Courting the Muse (excerpt)

. . . we were facing the delicious prospect of two years to do nothing but write—well, we intended to do nothing but write, until we discovered all of Iowa City’s swell bars . . .

JACK LEGGETT — I suppose you could revise that disclaimer [on the Workshop web site] so that it said we can’t assure that the result of your stay here will be altogether gratifying, but it might be, and there are reasons that it might be.

JOHN IRVING An older, experienced writer can be of use to a young, talented writer. The older writer can at least save the younger writer some time.

. . . Everyone has something that you do too much of; maybe you do too much of it because you’re good at it, but everyone does something to excess—even if what you do to excess is being a minimalist . . . Maybe you shouldn’t back off doing it, but you at least should know what you do that irks people. (If you’re going to piss people off, you want to be sure you do so intentionally.)

MARVIN BELL — . . . The more I have to do—jobs, family, friends—the more I write. Energy produces more energy. And writing, when one is cookin’, is an escape from time. Regardless, I prefer the late hours, and I think they encourage pushing the envelope. And sometimes I write to stamp out my brain. The idea is always to write with abandon. I tend to say yes to whatever comes along.

SANDRA CISNEROS — Yes! Say yes to everything! What’s the worst mistake a writer can make? Thinking too much. Don’t think. It’s not about thinking. You think when you edit. When you create, say yes, yes to everything. When the bell rings and it’s the Jehovah’s Witness folks, answer the door and say yes. The guy at the door might be in your story. Maybe he’ll leave a piece of paper that takes you to the next chapter . . .

T.C. BOYLE — . . . I happened to go to my dentist when I was researching [Talk Talk]. He was divorced and had his eye out for the ladies, and he said, “The most gorgeous woman in the world was sitting in this chair before you, and you know what? She was deaf.” Then he got out the jackhammer and the drill, and I realized that my heroine would be deaf. I began to see the possibilities. If my character were deaf, she’d have a special language, different brain patterns. The deaf from birth are from a different culture, with different brain patterns to make that special language.

DOUG UNGERI don’t believe that creativity can be lost. It’s possible to write a dull story, or to fail at writing a passage in a longer book, or make a false start. It’s possible to write badly, and I think it’s actually necessary to write badly sometimes in order to write well, that’s just a part of the process. The key is to recognize when one is writing badly, as it is also to know when one is writing well. Hemingway called it a “built-in shit detector”. . .

JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS. . . Whatever I’m working on has to be extremely compelling to me, so compelling that I can put it down for weeks or months at a time, and pick it up and re-enter it. Of course, I have never stopped thinking about it.

JOHN IRVINGI write last sentences first. I work my way backward from the end of the novel, which is the first thing I know, to what the first chapter should be. By the time I actually write the first sentence, I have a virtual road map of the whole noveleither in notes or in my head. . .

SANDRA CISNEROSYou need to do whatever you can to keep the work going. It helps if you have a trust fund; it helps if you can do without a lot of sleep. But you have to be obsessed; it’s not discipline, but obsession. . .

GORDON MENNENGA. . . The worst advice I ever got? Mary Lee Settle read two of my stories and said “Don’t write like that.” So how was I supposed to write? Like her, she told me. She wanted these epic-quality novels with lots of symbolism, decorated sentences, southern writing. . . She didn’t like short sentences; she didn’t like explicit writing. She liked subtlety, and the romance of language. I wasn’t into that. I was into Ray Carver kind of writing, I’ll admit it. “A man with two hooks for hands shows up at your house” and that sort of thing.

SANDRA CISNEROS. . . If I’m in a funk and tired about this book, I’ll write about someone who’s tired. I just use it as a place to go off from, then write it and rework it until it’s beautiful, and then I have this little button. And my job is done. And then the next day I work on another button, and then I put them together and start to see patterns. . .

ALLAN GURGANUS. . . I go back and forth between my original hand-written first draft and later versions. . . At times I’ve torn it up by the roots, given it a wig then a hair transplant . . .

For me that’s all part of the process, that back and forth, which is probably why I haven’t published as many books as I might have, but I’m very proud of what I’ve put out there.

You can publish a book a year, and you can have a baby every ten months. But pretty soon, you’re having idiots. And, as a loyal mom, you yourself are often the last to know.

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