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Category Archives: craft

“Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent – which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightnening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next…”

– James Baldwin, Collected Essays


“A bullet could fell one enemy, a grenade a few more, but the mimeograph would kill the hearts and minds of thousands and resurrect many more of your own.”

– Ta-Nahisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle

“We sit around and bitch about how TV has ruined the audience for reading – when really all it’s done is given us the really precious gift of making our job harder. The harder it is to make a reader feel like it’s worthwhile to read your stuff, the better a chance you’ve got of making real art. Because it’s only real art that does that.

“You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the most insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us that are a lot more ambitious than that. And what we need is seriously engaged art, that can teach again that we’re smart.

“Which is tricky, because you want to seduce the reader, but you don’t want to pander or manipulate them. A good book teaches the reader how to read it.”

– David Foster Wallace, Althought Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

“I think that the ultimate way you and I get lucky is if you have some success early in life, you get to find out early it doesn’t mean anything. Which means you get to start early the work of figuring out what does mean something… What I remember is the times when woring on that book was really hard. And I just gutted it out. And I finished something. And I did it for the book… I feel like I’ve built some muscles inside me that I can now use for the rest of my life. And I know now how to live in such a way that I’m doing it for the work itself.”

– David Foster Wallace, Althought Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

“There’s really really shitty avant-garde, that’s coy and hard for its own sake. As the texture, as the cognitive texture, of our lives changes. And as the different media by which our lives are represented change… it’s the avant-garde or experimental stuff that has the chance to move the stuff along . And that’s what’s precious about it.

“The reason I’m angry at how shitty most of it is, and how much it ignores the reader, is that I think it’s very very very very precious. Because it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live. Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.

“My life and my self doesn’t feel anything like a unified developed character in a linear narrative. But my guess is, looking at things like MTV videos or new fashions in ads, with more and more flash cuts, or the use of computer metaphors… that I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete different things that come at them. Whether that’s qualitatively different than the way life was for let’s say our parents our our grandparents, I’m not sure. But I think so. At least in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.

“I’m talking about what it feels like to be alive. And how formal and structural stuff in avant-garde things can vibrate, can represent on a page, what it feels like to be alive right now… If your life makes linear sense to you, then you’re either very strange, or you might be just a neurologically healthy person – who’s automatically able to decoct, organize, do triage on the amount of stuff that’s coming at you all the time.”

– David Foster Wallace, Althought Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

“Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it.

“But that’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart. I’ve had people come up to me at book signings, in grocery stores, at every cocktail party I’ve ever attended, and tell me they have a brilliant idea for a book… I feel for these people, even as they’re assuming I’m not bright enough to realize where they’ve gotten stuck.

“If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.

“Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper. For me, it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together… I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

“And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from teh region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly assembled. Dead. That’s my book.

“…The journey from the head to hand is perilous ad lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write – and many people who do write – get lost… Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words. This is why we type a line or two and then hit the delete button or crumple up the page. Certainly that was not what I meant to say! That does not represent what I see.

“It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out. Think of the diamonds, or, for that matter the ever-practical coal that must be chipped out of the mine. Had I wound up with a teacher who suggested we keep an ear cocked for the muse instead of hoisting a pick, I don’t think I would have gotten very far.

“Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled ith sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath… I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. … it is the key to making art. Every time I have set out to translate the book that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.

“Writer’s block is a topic of great discussion. I understand being stuck. It can take a very long time to figure something out, and sometimes, no matter how much time you put in, the problem cannot be solved. To put it another way, if it were a complicated math proof you were wrestling with, would you consider yourself ‘blocked’ if you couldn’t figure it out right away, or would you think that the proof was difficult and required more consideration? The many months (and sometimes years) I put into thinking about a novel before I start to write it saves me considerable time while I’m writing.

“Even if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination. Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put it off… I have a habit of ranking everything in my life that needs doing. The thing I least want to do is number one on the list, and that is almost always writing fiction. I will zoom through a whole host of unpleasant tasks in an attempt to avoid item number one – writing fiction. (I admit this is complicated, that I can simultaneously profess to love writing and to hate it…)

“The lesson is this: the more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the more writing will get on the page. If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try picking an amount of time to sit at your desk every day. Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare. Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day. During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. Sit still quietly. Do this for a week, for two weeks. Do not nap or check your e-mail. Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing. Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing, or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting. Either way, you’ll have your answer.

