Writing Advice from Great Writers

Success leaves trails. I believe if you look inside the deep well of history (Google will assist you.), you will find the bread crumbs others before you left (for you to follow. Duh!).

Bread Crumbs:

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” -Ernest Hemingway

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” -William Strunk

“Less is more.” -Robert Browning

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”-Samuel Johnson

“My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying . . . one must ruthlessly suppress everything that is not concerned with the subject. If, in the first chapter, you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story.”
– Anton Chekhov

“Interview with Janet Burroway” by Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Five Points,Summer 2003

In your career you’ve worked in many genres-novels, short stories, children’s books, essays, plays. You’re a woman of letters. What has led you to cast your net so widely?

It may be partly a function of my age. That is, when I was starting out in the fifties, it didn’t occur to me—or I think to many people—that the net or the casting should be narrowed. Now I often hear young writers wonder “which is my genre” or lament not knowing “what I am” or fret about “finding my voice.” I hope this is not a result of writing programs, the institutional need to compartmentalize the courses or pick a thesis genre. Imagination wants leap and stretch. Changing genres flips me into another rhythm, a new syntax, a different set of concerns. It keeps me from imitating myself.

How, for you, does the writing process differ for different genres? What do you find happens when you switch from writing dialogue for the stage to writing it for the page?

It’s not so much in the dialogue as in the vision. Writing fiction, always seeing-feeling from some point of view or other, I write from the belly out, toward the screen. When I’m writing for theatre, the stage sits in front of me at eye level. Everything must be externalized. And that externalization leads me in turn to see more strangely, so that my plays tend to be more stylized than my fiction; my characters dare more and repress their suffering. I do fall actor-like into the role of each character as I write (and must have a room of my own because I make a fool of myself, ranting, pacing), but once the scene is written, revisions are made less in the depths of the psyche than in the rectangle of the proscenium. As I say this, I see I may be talking about the freedom of confinement. It’s very thrilling, for example, to work in the tight net of the villanelle. In fiction absolutely any setting is possible, and possible to make realistic, so on the whole I tend to work toward psychologically credible motives in a particularized place. Whereas: the stage is a box. What wild thing can you do in this box?

I love the quote that you gave me, “It’s All About Audacity,” and it’s taped up over my desk. What does that quote mean to you?

Ah—it means: risk it! go for it! let loose! farther! deeper! darker! stranger! more dangerous! All which are the mantras I most need myself. Be clear that I am talking about the work, about audacity of the imagination—which is the opposite of arrogance—dream-chance and mind-fling, daring to think a new way; not aggression, not self-promotion. The other day (having retired, I am still on seven thesis and dissertation committees this term) a student in her orals equated “control” with “timidity.” That’s about right, for a writer. I wish us all audacity.


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