How to Write: A Year in Advice from David Mitchell, Yiyun Li, and More

Highlights from 12 months of interviews with writers about their craft and the authors they love

Yiyun Li and David Mitchell, two of the authors interviewed for the By Heart series this year (John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Matt Sayles/AP)

2014 was the second year of “By Heart,” The Atlantic’s weekly series about writing, artistic influence, and the creative process. Though the series is based on a formula—artistic creators choose a favorite line from literature and explain how it shaped them—the responses are never formulaic. As I spoke to breakout successes (Edan Lepucki, Leslie Jamison), established masters (Stuart Dybek, Mona Simpson) and lifetime achievers (Jim Harrison, New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers) I was amazed by the scope and variety of contemporary literature. Writers have such wildly different things to say. And they’ve found so many different ways to tell us.

It turns out that working artists have great great practical advice to share. In last year’s year-end roundup, I wrote that doing these interviews was like getting a second MFA. As 2014 closes, I must be deep into my doctorate. I can’t overstate how useful—how directly actionable—these conversations have been, at times. Like any writer, I spend untold hours puzzling over my own creative work. Often, I close my laptop to pause for a “By Heart” call—and the person on the phone says something that helps solved some problem I’ve been facing. There’s nothing like getting good advice at the right time: Clouds part, heavens open.

Here are my very favorite pieces of creative wisdom from the nearly 50 By Heart interviews in 2014. I’ve grouped the first excerpts by some common themes—first drafts, revision, procrastination, and genre fiction—before moving on to some other, more singular ideas at the end. These are excerpts, out of context; if anything especially strikes you, I hope you’ll go back and read the whole piece from the beginning.

Getting Started: From Idea to First Draft

I started the year by speaking with Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall, who described the unusual genesis of his novels—he thinks about his characters, without writing a word, for long periods of time. Then, when he’s ready to write, he doesn’t look back. “I wrote Legends of the Fall in nine days,” he said, “and when I re-read it, I only had to change one word. There was no revision process. None. I had thought so much about the character that writing the book was like taking dictation.”

He explained:

I think about my novels for a long time before I start to write them—a year or more, sometimes many years. I’m half Swede, and Swedes are brooders. I just sit around brooding about it. A lot of this happens when I’m walking or driving.  I’ll take long, directionless car trips to try and see where my mind is. Usually, the story begins with a collection of images. I’ll make a few notes in my journal, but not very much. Often not much more than a vague outline. A tracery, a silhouette.

Once I start, I very rarely change my mind about the nature of the story. And when I begin writing, it’s sound that guides me—language, not plot. Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm. When you have the rhythm of a character, the novel becomes almost like a musical composition. It’s like taking dictation, when you’re really attuned to the rhythm of that voice.

You can’t go to it. It has to come to you.  You have to find the voice of the character. Your own voice should be irrelevant in a novel. Bad novels are full of opinions, and the writer intruding, when you should leave it to your character.

Linn Ullmann, author of The Cold Song, starts with setting. She said that most literary fiction can be boiled down to three words, “something happened here”—that’s her favorite sentence from Alice Munro, by the way—and she explained why it’s the here that matters most:

When I begin writing, I need to have a place.  It can be a small: even a single room, though I like to be able to see the layout, the colors, the objects inside. I need to have that stage so that my characters have a place to move around. If I can develop that sense of place—and that other crucial quality, the narrative voice—then I feel sure I will find a story, even if it takes some time.  If I don’t have the place, and I don’t have the voice, I’m writing without a motor. It all becomes just words. But once the voice comes, the “here” comes next, and then the “something happened”—what we call plot—follows from it.

In this way, writing becomes a listening experience—a way of being responsive to what you have written, and letting it guide you. Some writers say “the characters come to me,” or the “characters become alive to me at night.” Bullshit. I don’t believe that my characters are alive. But the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.

For Yiyun Li, author of Kinder Than Solitude, getting to know her characters is like staring at strangers on a train. It’s awkward at first, she told me, but eventually they give up their secrets.

