Hear Ye!

I probably spend about as much time reading my words aloud as I do typing them into my computer. We may think we read books only with our eyes, but the mental circuitry of language connects to our ears. The ancient Sufi poets sometimes spoke of sifting the sands of a beach with one’s eyelashes to remove the pebbles of imperfection. That’s what reading aloud lets a writer do. It takes a lot of work and you can never remove all the pebbles, but it’s still the best way of gauging writing-in-progress that I know.

Mohsin Hamid

Reminds us of Matt Bell ("[T]here was never a day when I worked on the book in silence").

And of Frost, who remarked that "the ear is the only true writer and the only true reader." 

And, while we're at it, of Flaubert, who "once complained that his throat hurt — from too much writing." 

"He Taught Me How Sentences Worked"

Q: Did any writer influence you more than others?

JOAN DIDION: I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they're perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

—from The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, No. 71

The Apprentice Years

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

—Oliver Sacks, from "The Creative Self" 

William Maxwell would agree. And so would William Zinsser.

The Essayist's Real Challenge

by ALLAN REEDER

In supporting college applicants' thinking, imagining, and writing, we at Hillside are often demonstrating why concern about what an essay is "about" must not precede close interest in and examination of the raw material — close looking at the specific details of experience. Don't rush to meaning! A fresher, truer "aboutness" almost invariably results from patient recollection (indeed, re-collection) and consideration. 

And so when To Write a Great Essay, Think and Care Deeply, from The Atlantic's By Heart series, came to our attention, we applauded. In appreciation for the lessons he finds in J.R. Ackerly's My Dog Tulip, nonfiction writer Lucas Mann describes Ackerly as "leaning closer, looking so carefully" and notes that "it’s the closeness in his gaze, his dedication to looking, that transforms the subject." Mann reflects how we tend to "prioritize a weighty topic over the force of an author’s gaze, the clarity of her prose, the sincerity of her emotion." He goes on: "[I]t’s important for me to remind myself sometimes that, at its heart, that’s all a great essay is: a virtuoso performance of care." 

Frequently we talk at Hillside about how the interesting writer is the interested writer — how just isolating and describing the specifics of experience with careful attention (attention that is full of care) is not only an essential step in realizing an authentic meaning but an engaging act in itself. As Mann writes, "[S]pending one’s time fretting about aboutness is a deflection from the essayist’s real challenge: to think and feel as deeply and specifically as possible about whatever it is you’re looking at." 

The True Writing

I think that authors are devoted, diligent scribes, who draw in black and white, following a more or less rigorous order of their own, but that the true writing, what counts, is the work of readers.

Elana Ferrante, from "What an Ugly Child She is" 

Trying to Figure Out How They Did It

We all need models, whatever art or craft we're trying to learn. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model; they didn't spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso. This is especially true of writers. Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it. S.J. Perelman told me that when he was starting out he could have been arrested for imitating Ring Lardner. Woody Allen could have been arrested for imitating S.J. Perelman....

Students often feel guilty about modeling their writing on someone else's writing. They think it's unethical — which is commendable. Or they're afraid they'll lose their own identity. The point, however, is that we eventually move beyond our models; we take what we need and then we shed those skins and become who we are supposed to become. But nobody will write well unless he gets into his ear and into his metabolism a sense of how the language works and what it can be made to do.

—William Zinsser, from Writing to Learn

A Sentence as Clean as a Bone

Q: What are your first drafts like?

JAMES BALDWIN: They are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers — take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.

Q: As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?

BALDWIN: You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

from The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 78

First, See

Don’t think about how your characters sound, but how they see. Watch the world through their eyes — study the extraordinary and the mundane through their particular perspective. Walk around the block with them, stroll the rooms they live in, figure out what objects on the cluttered dining room table they would inevitably stare at the longest, and then learn why.

—Dinaw Mengestu, from Tin House

The Ear Still Does It

Last week, while reading remarks from the Irish novelist Kevin Barry in The Atlantic's By Heart series ("How Fiction Can Survive in a Distracted World"), I heard another writer's voice break in. Barry, who had spoken by phone with Atlantic contributor Joe Fassler, was discussing the various challenges to sustained readerly attention. "We’ve changed very much as readers of texts, in recent years. We’re much more impatient now — I think, primarily, because we’re all online, all the time." But, he reflected, the human voice "can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks." This was a preface to his specific appreciation for the captivating power of "Under Milk Wood," Dylan Thomas's "play for voices." 

It was just after Barry had demonstrated the particularly inviting effects of the opening voice in the play, which asks us repeatedly to listen, that I was listening to Robert Frost's voice, talking from somewhere in my memory. 

I went looking for the source, which turned out to be a letter Frost wrote from England in 1914 to John Bartlett, his friend and former student. Soon I had Barry talking in one browser window and Frost writing in another.  And a minute later, Barry was standing on one side of an imagined stage, inside his home in County Sligo, the phone to his ear, while Frost sat writing at a desk on the other side. A bare space at center stage — and almost exactly a century — separated them, but still they conversed, in a way. 

FROST: (voicing what he writes) The ear does it.

