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Posts Tagged ‘Writing advice’

Destroy Writer’s Block with the Nuclear Option, and Other News

March 15, 2016 | by

Don’t let this happen to you.

  • Anita Brookner, the author of Hotel du Lac, has died at eighty-seven. Brookner, who was born in London, gave an Art of Fiction interview in our Fall 1987 issue. “The truth I’m trying to convey is not a startling one, it is simply a peeling away of affectation,” she said then. “I use whatever gift I have to get behind the facade. But I hope I am not an aggressive writer, and that I see through people with compassion and humor … It was the need for order in my own life that made me start. And once the floodgates are open, you must go all the way.” “Her novels are beautifully written—her sentence structure is pure pleasure,” her publisher Juliet Annan told the BBC this week. “But I think what people miss is that her novels are some of the most shocking of the twentieth century, for underneath the veneer of novels plots about women failing to marry, failing to see the venal in those around them, failing to make successful lives. She wrote about the biggest fears we have: loneliness and death.”
  • Today in productivity by any means necessary: The Most Dangerous Writing App (that’s its real name) will rid you of writer’s block with one simple measure—it forces you to keep going. Stop typing for more than five seconds and it will delete all your work. This promotional piece was written using it: “The interface is a clean, no-nonsense text editor. You’ll find nothing in the way of formatting tools; if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, the app is purpose-built for writing and writing only. It allows for plenty of backspacing and typo-correcting, both of which can be useful for procrastinating in micro-doses, but I mostly felt compelled to write. Somewhere towards the tail end of my five minutes (you can choose to write nonstop for five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty-five, or sixty minutes, if you’re a masochist) the pressure starts to set in, and I’m really rambling.”
  • Or you could just follow the advice of the psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios, who advocate a strict regime of vivid imagery—basically, winging it. In the seventies and eighties, they staged an intervention for blocked writers: “exercises in directed mental imagery. While some of the blocked writers met in groups to discuss their difficulties, Barrios and Singer asked others to participate in a systematic protocol designed to walk them through the production of colorful mental images. These writers would sit in a dim, quiet room and contemplate a series of ten prompts asking them to produce and then describe dreamlike creations. They might, for example, ‘visualize’ a piece of music, or a specific setting in nature … Writers who’d participated in the intervention improved their ability to get writing done and found themselves more motivated and self-confident.”
  • Once you get over your writer’s block, you’ll have to deal with the old show-don’t-tell mantra, which remains the most divisive product of M.F.A. culture. As Benjamin Markowits writes, it’s both good and bad advice: “Not many writers are good at telling—their explanations are not always that interesting. George Eliot does good explanation. Philip Roth does good explanation. But good explanation is hard to teach: it involves having a sophisticated worldview and finding the moments when that worldview has something specific to say, about psychology, or economics, or the weather. It’s easier to say to a student: let’s cut all that out, stick to the facts, tweak the sequence of events to make it more plausible, prune the dialogue and leave out all the inner thought stuff, which gives the game away, delay the moment of drama, tone it down a little, too, and let’s keep a lid on the hero’s motivations, so we don’t know whether to trust her or not. And at the end of a series of ruthless edits and workshops you have a tight, vivid, suggestive, fine piece of work. You Gordon Lish it.”
  • During the Civil War, Walt Whitman volunteered at hospitals, writing letters home from soldiers who were illiterate or too ill to do so themselves. One of those letters has just been found: “I am mustered out of service, but am not at present well enough to come home. I hope you will try to write back as soon as you receive this + let me know how you all are, how things are going on – let me know how it is with mother. I write this by means of a friend who is now sitting by my side + I hope it will be God’s will that we shall yet meet again. Well I send you all my love + must now close.” (The soldier, Nelson Jabo, died before he made it back home.)

“A Garish Nightmare of American Annihilation,” and Other News

July 22, 2015 | by


Geoffrey Biggs’s Hiroshima cover (detail), 1948.

