What writers can learn from Shakespeare–from Margot Livesey

  1. Don’t be dismayed or surprised if some pieces of work turn out to be rehearsals
  2. Be careful how you repeat yourself, and why.
  3. Begin dramatically.
  4. Don’t keep back the good stuff.
  5. Consider beginning in the present.
  6. Negotiate your own standards of plausibility.
  7. Once you’ve invented your rules, keep them.
  8. Remember the power of appropriate omission. We don’t need to take every journey with the characters, make every cup of coffee.
  9. Don’t overexplain.
  10. Be sure that borrowing a plot, a character, or situation doesn’t seem like theft.
  11. Know which kind of suspense your narrative depends on, and use accordingly.
  12. Be aware that form and tone govern content.
  13. Ask if your plot needs a subplot, or two.
  14. Develop your characters both as individuals and in relation to each other. Let the reader know which characters are major and which minor.
  15. Be ambitious with your language.
  16. Whatever you do, keep making rhymes, lines, puns, clauses, phrases, metaphors, sentences, paragraphs, sonnets, scenes, stories, plays, poems, novels…

–From Margot Livesey’s Essay “Shakespeare for Writers” in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft on Essays from Tin House

Thoughts on persistence from William Kennedy

A bit of advice on persistence in writing from William Kennedy, author of, among many other books, Ironweed, Very Old Bones, and The Flaming Corsage. If I can sum up what Mr. Kennedy says in eight words, it would be: Put your ass in the chair and write.

kennedy_picI used to say ¬†on Thursday afternoons when I was on my day off from the Albany Times Union and I was waiting for the muse to descend and I discovered that it was the muse’s day off too: you have to beat the bastards. I didn’t even know who the bastards were, but you have to beat somebody. You have to beat your own problematic imagination, to discover what it is you’re saying and how to say it and move forward into the unknown. I always knew that a). I wanted to be a writer and b). if you persist in doing something, sooner or later, you will achieve it. It’s just a matter of persistence–and a certain amount of talent. You can’t do anything without talent, but you can’t do anything without persistence, either. Bellow and I once talked about that. We were talking just in general about writing and publishing and so on, and he said there’s a certain amount of talent that’s necessary. After that, it’s character. I said, What do you mean by character? He smiled at me and never said anything. So I was left to define what he meant that night. What I concluded was that character is equivalent to persistence. That you just refuse to give up. Then, the game’s not over. You know, I had an enormous success in everything I’d done in life…up until the time I decided to be a writer. I was a good student; I was a good soldier; I was good at this and that. I got a hole-in-one one day one the golf course. I bowled 299, just like Billy Phelan. I was a very good newspaperman. I became a managing editor. Anything I wanted to do in journalism, it seemed to work; it just fell into place. So I didn’t understand why I was so successful as a journalist and yet zilch as a novelist and a short story writer. It was just that time was working against me. You just have to learn. It’s such a complicated craft…such a complicated thing to understand what you’re trying to bring out of your own imagination, your own life.

Writing Advice from William Saroyan

william-saroyan-3Here is some of my favorite writing advice, from the Preface to the First Edition of William Saroyan’s book, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.

“If you write as if you believe that ultimately you and everyone else alive will be dead, there is a chance that you will write in a pretty earnest style. Otherwise you are apt to be pompous or soft. On the other hand, in order not to be a fool, you must believe that as much as death is inevitable, life is inevitable. That is, the earth is inevitable, and people and other living things on it are inevitable, but that no man can remain on the earth very long. You do not have to be melodramatically tragic about this. As a matter of fact, you can be as amusing as you like about it. It is really one of the basically humorous things, and it has all sorts of possibilities for laughter. If you will remember that living people are as good as dead, you will be able to perceive much that is very funny in their conduct that you perhaps might never have thought of perceiving if you did not believe that they were as good as dead.

The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to be breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you slew, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

#Footwork #Writing


I spend a lot of time writing about doubt in my creative life. Last week I wrote that I quit writing at least once a week. Faulkner once said he didn’t know anything about inspiration because he’d never felt it. He said he’d heard of it, but never seen it. This from the man who wrote four of the greatest novels in history in a three year period (As I Lay Dying, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury and Absalom Absalom). If not inspiration, then what?

The answer: footwork.

And now that I’m done quitting writing this week, I’ve started my own footwork once again. One slow freaking word at a time.