The website of venerable literary journal The Paris Review is home to one of the greatest cultural treasure troves on the entire internet: seven decades of in-depth interviews with the best writers in the English language. As part of our Lessons for Creatives series, this week Nextness will be foraging through the archives for words of wisdom to inspire, or console, writers both habitual and wannabe. First? How to pick up your pen and get started.
I never thought of myself as a writer. I only backed into it through having to make a living. And then I discovered that I could actually do it. I thought there was some arcane fellowship that you knew at birth that you had to belong to in order to be a writer.
Writing’s too hard, it just requires so much of you, and most of the time you feel dumb. I always think you start at the stupid end of the book, and if you’re lucky you finish at the smart end. When you start out, you feel inadequate to the task. You don’t even understand the task.
Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful [...] I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. Okay, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book.
What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about. In the absence of that recognition I don’t know what one would do. It may be that nothing about this idea—or glimmer, or throb—appeals to you other than the fact that it’s your destiny, that it’s your next book.
The beginning of the fear with me was, you know, what would my father say to something that I would write. At the time, writing “Howl”—for instance like I assumed when writing it that it was something that could not be published because I wouldn’t want my daddy to see what was in there. [...] That was sort of a help for writing, because I assumed that it wouldn’t be published, therefore I could say anything that I wanted.
Writing fiction is for me a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through. […] Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.
It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff. This is especially true of the first draft. Every day you’re making up the earth you’re going to stand on. […] Every day’s a miracle: Wow, I did that, I didn’t know any of that yesterday.
I feel that if I don’t get the sentences right in the first draft, it’s going to be hard to get them right later. Not impossible, naturally, but hard. So I work slowly, as if the first draft is the last.
I always felt I had such a dazzling idea—where did I go wrong? You go wrong from the first day. Everything’s a compromise. […]With many of my films—almost all—if I’d been able to get on screen what I conceived, they would have been much better pictures. Fortunately, the public doesn’t know about how great the picture played in my head was, so I get away with it.