“Some old lady said that my book left a bad taste in her mouth. I wrote back to her and said, ‘You weren’t supposed to eat it.’”
“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution
(31 March 1968)
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
The more I read, the more apparent it becomes to me how well-read an individual writer happens to be when I read them. It’s hard to pin down exactly, more of a general feeling that carries through the work as a whole. It makes me want to push myself to read beyond my own proclivities and focus on reading more/wider/broader.
Also and unintentionally, this is the second December in a row where I’ve shared a Faulkner quote. (Here’s what I shared last year.) Maybe this is becoming a tradition?
“I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list – the novel becomes my shopping list as I write it.”
From Conversations with William Gibson edited by Patrick A. Smith. While I love this quote, this particular interview conducted in 2011 by David Wallace-Wells is excellent as a whole. An extended version of the exchange is below but you can read the whole thing over on The Paris Review, “William Gibson, The Art of Fiction No. 211.” (Paywall.)
David Wallace-Wells: How do you begin a novel?
Gibson: I have to write an opening sentence. I think with one exception I’ve never changed an opening sentence after a book was completed.
David Wallace-Wells: You won’t have planned beyond that one sentence?
Gibson: No. I don’t begin a novel with a shopping list—the novel becomes, shopping list as I write it. It’s like that joke about the violin maker who was asked how he made a violin and answered that he started with a piece of wood and removed everything that wasn’t a violin. That’s what I do when I’m writing a novel, except somehow I’m simultaneously generating the wood as I’m carving it.
E. M. Forster’s idea has always stuck with me—that a writer who’s fully in control of the characters hasn’t even started to do the work. I’ve never had any direct fictional input, that I know of, from dreams, but when I’m working optimally I’m the equivalent of an ongoing lucid dream. That gives me my story, but it also leaves me devoid of much theoretical or philosophical rationale for why Me story winds up as it does on the page. The sort of narratives I don’t trust, as a reader, smell of homework.
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Here in the Pacific Northwest, the nights have grown colder, the days shorter, and the leaves are starting to change. It’s my favorite time of the year. I figure it’s the perfect moment to share some of my favorite quotes from the king of gothic romanticism and inventor of the detective novel, Edgar Allan Poe.
“They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”
“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”
“Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger, portion of truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.”
Do you have a favorite Edgar Allan Poe quote? Is there a story of his which you love? Let me know in the comments!
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
One thing I like about this quote is how it challenges both the character and the reader to discover “what they are made of.” That “they” can work on multiple levels—making this quote both straightforward and yet layered.
Interestingly enough, this is just one of Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing (number six, specifically.) He’s not the only writer to dish out eight tips—seems like a comfortable number for a lot of us. You can read all of Vonnegut’s eight and the eight tips from other great authors over at this post.