I’m a starer; I’m interested in looking at people very closely. I look at people I know, but I also look at people I don’t know. It does make strangers uncomfortable—which, of course, I understand. I’ve noticed that, in New York City, you’re not supposed to stare at people. No one has enough space, and when people are in public, they’re trying to maintain anonymity. But I stare at people all the time, because I like to imagine their lives by looking into their faces, looking at their eyes. You can tell so much just from a person’s face.

Writing fiction is this kind of staring, too. You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on the train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you. This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away. I believe all characters try to trick us. They lie to us. It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world—no one’s going to be 100 percent honest. They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are. There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people. People don’t want to tell you their secrets. Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you.

Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres, said a first draft is about suspending judgment.

You cannot be judging yourself as you write the first draft—you want to harness that unexpected energy, and you don’t want to limit the possibilities of exploration. You don’t know what you’re writing until it’s done. So if a draft is 500 pages long, you have to suspend judgment for months. It takes effort to be good at suspending at judgment, to give the images and story priority over your ideas. But you keep going, casting about for the next sentence. I think there are two kinds of sentences in a rough draft: seeds and pebbles. If it’s a pebble, it’s just the next sentence and it sits there. But if it’s a seed it grows into something that becomes an important part of the life of the novel. The problem is, you can’t know ahead of time whether a sentence will be a seed or a pebble, or how important a seed it’s going to be.

This is why it’s important to remain open to the unexpected. The writing experience is in some ways like riding a bucking bronco—sometimes he’s good, and sometimes he bucks you off, sometimes he follows orders, sometimes he spooks. I like that unexpected quality. You have to be able to keep riding whatever comes.

Revision: Don’t Fuck It Up

Once the first draft is finished, the real work begins. Wilco lead singer Jeff Tweedy distilled the anxiety of the revision process beautifully: “Basically,” he told me, “I just don’t want to fuck it up.” Several contributors gave great advice on how the refine raw inspiration into something finished.

Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, compared revision to the slow simmering process of a soup or sauce. Through the writing of subsequent material, the first draft’s watery stock becomes something more concentrated and pungent.

In a first-draft situation for me, it’s a visceral rather than an intellectual process. Though I’ll generally have a vague outline in mind, I’ll feel it through rather than take a pre-planned course. I don’t think, “Okay, I need a scene to do X.” And while trying to be as efficient as you can, you generate a great bulk of material.

In revision, you begin a kind of creative destruction. If you’ve written three scenes and each of them does a different thing—explores a different facet of a character, or shows her in relation to different people, or whatever it is—well, if you could have one scene that would do everything at once that those three scenes are doing, then that would be better. To have a more efficient and more intense fragment is going to be better. So you compress, the same way that to make something very tasty you might reduce a sauce.

Jeff Tweedy said the most important thing, for him, is to try to keep his conscious, intellectual mind out of the way after the initial bursts of songwriting inspiration. He described the process of creating what he calls “mumble tracks,” recorded demos sung with nonsense words and vocals mixed so low they’re hard to hear. Rather than penning lyrics, his composition process requires listening. He’ll play these tracks over and over, writing down what it sounds like he’s saying. This approach, he told me, allows his subconscious mind to remain dominant.

I don’t think this is an unprecedented process. Keith Richards has done that on demos for years, and Mick Jagger’s translated his mumbling. I think it’s a pretty common approach. And it works because our brains are wired to make sense of things. If you listen to a mumble, your brain really wants to hear words. You listen to one line at a time, over and over again—well, a lot faster than you think. It’s hard to stop hearing the words. For me, I often get the feeling “That’s obviously what I’m singing there”—which is strange, and wonderful, because no words were intended at all.

I think I’m attached to this process because it keeps me attached to the song in its early state, the way it was before I’d thought it through and figured out what it was. I don’t trust myself to make conscious choices. I trust myself to make stuff and respond to things that I can feel and intuit, but I don’t really trust when the ego gets involved. This way of working means I get to preserve that felt, wordless melody until the very end—and when I do write lyrics, they’re a way of listening and responding to the song, instead of imposing a vision on it. It keeps the observing ego out of the way as much as possible.

