Lark and Termite (Vintage Contemporaries)

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Get to Work: On the Best Advice Writers Ever Received

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.

Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Quiet Dell; Lark and Termite
Three great pieces of advice — From Tim O’Brien, as I had a book coming out, “Relax. Pretend it isn’t happening.”

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

A Year in Reading: 2014

This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year’s best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a “best of” list would not have been true to the reading I did that year.

Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year’s best memories. It always feels like we’ve hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year.

And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers.

For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.

We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See.
Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin.
Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water.
Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink.
Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship.
Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000.
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander.
John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
Eula Biss, author of On Immunity.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth.
Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Ben Lerner, author of 10:04.
Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres.
Phil Klay, author of Redeployment.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven.
Tana French, author of Broken Harbor.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase.
Philipp Meyer, author of The Son.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite.
Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On.
Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning.
David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories.
Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls.
Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names.
Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman.
Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman.
Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House.
Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men.
Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion.
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise.
Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer.
Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times.
Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers.
Ron Rash, author of Serena.
Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair.
Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle.
Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans.
Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles.
Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth.
Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning.
William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters.
Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex.
Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments.
A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced

The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award are now out. The fiction list includes four books by women, three of which have already gotten some award love from the National Book Award and the Booker Prize. The other two books have received strong notices from reviewers and buzz from bloggers. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.

Fiction

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (excerpt, NBA shortlisted)
Marlon James, The Book of Night Women (excerpt)
Michelle Huneven, Blame (excerpt, Huneven’s writing at The Millions)
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (excerpt, Booker winner)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (excerpt, NBA shortlisted)


Nonfiction

Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (excerpt, NBA shortlisted)
Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (excerpt)
Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains (excerpt)
William T. Vollmann, Imperial (excerpt, a Millions Most Anticipated book)


For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, check out the NBCC’s blog.

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