Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Paris Review

Repetition with a difference

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Kenzaburō Ōe

I am the kind of writer who rewrites and rewrites. I am very eager to correct everything. If you look at one of my manuscripts, you can see I make many changes. So one of my main literary methods is “repetition with difference.” I begin a new work by first attempting a new approach toward a work that I’ve already written—I try to fight the same opponent one more time. Then I take the resulting draft and continue to elaborate upon it, and as I do so the traces of the old work disappear. I consider my literary work to be a totality of differences within repetition.

I used to say that this elaboration was the most important thing for a novelist to learn.

Kenzaburō Ōe, to The Paris Review

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November 9, 2013 at 9:00 am

Anthony Burgess on artistic punctuality

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Anthony Burgess

The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency. Spend too long on it, or have great gaps between writing sessions, and the unity of the work tends to be lost. This is one of the troubles with Ulysses.

Anthony Burgess, to The Paris Review

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March 24, 2013 at 7:59 am

Quote of the Day

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March 8, 2013 at 7:30 am

A writer’s routine: David Mitchell

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David Mitchell

I do my thinking on paper, and act on my thinking on the laptop…

Writing describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields—writing new scenes—demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages—that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours. Sometimes, at any hour, you can receive a gift—something that’s really tight and animate and so interesting that I forget the time until my long-suffering wife begins to drop noisy hints.

David Mitchell, to The Paris Review

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February 23, 2013 at 9:50 am

“Writing won’t be so bad once you get into it…”

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Tony Kushner

The lesson I learn over and over again—and then forget over and over again—is that writing won’t be so bad once you get into it. One’s reluctance is immensely powerful. It’s like what Proust says about habit—it seems tiny in the grand arc of a person’s life narrative, but it’s the most insidious, powerful thing. Reluctance is like that.

When you feel most terrified—I think this is true of most writers—it’s because the thing isn’t there in your head. I’ve found it to be the case that you’ve got to start writing, and writing almost anything. Because writing is not simply an intellectual act. It doesn’t happen exclusively in your head. It’s a combination of idea and action, what Marx and Freud called praxis, a combining of the material and the immaterial. The action, the physical act of putting things down on paper, changes and produces a writer’s ideas.

Tony Kushner, to The Paris Review

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February 16, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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October 24, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Books, Writing

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Elie Wiesel on cutting

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Elie Wiesel

It is a struggle when I have to cut. I reduce nine hundred pages to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Elie Wiesel, to The Paris Review

(Note: Just a reminder that I’ll be at two different panels today at Chicon 7: “Men Writing Women,” at 9:00 am, also featuring Bradley P. Beaulieu, Jan Bogstad, Myke Cole, and Russell Davis; and “Develop Your Story Idea,” at 3:00 pm, with B.A. Chepaitis, Jean Cavelos, Jamie Todd Rubin, and Courtney Schafer. The latter one, in particular, should be especially interesting.)

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September 1, 2012 at 7:30 am

William H. Gass on writing slowly

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I write slowly because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity. Time can give you a good critical perspective, and I often have to go slow so that I can look back on what sort of botch of things I made three months ago. Much of the stuff which I will finally publish, with all its flaws, as if it had been dashed off with a felt pen, will have begun eight or more years earlier, and worried and slowly chewed on and left for dead many times in the interim.

William H. Gass, to the Paris Review

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May 20, 2012 at 9:50 am

A child with a word processor

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For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W. H. Smith children’s writing competition. Annually there are about sixty thousand entries. These are cut down to about eight hundred. Among these our panel finds seventy prizewinners. Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent—a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring. It was almost impossible to read them through. After two or three years, as these became more numerous, we realized that this was a new thing. So we inquired. It turned out that these were pieces that children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin.

Ted Hughes, to the Paris Review

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February 11, 2012 at 10:00 am

Quote of the Day

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You don’t want to create boredom, and it becomes an easy trap for a writer to fall into. You have to keep the audience awake in very simple terms. It’s easy in the theater to create boredom—easier than it is in movies. You put something in motion and it has to have momentum. If you don’t do that right away, there isn’t any attention.

Sam Shepard, to the Paris Review

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February 9, 2012 at 7:50 am

Quote of the Day

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The art of the poem nowadays is something unstable; but at least the construction of the poem should make sense; you should know where you stand. Many questions haven’t been answered as yet. Our poets may be wrong; but what can any of us do with his talent but try to develop his vision, so that through frequent failures we may learn better what we have missed in the past.