Richard Bausch, author of Before, During, After, explained how an intensive revision process helps his writing come to life. It takes a repetition, trial and error, and letting go of your ideas to create characters who feel like real people, not on-the-page creations:

It’s easy to say “write truthfully about experience.” But how to actually do it? The only way I’ve ever known is to try it, over and over again, until I can’t think of another way, or a clearer way. I write each draft, each scene, over and over again until I can’t think of a better way forward. My novel Hello to the Cannibals was almost 1,000 pages in manuscript—the exact count was 967. But I wrote it five separate times. There are scenes and chapters I wrote dozens of times, more, too many to count. And it isn’t the way people sometimes paint it—it’s not like you’re at your desk, tearing your hair. It’s just: I’ve got to do it again. This is what I’m doing today. And you do it.

The impulse, of course, is try to be faithful to what you initially had in mind—but the process, instead, calls for you to let go of all of your opinions, and all the things you think you think. You’ve got to go on down, as Robert Penn Warren used to say, into the cave. (James Dickey used to call it “the cave of making.”) You enter the cave of making without any opinions, without any preconceived notions, and tell the story as clearly as you can. You must not bend your characters according to some idea you have about how they ought to behave; you’re just letting them be themselves, whatever that is. If you do that, and you’re faithful to it, you’ve got a shot at writing something true. This is the only way it works for me.

How do you know when the revision process is over? Memoirist Sean Wilsey has a useful test: When the writing starts to be funny, he knows his work is finished. Writing, he told me, is a way of learning to laugh at yourself, and humor is a sign you’re done.

Writing memoir […] is usually a decision to engage with the most painful, fraught, or embarrassing portions of your experience. Memoirs, like most narratives, are about conflict and drama and pain. When life is good—or even more than good, when life makes sense—I really don’t feel any desire to write about it. Only when life becomes painful, when I’m suffering, do I feel like I’ve got the material to work on the page.

But just writing down one’s troubles isn’t enough. You have to bring new perspective and insight to your suffering. For me, there’s a sure sign I’ll be able to muster the maturity to it takes to make art out of my life: When I’m finally able to laugh at a younger version of myself.

The things we can’t laugh about are the things we haven’t grown out of yet. Not laughing is, in some ways, a failure to grow beyond things that are still too close, too present, too hurtful. Laughter is a release from all that. It shows we’ve moved on. I don’t think I’m ever ready to write about an experience or period of my life until I have distance from it—the kind of distance laughter signifies.

Productivity: Evade Your Inner Jack Torrance

Everyone knows writers are chronic procrastinators. Films from The Shining to Adaptation have depicted the comic, tragic lengths that writers will go to avoid facing down the blank page. Working writers must learn to avoid distraction—Zadie Smith thanked the productivity apps Freedom and Self-Control the acknowledgments of her latest book—and “By Heart” contributors shared some of their secrets.

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, had some pithy advice on staying on task in the digital age:

The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes towards finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The Internet—it’s lethal, isn’t it? Maintaining focus is critical, I think, in the presence of endless distraction. You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.

For me, that one other thing is: I’ve got to be writing. I have a few ways to make sure I can carve out time.

Part one: Neglect everything else.

Part two: Get disciplined. Learn to rush to your laptop and open it up. Open the file without asking yourself if you’re in the mood, without thinking about anything else. Just open the file: and then you’re safe. Once the words are on the screen, that becomes your distraction. The moment you think okay, it’s work time, and face down the words, you rush past all the other things asking for your attention.

Part three: Keep the Apple homepage, because it’s rather boring. If your homepage is the website of your favorite newspaper, you’ve had it.

Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, author of the story collection Painted Cities, made a radical claim: He says writers’ block doesn’t really exist. Just start walking, he told me, and you’ll find something.

