Tag Archives: Writing

Maya Angelou: An Interview. The Paris Review, 1990

A fascinating interview conducted on the stage of the YMHA on Manhattan’s upper East Side, with George Plimpton.

Maya Angelou

“This interview was conducted on the stage of the YMHA on Manhattan’s upper East Side. A large audience, predominantly women, was on hand, filling indeed every seat, with standees in the back . . . a testament to Maya Angelou’s drawing power. Close to the stage was a small contingent of black women dressed in the white robes of the Black Muslim order. Her presence dominated the proceedings. Many of her remarks drew fervid applause, especially those which reflected her views on racial problems, the need to persevere, and “courage.” She is an extraordinary performer and has a powerful stage presence. Many of the answers seemed as much directed to the audience as to the interviewer so that when Maya Angelou concluded the evening by reading aloud from her work—again to a rapt audience—it seemed a logical extension of a planned entertainment.

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?

MAYA ANGELOU

The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is. Though I do manage to mumble around in about seven or eight languages, English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read it to get inspired to pick up your own pen?

ANGELOU

For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.

INTERVIEWER

Do you transfer that melody to your own prose? Do you think your prose has that particular ring that one associates with the King James version?

ANGELOU

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English. I want to hear it, so I read it aloud. It is not so that I can then imitate it. It is to remind me what a glorious language it is. Then, I try to be particular and even original. It’s a little like reading Gerard Manley Hopkins or Paul Laurence Dunbar or James Weldon Johnson.

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Eudora Welty Writes to The New Yorker

Via the brilliant Letters of Note.

“In March of 1933, in an attempt to secure some work, 23-year-old Eudora Welty wrote the following charming letter to the offices of The New Yorker. Incredibly, they turned her down.

Eudora went on to write numerous pieces for The New Yorker and later won multiple awards for her work, including, in 1973, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter. Seven years later, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930-31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A. (’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase [sic] you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours, 

Eudora Welty

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Better Writer

Colin Nissan nails it, over at McSweeney’s. Just need to do it.

THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO WRITING BETTER THAN YOU NORMALLY DO.

WRITE EVERY DAY

Writing is a muscle. Smaller than a hamstring and slightly bigger than a bicep, and it needs to be exercised to get stronger. Think of your words as reps, your paragraphs as sets, your pages as daily workouts. Think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals. Because that is what writing is all about.

DON’T PROCRASTINATE

Procrastination is an alluring siren taunting you to Google the country where Balki from Perfect Strangers was from, and to arrange sticky notes on your dog in the shape of hilarious dog shorts. A wicked temptress beckoning you to watch your children, and take showers. Well, it’s time to look procrastination in the eye and tell that seafaring wench, “Sorry not today, today I write.”

FIGHT THROUGH WRITER’S BLOCK

The blank white page. El Diablo Blanco. El Pollo Loco. Whatever you choose to call it, staring into the abyss in search of an idea can be terrifying. But ask yourself this; was Picasso intimidated by the blank canvas? Was Mozart intimidated by the blank sheet music? Was Edison intimidated by the blank lightbulb? If you’re still blocked up, ask yourself more questions, like; Why did I quit my job at TJ Maxx to write full-time? Can/should I eat this entire box of Apple Jacks? Is The Price is Right on at 10 or 11?

LEARN FROM THE MASTERS

Mark Twain once said, “Show, don’t tell.” This is an incredibly important lesson for writers to remember; never get such a giant head that you feel entitled to throw around obscure phrases like “Show, don’t tell.” Thanks for nothing, Mr. Cryptic.

FIND YOUR MUSE

Finding a really good muse these days isn’t easy, so plan on going through quite a few before landing on a winner. Beware of muses who promise unrealistic timelines for your projects or who wear wizard clothes. When honing in on a promising new muse, also be on the lookout for other writers attempting to swoop in and muse-block you. Just be patient in your search, because the right muse/human relationship can last a lifetime.

HONE YOUR CRAFT

There are two things more difficult than writing. The first is editing, the second is expert level Sudoku where there’s literally two goddamned squares filled in. While editing is a grueling process, if you really work hard at it, in the end you may find that your piece has fewer words than it did before. Which, is great. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw said it best when upon sending a letter to a close friend, he wrote, “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” No quote better illustrates the point that writers are very busy.

ASK FOR FEEDBACK

It’s so easy to hide in your little bubble, typing your little words with your little fingers on your little laptop from the comfort of your tiny chair in your miniature little house. I’m taking this tone to illustrate the importance of developing a thick skin. Remember, the only kind of criticism that doesn’t make you a better writer is dishonest criticism. That, and someone telling you that you have weird shoulders.

