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.”
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.