patti Smith and author Jonathan Lethem, the writers talk about great authors, what it means to collect other people’s work, living in New York City as an artist, Smith’s various work stints over the years, punk culture, her memoir Just Kids, and her writing process. My favorite takeaway from the discussion is Smith’s frank comments about modern-day New York City, so utterly different as it is from the city in which Smith came to fame. And before that (which happens at the very end of the discussion), she addresses having left New York City for nearly two decades, during which she settled down, had children, and quite a bit more:

“The role that I carved for myself, we had accomplished. I mean, in terms of rock and roll, our mission was to wake people up and create new space for the new guard. Well, the new guard came, and hopefully we created space for them. So I felt that I had accomplished that mission. And you know, being on the road, and starting to become quite successful, and the demands and pressures of that, and the media, I felt that I wasn’t growing as an artist. At all. I wasn’t growing politically, I wasn’t growing spiritually. And I met a really great person, I met Fred “Sonic” Smith. He had been in the MC5, he had gone through all of the things that I had gone through.

“And I had a decision, if I wanted to carve a more, uh, difficult life with this man, or continue the way I was going. And I most happily went with him. I mean I missed New York City, I loved New York City, I missed, you know, the coffee shops, I missed the camaraderie of my band. But it’s really a misconception that these were not productive years. This book Just Kids came from years and year and years, in those 16 years, of developing a writer’s discipline, of becoming hopefully a better human being, having children, finding I wasn’t in the center of the universe, being more empathetic to my fellow man. So I became more knowledgeable politically, and you know, just seeing how human beings toil…The skills and the disciplines I obtained in those years they still, they have magnified all of my efforts, so they certainly weren’t lost years.”

Joan Didion
“The Art of Nonfiction” Interview with The Paris Review, 2006

Joan Didion’s interviews with The Paris Review are probably much more widely read than the other interviews I’ve included here, but they’re long, and full of great insights, so are worth bringing up again. I am drawn most to her “Art of Nonfiction” interview because I think Didion’s real gift is nonfiction. Here is a great passage in which she explains the difference between nonfiction and fiction:

“Writing fiction is for me a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through. The work process is totally different from writing nonfiction. You have to sit down every day and make it up. You have no notes—or sometimes you do, I made extensive notes for A Book of Common Prayer—but the notes give you only the background, not the novel itself. In nonfiction the notes give you the piece. Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”

Don DeLillo
Interview in The Guardian, August 2010

Don DeLillo isn’t a huge fan of the spotlight, but when he does give interviews, he gives them sensitively, and generously. In an interview with The Guardian in 2010, DeLillo talks about his childhood, his routine, aging, and his vision as a writer, among other things. DeLillo grew up in New York and went to college at Fordham, “walking to school,” as he puts it — not all that common. He then went to work as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather, partly to please his parents. “But then it came time for me to make my journey – into America,” he says. It was “no coincidence that my first novel is called Americana,” he adds. “That became my subject, the subject that shaped my work. When I get a French translation of one of my books that says ‘translated from the American’, I think, ‘Yes, that’s exactly right.'” And here’s DeLillo on finally breaking through, becoming an actual writer, as opposed to a theoretical one:

“It took a long time. I was very slow to begin. I lacked the discipline for the enormous commitment one has to make. Even when I had all day to write, and sometimes all week, I took forever finally to enter my first novel. It was only after two years’ work that it occurred to me that I was a writer. I had no particular expectation that the novel would ever be published, because it was sort of a mess. It was only when I found myself writing things I didn’t realize I knew that I said, ‘I’m a writer now.’ The novel had become an incentive to deeper thinking. That’s really what writing is — an intense form of thought.” TC mark

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