When I sit down and write, it’s specifically to feel like I don’t know what the hell is going on. I want to lose myself in the woods. I just step into the work, and pray I’m going to get that feeling again: where stuff is happening on the screen and I don’t exactly know what it is, except it feels right.

It’s my faith in this—of reaching that place eventually—that guides my work. Really, it’s the search for this feeling that guides me more than any discussion of plot lines, or any thought of who a character is or what they’ll do. The addictive quality of writing is getting to that point where things are just coming out. That’s the wonderful feeling I look for, and you never know when it’s coming next.

You can never let yourself not write. You have to keep going. You have to keep typing. It’s really just an unending search for whatever is going to let this next story take off. That’s why I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Writer’s block is a refusal to let yourself get lost in the woods.

William T. Vollmann, author of Imperial and Last Stories and Other Stories, has a different technique for staying productive: He allows himself absolute creative license. When all is permissible, writing gets easier. Uncompromised self-expression is the key to Vollmann’s prolific output, and it’s a core value of his ambitious, challenging work.

While I’m working on a book […] I don’t have to worry about making a mistake, about writing “poorly,” or about taking on a difficult or ambitious project. I try to remain open, reminding myself that all is permissible as I work. Of course, that doesn’t let me off the hook later—ultimately, I have to live with any work I publish and make public. But it’s a very freeing feeling during the composition process, when I try to keep in mind that nothing is off-limits.

Sometimes, this is very difficult. There have been times when I’m writing about things that are personally embarrassing.  Like any human being, sometimes I can’t help but wonder—what are the people I know going to think about this? So I have to remind myself that all is permissible. Art has to be a free space. Language has to be a free space. And I just shouldn’t worry about that kind of thing while I’m working. I might pay the consequences later, but that’s not my problem while I’m doing the writing.

I feel the same way about the publishing marketplace. I’ve always thought the exchange of words for money is no more and no less problematic than any other kind of prostitution—and it’s important that we prostitutes control a certain amount of our production (and reproduction, for that matter). If I’m writing a book and I’m warned, “Oh, this is unsaleable, you need to make it shorter,” or, “It has to be this, or that,” I’m proud to say I don’t pay attention.

At the end of the day, when I’m dying, I want to think I did what I felt was best for the words I was writing. This may mean, at any time, that I won’t be publishable anymore. There’s all kinds of pressure on people to do this and that, and not this and the other thing—but I think I would feel ashamed, and despondent, if I let others dictate the terms of my work. If I let others tell me that nothing I wrote was true, and every demand of theirs was permissible.

Anyone who’s spent hours alone in a dark room with a typewriter understands why self-destructive behavior can be seductive for writers. Dorthe Nors, author of Karate Chop, explained why drugs and self-damage are two of the great forms of procrastination: They’re a way of diverting ourselves from the hard work of being alone.

You know the cliché: You're out on the town, you're doing drugs, you're drinking, you're running on the walls, you're pissing on the fireplace. It’s a cliché. Often you run into artists who live that life—and at one point, you find out that they're not actually producing that much art. They're living the life of the artist without the work.

We can separate artistic pain, the experience of feeling deeply, from leading a painful life. One is not a requirement for the other. But it is the job of the artist to sit with our feelings, to be receptive to them, to examine them, turn them into narrative or paint or film.

I've often met artists who say it's good to smoke marijuana or do this or that it will do things for things for your creativity. But basically, that's just an excuse to take it. If you’ve got humanity pouring out of your veins, you don't need anything to trigger it.

The artistic process unfolds in the lonely hours. That’s when the work happens. You have to control the creative energy that you've got. You have to discipline yourself to fulfill it. And that work only happens alone.  

Genre Fiction: Building a World

The science-fiction and fantasy novelists I spoke had a lot to say about the peculiar challenge of their genre—inventing new, unfamiliar worlds. As David Mitchell put it: “How to immerse oneself in the moment-to-moment nature of a time and place you’ve never personally experienced—and perhaps cannot?”

