July 2, 2012

Writers on Writing

Neil Gaiman, famous for writing The Sandman series, American Gods, Coraline and a lot more, says, “I make things up and write them down.”

The pieces of my writing that I’m collecting for Stones Gathered Together, are partly made up stories, partly to do with things I think about and partly close to being memoirish, derived from my life. I think I remember what is remembered and what is made up, and am aware that the remembering and writing down add layers to the original memories, which become something other than the original experience, even though the thing remembered has its core of this-thing-happened-to-me.

(Unattributed photograph from (http://info.neded.org/stathand/parttwo/cather.htm)
Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” And Chekov said, “When men ask me how I know so much about men, they get a simple answer: everything I know about men, I learned from me.” