On Writing

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You have to give characters sufficient desires to get them to move in a particular direction or sufficient fears to have them moving away from something they are not eager to confront. Richard Bausch likes to say, "I think up characters whom I love and then I visit trouble upon them." In order to do that, you have to give them something to do, and you can't give them something to do unless they want something...What people want on the surface is often not particularly interesting. What's more telling is the congested subtext, which is what they really want underneath what they say they want."

--Charles Baxter, from NOVEL VOICES, ed. Levasseur & Rabalais


"I tell my students that it's difficult to write sometimes, just to get to the writing, to sit down and finish a story. But if you write each day, even just a paragraph in your journal, you're never outside the creative process. When I write fiction, I hardly touch my journal. I sometimes spend five or six years on a book, so there might be a big gap between journals, but that wasn't true in the beginning because I was writing a book every ten weeks."

--Charles Johnson, from NOVEL VOICES, ed. Levasseur & Rabalais


"Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings. There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountainlike, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay.
There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.
There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet green garden paths in the early morning.
There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.
...There was the yearning for identification loosed in me by the sight of a solitary ant carrying a burned upon a mysterious journey."

--Richard Wright, BLACK BOY


"She whispered to me the story of BLUEBEARD AND HIS SEVEN WIVES and I ceased to see the porch, the sunshine, her face, everything. As her words fell upon my new ears, I endowed them with a reality that welled up from somewhere within me...The tale made the world around me be, throb, live. As she spoke, reality changed, the look of things altered, and the world became peopled with magical presences. My sense of life deepened and the feel of things was different, somehow. Enchanted and enthralled, I stopped her constantly to ask for details. My imaginzation blazed. The sensations the story arounsed in me were never to leave me."

--Richard Wright, BLACK BOY


"...where all things know the names for themselves
and no man speaks them
or takes away their tongue."

--Linda Hogan, from "Naming the Animals," THE BOOK OF MEDICINES


"...I am afraid of the future
as if I am the bear
turned in the stomach
of needy men..."

--Linda Hogan, from "Bear Fat," THE BOOK OF MEDICINES


"The future must no longer be determined by the past. I do not deny that the effects of the past are still with us. But I refuse to strengthen them by repeating them, to confer upon them an irremovability the equivalent of destiny, to confuse the biological and the cultural. Anticipation is imperative."

--Helene Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," from FEMINISMS, eds. Robyn R. Warhol & Diane Price Herndl


Collaborative inquiry is not an instance of differing perspectives ultimately coming together in a unified framework. Instead, it seeks intellectual concurrence (rather than appropriation). Concurrence, by which I mean an agreement to join intellectual forces to get something done, is a plausible alternative to appropriation only on the condition that the differences among the researchers are allowed free play."

--James Sosnoski, "A Mindless Man-Driven Theory Machine," from FEMINISMS, eds. Robyn R. Warhol & Diane Price Herndl


"Evangelization for Jesus was generally by means of parables that were often so bewilderingly allusive that his disciples would ask for further explanations of his meaning...Christ's parables are metaphors that do not contract into simple denotation but broaden continually to take on fresh nuances and connotations. Parables invite the hearer's interest with familiar settings and situations but finally veer off into the unfamiliar, shattering their homey realism and insisting on further reflection and inquiry. We have the uneasy feeling that we are being interpreted even as we interpret them."

--Ron Hansen, A STAY AGAINST CONFUSION


"[Fiction is] a wonderfully simple thing--so simple that most so-called serious writers avoid trying it, feeling they ought to do something more important and ingenious, never guessing how incredibly difficult it is. A true work of fiction does all of the following things, and does them elegantly, efficiently: it creates a vivid and continuous dream in the reader's mind; it is implicitly philosophical; it fulfills or at least deals with all of the expectations it sets up; and it strikes us, in the end, not simply as a thing done but as a shining performance."

--John Gardner, ON BECOMING A NOVELIST


"Why are the activities aboard the Titanic so fascinating to us that we give no heed to the waters through which we pass, or to that great iceberg on the horizon?"

--Glen A. Love, "Revaluing Nature: Toward an Ecological Criticism"





"Wanting to write means, of course, that you're not writing. And wanting to write but not writing will lead to frustration, guilt, and regret. Writing, on the other hand, leads to discovery, insight and accomplishment. The fact is, it's easier to write than to want to write. Just pick up your pen, put down a word, any word."

--John Dufresne, THE LIE THAT TELLS A TRUTH


"Because for some of us, books are as important as anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things you don't get in real life--wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean."

--Anne Lamott, BIRD BY BIRD


"Our continuing fascination with the lone male in the wilderness, and our literary heritage of essentially adolescent, presexual pastoral heroes, suggest that we have yet to come up with a satisfying model for mature masculinity on this continent; while the images of abuse that have come to dominate the pastoral vocabulary suggest that we have been no more successful in our response to the feminine qualities of nature than we have to the human feminine. But such speculations are only the beginning: themore we understand how we use language and, conversely, how (in some sense) language uses us, the stronger the possibility becomes that we may actually begin to choose more beneficial patterns for labeling and experiencing that myterious realm of phenomena outside ourselves and, hopefully, with that, better our chances for survival amid phenomena that, after all, we know only through the intercession of our brain's encodings."

--Annette Kolodny, "Unearthing Herstory" from ECOCRITICISMS, eds. Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm
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