  • Ice cream: delicious summertime treat or agent of moral turpitude? In fin de siècle Scotland, ice cream parlors “with mirrored walls and leather seats” became “the scourge of the prudish bourgeoisie, who saw them as papist dens of vice”: “Among the more egregious crimes committed by the shops’ proprietors was that of allowing young people of both sexes to intermingle and smoke. One inspector had said that he had seen girls of ‘tender years’ smoking cigarettes in the shop. They were also seen dancing to ‘music supplied by a mouth organ’ … It was concluded that ice cream shops embodied ‘perfect iniquities of hell itself and ten times worse than any of the evils of the public house. They were sapping the morals of the youth of Scotland.’ ”
  • Frances Kroll Ring, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s longtime secretary, died last month. She had many critical tasks in his life, one of which was to rid him of his anti-Semitism: “It’s entirely possible that Frances Kroll was the first Jewish person he ever spent any time with … ‘Jews lose clarity,’ he jotted in his Notebooks. ‘They get to look like old melted candles, as if their bodies were preparing to waddle’ … As Kroll tells it, Fitzgerald displayed a great deal of curiosity about Jewishness, pestering her about Jewish characteristics and customs. He was fascinated by ‘the Passover feast’ and the practice of keeping kosher.”
  • Jack London spent his youth shoveling coal in a cannery, so he really, really, really wanted to become a successful writer and leave that hell behind. He had a good year in 1903: The Call of the Wild was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, bringing the success that allowed him to write full-time. He conveyed his newfound wisdom to aspirant writers in a piece called “Getting Into Print.” Some of it’s still true in this century: “Don’t quit your job to write unless there is none dependent on you.” Other parts are not: “Fiction pays best of all, and when it is of a fair quality is more easily sold.”
  • When John Hersey’s Hiroshima appeared in paperback, it sported a new, terrifically misguided cover, becoming what Paula Rabinowitz called “a garish nightmare of American annihilation”: “In this image, two people, not Japanese, are fleeing an explosion just beyond the frame. They are young, white, and stylish: she epitomizes New Look fashion in her loafers and gathered skirt, he sports pleated cuffs and a fitted trench coat … The cover artist, Geoffrey Biggs, wasn’t trying to be deceptive. As he says, in a note that sits just before the copyright page, he was trying to be universal: ‘I just drew two perfectly ordinary people—like you or me—and had them portray alarm, anxiety, and yet wild hope for survival as they run from man-made disaster in a big city—a city like yours or mine.’ ”
  • In which the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec dissects names, first and foremost his own: “Some years ago I had the idea of asking several writer friends if they wouldn’t care to reflect on their own surname … This task—to speak about one’s surname and to portray oneself through it—contains, I think, a touch of transcendence that brings us closer to death. We insert a mark—which is our emblem, i.e. the commentary—into an undefined series of fairly indistinct moments which is characterized precisely by the absence of marks … That common coin which is our surname, received at times like a baton, needs us so as to take on substance and, as it were, identity.”

Writing Advice from D. H. Lawrence at Twenty-One

September 11, 2014 | by


On September 11, 1906, D. H. Lawrence turned twenty-one. Around that time he wrote this letter to Louie Burrows, a friend with whom he attended University College in Nottingham. The letter dissects one of Louie’s essays about art; it finds Lawrence full of youthful arrogance (“Like most girl writers you are wordy”) and optimism (“the world abounds with new similes and metaphors”). Lawrence and Burrows corresponded steadily for years; in 1910, they were engaged, though Lawrence broke off the engagement in 1912. (The “J” he refers to here is Jessie Chambers, another of his love interests.)

Dear Louie,

I am going to quizz [sic] your essay, not in the approven [sic] school-mistress style, but according to my own whimsical idea, which you may or may not accept. First of all I will find fault.

I do not like the introductory paragraph, it is like an extract from a Catalogue of Pictures for sale at some auctioneers … Like most girl writers you are wordy. I have read nearly all your letters to J, so I do not judge only from this composition. Again and again you put in interesting adjectives and little phrases which make the whole piece loose, and sap its vigour. Do be careful of your adjectives—do try and be terse, there is so much more force in a rapid style that will not be hampered by superfluous details. Just look at your piece and see how many three lined sentences could be comfortably expressed in one line. Read More »


“By Jove, the Monocle Has Returned,” and Other News

March 10, 2014 | by


Illustration: Jean-Baptiste Adolphe LaFosse, c. 1854.

  • Writing advice for children: “If you can get inside the creepy, disgusting mind of a monster you will really scare your reader.”
  • For more than a century, the Times has seldom passed up an opportunity to discuss the monocle: “Monocles used to be gimmicky … but now people realize they are useful with menus and theater programs.”
  • Thirty cult films you must see, including Sharktopus: “the tale of a genetically engineered half shark, half octopus who wreaks havoc at the beach.”
  • At last, a quantum leap in airship technology—the new Airlander can stay aloft for three weeks, and is, despite its bulbous bloat, pretty handsome to behold.
  • Silence is now a luxury product. “The fiercely defended philosophy of the quiet car is spreading.”