Writers on writing
November 11, 2009 8:09 PM   Subscribe

In How to Write a Great Novel authors such as Edwidge Danticat, Hilary Mantel, Orhan Pamuk, Junot Díaz and Margaret Atwood speak about their writing process. If you want your thoughts on writing in a longer format, you could do a lot worse than The New York Times' Writers on Writing series, which features short essays by, for example, Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, Louise Erdrich and Annie Proulx. Should you thirst for meditations longer yet, Barbara Demarco-Barrett has on her Writers on Writing radio show interviewed a boatload of authors and it is available as a podcast [iTunes link]
posted by Kattullus (21 comments total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
Unf, what a post!

Another good one: The Paris Review Interview Archive Index lists them all and features 'a substantial sampling of the archive's finest reviews' in PDF form.
posted by carsonb at 8:26 PM on November 11, 2009

It is indeed a collection of great interviews, carsonb, so good they had to post it twice :)

Ah, the wild years of MetaFilter, back when doubles walked the Blue and chattiness ruled the Green
posted by Kattullus at 8:31 PM on November 11, 2009

And just in time for nanowrimo writers block!
posted by jabberjaw at 8:31 PM on November 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love you for posting this, thank you so much.
posted by Nattie at 9:36 PM on November 11, 2009

1. "It was a dark and stormy night."

2. ???

3. Profit.
posted by total warfare frown at 9:53 PM on November 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

Last weekend I listened to a radio interview with Philip Roth. Near the end of the interview he was asked what he would do if he could live his life over again. I thought, what a stupid question, the man is turning out a book a year in his seventies, he must love what he does, he must find strength in his ability to share his observations and preoccupations on the passage of life with readers, else he would tapered off his output as he reached the AARP years, took up hanging out at the track. Portnoy and a couple others must be on reading lists somewhere, must still sell enough copies to provide a comfortable annuity. However, he surprised me by saying that he wouldn't be a writer. Too difficult, too lonely, he said, you always feel like an amateur, always starting over with that blank page. So there you go, aspiring great novelist, study up on whether you should rise at 4 or sleep until noon, whether you should write longhand on rice paper or employ Microsoft to take dictation, whether you should write in the bath or at a stand-up desk handcrafted by Mennonites, so that you can write that novel boiling inside you, become a critical and commercial success in your twenties, continue at the top of your field through your middle-age, push artistic and cultural boundaries, live in Europe, marry a movie star (for better or worse), continue being productive and important well into old age, collecting major awards with every publication, so that, when you reach the end of 50 years of writing you can look back and think: Should have been a doctor.
posted by TimTypeZed at 10:59 PM on November 11, 2009 [13 favorites]

so that, when you reach the end of 50 years of writing you can look back and think: Should have been a doctor.

It's 50 years. You have time to do both. 24 years is enough.
posted by kid ichorous at 11:14 PM on November 11, 2009

TimTypeZed: Actually I think the moral of that story is don't spend 50 years of your life becoming Philip Roth - so bitter and enraged at the small injustices of life that you can't appreciate the large success and the many small joys that you did happen to find. Or maybe the moral is - go ahead and be an author, but try to be more like George Plimpton and have a little fun every once in awhile.
posted by billysumday at 4:25 AM on November 12, 2009 [4 favorites]

so that, when you reach the end of 50 years of writing you can look back and think: Should have been a doctor.

Hey, I know plenty of doctors, and they think, "Should have been a writer." Or at least, they want to take up writing, not understanding that good writers are born, not made. And while you can will yourself through medical school, residency and specialty training, and you can will a bound-object-resembling-a-book into existence, you cannot will a good book into existence.
posted by Faze at 4:50 AM on November 12, 2009

The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly, is that it enables one's soul to grow. - Vonnegut.
posted by ovvl at 4:50 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Am I the only one baffled by the success of Edwidge Danticat?
posted by milarepa at 5:47 AM on November 12, 2009

I'm torn. Part of me is thinking "awh great! some truly awesome people are going to shed some light on how to write, this'll be interesting!". The other part is thinking "fuck off. You can't explain how to write a great novel anymore than you can explain how to be a great novelist. All we're going to get are some anecdotes strung together as if they offered something coherent and some reflections on the state of the artist. There will also be to-do lists."

(note: haven't read the links and may well be completely off the mark. But something about explaining how to create art just seems wrong to me, especially with something as malleable and complex as a novel)
posted by litleozy at 6:24 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

milarepa: Am I the only one baffled by the success of Edwidge Danticat?

Well, she did benefit from The Great Eye of Oprah alighting on one of her novels but also, with a name like Edwidge Danticat how could she but succeed.
posted by Kattullus at 6:34 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

litleozy: The Vonnegut article in the OP addresses something similar to your issues here, worth a read.
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:05 AM on November 12, 2009

Slightly outside the topic of the post, let me just say that I absolutely despise NANOWRIMO, and think it's one of the dumbest internet created things ever.
posted by codacorolla at 8:41 AM on November 12, 2009

And coming next spring, The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon for 826 Valencia and its affiliated writing centers around the country, the same folks who published The Autobiographer's Handbook, edited by Jenny Traig. [Full disclosure, I represented these books.]
posted by twsf at 8:45 AM on November 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Okay, writing a great novel, cool, okay, I like Nicholson Baker, okay, ooh Kazuo Ishiguro is amazing, this is a good bunch of information, okay, I'm not in love with Margaret Atwood but I see why she's on here, okay, sure, okay, Junot Díaz may not be a great writer yet but I can see it in his future, sure, okay, Anne Rice FUCK WHAT
posted by shakespeherian at 8:56 AM on November 12, 2009

However, [Roth] surprised me by saying that he wouldn't be a writer.

When Roth craves dessert he sucks a lemon.
posted by Diablevert at 10:03 AM on November 12, 2009

This is such a great post. But oh, the layered irony of 1) again reading about other people's writing instead of doing it myself; and 2) reading about it on a post where the writers included together bemoan the distractions of the internet.
posted by bearwife at 11:26 AM on November 12, 2009

And just want to second shakespeherian about Anne Rice, who I think is one of the worst writers of all time. I will never understand her popularity.
posted by bearwife at 11:27 AM on November 12, 2009

As always, I am struck by the fact that beyond the "sit down and write" piece essential to the process, that each writer has their own process and way of doing things. Some chart everything out, others just begin with an idea. Some edit on the fly, some wait until the draft is finished.

It makes me understand why the usual piece of advice from writers is just "sit down and write"; past that, the process seems to become very individualistic.
posted by never used baby shoes at 12:15 PM on November 12, 2009

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