My post about NaNoWriMo from Friday reminded me of the duality of writerly opinions about how to create a first draft. John Gardner, who is perhaps as famous for his books on writing as his fiction, declared that you must strive to choose every word perfectly the first time around or else your story will be irretrievably led astray. Anne Lamott countered this advice in her wonderful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by encouraging writers to produce “shitty first drafts.”
The great thing about writers is that they all have different advice and methods for writing, and they’re all right. One of my great loves is the Paris Review interview series. The Paris Review, which has been published since the 1950s, contains interviews with novelists, poet, playwrights, and nonfiction writers all talking about their crafts. The writers–Tennessee Williams to Chinua Achebe, Hemingway to García Márquez–explain their habits, their successes and failures, their idols and contemporaries, their views on the history and future of literature. And, while reading them, I almost always feel a sense of kinship. Their habits sound familiar, their idols the same as mine.
One quote I particularly like from García Márquez talking about reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.” The way he describes Metamorphosis is the same way I felt when I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude–I didn’t know anyone was allowed to do that.
Here are some of my other favorites Paris Review quotes from writers talking about writing:
Literary criticism, which is bound to pursue meaning, can never really encompass the fact that some things are on the page because they give the writer pleasure. A writer whose morning is going well, whose sentences are forming well, is experiencing a calm and private joy. The joy itself then liberates a richness of thought that can prompt new surprises. Nothing else–cheerful launch party, packed readings, positive reviews–will come near it for satisfaction. –Ian McEwan
When I reach the heart of a story that I’ve been working on for some time, then, yes, something does happen. The story ceases to be cold, unrelated to me. On the contrary, it becomes so alive, so important that everything I experience exists only in relation to what I’m writing. Everything I hear, see, read seems in one way or another to help my work. I become a kind of cannibal of reality. –Mario Vargas Llosa
What is an artist? He’s a man who has antennae, who knows how to hook up to the currents which are in the atmosphere, in the cosmos; he merely has the facility for hooking on, as it were. Who is original? Everything that we are doing, everything that we think, exists already, and we are only intermediaries, that’s all, who make use of what is in the air. Why do ideas, why do great scientific discoveries often occur in different parts of the world at the same time? The same is true of the elements that go to make up a poem or a great novel or any work of art. They are already in the air, they have not been given voice, that’s all. They need the man, the interpreter, to bring them forth. –Henry Miller
Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. –William Faulkner