Saturday, January 30, 2010

On Writers II

...A continuation of my favorite takeaways from The Paris Review Interviews I (begin with Part I here).

Robert Gottlieb:
In book publishing, the editor and the author have the same goal: to make the book as good as it can be and to sell as many copies as possible. In a magazine, it’s a different matter. Of course a magazine editor wants the writing to be as good as possible, but he wants it to be as good as possible for the magazine, […A] book publishing house is much less bound up with the personality of its editor in chief. […] A magazine, on the other hand, is in a sense an emanation of its chief editor […] A magazine’s subscribers and advertisers and owner have a right to get every week or month whatever it is they’ve been led to expect they’re going to get.

Ernest Hemingway:
A writer can be compared to a well. There are as many kinds of wells as there are writers. The important thing is to have good water in the well, and it is better to take a regular amount out than to pump the well dry and wait for it to refill.

Dorothy Parker:
It’s easier to write about those you hate -- just as it’s easier to criticize a bad play or a bad book.

Richard Price:
If you’re the first generation of your family to go to college, the pressure on graduation is to go for financial security. The whole point of going to college it to get a job. You have it drilled into your head -- job, money, security. Wanting to be an artist doesn’t jibe with any of those three.

Robert Stone:
You construct characters and set them going in their own interior landscape, and what they find to talk about and what confronts them are, of course, things that concern you most. […] In all the arts, the payoff is always the same -- recognition. If it works, you say that’s real, that’s truth, that’s life, that’s the way thing are.

Kurt Vonnegut:
When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. […] Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. Modern life is so lonely, they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. […] Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader’s leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.

Rebecca West, revelatory about how the dead influence the living:
We had lots of pleasant furniture that had belonged to my father’s family, none that had belonged to my mother’s family, because they didn’t die -- the whole family all went on to their eighties, nineties -- but we had furniture, and we had masses of books, and we had a very good piano my mother played on.

Billy Wilder, with a secret every modern writer now grows up knowing*:
I have a black book here with all sorts of entries. A little bit of dialogue I’ve overheard. An idea for a character. A bit of background. Some boy-meets-girl scenarios.

* but it’s the only passage I marked before Wilder carried me away on a tell-all tour of his writer-director experiences in the old movie-studio system; the pages flew!

Friday, January 29, 2010

On Writers

I just finished The Paris Review Interviews I (there are four volumes), a collection of conversations with writers initially published between 1956 and 2006 in The Paris Review literary journal.

My stand-out favorite is with editor Robert Gottlieb, in which writers (Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, John Le Carre, Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton among others) comment on working with Gottlieb and he responds -- it’s illuminating and hilarious! But all of the interviews are terrific, and I found myself marking passages throughout. Decided to pull one takeaway from each of the renowned novelists, poets and screenwriters to post here. (I’m all about “short,” so will post half today and half tomorrow.)

Saul Bellow, about sources of inspiration:
I suppose that all of us have a primitive prompter or commentator within, who from earliest years has been advising us, telling us what the real world is. […] When E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” he was perhaps referring to his own prompter.

Elizabeth Bishop, about childhood:
You are fearfully observant then. You notice all kinds of things, but there’s no way of putting them all together.

Jorge Luis Borges:
When a writer is young he feels somehow that what he is going to say is rather silly or obvious or commonplace, and then he tries to hide it under baroque ornament […] Whenever I find an out-of-the-way word, […] a word that is different from the others, then I strike it out, and I use a common word. I remember that Stevenson wrote that in a well-written page all the words should look the same way. If you write an uncouth word or an astonishing or an archaic word, then the rule is broken; and what is far more important, the attention of the reader is distracted by the word.

James M. Cain, about formula writing:
You seem to think there’s some way you can transform this equation, and transform it, and transform it, until you arrive at the perfect plot. It’s not like that. The algebra has to be right, but it has to be your story. […] If it’s too easy you have to worry. If you’re not lying awake at night worrying about it, the reader isn’t going to, either. […] There are problems to be solved. […] Suspense comes from making sure your algebra is right.

Truman Capote:
I believe in hardening yourself against opinion. […] Never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.

Joan Didion:
I generally have a point of view, although I don’t usually recognize it. Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me.

T.S. Eliot, about unfinished work:
It’s better, if there’s something good in it that I might make use of elsewhere, to leave it at the back of my mind than on paper in a drawer. If I leave it in a drawer it remains the same thing but if it’s in the memory it becomes transformed into something else.

Jack Gilbert, about writers’ complaints that writing is difficult:
They should try working in the steel mills in Pittsburgh. That’s a very delicate kind of approach to the world -- to be so frail that you can’t stand having to write poetry.

Tomorrow: Part II

Friday, January 22, 2010

Keyboard Inspiration

I like the FAO Schwarz keyboard-dance scene in Big and I like the old music of Johnny Mercer (link: audio alert).

Combine the two and I love this*:

*from the 1937 film Ready, Willing and Able, discovered via a recent segment of CBS Sunday Morning

Thursday, January 21, 2010

2010 on the Blog

Something I’ve noticed, and analyzed, and found interesting, is my volume of posting here on the blog:

2007: 156 posts
2008: 85
2009: 46
That it’s decreasing is a concern, but how it’s decreasing is interesting: in a stick-straight line. Year 2 (2008) had 54% as many posts as Year 1 … and Year 3 (2009) had 54% as many posts as Year 2. And with two posts so far in this year’s trended volume of 25, I’m exactly on track.  :(

The laws of mathematics assure me I can maintain this trend into infinity and never reach zero. But the laws of blogging require posts to come as whole numbers and, on this path, I’ll eventually dip below “1.”

That’s just sad! And so my goal this year is to nurture the part of me that comes to this place of creativity and play -- and in the process turn that trend around.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

2010 Reading Preview

My recent reading tells me I most enjoy mainstream and literary fiction, and memoir and science-related nonfiction. I’m especially drawn to coming-of-age stories; debut novels; stories set in workplaces; and following my curiosity, especially into books with humor, original premises/styles, or twists of perspective (moments of awareness). Having focused on science rather than arts from high school on, I’m beginning to fill in some of the history and literature I’ve missed.

This year: more, please! In content, that is; not volume :) Plus, some specific areas of interest: the origins of civilization; the Middle Ages; the Holocaust; historical disease epidemics; physics and higher mathematics; classic literature; and creativity.

I already own many terrific books along these lines and have gathered the juiciest here to keep them in mind. See a fluid chart of my year’s finished books here, and follow my reading comments here.

And because I’m thrilled by sparkly new books (new releases or merely new-to-me), I welcome your recommendations!