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Writers on Writing

Twelve Writers Discuss the Writing Process

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Writers on Writing

Geraldine Brooks

For almost a decade, the "Writers on Writing" column in The New York Times provided professional writers with an opportunity "to "talk about their craft." Two collections of these columns have been published:

  • Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (Times Books, 2001)
  • Writers on Writing, Volume II: More Collected Essays from The New York Times (Times Books, 2004).

Although most of the contributors have been novelists, the insights they offer into the process of writing should be of interest to all writers. Here are excerpts from twelve of the authors who have contributed pieces to "Writers on Writing."

  • Geraldine Brooks
    " Write what you know. Every guide for the aspiring author advises this. Because I live in a long-settled rural place, I know certain things. I know the feel of a newborn lamb's damp, tight-curled fleece and the sharp sound a well-bucket chain makes as it scrapes on stone. But more than these material things, I know the feelings that flourish in small communities. And I know other kinds of emotional truths that I believe apply across the centuries." (July 2001)


  • Richard Ford
    "Beware of writers who tell you how hard they work. (Beware of anybody who tries to tell you that.) Writing is indeed often dark and lonely, but no one really has to do it. Yes, writing can be complicated, exhausting, isolating, abstracting, boring, dulling, briefly exhilarating; it can be made to be grueling and demoralizing. And occasionally it can produce rewards. But it's never as hard as, say, piloting an L-1011 into O'Hare on a snowy night in January, or doing brain surgery when you have to stand up for 10 hours straight, and once you start you can't just stop. If you're a writer, you can stop anywhere, any time, and no one will care or ever know. Plus, the results might be better if you do." (November 1999)


  • Allegra Goodman
    "Carpe diem. Know your literary tradition, savor it, steal from it, but when you sit down to write, forget about worshiping greatness and fettishizing masterpieces. If your inner critic continues to plague you with invidious comparisons, scream, 'Ancestor worship!' and leave the building." (March 2001)


  • Mary Gordon
    "It's a bad business, this writing. No marks on paper can ever measure up to the word's music in the mind, to the purity of the image before its ambush by language. Most of us awake paraphrasing words from the Book of Common Prayer, horrified by what we have done, what we have left undone, convinced that there is no health in us. We accomplish what we do, creating a series of stratagems to explode the horror. Mine involve notebooks and pens. I write by hand." (July 1999)


  • Kent Haruf
    "After finishing the first draft, I work for as long as it takes (for two or three weeks, most often) to rework that first draft on a computer. Usually that involves expansion: filling in and adding to, but trying not to lose the spontaneous, direct sound. I use that first draft as a touchstone to make sure everything else in that section has the same sound, the same tone and impression of spontaneity." (November 2000)


  • Alice Hoffman
    "I wrote to find beauty and purpose, to know that love is possible and lasting and real, to see day lilies and swimming pools, loyalty and devotion, even though my eyes were closed and all that surrounded me was a darkened room. I wrote because that was who I was at the core, and if I was too damaged to walk around the block, I was lucky all the same. Once I got to my desk, once I started writing, I still believed anything was possible." (August 2000)


  • Elmore Leonard
    "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said' . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange." (July 2001)


  • Walter Mosley
    "If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. The consistency, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily reoccurrence. You don't go to a well once but daily. You don't skip a child's breakfast or forget to wake up in the morning. Sleep comes to you each day, and so does the muse." (July 2000)


  • William Saroyan
    "How do you write? You write, man, you write, that's how, and you do it the way the old English walnut tree puts forth leaf and fruit every year by the thousands. . . . If you practice an art faithfully, it will make you wise, and most writers can use a little wising up." (1981)


  • Paul West
    "Of course the writer cannot always burn with a hard gemlike flame or a white heat, but it should be possible to be a chubby hot-water bottle, rendering maximum attentiveness in the most enterprising sentences." (October 1999)


  • Donald E. Westlake
    "In the most basic way, writers are defined not by the stories they tell, or their politics, or their gender, or their race, but by the words they use. Writing begins with language, and it is in that initial choosing, as one sifts through the wayward lushness of our wonderful mongrel English, that choice of vocabulary and grammar and tone, the selection on the palette, that determines who's sitting at that desk. Language creates the writer's attitude toward the particular story he's decided to tell." (January 2001)


  • Elie Wiesel
    "Acutely aware of the poverty of my means, language became obstacle. At every page I thought, 'That's not it.' So I began again with other verbs and other images. No, that wasn't it either. But what exactly was that it I was searching for? It must have been all that eludes us, hidden behind a veil so as not to be stolen, usurped and trivialized. Words seemed weak and pale." (June 2000)
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