“I’ve spent long periods when I’ve written every day, though it’s nothing that I’m slavish about. In keeping with the theory that there are times to write and times to think and times to just live your life, I’ve gone months without writing and never missed it. One December my husband and I were having dinner with our friends Connie Heard and Edgar Meyer. I was complaining that I’d been traveling too much, giving too many talks, and that I wasn’t getting any writing done. Edgar, who is a double bass player, was singing a similar tune. He’d been on the road constantly and he was nowhere near finishing all the compositions he had due. But then he told me a trick: he had put a sign-in sheet at the door of his studio, and when he went in to compose he wrote down the time, and when he stopped composing he wrote down that time, too. He told me he had found that the more hours he spent composing, the more compositions he finished.

“Time applied equaled work completed. It’s possible to let the thinking about process become so overly analyzed that the obvious answer gets lost… Now when people tell me they’re desperate to write a book, I tell them about Edgar’s sign-in sheet. I tell them to give this great dream that is burning them down like a house fire one lousy hour a day for one measly month, and when they’ve done that – one month, every single day – to call me back and we’ll talk. They almost never call back. Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there… Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found.”

– Ann Patchett, “The Getaway Car”

“If I’ve learned anything getting older, it’s the value of moment-to-moment enjoyment. When I was young, all my career was ‘If I do well tonight, that means that Wednesday will be better. That means I can give this tape to my agent and…’ It was this ongoing chess game. And that is a really disappointing game, because when you get to checkmate, it never feels like it should. And there’s another board that they never told you about.”

– Albert Brooks

“Harry Nilsson used to say the definition of an artist was someone who rode way ahead of the herd and was sort of the lookout. You don’t have to be that, to be an artist. You can be right smack-dab in the middle of the herd. If you are, you’ll be the richest.”

– Albert Brooks

“When you’re testing a movie, if it’s a comedy, you hear the laughs and you go, That scene works. But if it’s a sad scene and you’ve watched it two hundred times, it’s a little trickier to go, How did we do there? Did you feel something? I wish there was a noise for feeling. Then I could go, Okay, they made the weird noise.

– Judd Apatow

“Metaphors — a complex subject. What is involved in constructing them seems not so much a matter of seeking similitude or trying for explanation or description as multilevel word and image play. Metaphors set up echoes and reflections, not only of tone and color but of meaning in the story. The use of running metaphors in a piece — all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast — will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded. For me, metaphors come in sheets of three or four at once, in floods, and so metaphor use often concerns selection rather than construction. There are private layers of meaning in metaphor that may be obscure to the reader but which have —beyond the general accepted meanings of the words — resonance for the writer through personal associations of language, ideas, impressions. So the writer may be using metaphor to guide the reader and deepen the story, for subtle effects but also for sheer personal pleasure in word play.

“I was very young, about three years old, when introduced to metaphor, and I remember the first sharp pleasure I felt in playing what seemed a kind of game. I was with my mother in the kitchen of our small house. Classical music came out of the radio. I was not consciously listening until my mother, who was a skilled watercolorist, said, ‘What does this music make you think about, what do you see?’ Immediately I translated the music I heard into an image. ‘A bishop running through the woods,’ I answered. I had no idea what a bishop was but liked the word for its conjunction of hiss and hiccup. What the music made me see in my mind’s eye was a tall, glassy, salt-cellar figure — the bishop — gliding through a dark forest dappled with round spots of light. The connections of perception between the sounds of the music and the image of trees / slipping figure / broken light had been made. Thereafter, and forever more, I found myself constantly involved in metaphoric observation.”

– Annie Proulx

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it is so hard.”

– David McCullough

“The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan. And photographs help construct – and revise – our sense of a more distant past. Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about. It calls these ideas ‘memories,’ and that is, over the long run, a fiction.

“All memory is individual, unreproducible – it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with teh pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings. They commemorate, in no less blunt fashion than postage stamps, Important Historical Moments; indeed, the triumphalist ones become postage stamps.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“Does shock have term limits? As one can become habituated to horror in real life, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images.

“Yet there are cases where repeated exposure to what shocks, saddens, appalls does not use up a full-hearted response. Habituation is not automatic, for images obey different rules than real life… People want to weep. Pathos, in the form of a narrative, does not wear out.

“Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

“What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?

“The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree. The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human… The viewer may commiserate with the sufferer’s pain but these are destinies beyond deploring or contesting.

“It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked. For many centuries, in Christian art, depictions of hell offered both of the elemental satisfactions… There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.