William Carlos Williams, to The Paris Review

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January 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Jonathan Franzen on playing with chronology

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Once I’d finally figured out that a large novel could be constructed out of multiple short novels, each of them building to a crisis in which the main character can no longer escape reality, I had an opportunity to play with time management—how far back into the past to plunge after the opening section, how to parcel out the gradual return toward the present, where to situate the meeting of the backstory with the present story. I sketched out in pencil how the chronology would work in each of the five novellas, and I was pleased to have a different structure for each of them. I also liked the way the graphs looked: A horizontal line, representing the present action, was interrupted by chunks of backstory which would rise at various slopes like something surfacing. Like a missile rising up out of the past to intersect with a plane flying horizontally in the present.

Jonathan Franzen, to the Paris Review

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November 27, 2011 at 8:00 am

The case of Q.R. Markham, revisited

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Yesterday, I wrote that the case of Q.R. Markham is “a kind of distorting mirror, a looking glass in which various players in the publishing world can see uncomfortable reflections of themselves.” The more I think about this statement, the more true it seems—and it’s especially true of me. Whenever we witness such a public implosion, it’s tempting to treat it as a cautionary tale, and to ask what lessons, if any, it contains. My recent post on the subject was an attempt to tease out some of these implications, and I was pleased when it got a response in the comments from Jeremy Duns, the novelist who posted the email exchange that gave us our best glimpse so far into Markham’s mind. I encourage you to check out both his reply on this blog and his longer essays here, all of which are well worth reading. And while I can’t respond to Duns in as much detail as his comments deserve, I’d like to clarify some of my thoughts from yesterday, and expand upon a few points on which he and I seem to differ.

I’d like to begin with something that may seem like a side issue, but which I think lies at the heart of the matter: the question of tropes in suspense fiction. I wrote yesterday that the number of available tropes in suspense is “large, but finite,” and although Duns disagrees, I hold to my original point. Any fictional genre, by definition, has carved out its own subset of the universe of possible tropes, focusing on those elements which, through the trial and error of countless readers and writers, have turned out to be especially effective. If this weren’t the case, we couldn’t meaningfully speak of “genre” at all. And while it’s true that certain novelists, like Le Carré, have consistently pushed against the bounds of the suspense category, most authors exist quite happily within it. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’ve often argued that it’s better for a novelist to begin by working squarely within the form, learning the tropes, pressing against the conventions, and making his mark with unusual combinations or fresh execution of familiar elements. Only once he’s learned the fundamentals of his craft can he start to break away from it. And this principle has guided many of the choices I’ve made in my own career.

The trouble with this argument, which I’ve made on this blog before, is that when I listen to it now, it sounds like something that Q.R. Markham might say. We know that Markham, like many young writers, suffered from crippling doubt about his own voice, and that he took at least some pleasure in the puzzle-making aspect of what he did instead. Assembling a collage of stolen passages into a coherent whole clearly took intelligence and superficial ingenuity, a kind of twisted version of what any writer does when he creates something new through the juxtaposition of two old ideas. I’ve done this myself. As a result, Markham sometimes strikes me as a distorted version of the writer I recognize in my own work. I can’t speak for every author, but there have been times when I’ve taken comfort in the purely mechanical elements of craft, assembling narrative pieces in interesting ways and delighting in my resourcefulness. There’s definitely a place for this sort of thing, but Markham represents its pathological conclusion. And if I insist on taking him as a cautionary example, it’s for the same reason why, in the past, I’ve come down hard on the perils of cleverness for its own sake. Markham’s case is simply the strangest possible version of a tendency I see every day in myself and others.

This is also why I’ve emphasized the lessons here for suspense fiction in particular. It’s true that Markham plagiarized elements of his literary fiction as well, including a story that appeared in the Paris Review, and if he’d published an entire mainstream novel consisting of nothing but stolen passages, it would have said equally devastating things about the state of modern literary fiction. But for better or worse, he wrote a spy thriller. And if I’ve zeroed in on the implications for suspense, it isn’t because suspense fiction is somehow weaker or more vulnerable to this kind of treatment than any other kind of storytelling, but because this is the genre in which Markham perpetuated his most spectacular, newsworthy fraud—and also the one with which I happen to be the most familiar, or at least the most preoccupied at the moment. There are, of course, larger questions raised by the Markham case, and I hope they’ll be taken up elsewhere. But I can speak best to the message I see here for myself, as a writer up to the knees in a pair of suspense novels of his own. And I still think that this particular lesson is worth heeding.

