Will Self

Will Self’s writing is diverse. Dystopian (The Book of Dave), Stream of Consciousness – think James Joyce’s Ulysses (Umbrella), and satire (Great Apes).

He has won many awards, has been short listed for the Man Booker prize for Umbrella (2012)  and the New York Times Notable Book of the Year for his collection of short stories Grey Area ( 1997).

Consider yourself in good company if, like Will Self, you like to use post it slips to keep track of your writing. If, like Will Self, your creativity thrives in a cluttered environment. 

Will Self

Photographer: Eamonn McCabe

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Inspiration is for Amateurs

In a recent workshop the leader asked us why we wrote. Here were some answers:

I write because there’s nothing else I know how to do.

I write to make a difference.

If I don’t get it out I won’t sleep.

Because the world is bewildering.

To stay curious.

To define chaos.

I don’t know what I want to say until I write it.

In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library), editor Meredith Maran seeks out answers on the why and advice on the how of writing from twenty of today’s most acclaimed authors.

source: Brain Pickings

Prolific novelist Isabel Allende shares in Kurt Vonnegut’insistence on rooting storytelling in personal experience and writes:

I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.

Though many famous writers have notoriously deliberate routines and rituals, Allende’s is among the most unusual and rigorous. Ultimately, however, she echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”), E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) and Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), stressing the importance of work ethic over the proverbial muse:

I start all my books on January eighth. Can you imagine January seventh? It’s hell. Every year on January seventh, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and the research materials for the new one. And then on January eighth I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It’s like a journey to another world. It’s winter, it’s raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and I am another person. I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed – because I have a sort of idea that isn’t really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.

She offers three pieces of advice for aspiring writers:

  • It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. Use a thesaurus, use your imagination, scratch your head until it comes to you, but find the right word.
  • When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.
  • When you tell a story in the kitchen to a friend, it’s full of mistakes and repetitions. It’s good to avoid that in literature, but still, a story should feel like a conversation. It’s not a lecture.

Celebrated journalist and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean considers the critical difference between fiction and nonfiction, exploring the osmotic balance of escapism and inner stillness:

When it comes to nonfiction, it’s important to note the very significant difference between the two stages of the work. Stage one is reporting. Stage two is writing.

Reporting is like being the new kid in school. You’re scrambling to learn something very quickly, being a detective, figuring out who the people are, dissecting the social structure of the community you’re writing about. Emotionally, it puts you in the place that everybody dreads. You’re the outsider. You can’t give in to your natural impulse to run away from situations and people you don’t know. You can’t retreat to the familiar.

Writing is exactly the opposite. It’s private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot of it happens invisibly. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing.

A necessary antidote to the tortured-genius cultural mythology of the writer, Orlean, like Ray Bradbury, conceives of writing as a source of joy, even when challenging:

Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.

She ends with four pieces of wisdom for writers:

  • You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.
  • You should read as much as possible. That’s the best way to learn how to write.
  • You have to appreciate the spiritual component of having an opportunity to do something as wondrous as writing. You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard. But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.
  • Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.

True to Alan Watts’s philosophy and the secret to the life of purpose,Michael Lewis remained disinterested in money as a motive – in fact, he recognized the trap of the hedonic treadmill and got out before it was too late:

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers – where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.

My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.

“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeodfamously wrote. It might be an overly cynical notion, one that perpetuates the unjustified yet deep-seated cultural guilt over simultaneously doing good and doing well, but Lewis echoes the sentiment:

Once you have a career, and once you have an audience, once you have paying customers, the motives for doing it just change.

And yet Lewis approaches the friction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – one experienced by anyone who loves what they do and takes pride in clarity of editorial vision, but has an audience whose approval or disapproval becomes increasingly challenging to tune out – with extraordinary candor and insight:

Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.

That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There are invisible pressures. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell. But I don’t find myself thinking, “I can’t write about that because it won’t sell.” It’s such a pain in the ass to write a book, I can’t imagine writing one if I’m not interested in the subject.

Still, his clarity of vision is still what guides the best of his work:

Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do. After that moment there’s always misery. It never goes quite like you think, but that moment is a touchstone, a place to come back to. It gives you a kind of compass to guide you through the story. That feeling has never done me wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the misery it will lead to, but it’s always been right to feel it. And it’s a great feeling.

Read more on the best books on writing, creativity and photography here:  http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=13eb080d8a315477042e0d5b1&id=908a56d436&e=12c1f3c8b2

So why do YOU write? 

Neat Freak Revives

This is a partial reblog from In Praise of Messiness.

I used to want to be a neat freak. 

Last year I redecorated my living room in minimalist fashion so that it would reflect my aspiring neat freak persona. First, I bought a piece of furniture which would hide my CD collection. I permitted no nick-knacks to clutter the room. When it was all finished I would step into this room saying, “yes, I am capable of being neat and tidy.”

This went on until I decided to pursue writing more seriously.  Then, the writer in me couldn’t keep up with the shipshape me I’d been yearning for. Slowly and with great subtlety the neat freak was shoved aside by someone not caring if the candelabra on the living room table was placed in the center. I no longer felt guilty about going to bed with the dishes piled up. Nor did I worry whether I had to push aside pages of manuscript I’d printed out in order to make room for my bowl of cereal.

More importantly, I allowed one of my manuscripts to take up permanent residence on my couch in my cherished minimalist living room. I was becoming one of those women of the fifties who in a rage of liberation tore apart all the plastic coverings on their sofa and allowed the neighbors’ children to sit on it, feet up and all.

