How do they do that thing they do? While reading a novel or stories, fiction writers are often overwhelmed by a turn of phrase, a transition from the present action to a full and engaging flashback, or the sheer amount of ideas a writer is able to generate on the page. We look at our favorite books, underline gorgeous passages, and imagine ourselves writing our own novel or stories that capture our deepest selves for the reader to connect with, as these authors have done with such apparent ease. But a recent conversation I had with a panel of authors demonstrated that nothing ends up on the page with ease. Writing is a practice that requires a willingness to show up with your work each day. All writers struggle with the same issues, and with each book the issues continue.
Reading interviews with authors has always been a way that new writers seek validation and information, as well as a way to gain insight into the creative works and the lives of the writers they love. The Paris Review’s Writers at Work series has long been a go-to source for interviews with the leading writers of the times — everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eudora Welty to Marilynne Robinson and Jonathan Franzen. Literary journals and writing magazines include author interviews, and The Millions features interviews as well.
So, what is the one essential fact we’re all looking for in combing through pages of interviews? How do you do it? How can I do it, too? What is the best piece of writing advice that you can give me?
I recently spoke with a range of authors who shared the best piece of writing advice they ever received. Some answers were brief and memorizable, some were longer and drew me into the author’s world and creative process. Whatever the answer, I was inspired to get to work on my new novel.
Here’s what they had to say:
Richard Bausch, author of Before, During, After; Peace
Mary Lee Settle to me in 1981, when I had just published my second novel and was having trouble getting started again: “Aw, Sweetness, you’ve just got to get stupid again, watch a lot of dumb movies and read a bunch of bad mystery novels, give the urn time to fill up again, it’ll pour when it’s ready.”
Nick Flynn, author of The Reenactments: A Memoir; The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands
Carolyn Forche told me that writing was a daily practice, a way of life. Marie Howe taught me to put everything I knew into each poem, to not hold anything back. These were my first teachers.
Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This; Corpus Christi
I’ve received loads of good advice over the years, but some of the best comes from Allan Gurganus. He says that when a writer must choose between thinking and trusting, you should always choose trust. Trust the sentence, the characters, the story.
Lily King, author of Euphoria; Father of the Rain
Honestly, the best piece of advice I’ve gotten did not come from a professor or a mentor or any writer or teacher at all. In fact, it might not have come from any one individual but from a team in a conference room. It’s the Nike ad: Just Do It.
You can think and fuss and pace and writhe and freak out and rationalize the hell out of it all — there are a thousands of ways to convince yourself that right now is not a good time (hour, morning, month, season) to write — but the truth about writing, the only truth, is that you have to put words on the page. (Yes, you have to replenish sometimes, too, but that comes after you have written something, not before.) Nike’s advice is not new. There’s Michelangelo who wrote on his apprentice’s sketches: “Draw, Antonio, draw Antonio/ draw and do not waste time.” (He wrote it in Italian, of course, and so fast that last line reads “disegnia e no prder tepo” instead of “non perdere tempo.”) And there’s Kingsley Amis who said it eloquently: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair,” and Nora Roberts (who has written 189 bestsellers, by the way) who said it with more compression: “Ass in the chair.”
Write, and if you don’t like it — and I’m not talking about enjoying it or feeling satisfied at the end of the day or feeling like it’s meaningful, and I am certainly not talking about happiness or joy — if it doesn’t connect you to yourself in some basic way that you know you need to feel whole, forget it. But if you do and it does, then just keep doing it. Because it’s your own consciousness we’re talking about here, your own voice you are trying to get down on the page, and only you can teach yourself what that really sounds like and how to lure it out. I have to give myself some variation of this speech pretty much every day. No excuses. Just Fucking Do It.
Jill McCorkle, author of Life After Life; Carolina Moon
When I was in graduate school, the writer George Garrett visited our workshop and delivered the best advice I have ever received about writing. He said whoever invades your space while you are working: parent/spouse/friend/lover/teacher/preacher/some pristine version of yourself and so on — and breathes down your neck with criticism — I never said that! what terrible language! who wants to read this crap? — whoever is there haunting your space and asking for censorship, get rid of them. Clear the air of all judgment and criticism and focus on the work. I have treasured this bit of advice and for my own personal satisfaction have added to it the notion that at the end of a day of work, I can choose to burn everything done if I want. It provides the ultimate freedom of thought and expression.