READ, READ, READ

It’s no secret that great writers are great readers, and that if you can’t read, your writing will often suffer. Similarly, if you can read but have to move your lips to get through the longer words, you’ll still be a pretty bad writer. Also, if you pronounce “espresso” like “expresso.”

STUDY THE RULES, THEN BREAK THEM

Part of finding your own voice as a writer is finding your own grammar. Don’t spend your career lost in a sea of copycats when you can establish your own set of rules. If everyone’s putting periods at the end of their sentences, put yours in the middle of words. Will it be incredibly difficult to read? Yes it will. Will it set you on the path to becoming a literary pioneer? Tough to say, but you’re kind of out of options at this point.

KEEP IT TOGETHER

A writer’s brain is full of little gifts, like a piñata at a birthday party. It’s also full of demons, like a piñata at a birthday party in a mental hospital. The truth is, it’s demons that keep a tortured writer’s spirit alive, not Tootsie Rolls. Sure they’ll give you a tiny burst of energy, but they won’t do squat for your writing. So treat your demons with the respect they deserve, and with enough prescriptions to keep you wearing pants.

Paris Review Interview – Umberto Eco and the Art of Fiction

The prodigious and playful professor gives a fascinating interview to the Paris Review. On everything from Jorges Luis Borges to James Bond. And all over calzone and scotch…

“I think that at a certain age, say fifteen or sixteen, poetry is like masturbation. But later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it. Thankfully I gave up rather quickly.”

The first time I called Umberto Eco, he was sitting at his desk in his seventeenth-century manor in the hills outside Urbino, near the Adriatic coast of Italy. He sang the virtues of hisbellissima swimming pool, but suspected I might have trouble negotiating the region’s tortuous mountain passes. So we agreed instead to meet at his apartment in Milan. I arrived there last August on ferragosto, the high point of summer and the day the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Milan’s gray buildings gleamed with heat, and a thin layer of dust had settled on the pavement. Hardly an engine could be heard. As I stepped into Eco’s building, I took a turn-of-the-century lift and heard the creaking of a door on the top floor. Eco’s imposing figure appeared behind the lift’s wrought-iron grating. “Ahhh,” he said with a slight scowl.

The apartment is a labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases that reach all the way up to extraordinarily high ceilings—thirty thousand volumes, said Eco, with another twenty thousand at his manor. I saw scientific treatises by Ptolemy and novels by Calvino, critical studies of Saussure and Joyce, entire sections devoted to medieval history and arcane manuscripts. The library feels alive, as many of the books seem worn from heavy use; Eco reads at great speed and has a prodigious memory. In his study, a maze of shelves contains Eco’s own complete works in all their translations (Arabic, Finnish, Japanese . . . I lost count after more than thirty languages). Eco pointed at his books with amorous precision, attracting my attention to volume after volume, from his early landmark work of critical theory, The Open Work, to his most recent opus, On Ugliness.

Eco began his career as a scholar of medieval studies and semiotics. Then, in 1980, at the age of forty-eight, he published a novel, The Name of the Rose. It became an international publishing sensation, selling more than ten million copies. The professor metamorphosed into a literary star. Chased by journalists, courted for his cultural commentaries, revered for his expansive erudition, Eco came to be considered the most important Italian writer alive. In the years since, he has continued to write fanciful essays, scholarly works, and four more best-selling novels, including Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004).

With Eco’s paunch leading the way, his feet shuffling along the floor, we walked into his living room. Through the windows, a medieval castle cut a gigantic silhouette against the Milanese sky. I had expected tapestries and Italian antiques, but instead found modern furnishings, several glass cases displaying seashells and rare comics, a lute, a collection of recorders, a collage of paintbrushes. “This one, you see, by Arman, is dedicated especially to me . . .”

I sat on a large white couch; Eco sank into a low armchair, cigar in hand. He used to smoke up to sixty cigarettes a day, he told me, but now he has only his unlit cigar. As I asked my first questions, Eco’s eyes narrowed to dark slits, suddenly opening up when his turn came to speak. “I developed a passion for the Middle Ages,” he said, “the same way some people develop a passion for coconuts.” In Italy, he is well known for his battute, his comedic sallies, which he drops at nearly every twist of his snaking sentences. His voice seemed to grow louder the longer he spoke. Soon he was outlining a series of points, as if speaking to a rapt classroom: “Number one: when I wrote The Name of the Rose I didn’t know, of course, since no one knows, what was written in the lost volume of Aristotle’sPoetics, the famous volume on comedy. But somehow, in the process of writing my novel, I discovered it. Number two: the detective novel asks the central question of philosophy—who dunnit?” When he deemed his interlocutor clever enough, he was quick to extend professorial appreciations: “Yes, good. But I would also add that . . .”