Soon my writings began to inhabit the rooms of my apartment like a new family member. Piles of books were now on my grandmother’s antique chest; index cards littered the shelf next to my bed so that when an idea struck me awake in the middle of the night I could jot it down (I have learned the hard way not to rely on my memory for this); my dining room was transformed into a research center; my office…well, have a look.

And throughout all of this I discovered that chaos feeds creativity. After all, it has been said that chaos is the driving force of the universe. Without chaos nothing would happen.  If my tidiness did not stifle my creativity, it kept me from writing. Did I really need to have neat piles of folders in order to transfer onto my computer screen what was inside my head? Did my kitchen have to be spotless before I could feel the ejaculation of creative juices in my mind?

There is also something to be said for messiness in writing. My first drafts are chock full of  clichés,  run on sentences, bland  adjectives (yes,  adjectives and adverbs too), ideas run amok. Notes on whatever I am working on  – a piece of music that stimulates my imagination, a word I hear someone use over the radio, a flash – are scattered throughout my apartment so that I now have scheduled in my writing routine a time slot: transcribe notes into computer.

My first drafts look much like my office.  Would you want to read them?

The first chaotic draft is the starting point. Something to work from.  Without it there is no writing.

Before I am ready to send my work out, bedlam must be uncovered. There are revisions, reading what I have written out loud, rewriting, plucking out adjectives, scrounging the thesaurus, shifting ideas so that they are more coherent, so that my writing is clearer. Cleaner. Tidier. Neat.

That was then and this is now. Neat Freak has come back to visit and during the Christmas holidays I managed to fill a garbage bag full of papers that I no longer needed, with the anxiety that after I’ve thrown it out I will be wanting this exact paper. Oh, well. This is a chance I am willing to take for the sake of making space for the new.

This is my desk today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s a cup from when I was teaching Police Technology, a bottle of Chanel nail polish (doing my nails fills the empty spaces between thoughts), a photo of my sister who died four years ago for guidance, a lavender candle for calmness, a poster of Virginia Woolf which I got when I was in my early twenties while doing research in Bloomsbury, London to remind me why I write and a window which faces my back yard to make me daydream.

This purging, along with the photo of Chekhov’s desk which I posted earlier, gave me the idea to do a series of writers’ desks which I’ll post on Fridays.

What about you? What’s your desk like? Messy or neat freaking clean? Where do you write?   

Meditation,Writing and Solstice

I used to meditate a lot. Go on meditation retreats; meditate in the morning for twenty minutes. In the evening for another twenty minutes. Then I don’t know why but I stopped meditating for some time.

Maybe my life got too busy. Maybe I was too much in a hurry to start the chaos of my day. Maybe I convinced myself that yoga practice was the same as meditation.

But two Fridays ago I attended a meditation session with Grace Bubeck. Grace is one of these women who instills calmness in you. She carries well her name.

Grace Bubeck, Retreat Organizer


We were a small group and started by saying what was on our minds that evening. I was thinking about my writing, going back to the crime novel after spending so many months on The Dating Club novel , which has no crime in it unless one metaphorically takes the abandonment of a daughter as a crime.

So, I started to say how I didn’t know how to approach this novel, A Simple Act of Love. It’s not as if I was starting from scratch. This is a novel I have been working on and off for years.  I didn’t know if I could pull it off. What I mean by that is that if I could write the kind of crime novel that floats in my imagination. The kind of novel that is about relationships and love and happens to have a crime in it.  A crime novel like The Silent Wife.

I wasn’t sure that I had what it took to transpose what was in my head to paper. Nor did I think I had the motivation to go back to it and edit it.

After everyone had said what was on their minds that evening, Grace rang her meditation bell and we fell into silence. Even after so many months away from meditation, I found it easy sitting for twenty minutes. In fact, it felt good. I was allowing myself to do nothing (although meditation is really not about doing nothing).

After the first twenty minutes, we talked again about our experience. Mine was mostly about how I had left meditation.

The second part of meditation was a Heart Meditation. Grace told us to let everything in. Everything is all part of who we are. Just to welcome whatever comes with an open heart.

At first, my meditation started on the rosy road. I was meditating about being confident and passionate about my writing. Yes, that’s what I needed. Passion.  Then fear snuck in. Telling me that maybe I couldn’t pull it off. That I might not have the talent. The stamina. You know.

So I did what Grace had instructed.  I expanded my heart and let the fear in and an insight occurred. I could write with fear and just that realization made the fear dissipate or turn into confidence, I’m not sure which. I knew that although there was still work that had to be done on my manuscript I’d done a lot of it.

Now I needed to take the scalpel to it. I needed to cut out the fluff. To cut out what I need to know but the readers don’t.

The next day I had this in my e-mail http://callumjhackett.com/2013/11/20/a-writer-and-a-physicist-talk-creativity/

When talking about their approaches to writing or scientific problems, they shared in many artists’ feelings that it’s easier to know what’s wrong with something than it is to know what would be right. Creative success doesn’t arrive as the proverbial flash of revelation, it uncovers itself gradually in the editing process – you start by constructing a deformed version of your ideal then identify what’s wrong with it and try out as many alternatives as necessary until, almost by a process of elimination, the most elegant form presents itself. Importantly, this is true of modes of thinking in general, not just of the arts, as Arkani-Hamed describes:

Creativity doesn’t require a virtuosity capable of instantaneous perfection, it needs a honed sensibility of imperfection so that you can work persistently at alternatives until that sense evaporates and what remains is worth an audience.

I wish you peace, light and  gentleness this solstice eve

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/buggolo/318252035/sizes/m/in/photostream/