Mitchell, whose multi-stranded works span centuries, explained how he works with the far future and deep past.

What’s the difference between you and your great great great-grandfather? What makes you different?

I think the answer is this: What you take for granted.

What you take for granted about your life, about your rights, about people around you. About ethnicity, gender, sexuality, work, God. Your relationship with the state. The state’s obligations and duties to you: Health care, education, recreation. What you take for granted about all these things is I think what marks one culture from from another, and one generation from another.

So when you’re writing about the future, you simply try to work out what people in that future point will be taking for granted. That’s how you project yourself, narratively, into another time. You work out what people will be taking for granted, and what not.

William Gibson knows a thing or two about inventing compelling new worlds—in Neuromancer (1984), he coined the term “cyberspace,” wrote about a network of linked computer systems helped guide the development of the Internet. Gibson told me that part of the joy of science fiction is being plunked down in the middle of an unfamiliar word, slowly mastering its foreign culture and vocabulary.

As a reader, one of my greatest pleasures is being dropped into something that’s complex and carefully built. Since I haven’t got a clue what’s going on, I immediately start trying to figure out what the hell is going on. It’s similar to the pleasure of the whodunit, but it’s really more the pleasure of what the fuck?

It is now second nature to me to plunge the reader into the middle of an unfamiliar world, with its unfamiliar language, and let them figure things out.  It’s important to avoid what science fiction writers sometimes call the “As you know, Bob,” paragraph, in which you do this big info dump. There’s pleasure in working it out. Besides, brief, understated descriptions tend to better serve the lens of character.  Real people don’t think of things in quite so many adverbs, or adjectives. And then I like to think that withholding information also rewards readers who will go back and re-read the whole thing. All of those little enigmas play differently the second time through.

Meanwhile, Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians trilogy, resisted the characterization of fantasy novels as being simple flights of whimsy. In our conversation about C. S. Lewis, he argued that fantasy is one of the most powerful tools a writer has to probe the most private, personal recesses of a character’s heart:

I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they're exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.

The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you—sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.

Of course, part of the fun of “By Heart” is how wide-ranging the writers’ responses are.

Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans, took aim at the old saw “Write what you know,” and reminded us that literature is an act of radical identification—of trying to see through the eyes of people unlike us. Why to write what you don’t know:

One of the main reasons I read—and definitely why I write—is to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. To try to imagine what life is like for someone who’s different from myself. And because writing entails a great deal of imaginative generosity, I almost think I’m a better person when I’m writing than I am in life. I’m forced into having empathy for everyone—even someone who I’d normally be upset with, or feel wronged by. Having to step outside my life is what works best for me. I feel like I’m able to access much deeper truths about my own life by exploring what I know from different angles, through the lens of character. Writing across boundaries—of gender, of generation, of country—helps me locate what I don’t know in what I know, and try to bring it out onto the page.

Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, and Edan Lepucki, author of California, both argued for writing that is palpably, viscerally physical.

Jamison found kinship in an overlooked essay by Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill,” that insists that literature must concern the body and its ailments:

“On Being Ill” isn’t just making a case for illness as a literary subject, but for the brute, bare fact of the body itself. By insisting we acknowledge that we sweat and crave and itch all day (“all day, all night”), Woolf reminds us we have the right to speak about these things—to make them lyric and epic—and that we should seek a language that honors them.

How do we articulate the kind of pain that refuses language? Woolf’s argument may have been more urgent in her time than in ours—we have more records of the “daily drama of the body” now than we did then—but when I first read her battle cry, her call to arms (not just arms but legs and teeth and bones), it felt like encountering a long-lost relative: the banner I’d never known I’d always been fighting under: Bodies matter—we can’t escape them—they’re full of stories—how do we tell them?