After our initial two-hour interview session, Mario Andreose, the literary director of Bompiani, Eco’s Italian publisher, arrived to take us to dinner. Renate Ramge, Eco’s wife of forty-five years, sat up front with Andreose, and Eco and I took the backseat. Eco, who just minutes before had brimmed with wit and vitality, now appeared sullen and aloof. But his mood lightened soon after we entered the restaurant and a plate of bread was placed before us. He glanced at the menu, dithered, and as the waiter arrived, hastily ordered a calzone and a glass of Scotch. “Yes, yes, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t . . .” A beaming reader approached the table, “Are you Umberto Eco?” The professore lifted an eyebrow, grinned, and shook hands. Then, at last, the conversation resumed, as Eco launched into excited riffs about Pope Benedict XVI, the fall of the Persian Empire, and the latest James Bond movie. “Did you know,” he said while planting a fork in his calzone, “that I once published a structural analysis of the archetypal Ian Fleming plot?”

INTERVIEWER

Where were you born?

UMBERTO ECO

In the town of Alessandria. It is known for its Borsalino hats.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of family did you come from?

ECO

My father was an accountant and his father was a typographer. My father was the eldest of thirteen children. I am the first son. My son is my first child. And his first child is a son. So if by chance someone discovers that the Eco family is descended from the emperor of Byzantium, my grandson is the dauphin!

My grandfather had a particularly important influence on my life, even though I didn’t visit him often, since he lived about three miles out of town and he died when I was six. He was remarkably curious about the world, and he read lots of books. The marvelous thing was that when he retired, he started to bind books. So he had a lot of unbound books lying here and there around his apartment—old, beautifully illustrated editions of popular nineteenth-century novels by Gautier and Dumas. Those were the first books I ever saw. When he died in 1938, many of the owners of the unbound books did not ask for them to be returned, and the family put them all in a big box. Quite by accident, this box landed in my parents’ cellar. I would be sent to the cellar from time to time, to pick up some coal or a bottle of wine, and one day I opened this box and found a treasure trove of books. From then on I visited the cellar rather frequently. It turned out my grandfather also collected a fabulous magazine, Giornale illustrato dei viaggi e delle avventure di terra e di mare—the illustrated journal of travels and adventures by land and by sea—devoted to strange and cruel stories set in exotic countries. It was my first great foray into the land of stories. Unfortunately, I lost all of these books and magazines, but over the decades I have gradually recovered copies of them from old bookstores and flea markets.

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Hemingway Wrote 47 Endings to “A Farewell To Arms”

“After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”

It is one of the most celebrated and tragic endings in literature, but records show that Hemingway wrote 46 other alternatives. From the New York Times

In an interview in The Paris Review in 1958 Ernest Hemingway made an admission that has inspired frustrated novelists ever since: The final words of “A Farewell to Arms,” his wartime masterpiece, were rewritten “39 times before I was satisfied.”

Those endings have become part of literary lore, but they have never been published together in their entirety, according to his longtime publisher, Scribner.

A new edition of “A Farewell to Arms,” which was originally published in 1929, will be released next week, including all the alternate endings, along with early drafts of other passages in the book.

The new edition is the result of an agreement between Hemingway’s estate and Scribner, now an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

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Plimpton!

George Plimpton is one of my heroes. Journalist, writer, sometime actor and the first editor-in-chief of The Paris Review, he had a seemingly insatiable desire for new experiences. Ones that often seemed completely at odds with his literary demeanour. Even half of his life would have been a life twice lived.

Plimpton was the father of modern participatory sports journalism, having pitched in the National League, sparred with Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson, trained with the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions, played in preseason goal for the Boston Bruins ice hockey team, attempted to get on the PGA tour, performed as a high-wire circus act and been soundly beaten at tennis by Pancho Gonzales. He recorded each of these experiences with great wit and honesty for Sports Illustrated and in a number of best-selling books. He also played in the New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, and acted alongside John Wayne, Warren Beatty and Matt Damon.

He is responsible, too, for one of my favourite lines in all of sports journalism when, covering the Rumble in the Jungle for Sports Illustrated (Kinshasa, Zaire, 1974) and attempting to convey Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics, he described the great heavyweight as leaning far back over the ropes “at the angle of someone looking out of his window to see if there’s a cat on the roof.”

He was a remarkable man.

Plimpton! a documentary of his life premiered at the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival in Washington last week. The film’s website is here, and the trailer here.

Play Ping Pong. Read Tolstoy. Daydream….and Get Smarter.