Elizabeth McCracken, author of Thunderstruck; The Giant’s House
One piece of advice? Well: probably the one I think of most often is Allan Gurganus’s insistence that we read our work aloud. I had never done it before. I let it go for a while, but recently I’ve renewed my devotion to editing aloud: it makes you self-conscious, but then it makes you ruthless.
From Frank Conroy, to his entire class, on writing a novel: “Don’t think of it as a novel. It’s a book. A book can be constructed in any way that works.”
From John Irving, in an interview, when asked “was it easier to write his 5th novel?” “No, it’s never easier. The new book doesn’t know the first four were ever written.” Yes.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves
The most practically useful tip on writing I ever heard was when I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins and Alice McDermott told us she wrote by hand, on legal pads. I had gotten into the habit of typing my first drafts. It seemed more productive to cut out the middleman. Alice wasn’t giving us advice so much as letting us into an aspect of her craft, but I heard the advice in it and returned to handwriting. It was the best decision I ever made as a writer.
Our earliest training in creating words is by hand. Children may not always learn cursive anymore in school, but almost everyone’s first attempts at writing come with a pen or pencil (or crayon or marker) on paper. There is something to be said for engaging a neural pathway that is that longstanding in our consciousness and that fundamental to our sense of self. And recent research underscores the benefits of handwriting, suggesting that our brains are activated differently when we handwrite than when we type, that the effort involved in handwriting engages the brain’s motor pathways and aids memory and learning ability.
But certain more pedestrian practical considerations come into play that make handwriting an attractive option for a first draft. It’s difficult to stop and edit as you write by hand, for one. When you’re typing, the words are dynamic, not static; they are never fixed in place until you print them (and even then, the blinking cursor rules). You attempt to perfect every sentence the first time through and end up making little progress. The sentence is barely written before the interpolating editorial consciousness (which will have its say in the second draft, in the 100th draft, but perhaps ought to be kept at bay here, in the first draft, the only place where the unconscious mind is given freedom to play before it cedes its place to the conscious mind’s ordering, categorizing, synthesizing, normalizing impulse) begins to fuss with it. The scaffolding for the larger organization of the scene or paragraph, which has come together as if by magic for a moment and is holding together tenuously in the mind as you take care of the individual sentence, begins to creak under the weight of your dual attention. Handwriting generates tremendous forward momentum, because it’s comparatively more difficult to rearrange words in a sentence when you’re handwriting; there’s no neat cut-and-paste mode, no way to artificially corrupt the integrity of the cognitive unit of the sentence.
There’s also no potential for distraction when it’s just you and a notebook. There’s no internet to go to, no email to check. If you leave your computer off, or at home, it’s just you and the page. Plus, when you handwrite, you can do it anywhere in the world. You don’t need a plug-in. It gives you power over your circumstances. And seeing the notebooks stacking up allowed me to feel I was actually writing a book. Whereas there’s something spectral about a thousand files in a computer.
The one drawback is anxiety over losing your work. I photocopy the notebooks when I’m done with them, store them in the closet and type the text from the photocopied pages. I’m anxious carrying around whatever notebook I’m writing in until I get those pages photocopied. It’s the only draft I have. That’s the beauty of it.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Ah, 1999… We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we’ve gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers.
It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.
To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.
We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.
This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle. We hope you’ll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed.
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News.
Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone.
Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books
Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions.
Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors.
Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus.
Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation.
Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions.
John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio.
Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists.
Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas.
Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet.
Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1.
Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction.
Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books.
Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions.
Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants
Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books.
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance.
C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions.
Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books.
Laura Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book and is the book critic at Salon.
Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX.
Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer.
Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions.
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review.
Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1.
Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions.
Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World.
Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books.
Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook.
Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books.
David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books.
Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books.
John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass
Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions.