Lepucki said that the basic facts of being alive, from dry mouth to defecation, are important tools for characterization:

Human beings like to forget their own bodies, and it takes being ill or turned on, or being threatened by the Supreme Court, to remember them. In fiction, there aren’t enough bodies: breathing, eating, having sex, breaking down. Unlike a lot of other writers, Margaret Atwood reasserts the corporeal in all of her work. In an email today, a poet friend of mine wrote, “Then we walked to the public library, where we both took incredibly satisfying dumps.” Let’s not forget what makes us human, everyone. Atwood never does. When teaching, I ask my students, “What does your character feel, physically?” I want them to describe what a character’s stomach feels like; describe how the air feels on his skin; tell me how dry her mouth is. I want to know what the character’s relationship is to her own messy, revealing, secretive body. Tell me.

Vikram Chandra, author of Geek Sublime, offered a useful stylistic trick: Juxtapose poetry with realism and understatement.

On a stylistic level, there’s a real pleasure in moving from flatness to richness again. It’s a trick you can very effectively deploy. The first example that comes to mind is from Macbeth, where he says: “No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” The multisyllabic richness of “multitudinous seas incarnadine” followed by the very Anglo-Saxon simplicity of, “making the green one red.” It’s a repetition, but the repetition works: After the long, rolling cadence of the first line, you get the dagger blow of the last line.

This principle works in so many kinds of writing, and not just on a sentence-to-sentence level. You can juxtapose the richness of fantasy against something done in a very realistic or so-called realistic way.

Billy Collins extolled the virtues of simplicity. Why he thinks poetry should be emotionally challenging, but easy to read:

I want graceful lines and graceful sentences. I try to write very simply. The vocabulary is simple, the sentences tend to be quite conventional—subject, verb, object. I try to be very unchallenging in syntax. I want the trip to be one of imagination and not completely of the language. But I’m also thinking about the reader, whom I’m trying to guide through an imaginative experience. I want the excitement of the poem—if I can generate some—not to lie in a fancy use of language, or an eccentric use of language. I want the poem to be an imaginative thrill. To take the reader to an odd place, or a challenging place, or a disorienting place, but to do that with fairly simple language. I don’t want the language itself to be the trip. I want the imaginative spaces that we’re moving through to be the trip.

I know that goes against some of the poetry you might encounter, where the language is the thing. Well, of course, poetry is all made of words and that’s what we’re working with here. But I don’t just want the reader’s staring at language to be the experience. I want to take the reader from Kansas to Oz: from a simple, familiar place, to a slightly unusual place.

Poetry’s kind of a mixture of the clear and the mysterious. It’s very important to know when to be which: what to be clear about and what to leave mysterious. A lot of poetry I find unreadable is trying to be mysterious all the time. It’s not so much a mixture of clarity and mystery, instead of a balance between the two. If the reader doesn’t feel oriented in the beginning of the poem, he or she can’t be disoriented later. Often, the first lines of a poem—many times, I find them completely disorienting. But I’d like to go to that place, but I like to be taken there rather than being shoved into it. It’s like being pushed off the title into the path of an approaching train.

Finally, Emily St. John Mandel, whose novel Station Eleven was a National Book Award finalist this year, examined a famous line from Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder”: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” For St. John Mandel, these words ward off literary fear—they remind her to write bold characters and to remain brave in the face of the work ahead.

It seemed like a decent way to approach the writing of protagonists, and all these years later, the words stay with me. These are the words toward which I lean when I write. Writing believable characters is the aspect of fiction over which I agonize the most. To be entirely untarnished or entirely unafraid is to be inhuman, but Chandler’s words serve as guideposts: I’ve never written a protagonist who was so tarnished that it was impossible to sympathize with his plight, or so afraid that it was impossible for her to take action.

It is important to me to try to live honorably, and in the moments of life that require particularly careful navigation, I find myself repeating the words to myself. Be neither tarnished nor afraid, I find myself thinking, and I try to follow this advice. I am trying very hard, always, to be unafraid and to remain as untarnished as possible. It’s always seemed to me that you could do a lot worse than that Chandler quote if you were looking for loose instructions on how to conduct yourself through the hours of your writing, through the days of your life.