Facts, facts, facts; there is nothing but facts. The writer’s first business is to get at these facts exactly —get the meat out of them— and then, by the most direct method, to transmit them to his readers. That is the whole substructure of literature; the groundwork —the anatomy.”
The Trade of Authorship, 1888, p. 83
Sound is so important to creative writing. Think of the sounds you hear that you include and the similes you use to describe what things sound like. ‘As she walked up the alley, her polyester workout pants sounded like windshield wipers swishing back and forth.’ Cadence, onomatopoeia, the poetry of language are all so important. Learn all that you can about how to bring sound into your work.
A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.
― Ursula K. Le Guin
Photo of Ursula K. Le Guin via the New York Public Library
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
Outside of professional writing, which included articles and columns, he is the author of eight nonfiction books and a number of literary works. His bestselling title was The Elements of Editing, a guide that grew out of his training of new staff. Published by Macmillan and packaged by the Book of the Month Club with the iconic The Elements of Style, it sold more than 200,000 copies before going out of print. Parts of it are still used in journalism programs. Learn more at: http://www.arthurplotnik.com/biography.html
We’ve got to have a little humor in our lives. You had better take seriously that which should be taken seriously but, at the same time, we can bring in a touch of humor now and again. If the time ever comes when we can’t smile at ourselves, it will be a sad time.
~Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008)
“It is not the task of a writer to ‘tell all,’ or even to decide what to leave in, but to decide what to leave out. Whatever remains, that meager sum of this profane division, that’s the bastard chimera we call a ‘story.’ I am not building, but cutting away. And all stories, whether advertised as truth or admitted falsehoods, are fictions, cleft from the objective facts by the aforementioned action of cutting away. A pound of flesh. A pile of sawdust. Discarded chips of Carrara marble. And what’s left over.
“Houses Under The Sea”
― Caitlín R. Kiernan
Houses Under the Sea: Mythos Tales. This one is Richard Kirk’s illustration for the collection’s title story, “Houses Under the Sea,” the altar to Mother Hydra.
When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. Even he, as he looks at its sentences, reads them differently now that they can be read by others. They look like different sentences. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.
― Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir
When speaking aloud, you punctuate constantly — with body language.
Your listener hears commas, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks as you shout, whisper, pause, wave your arms, roll your eyes, wrinkle your brow.
In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear the way you want to be heard.
Russell Baker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and columnist who authored the autobiographies Growing Up and The Good Times.
Mark Twain, who read widely, was passionately interested in the problems of style; the mark of the strictest literary sensibility is everywhere to be found in the prose of Huckleberry Finn . . . He is the master of the style that escapes the fixity of the printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard voice, the very voice of unpretentious truth.
Lionel Trilling, “Mark Twain’s Colloquial Prose Style”, from The Liberal Imagination, 1950
Twain was often asked for advice on the art and craft of writing. Sometimes he responded seriously, sometimes not. Here’s a piece of writing advice on from a letter he wrote on 20 March 1880 to a student named D.W. Bowser:
“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
I often tell my editing clients one of my favorite pieces of advice he gave. Twain famously said:
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Bonus: “Give A Lick: Literary Postage Stamps” information for you philatelists!
Mark Twain 44¢
Issue Date: June 25, 2011
City: Hannibal, MO
Mark Twain is the 27th honoree in the Literary Arts series. “Our literary tribute this year rightfully honors Mark Twain, author of one of the greatest novels in American literature and the man whom William Faulkner called ‘the first truly American writer,’ said Postal Service Board of Governors member James H. Bilbray. “Mark Twain was a rarity, as he was one of the first writers to exploit the vernacular voice in his books, using the speech of common Americans,” Bilbray said.
Samuel Clemens’ family moved to the banks of the mighty Mississippi River when he was just a child. Clemens developed a love for the river that would stay with him his entire life.
As a young man, Clemens met a steamboat pilot named Horace Bixby. That’s when he decided to learn the craft, becoming one of the best pilots on the river.
As an author, Clemens took his pen name from his experiences on the water. The Mississippi River is difficult to navigate. To “mark twain” meant the water had been measured and was a safe depth. In 1863, Clemens began writing as Mark Twain.
If it had not been for the Civil War, Twain may have remained a pilot who occasionally wrote newspaper articles. But most business travel stopped along the Mississippi during these years, so Twain went back to writing. His humorous stories of life on the river were a hit with readers then and remain popular today.
