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Authors Share Their Best Writing Tips with NYPL

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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.

The Pittsburg [sic] visible-writing machine.
The Pittsburg [sic] visible-writing machine. Image ID: 1541737

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."

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Excellent piece. I love the

Excellent piece. I love the utilization of the deeply rich moving image archives held at NYPL. I'd like to see more of that. The Reserve Film and Video Collection has remarkable riches that could, using fair use, be extracted for similar exploits. The first three that come to mind are: "W.H. Auden: Poet of Disenchantment" http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/17662798052907_wh_auden ; "Christopher Isherwood, Over There, On a Visit" http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/17104528052907_christopher_isherwood,_over_there_on_a_visit ; and "World of Light: A Portrait of May Sarton" http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/17664028052907_world_of_light_a_portrait_of_may_sarton This synergy between the traditional precept of libraries as strictly literary and its vast moving image and audio collection is a welcome acknowledgement. Thank you so much.

Amazing Blog Post

Excellent piece. I love the utilization of the deeply rich moving image archives held at NYPL. I'd like to see more of that. The Reserve Film and Video Collection has remarkable assets that could, using fair use, be extracted for similar exploits. The first three that come to mind are: "W.H. Auden: Poet of Disenchantment" http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/17662798052907_wh_auden ; "Christopher Isherwood, Over There, On a Visit" http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/17104528052907_christopher_isherwood,_over_there_on_a_visit ; and "World of Light: A Portrait of May Sarton" http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/17664028052907_world_of_light_a_portrait_of_may_sarton This synergy between the traditional precept of libraries as strictly literary and its vast moving image and audio collections is a welcome acknowledgement. I for one would like to see more harmonious marriages of seemingly disparate collections for the fuller understanding of NYPL's holdings, and of course the subject at hand. Thank you so much.

The best writing advice I ever got

When I left my last full-time job (at Paramount Pictures) to start a writing life, my friend Francis Coppola -- a remarkable director and brilliant screenwriter -- gave me how-to-write advice. It was not metaphorical or of-the-soul. It was practical, even mechanical on the surface, but it worked as if I were tossing chunks of meat to placate Cerberus, who guards the gates of hell. (Which is a pretty good place to write, once you get past the dog.) I used Francis's device successfully for years. Here it is, adapted for computer use: -- Decide how many words you will write each day. No soaring aspirations here: be utterly practical. If you decide you'll write, say, 2000 words a day and you can't, you'll get discouraged and might quit writing. Your number must be what you actually can accomplish, even if it's only 200 words, or even less. -- Every day meet that goal. When you have, stop. Switch to some other task and do not go back to what you've just written that day. --If you come to a sticking point in your writing, do not struggle to "write" it. Instead, write it deliberately badly, really badly, so that when you eventually go back to edit and revise, you won't fool yourself into thinking that what you've written is any good. --Each day, when you sit down to write, start a new blank page. Do not read what you wrote the previous day, or you'll get caught up in re-writing or depression and will forget your purpose, which is to produce the number of words you've assigned yourself. --Indeed, do not read anything you've written until you've come to the end of your story. Only when you've come to the end can you go back to the beginning and start the process of revision.

Writing my late mother's

Writing my late mother's memoir. Thank you Naomi Fein for conveying Francis Ford Coppola's advice. I've been rereading my 29,000 words each time I sit down to write (which hasn't been on a daily basis....a girl has to earn a living, you know). I will make an effort to get down to writing the fresh new material before I continue to revisit and re-tweek the already written. Makes sense.

Update: it took months and I

Update: it took months and I never imagined I'd be saying this, but my manuscript is nearly complete and is close to 90,000 words. I chipped away at it a little at a time. (Working title: Pearl's Party). It's more than an homage...it's a single mother's guide to mambo-ing through life while raising a child. Thanks again for your tip.

Pico Iyer's tip on retaining

Pico Iyer's tip on retaining mystery works for me because when I read a book and I'm kept on the edge and in the end there's an unsolved mystery. I keep imagining what would happen and waiting for the next release to find it out and compare to my version. Sometimes, I think my versions are better. Nevertheless, this process of making my own continuation while waiting for the actual continuation is priceless. Many writers just follow general writing tips and key elements like the ones posted by http://customwritingcompany.com/blog/key-elements-of-a-high-quality-college-writing/. But these doesn't make their works special. They make them average, just a one-time read. But following tips like these or discovering something new can make an average writing a great one.

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