10 Tips from the Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction”
When I was in my early twenties, I had the privilege of watching one of the greatest writers of our time, Ron Rash, do what he did best: work. Ron was always methodical, everything set just so. A glass of tea here, maybe a photograph there, and when the altar was just how he needed it, he’d write.
He was and is one of the hardest-working writers I’ve ever known. Four books of poetry, six story collections, seven novels, and a children’s book. It would be easy to hate how prolific he’s been, but the truth is, he just works harder than most people are willing.
I was probably at my most impressionable state as a writer during those years and while I wish I could say watching him pushed me forward, the reality is that it made me feel inadequate. So many great writers, like Ron, write every day. They offer that as advice, “Write every day,” and I can’t, so I was left to feel like maybe I just didn’t have what it took. But then there would come times when my mind would whirl with story, and I’d be obsessed with the sound of words and I’d write in a maniacal sprint. I might write for 48 hours straight, I might write 30,000 words in a week, and sometimes it might carry on for months, and then one day, just like that, it’d be gone, and I’d be left with that same old feeling: “You just don’t have it, boy.”
Then one day I was looking through old interviews in the Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” series, and I stumbled onto an interview with Raymond Carver in which he discussed his own process. He said that when he wasn’t writing it felt “as if I’ve never written a word.” Then the time would come when the words would surround him and he’d write and write, “one day dovetailing into the next.” When I read that I thought, “That’s me.” That’s exactly how I am. And that’s all it took for me to suddenly realize that I didn’t need to have the same process as a writer like Ron.
I think all writers need that justification early on and one of the places we find it is through other writers, writers we love and respect. Now there are plenty of places to look for that advice, but one I absolutely love is the “Art of Fiction” series. Dating back to the 1950s, they’ve interviewed every major writer from T.S. Eliot to James Ellroy. Even better, it’s archived online and absolutely free. The most interesting part for me is that when you read the interviews collectively, you realize that none of these writers is doing things in the exact same way, and that’s an empowering realization because it means there’s not a right way and a wrong way. We write however it comes.
Here are ten tips from interviews in the Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” series that have helped me in one way or another. I hope they’re useful to you as well:
John Cheever (1976): “Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.”
Raymond Carver (1983): “When I’m writing, I write every day. It’s lovely when that’s happening. One day dovetailing into the next. Sometimes I don’t even know what day of the week it is. The ‘paddle-wheel of days,’ John Ashbery has called it. When I’m not writing, like now, when I’m tied up with teaching duties as I have been the last while, it’s as if I’ve never written a word or had any desire to write. I fall into bad habits. I stay up too late and sleep in too long. But it’s okay. I’ve learned to be patient and to bide my time. I had to learn that a long time ago. Patience.”
Chinua Achebe (1994): “What you must accept is that your life is not going to be the same while you are writing. I have said in the kind of exaggerated manner of writers and prophets that writing, for me, is like receiving a term of imprisonment—you know that’s what you’re in for, for whatever time it takes.”
Andrea Barrett (2003): “I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. Have you? We all feel unhoused in some sense. That’s part of why we write. We feel we don’t fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we’re not of it. Different experiences in our lives may enforce or ameliorate that, but I think if they ameliorate it totally, we stop writing. You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world. We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us.”
Gabriel García Márquez (1981): “I don’t think you can write a book that’s worth anything without extraordinary discipline.”
Philip Roth (1984): “[I spend] Months of looking at the manuscript and saying, ‘This is wrong—but what’s wrong?’ I ask myself, ‘If this book were a dream, it would be a dream of what?’ But when I’m asking this I’m also trying to believe in what I’ve written, to forget that it’s writing and to say, ‘This has taken place,’ even if it hasn’t. The idea is to perceive your invention as a reality that can be understood as a dream. The idea is to turn flesh and blood into literary characters and literary characters into flesh and blood.”
William Faulkner (1956): “In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.”
James Salter (1993): “I hate the first inexact, inadequate expression of things. The whole joy of writing comes from the opportunity to go over it and make it good, one way or another.”
Louise Erdrich (2010): “When I can’t end a story, I usually find that I’ve actually written past the ending. The trick of course is to go back and decide where the last line hits.”
James Dickey (1976): “There’s never any final certainty about what you do. Your opinion of your own work fluctuates wildly…The most important thing is to be excited about what you are doing and to be working on something that you think will be the greatest thing that ever was.”