Barry pauses. Pulls the phone from his ear for a moment, as if he's heard something in the room.

FROST: The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.

BARRY: (continuing into the phone) I always think there are two kinds of readers. There are readers who read with their eyes —

FROST: Eye readers we call them. They can get the meaning by glances.

BARRY: — who process a text in images —

FROST: But they are bad readers because they miss the best part of what a good writer puts into his work.

BARRY: — and I think there are readers who read with their ears, who listen, as the sentences unfold across the page. I’m of the latter variety. 

FROST: (nodding) You listen for the sentence sounds.

BARRY: My ear is my critical tool.... It’s what catches the false notes.

Silence

 FROST: I wouldn’t be writing all this if I didn’t think it the most important thing I know.

The Sentence and Your Discontent

Sometimes it’s just the tiniest kernel of something you enjoyed writing. Then, once you put it down on the page, and write it and rewrite it, it’s actually your own discontent with it that, in some slow mysterious way, urges it to higher ground. And often it will do so in ways that surprise you.

—George Saunders, in "George Saunders: On Story," by Redglass Pictures

 

 

"That's What Gets Me In"

Writing conducted at the sentence level has always made perfect sense to me. Allan Gurganus put it very well. He was sitting on a panel on the novel with Stanley Elkin and several others, and there was all this talk about theories of novels and he said, There are those of us who are still loyal at the level of the sentence. That’s the great attraction and motivation. That’s what gets me in, writing or reading. Though it’s unlikely you’ll write something nobody has ever heard of, the way you have a chance to compete is in the way you say it. Now I’ve been writing for almost twenty years, and I still feel the same way. That is how I assemble stories—me and a hundred million other people—at the sentence level. Not by coming up with a sweeping story line.

—Amy Hempl, in The Paris Review

Extruding What Is Incipient

Gordon Lish talks about “consecution,” about pulling the language and subject matter out of the previous sentence. Each sentence, even down to its syllabic and acoustical shape, embryonically contains the next. I don’t do it at that microscopic level, but I like to work incrementally with plot, extruding what is, I believe, incipient. Just accruing one small detail after another. The big stuff takes care of itself. What seems like audacious structural or narratorial swerves often aren’t, at the time of construction—they’re just the next step you need to take.

—Colin Barrett, "The Right Kind of Damage" (Interview), The Paris Review

A View from the Inside

Well, I’ve never liked the term “close reading.” I’d like to know who thought it up.... I think of close readers as people who want to read from the point of view of someone who composes with words. It’s a view from the inside, not from the outside. The phrase “close reading” sounds as if you’re looking at the text with a microscope from outside, but I would rather think of a close reader as someone who goes inside a room and describes the architecture. You speak from inside the poem as someone looking to see how the roof articulates with the walls and how the wall articulates with the floor. And where are the crossbeams that hold it up, and where are the windows that let light through?

—Helen Vendler, The Paris Review

Getting Things in Order

Writing, we all know, is not just about end result, the final output; it is also about the process that leads to the result. All attempts at getting the words in their right, their inevitable-feeling order must likewise count as writing. In this regard, I often think of Frank Budgen's account of meeting James Joyce on the streets of Zurich and finding the Master quite pleased with himself. Budgen asked him if the work were going well, and Joyce answered that it was indeed: he had given the day to getting the words he had chosen for a particular sentence into the right sequence. He thought he had finally found it

—Sven Birkerts, "And What Is Writing" (AGNI 70)

The Professional Reader

We all read from different places, different backgrounds, and my meeting with Proust or Woolf, or Lydia Davis or J. M. Coetzee, will not be yours, nor should it be. On the other hand I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption. Borges would often remark that he was first and foremost a professional reader, not a writer, and he meant the claim as a boast, not a confession....

—Tim Parks, How I Read

Watch Carefully

"Many writers feel that they have to put all this drama in their books in order for us to feel something. Drama is always too easy, in a way....

"[I]t’s much more interesting to deal with everyday life, with novelty, with days going by and nothing changing. It’s more difficult, but it’s more interesting—because that’s what most of our lives are. Ninety-nine percent of our days are like the day before. It’s very seldom that we kill ourselves, that we are raped, or killed—luckily. For me, the interesting thing is to deal with that head-on: How do we live when nothing is changing? How do we deal with small things?

"You can still achieve emotional impact without big, dramatic gestures. It’s done by watching very carefully."

Peter Stamm, in "Great Writing Is Humble," The Atlantic

Twitter and the Sentence

Twitter engages the part of me that makes sentences. I try to shape a sentence that works. And I know this because I sometimes put sentences out there that don't really work. With most other forms—if it's good enough, it's good enough. But I read poetry regularly. And poetry is where I see that every single line has a certain punch and precision to it. Being on Twitter has allowed me to participate in a similar kind of practice. When you're writing fiction and longform prose, you think about the best sentences, of course, and you work on them. But when you're tweeting, the sentences are isolated, they're naked, and so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work.

—Teju Cole
"The Boundary-Pushing Novelist Who’s Made Twitter His New Medium"
Wired Magazine