Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Best Writing on Writing - Edited by Jack Heffron

A wonderful, wonderful book edited by Jack Heffron. His introduction says it all. "Imagine a meeting of today's top writers. They are trading tips and opinions about their craft, talking about ideas and controversial trends...and you're right with them, hearing every word." That's exactly what this book is about. Twenty seven writers covering topics like fiction, nonfiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting. I stuck to the ones that offered practical instruction. These are a few nuggets I got from the book.


"When I'm really doing it right, I know not only what's in my character's wallets, but I could tell you what the great grandmother's wallet was like and generationally, classwise, historically, where the matrix that made this particular person possibly come from. Stanislavsky's admonition to actors to always know everything about your character so that even when you just scratch your back on stage you're scratching your back in a context."

"You have to be pure in the service of your characters. And its precisely that seeming selflessness, that giving up of your own ego and your own willfulness, and your own self congratulatory "Look at me, aren't I brilliant?' that purifies and lets you become clear and at one with the character that you're seeing to save."

"I think the first impulse in writing is to flood it out, let as much run freely as you possibly can. Then to take a walk or go to the bank or go to the store and come back in a day or six months later. To read it with a cold eye and say 'This is good, this is not. That sentence works. This is magical. This is crummy." You have to maintain your critical sensibility and not just assume, because it was an extraordinary dream for you, that it will be a dream for other people."

"We all have our crazy rituals. I pace. I say lines out loud a lot. Making that abstraction real, to me, as a very physical person, means to enact it physiologically. One way I do that is to read everything I write out loud many many many times. ..so that there's a kind of ear music that operates as an editorial principal on the page even when a reader is not moving his or her lips."

"Finding a shape for the story was enormously satisfying. I wrote 22 pages and then boiled it down to three and a half pages. Partly because of the requirements of the composer but also it was such a joy to have been given this kernel of something and then to develop it and find its larger meaning. Its one of the stories that speaks to me of the subject of dreams with a special resonance."

"Character is the center of fiction for me. To have that event chronicled in the third person in an abstract way means nothing. It only means something insofar as it relates to life and experience and readiness of  single person who's open enough to the fact of an angel in her backyard to take her cup and go out and feed the angel a little milk and ask him questions about heaven."

"Questions to ask when writing
What surprises us?
Where's the tension?
What should be and what is?
Where's the conflict?
Where will these ideas, issues, people collide?
What's the problem?
What's different from what I expected?
What are the implications - for me and my readers?
What are the connections?
What contradicts?"

"Good writing takes place in intersections at what you might call knots, at places where the society is snarled or knotted up." - Margaret Atwood

"I start my work by asking a question and then try ...to answer it." - Mary Lee Settle

Questions to ask yourself before starting
Do I want to go beyond telling what happened and recreate the feeling?
Am I interested in inner life as in outward action?
Am i curious to find out what a character is going to say or think next as in the next turn of plot?
Do I take pleasure in what Kafka called the mind revelling in its own keenness?
Do I pay attention to language itself and judge stories - including my own not just on how they read on the page but out loud?
Do I often discover what I am writing about only in the process of writing?
Do I tend to order events by their emotional or psychological links rather than their chronology?
Do I think we can best approach Truth through intuition, through hints and suggestions, that truth flees at any direct approach?

If you answered yes to many of these question, you probably find traditional structure confining. You're not alone.!  


And so much more, in small phrases, lines. Like the one where the poet's daughter goes to his house after his death and somehow gets up at 4 in the morning which is when he would get up. She thinks, he must have done this for the past 10000 days, get up at 4, make coffee, go to the table and write poetry. I cannot get that image out of my mind and cannot think of what that kind of discipline to could to anyone. I am certainly inspired. 4 am is the time.

Wonderful book. If I can, i will try and add some more lines.  Thank you Jyothi saab. And Sunil for thinking of me. Have finally begun reading your invaluable collection of books on writing.

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