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine
Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like “kissing your sister,” voted to break them.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, both from Random House. Currently, he is the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University and can be reached on the web at www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.I know this is heresy, but I’m going to recommend a book that was published this year. (If it helps, the story itself is centuries old.) Of all the books I’ve read this year, regardless of publication date, genre, or form, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is the best. What’s more, I haven’t even finished it yet.But it’s so, so good. Kind of like a thinking man’s, adults-only, Islamic Harry Potter. (The original Urdu text, born out of oral narratives that had been circulated for hundreds of years, appeared in the late 19th century, but English translations have always been censored.) Amir Hamza was the prophet Muhammad’s uncle and he got into all kinds of cool trouble. Hamza’s soulmate is the daughter of the Persian emperor, but there’s a chasm of conflict keeping them apart – Frodo had it easy – and so the book follows, in utterly readable and downright addictive prose, Hamza’s struggle to return to her. Did I mention that he rides a winged demon-steed? That his posse consists of a wickedly cool wizard (thinking man’s Gandolf) and a funny trickster partner (thinking man’s Sancho Panza)? That he has to fight an honest-to-God demon? That his sons turn against him? That, in service of getting back to his one true love, he seduces a good many women? It’s a terrifically good and captivating story, bawdy and violent and occasionally poignant and often funny, and it reads just as well as a long odyssey as it does individual short stories. Speaking of, I need to get back to the book: We’re just about to rout Muhlil Sagsar and Malik Ajrook!More from A Year in Reading 2007
This time of year there is a media stampede for lists. They are seemingly suddenly everywhere, sprouting like an odd breed of December weed. In a competition to write the first draft of our cultural history, all of our “bests” are assigned, duly praised once more, and then archived as the slate is cleared for another year. That fresh feeling you get on January 1, that is the false notion that you no longer have to think about all those things that happened a year ago, that you can start building your new lists for the new year.But books, unlike most forms of media, are consumed in a different way. The tyranny of the new does not hold as much sway with these oldest of old media. New books are not forced upon us quite so strenuously as are new music and new movies. The reading choices available to us are almost too broad to fathom. And so we pick here and there from the shelves, reading a book from centuries ago and then one that came out ten years ago. The “10 Best Books of 2007” seems so small next to that.But with so many millions of books to choose from, where can we go to find what to read?If somebody hasn’t already coined this phrase, I’ll go ahead and take credit for it: A lucky reader is one surrounded by many other readers. And what better way to end a long year than to sit (virtually) with a few dozen trusted fellow readers to hear about the very best book (or books) they read all year, regardless of publication date.And so we at The Millions are very pleased to bring you our 2007 Year in Reading, in which we offer just that. For the month of December, enjoy hearing about what a number of notable readers read (and loved) this year. We hope you’ve all had a great Year in Reading and that 2008 will offer more of the same.The 2007 Year in Reading contributors are listed below. As we post their contributions, their names will turn into links, so you can bookmark this page to follow the series from here, or you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day. Stay tuned because additional names may be added to the list below.Languagehat of LanguagehatSarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic MindJoshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the EndBen Ehrenreich, author of The SuitorsLydia Millet, author of Oh Pure and Radiant HeartArthur Phillips, author of Prague and The EgyptologistPorochista Khakpour author of Sons and Other Flammable ObjectsHamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The WalkmenMatthew Sharpe, author of JamestownAmanda Eyre Ward, author of Forgive Me and How to be LostLauren Groff, author of The Monsters of TempletonJoshua Henkin, author of MatrimonyBuzz Poole, managing editor at Mark Batty PublisherBen Dolnick, author of ZoologyElizabeth Crane, author of When the Messenger Is Hot and All This Heavenly GloryMeghan O’Rourke, author of Halflife, literary editor SlateAndrew Saikali of The MillionsEdan Lepucki of The MillionsDavid Gutowski of largehearted boyMark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, author of Harry, RevisedCarolyn Kellogg of Pinky’s PaperhausPeter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh GirlZachary Lazar, author of SwayMatt Ruff, author of Bad MonkeysAlex Rose, author of The Musical IllusionistJames Hynes, author of The Lecturer’s Tale and Kings of Infinite SpaceMartha Southgate, author of Third Girl From The LeftJunot Díaz, author of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoRudolph Delson, author of Maynard and JennicaRosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning NewsBonny Wolf author of Talking With My Mouth Full and NPR correspondentBret Anthony Johnston, author of Corpus ChristiJoshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama and Between, GeorgiaElif Batuman, n+1 and New Yorker contributorRichard Lange, author of Dead BoysSara Ivry, editor at NextbookScott Esposito of Conversational ReadingEd Champion of Return of the ReluctantDavid Leavitt, author of The Indian ClerkRoy Kesey, author of All OverLiz Moore, author of The Words of Every SongYannick Murphy, author of Signed, Mata Hari and Here They ComeSam Sacks, editor at Open LettersTed Heller, author of Slab RatBookdwarf of BookdwarfJess Row, author of The Train to Lo WuMarshall N. Klimasewiski, author of The Cottagers and TyrantsBrian Morton author of Breakable YouEli Gottlieb, author of Now You See HimDan Kois, editor of Vulture, New York magazine’s arts and culture blog.Robert Englund, actorGarth Risk Hallberg, A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions