Authors Share Their Best Writing Tips with NYPL
Writing can be a daunting task. You sit in front of a blank page. You try to make something where there was nothing, and your only material is language. Yet over the years, NYPL has spoken to dozens of writers who have faced exactly this challenge and ended up on the other side of a finished book. If you want to write, then get ready to take notes. Here are some of the best bits of writing advice from the NYPL video archive.
Zadie Smith on writing and belief
"Each novel I've written, any novel anyone writes, it's not that you sit down saying 'I believe this, and now I will write this," but by the nature of your sentences, just by the things that you emphasize or that you don't emphasize, you're constantly expressing a belief about the way you think the world is, about the things that you think are important, and those things change. They do change. And the form of the novel changes as well. A very simple example is in a lot of my fiction I've delved very deeply into people's heads, into their consciousness and tried to take out every detail, and the older I get and the more that I meet people and realize I don't know them. My own husband is a stranger to me, really, fundamentally at the end you don't know these people. That should be reflected in what you write, that total knowledge is impossible."
Etgar Keret on form
"I'm not saying that form isn't important, but you feel that here in the U.S. sometimes, especially in a creative writing department, it's a shrine of form. It's like people comparing sentences, you know, people writing beautiful sentences and putting them in a wooden box and saying, 'I'm going to use this sentence sometime.' But you don't use the sentence sometime because if you have a good pickup line for a Chinese midget, you will not meet a Chinese midget in your life. So don't write a story about a Chinese midget just because you have a good pickup line! Write your story. When you get there, find a good sentence. If you don't have one, use a cliché. Maybe it will work, you know?"
Geoff Dyer on not suffering the anxiety of influence
"The fact that stuff's been written about before liberates one and frees one from having to do the donkey work of conveying facts and stuff. So, for example, so much has been written about D.H. Lawrence. There are great biographies of Lawrence so that meant I didn't have to do all that stuff. I could just write my crazy book about Lawrence. A book like that couldn't reasonably be the first book about Lawrence, so it's good I had all those things to draw on."
Jesmyn Ward on writing honestly
"With my first novel, I was encountering so much tragedy in my real life that the last thing I wanted to do was wrestle with it in my fiction. But because I was loath to do that, it meant I was cheating and I wasn't telling the truth. And so I understood that that was the case when I began Salvage [the Bones], you know, I understood that I had failed in a way when I wrote my first novel. So when I wrote Salvage the Bones, it was very important to me to tell more of the truth. None of the stories I've written have been as searingly honest as the stories I tell in Men We Reaped."
Pico Iyer on retaining mystery
"I said, 'No. Let this book hover somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Let me give the reader no clue about how to categorize it before she begins or even after she's finished. Let me put the reader on alert, on edge, not knowing what she's going to get into.'"
Toni Morrison on writing what you don't know
"I tell my students; I tell everybody this. When I begin a creative writing class I say, 'I know you've heard all your life, "Write what you know." Well I am here to tell you, "You don't know nothing. So do not write what you know. Think up something else. Write about a young Mexican woman working in a restaurant and can't speak English. Or write about a famous mistress in Paris who's down on her luck."
Timothy Donnelly on collaging words
"I think sometimes collaging and a certain amount of levity, a kind of spiritedness of making allows me to feel more comfortable folding in some matters of great and publish import without it seeming to strange or too heavy-handed or too ponderous."
Cheryl Strayed on how to make it as a writer
"It's about having strength rather than fragility. Resilience and faith and nerve. And really leaning hard into work... Writing is hard for every one of us, straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig."