“[M]ost of the time I’m blocked and unable to write.”
—Rahul Kanakia (x)
Anyone else relieved to hear somebody say this? (Well, to hear a widely published author say this.) Kanakia is a gem.
In preparation for writing a book myself, the plan is to outline each book and figure out what makes me like it so much (and also what doesn’t). To be updated when I feel like it.
Other possible additions:
It’s funny how few of these there are. It’s not that I don’t like novels. There are a lot of novels I like that I just wouldn’t care to emulate. Actually this seems like a fair amount.
Things that didn’t quite make this list because they’re not unified enough, or not quite satisfying enough, for me to think of them as complete, single works:
“I think that the workshop is a place very often […] where the question of soul is not even in the discussion. The great thing here was that I didn’t have to worry about that, everybody that came to this class […] they weren’t worried about that word. They weren’t worried about the word ‘soul.’ Neither was Emerson. Neither was Whitman. Neither was Emily Dickinson. So […] somewhere along the way the word ‘soul’ became one of those words that people didn’t … the only place they would allow it is, you know, maybe in R&B music or something, but they didn’t much allow it otherwise. And so what was that thing people were talking about not so long ago, and where is it in us now? So what I’ve been trying to talk about is, you know, you can write from your persona, you can write from your, you know, by persona I mean your role and interface with society, you can write from your persona as a writer, which is a really solipsistic thing to say. ‘I’m a writer, so I’m writing as a writer,’ you know, […] or ‘I’m a poet, I’m writing as a poet.’ That seems like [it] can be very limiting, but if you say okay below the persona is the ego, below the ego are reactions that you’re trying to contain, and opinions, and formed ideas, and below that are real genuine feelings, and if you get to the level of actual feeling, then you’re closer to soul, so you’re writing from soul. And when you write from soul, it goes to soul. If you write from persona, it goes to persona. […] When you know that you have something to say that’s deep, then naturally the second part, the craft, comes in, because I want to say it in a way that makes other people feel it. […] So we’re starting at the other end I guess.”
—Rodger Kamenetz in an episode of the Kenyon Review Podcast
Another vote for “soul” as a starting place as opposed to craft. Inspiration, emotional truth.
“[While writing the short story ‘Sea Oak,’] I realized that if you’re writing a good story, it rebels a little bit, and it rebels mostly against your early and too-simplistic version of it. There’s that Einstein thing I always quote, ‘No worthy problem was ever solved on the plane of its original conception.’ The story just locked up until I was willing to stop dictating to it and start listening to it.”
“One will wonder quite reasonably why tigers and not leopards or jaguars? I can only respond that spots displease me and not stripes. If I were to write leopard in place of tiger the reader would immediately intuit that I was lying.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, as translated by Christopher Mulrooney (found here)
I love this but I’m not sure I understand or agree. Surely we all disguise our experiences, at least in fiction, by substituting one specific detail for another. Surely readers can’t read our minds and understand that this particular symbol or emblem is a false one. It seems to me that including true details (like the names of real people we’ve known) serves only a private purpose, a magical purpose.
On an unrelated note, Mulrooney removes Borges’ comma from that last sentence. I wonder why? Perhaps the Spanish original has a flat or abrupt or emphatic tone that’s best captured in English by eliminating the pause.
“What most interests me is surprise, discovering a capacity for something—tenderness, violence, duplicity, hope—within a character that I didn’t expect to find. For me, this is profoundly different and infinitely more compelling than a character who ‘changes.’ I’m not one of these folks who believe that stories are always about change or that there needs to be a Joycean epiphany three-quarters through a short story. In fact, such rigidness smacks a little of hogwash to me. So often the so-called changes in characters feel manufactured, crowbarred into the plot.
“When the ‘change’ feels beautiful and natural and, to invoke the workshop term, ‘earned,’ I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed.”
—Bret Anthony Johnston (x)