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November 18, 2011 at 10:26 am

Joyce Carol Oates on the writing state of mind

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One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.

Joyce Carol Oates, to the Paris Review

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October 23, 2011 at 7:28 am

Quote of the Day

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October 20, 2011 at 7:51 am

The writing life: dealing with doubt

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Every writer goes through periods of depression and discouragement. Part of this is due to the daily nature of the work itself: it’s solitary, not immediately rewarding, and needs to be pursued without visible result for years on end. It isn’t surprising, then, that alcoholism is the most common occupational hazard of being a novelist, or that so many writers and creative artists end up in therapy, only occasionally with useful artistic results. Even more disheartening are what I might call existential threats to the writer’s life—times when your everyday discouragement seems inseparable from the daunting nature of the novelistic enterprise itself, until it seems that you’d be better off giving up writing entirely. What do you do then?

The first thing to keep in mind is that for a project as massive as a novel, you’re always going to be approaching it in a range of moods. A good novel generally takes at least a year or so of daily effort, and in that time, you’re going to start writing at moments when you feel enthusiastic or exhausted, optimistic or despairing, charged with energy or bored out of your mind. It’s tempting to think that the book itself is causing these reactions, but really, it isn’t the novel that’s changed; you have. And one of the challenges of becoming a writer is to develop habits of mind that allow you to write on all kinds of days, and to separate your reactions to the novel from more incidental emotions. In the end, it’s habit, not talent, that saves you.

A second, perhaps more useful point to remember is that all good writers have an ambivalent relationship toward their early drafts. If you think that the initial version of a chapter is pretty bad, well, it probably is, at least compared to what it will ultimately become—but that doesn’t mean you should stop and fix it now. What you already have is more than enough: a rough sketch, on paper, that covers all of the essential points of the scene at hand. As such, even if it’s badly written, it’s infinitely superior to a perfect but unwritten chapter that exists only in your imagination. After all, a first draft doesn’t need to be good; its only indispensable requirement is that it exist. And every writer you admire has been where you are now. Raymond Carver, in the Paris Review, put it best:

It’s instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I’m thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don’t know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections on the galleys. Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are.

The third, possibly most important reminder is that all those basic, stupid, elementary habits that you’ve developed as a writer—to write every day, to cut ten percent of every first draft, to wait until the entire book is complete before going back to revise—will eventually, if honestly pursued, work their magic. When I’m reading over a first draft and don’t like what I’m seeing, I ask myself: Can I envision a good version of this chapter? If the answer is yes, I move on, because I know that a better version will emerge after the necessary work of rereading and revision. Sometimes, though, the answer is no, which implies that the chapter itself, or even the entire novel, is misconceived. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about what to do when this happens, and when, if ever, you should scrap a project entirely.

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June 23, 2011 at 9:53 am

Quote of the Day

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I think that words are an around-the-world, oxcart way of doing things, awkward instruments, and they will be laid aside eventually, probably sooner than we think. This is something that will happen in the space age.

William S. Burroughs, to the Paris Review

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April 19, 2011 at 7:57 am

Stephen King on revision

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One of the ways the computer has changed the way I work is that I have a much greater tendency to edit “in the camera”—to make changes on the screen. With Cell that’s what I did. I read it over, I had editorial corrections, I was able to make my own corrections, and to me that’s like ice skating. It’s an OK way to do the work, but it isn’t optimal. With Lisey I had the copy beside the computer and I created blank documents and retyped the whole thing. To me that’s like swimming, and that’s preferable. It’s like you’re writing the book over again. It is literally a rewriting.

Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book. And I’ve had bad books. I think Rose Madder fits in that category, because it never really took off. I felt like I had to force that one.

Stephen King, to the Paris Review

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April 16, 2011 at 9:04 am

Faulkner on experience, observation, and imagination

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Interviewer: How much of your writing is based on personal experience?

Faulkner: I can’t say. I never counted up. Because “how much” is not important. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.

William Faulkner, to The Paris Review

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March 27, 2011 at 8:42 am

Posted in Writing

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Ray Bradbury on literature’s obligation of joy

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Interviewer: Does literature, then, have any social obligation?

Bradbury: Not a direct one. It has to be through reflection, through indirection. Nikos Kazantzakis says, “Live forever.” That’s his social obligation. The Saviors of God celebrates life in the world. Any great work does that for you. All of Dickens says live life at the top of your energy. Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out—and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly—Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.

Interviewer: Why do you think that?

Bradbury: By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.

Ray Bradbury, to The Paris Review

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March 12, 2011 at 9:22 am

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