The Virtues of Daydreaming by Jonah Lehrer (via)

Humans are a daydreaming species. According to a recent study led by the Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth, people let their minds wander forty-seven per cent of the time they are awake. (The scientists demonstrated this by developing an iPhone app that contacted twenty-two hundred and fifty volunteers at random intervals during the day.) In fact, the only activity during which we report that our minds are not constantly wandering is “love making.” We’re able to focus for that.

At first glance, such data seems like a confirmation of our inherent laziness. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as useless—the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. Freud, for instance, described daydreams as “infantile” and a means of escaping from the necessary chores of the world into fantasies of “wish-fulfillment.”

In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have redeemed this mental state, revealing the ways in which mind-wandering is an essential cognitive tool. It turns out that whenever we are slightly bored—when reality isn’t quite enough for us—we begin exploring our own associations, contemplating counterfactuals and fictive scenarios that only exist within the head.

Virginia Woolf, in her novel “To The Lighthouse,” eloquently describes this form of thinking as it unfolds inside the mind of a character named Lily:

Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes and names, sayings, memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting.

A daydream is that fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts into the stream of consciousness. And these spurts turn out to be surprisingly useful. A forthcoming paper in Psychological Science led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara helps explain why. The experiment itself was simple: a hundred and forty-five undergraduate students were given a standard test of creativity known as an “unusual use” task, in which they had two minutes to list as many uses as possible for mundane objects such as toothpicks, bricks, and clothes hangers.

Subjects were then given a twelve-minute break. During this time, they were randomly assigned to three different conditions: resting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory task, or doing something so boring that it would elicit mind-wandering. Following this interlude, the subjects were given another round of creative tests, including the unusual-use tasks they had worked on only a few minutes before.

Here’s where things get interesting: those students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one per cent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.

What does this mean? Schooler argues that it’s clear evidence that those twelve minutes of daydreaming allowed the subjects to invent additional possibilities, as their unconscious minds pondered new ways to make use of toothpicks. This is why the effect was limited to those items that the subjects had previously been asked about—the question needed to marinate in the mind, “incubating” in those subterranean parts of the brain we can barely control.

On a more practical note, the scientists argue that their data show why “creative solutions may be facilitated specifically by simple external tasks that maximize mind-wandering.” The benefit of these simple tasks is that they consume just enough attention to keep us occupied, while leaving plenty of mental resources left over for errant daydreams. (When people are left alone, such as those subjects forced to sit by themselves, they tend to perseverate on their problems. Unfortunately, all this focus backfires.) Consider the ping-pong tables that now seem to exist in the lobby of every Silicon Valley startup. While it’s easy to dismiss such interior decorations as mere whimsy, the game turns out to be an ideal mind-wandering activity, at least when played casually. Another task that consistently leads to extended bouts of daydreaming is reading Tolstoy. In Schooler’s earlier work on mind-wandering, he gave subjects a boring passage from “War and Peace.” The undergraduates began zoning out within seconds.

Although Schooler has previously demonstrated a correlation between daydreaming and creativity—those who are more prone to mind-wandering tend to be better at generating new ideas, at least in the lab—this new paper shows that our daydreams seem to serve a similar function as night dreams, facilitating bursts of creative insight. Take a 2004 paper published in Nature by the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born. The researchers gave a group of students a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. Wagner and Born designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, but it could only be uncovered if the subject had an insight about the problem. When people were left to their own devices, less than twenty per cent of them found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. The act of dreaming, however, changed everything: after people were allowed to lapse into R.E.M. sleep, nearly sixty per cent of them discovered the secret pattern. Kierkegaard was right: sleeping is the height of genius.

If this all sounds like scientific justification for afternoon naps, long showers, and Russian literature, you’re right. “We always assume that you get more done when you’re consciously paying attention to a problem,” Schooler told me. “That’s what it means, after all, to be ‘working on something.’ But this is often a mistake. If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself. We shouldn’t be so afraid to actually take some time off.”

Schooler has tried to apply this hypothesis to his own life. Although he used to take piles of work with him on vacation—he’d read papers and grant proposals on the beach—he now finds that he has better ideas when he lets himself really get away. “The good news is that there’s no reason to feel guilty when taking a break or not checking your e-mail,” he says. “Because it turns out that even when you’re on vacation, the unconscious is probably still working on the problem.”

A daydream, in this sense, is just a means of eavesdropping on those novel thoughts generated by the unconscious. We think we’re wasting time, but, actually, an intellectual fountain really is spurting.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/frontal-cortex/2012/06/the-virtues-of-daydreaming.html#ixzz1xf7SyrtG