“…the gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards. Those with the stomach to look are playing a role authorized by many glorious depictions of suffering. Torment, a canonical subject in art, is often represented in painting as a spectacle, something being watched by other people.

“…Edmund Burke observed that people like to look at images of suffering. ‘I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others,’ he wrote in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. ‘There is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity.’ William Hazlitt, in his essay on Shakespeare’s Iago and the attraction of villainy on the stage, asks, ‘Why do we always read the accounts in the newspapers of dreadful fires and shocking murders?’ Because, he answers, ‘love of mischief,’ love of cruelty, is as natural to human beings as is sympathy.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

” ‘Who is your audience?’ This is commonly the first questions educators ask about any pedagogical activity in the planning. In art, by contrast, to preestablish an audience is seen by some to restrict a work’s possible impact, which is why many artists are usually reluctant to answer that question about their work.

In the movie Field of Dreams, an Iowa frmer walking through a cornfield suddenly hears a voice saying, ‘If you build it, he will come.’ He envisions a baseball field and is strongly compelled to build it. The phrase has entered the English language in the variation of ‘build it and they will come’ as if it is an adage of ancient wisdom and not from the pen of a Hollywood screenwriter. The implied message is that building comes first, audiences second. Yet the opposite is true. We build because audiences exist. We build because we seek to reach out to others, and they will come initially because they recognize themselves in what we have bulit. After that initial interaction, spaces enter a process of self-identification, ownership, and evolution based on group interests and ideas. They are not static spaces for static viewers but ever-evolving, growing or decaying communities that build themselves, develop, and eventually dismantle…

I usually turn the question the other way around: Is it possible to not conceive of an audience for your work, to create an experience that is intended to be public without the slightest bias toward a particular kind of interlocutor, be it a rice farmer in Laos or a professor of philosophy at Columbia University? The debate may boil down to art practice itself and to the common statement by artists that they don’t have a viewer in mind while making their work – in other words, that they only produce for themselves. What is usually not questioned, however, is how one’s notion of one’s self is created. It is the construct of a vast collectivity of people who have influenced one’s thoughts and one’s values, and to speak to one’s self is more than a solipsistic exercise – it is, rather, a silent way of speaking to the portion of civilization that is summarized in our minds.”

– Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art

“People pay to see others believe in themselves… Someone who works hard at his or her job is not going to become a ‘hero,’ but may make just enough money to be able to afford to be liberated temporarily through entertainment. A performer, however, as the hero, will be paid for being sexually uncontrolled, but will still be at the mercy of the clubs and the way the media shapes identity.”

Kim Gordon, “I’m Really Scared When I Kill In My Dreams”

“If you’re truly talented, then your work becomes your way of doing good in the world; if you’re not, it’s a self-indulgence, even an embarrassment…

“I didn’t wish I’d written his book. What I envied were what his talent and success had bestowed on him, a sense of the rightness of what he was doing. I wanted what women always want: permission. But he’d had that before this book was even written. It was arguably what enabled him to write the book in the first place.

“I was raised to admire a life of service, and to this day I do admire it. When I see someone bend to the task of helping another I think she is doing the work of all, the human job. But someone else’s good deed never stabs my heart the way a good book does. I admire it, but I do not envy it. Whatever else it has done, my envy of the man has helped me see the difference between what I was raised to want, what I wish I could want, and what I do want.”

– Kathryn Chetkovich, “Envy

“You can be afflicted by some mental torment, and if you haven’t got the means or entitlement or the language to shape it, to describe it to yourself, all you can do is suffer – and often not be fully aware that you are suffering. Children in particular can suffer in this way. This is why language is such a precious tool.”

– Ian McEwan

“We run narratives about other people in our real lives, we make characters out of them, necessarily, because it helps us to guess what they might do next. Intention is very much bound up with the notion of character, the sort of person who would do this or that. It’s all part of the way in which we instinctively judge other people’s behavior and see ourselves reflected back in their own view of us. The nineteenth century formalized this for us, and the creation of character and the mapping out of other minds and the innovation to the reader to step into our condition.”

– Ian McEwan

“Novels do resemble buildings. A first chapter, a first line is like an entrance hall, a doorway. The reader has to be drawn in – what first meets the eye is important. You’re asking the reader to step inside a mental space which has a shape. That’s very much like someone stepping inside a modern building, going to look at it and deciding whether they like it or not.”

– Ian McEwan