In 2010, the first volume of Twain’s autobiography was published. It was his wish that it not be released until 100 years after his death so that he might speak his “whole frank mind.” The volume offers a glimpse into the real Samuel Clemens – a man with strong political and social views who nevertheless entertained millions with riveting tales of life on the Mississippi.
More on the “Give A Lick: Literary Postage Stamp” Series
The more closely the author thinks of why he wrote, the more he comes to regard his imagination as a kind of self-generating cement which glued his facts together, and his emotions as a kind of dark and obscure designer of those facts. Reluctantly, he comes to the conclusion that to account for his book is to account for his life.
– Richard Wright
Native Son (1940)
Many writers do feel the urge to write about what they see, what they know, what they’ve experienced, capturing the writer’s zeitgeist. Are you writing about your experience or are you more interested in your imagination’s ability to create new worlds?
Born September 4, 1908 in Roxie, Mississippi, Wright came from a family of sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South. He was the 25th inductee into the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series. Best remembered for his controversial 1940 novel, Native Son, and his 1945 autobiography, Black Boy, Wright drew on a wide range of literary traditions, including protest writing and detective fiction, to craft unflinching portrayals of racism in American society. Wright died in Paris on November 28, 1960.
‘Words Can Be Weapons Against Injustice’
Did you know?
Wright’s Native Son was the first best-selling novel by a Black American writer. It was also the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection by an African-American writer.
Native Son sold 215,000 copies within three weeks of publication. The book made Wright the wealthiest Black writer in America at that time.
For further reading:
Joe Bunting’s Do You Write from Experience or Imagination?
My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.
Anton Chekhov ( 1860-1904), was a prolific Russian playwright known for The Seagull (1895), Uncle Vanya (1897), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904).
His overall body of work has influenced writers of all genres, from Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Flannery O’Connor and Somerset Maugham.
Some consider Chekhov to be the founder of the modern short story. Ward no. 6 (1892), The Lady with the Little Dog (1899), A Dreary Story (aka A Boring Story) (1889), and perhaps his most well-known short stories, The Little Trilogy: The Man in a Case, Gooseberries, and About Love (1898).
Chekhov photo courtesy of Thinkit Creative
For summaries of Chekhov’s works, see AmericanLiterature.com
There should be a law that no ordinary newspaper should be allowed to write about art. The harm they do by their foolish and random writing it would be impossible to overestimate—not to the artist but to the public. . . . Without them we would judge a man simply by his work; but at present the newspapers are trying hard to induce the public to judge a sculptor, for instance, never by his statues but by the way he treats his wife; a painter by the amount of his income and a poet by the colour of his necktie.
—Oscar Wilde, Art and the Handicraftsman
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was known as the “Apostle of Aestheticism”. Wilde explained “Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science through which men look after the correlation which exists in the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.” Wilde calls aestheticism a philosophy. “It is a study of what may be found in art and nature. Whatever in art represents eternal truth expresses the great underlying truth of aestheticism.”
Oscar Wilde photo courtesy of The American Reader
Wilde’s signature courtesy of his official website
Title Quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist
“Characters are not created by writers. They pre-exist and have to be found.”
Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)
What does this mean?
Writers may come to know their characters as they create them. Perhaps they are ‘found’ by slowly revealing themselves to the writer. If the writer comes to know their characters as they write, perhaps the writer’s perception is also from the reader’s perspective.
Check out one of Elizabeth Bowen’s best-known works, The Death of the Heart, published in 1938. It demonstrates her debt to Henry James in the careful observation of detail and the theme of innocence darkened by experience. The novel is noted for its dexterous portrayal of an adolescent’s stormy inner life. Its three sections—“The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil”—refer to the baptismal rite in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
For Further Reading:
Rabelais and Panurge: A Psychological Approach to Literary Character by Mary E. Ragland
Annie Dillard gave a speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This was the advice she thought to give them after she left.
Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the few tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go. (If you get it wrong, any least thing, the editor will throw your manuscript out.) Punctuation is not like musical notation; it doesn’t indicate the length of pauses, but instead signifies logical relations. There are all sorts of people out there who know these things very well. You have to be among them even to begin.
Annie Dillard is the author of ten books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as well as An American Childhood, The Living, and Mornings Like This. She is a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters and has received fellowship grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Dillard attended Hollins College in Virginia. After living for five years in the Pacific Northwest, she returned to the East Coast, where she lives with her family.