Category Archives: The Writing Process

The Spark: Insights into Creativity

David Crosby has never been known as a prolific songwriter, especially compared to his band mates (in The Byrds and CSNY). And what songs he has written have, as with many works of art, come from turmoil. It seems he believed in the old adage: an artist must suffer to create. But now Crosby is 75 years old. Time is running out, and he’s hit the most creative years of his life. In his song, “By the Light of Common Day” (working title “The Muse”), he gives insight earned by long experience into the creative process: that those hard times he had–the early loss of his girlfriend, the drug years, prison–weren’t necessary. He didn’t need “to make it rough,” as he says in the song. The muse doesn’t need that; it just needs us to listen.

By the Light of Common Day (Lyrics by David Crosby, music by Becca Stevens)

By the light of common day
Things look different
Than they did in the starlit dark

The dark was warm and clouded
It was easy to deceive yourself
And those around you in the work

To say the craziness and pain
The spreading of the stain is
Exactly where you gain the spark to make it
As if being happy isn’t quite enough
Somehow I needed to make it rough
Rough enough to break it

To make those long connections
And run in wrong directions
Till I break it loose

I was wrong of course I see now
The spark is there all the time now
If you know how to listen to your calling
The muse is quietly knocking on your door now

To say the craziness and pain
The spreading of the stain is
Exactly where you gain the spark to make it
As if being happy isn’t quite enough

Somehow I needed to make it rough
Rough enough to break it
Rough enough to break it

You have to go faithfully each day
And open up your head some way
Somehow

And what will come in answer
Some strong and gentle dancer
Will carry a song through your door
Some great lifting force of light
Will come to balance fearful night
And raise its voice and then raise yours
Raise its voice and then raise yours

 

 

A Manner of Being: Writer’s on Their Mentors

A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentorsedited by Annie Liontas and Jeff Parker, is a collection of essays by writers reflecting on the influence of their mentors (or lack of mentor). Most of the relationships were born in university classrooms, but despite this similarity, the experiences explored in Manner of Being are as varied as the collection of writers from which they’re drawn. The book delivers many lessons–in writing, teaching, life–and the lessons aren’t always delivered by writers (a nanny here, a bookstore owner there). There are some heavy hitters, though. Of the seventy essays, some of the writers represented are Pam Houston, Philip Levine, Mary Gaitskill, Gore Vidal, John Irving, Gordon Lish, Mary Jo Salter. There are also lesser known writers who have wonderfully told tales of their apprenticeships.

Click here for an example essay originally published in The New Yorker: George Saunders on Tobias Wolff.

 

Writer + Agent = To Kill a Mockingbird

Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times‘ article, “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,'” offers a glimpse into the interdependent process of creating a masterpiece.

“In the spring of 1957,” Mahler writes, “a 31-year-old aspiring novelist named Harper Lee — everyone called her Nelle — delivered the manuscript for “Go Set a Watchman” to her agent [Tay Hohoff] [but] the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was [. . .] ‘more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.’ During the next couple of years, she led Ms. Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”

Read the article here.

And for kicks, check out this wonderful interview with Harper Lee.

 

 

Vonnegut on Novelists

” . . . novelists are not only unusually depressed, by and large, but have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetics consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday

Observations on First Lines and Voice in Fiction

The opening lines of a novel matter (there are lists, after all, for such things, the “Best First Lines from Novels“). Point of view is set. Characters are introduced. Voice is established. And maybe more, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez notes:

One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.

So what happens when writers cast out those first lines? Where do the words come from? What is the writer looking for? And how does he or she know when they’ve found it? Below are author insights culled mostly from The Paris Review interviews.

John Steinbeck: I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing.

Edna O’Brien: I always have the first line. Even with my very first book, The Country Girls, I went around with this first sentence in my head long before I sat down to write it.

Joseph Heller: My novels begin in a strange way. I don’t begin with a theme or even a character. I begin with a first sentence that is independent of any conscious preparation. Most often nothing comes out of it: a sentence will come to mind that doesn’t lead to a second sentence. Sometimes it will lead to thirty sentences which then come to a dead end.

I was alone on the deck. As I sat there worrying and wondering what to do, one of those first lines suddenly came to mind: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” Immediately, the lines presented a whole explosion of possibilities and choices—characters (working in a corporation), a tone, a mood of anxiety, or insecurity. In that first hour (before someone came along and asked me to go to the beach), I knew the beginning, the ending, most of the middle . . .

INTERVIEWER
Was it the same process of “receiving” a first line with Catch-22?

HELLER
Just about. I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars . . . the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half.

Joan Didion: What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.

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Henri Cole Interviewed in The Paris Review

There’s a wonderful interview with Henri Cole in The Paris Review–many insights on craft and the artistic mindset. Here’s a glimpse into how he wrote Middle Earth:

“I decided to try writing free-verse sonnets and bringing to them some of the qualities of Japanese poetry, valuing sincerity over artifice, frequent use of simile, the presence of nature as an emblem for interior states, and so on. The first poems I wrote were in a rather minimalist style, like a rock garden. I tried to write poems of pure contentment, because I was so deeply moved by the setting—the rice fields were being planted and were full of happy frogs that talked all night and accompanied my sleep. It was intense. And slowly, I wrote about it. And these were the poems that became Middle Earth.”

Summer Travel Interviews and Readings: Richard Ford

Richard Ford, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Sportswriter, the wonderful novel that first introduced us to Frank Bascombe, is bringing Frank back in a new book, Let Me Be Frank with You, to be released later this year.  In this interview with PBS’s Jeffrey Brown, Ford discusses writing his Bascombe novels, reads from the new book, and tells a wonderful Raymond Carver anecdote.  If you’re traveling and you’d like to add a little depth to your highway-skyway miles, settle into for an interesting discussion of story making.