ENGL 230A (an excerpt of the syllabus)
- A notebook. A writing utensil
- John C. Gardner Art of Fiction
- Samuel Delany About Writing
- Richard Bausch Norton Anthology of Short Fiction
- Tobias Wolff, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories
- Richard Cohen How to Write Like Tolstoy
- Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story
- Toni Morrison What Moves at the Margins
“I seek the nerves under your skin.”
—Patti Smith, babelogue
The finest writing is for the voice. No word is a word by itself. Every word is multiple, and not simply because there are homonyms and homophones hanging around pretending to be friends. A word is made of sounds. A word is made of marks. A word is made of little muscle movements in the throat, which accompany our interior speech—that invisible, inaudible, yet clearly heard interior talk of which Sam Beckett made himself the master. So there are two spoken tongues to set against the one we write. And if we allow the written word to stand for the spoken one, and silent speech to precede both, the written word works in three realms at once, not just one.
“All writing is confession. Confession masked and revealed in the voices and faces of our characters. All is hunger. The longing to be known fully and still loved. The admission of our own inherent vulnerability, our weakness, our tenderness of skin, fragility of heart, our overwhelming desire to be relieved of the burden of ourselves in the body of another, to be forgiven of our ultimate aloneness in the mystical body of a god or the common work of a revolution. These are human considerations that the best of writers presses her fingers upon. The wound ruptures and… heals.”
“The effect of key, the press of syllable, the modulation of tone, the vowel’s drawl, the rhythm of hip and word and world, the flick of the tongue, or the heat of the hand can create sublime and profound states. … Desire insisted at times on a kind of formlessness, indeterminacy, excess. … Such words [words that have been set free to act on each other in different ways] stay with me much in the same way sensation remains in my body long after the lover has departed. … This is what art does for me. It opens new places; it affords glimpses not glimpsed before.”
“What I want to see is a strong literature, and I want to see a literature which is also very conscientious about language. That is another reason to be against the so-called media, because television debases language literature has to be against television and similar forms of communication.”
“[Writing begins in] a fabricated absence. That’s where I start from. … It’s the hole idea. … It’s the story that you’re told that goes, “Once upon a time you weren’t here. … and you didn’t do shit.”
“If young writers were to ask me for advice, the first one that I would is that they renounce living from their writings.’
“I am dying to write. I’m not dying to be published. It is a popular misconception that to be published is to achieve immortality. For me, immortality is in the moment of writing, an act that confirms that I am alive.”
“Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly – once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”
Something to remember before we begin and risk forgetting. Remember if you do not use language, you will inevitably be used by language.
Do this only if you cannot imagine your life not doing it. Do this because you are obsessed. Writers who do not reinvent what it means to be a writer are writers in the process of disappearing. So for at least part of this writing class I will be encouraging you to experiment. To be dangerous. Play with words. Get your fingernails dirty. The grime beneath your fingernails. Play with chains of words and clauses and dashes and fullstops. Mix short and long, neat and nasty. It is never “write what you know.” Write what you are willing and able to discover through writing. The following is writing. Writing is not following. Why always give a reader something you already know. Dramatize the wandering mind through character and action as story is discovered. The becoming nomadic. Allow yourself to be surprised. “It’s like driving at night,” E.L. Doctorow says. “You can only see as far as your headlights.” Do not set out “knowing” a priori what a story is. Write to discover. Wallow in confusion, misdirection, and eccentric impulses. But expect to find something, some meaning and purpose as you go along.
The emphasis in this workshop will be on the disciplines of writing. Concentration on process, awareness of word-by-word formation of texture, tone, invention; craft and susceptibility to the life of words. Exploration of detail. Seeing, thinking with real things and how to make those things tangibly existent as writing and as necessity, as story. Emphasis will be on production, discussion of the materials in a theoretical and aesthetic workshop environment. What is the art, its materials, the weights of awareness the writer carries to its making and process?
… In short, a very large part of what we do, a very large part of what “writing” is, is resistance—a process of scrutinizing and discarding the word, the narrative, the interpretation that comes easily to mind. On and off paper, writers tend to use their time and their mind to evade or subvert the terms in which they’ve been told to see what they see, and even the notion that they do see what they’ve been told they see. They must then use their minds and their time to avoid substituting in its place some artificial invention or construction of their own.
Every sentence allowed to remain upon the page will resemble the dazed survivors of a battle, after the dead and wounded have been carried away, when their alternatives have been rejected and erased, to leave some words still standing on the field, but standing as markers over graves.
Every time I am faced with a blank page, I feel that I have to rediscover literature for myself. I have given the major part of my life to literature (nearly 60 years), and I can offer you only doubts.
I think we ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into the forest far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
Writing and reading are not separate. Reading is a part of writing. A real reader is a writer. A real reader is already on the way to writing.
– Helene Cixous
Jorge Luis Borges always argued that good readers are poets as singular, and as rare, as great authors themselves, and he called reading an activity subsequent to writing, more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.
Many people mistake the buying of the book for the buying of the contents of the book. –Schopenhauer
Enjoy the semester. Start writing now.
The Johnny Cash-Roseanne Cash Assignment:
Johnny Cash gave his daughter Roseanne a list of 100 songs that she needed to know in order to understand her place in the tradition and in order to add to the tradition. In order for her to be innovative and find her own voice and to write the songs that would then contribute to the tradition, she needed to know these 100 songs.
I want you to create a list of 50 books that you have read that you feel your sons or daughters would need to be familiar with in order for them to contribute something new to the literary tradition of creative nonfiction. These are not necessarily the 50 books that have most directly influenced you; rather, they are the 50 books that you have read that you feel strongly about as necessary reading in order for a young writer to transform tradition. These are the books you have read that you deem essential to an understanding of a variety of elements of the craft, of the aesthetics, of the philosophy behind writing. I am not asking you to reproduce a canon that your undergraduate professors forced on you; I am asking, rather, that you actively engage in creating a canon of the books that you have read. Whittle down all the books you have read to a list of 50. Do not worry about listing them in any sort of hierarchical order.
Roseanne Cash then selected a handful of these songs and recorded a cover album of them. I am not telling you to do this, but to be able to look at these important books that you have read and to see them in this way is important.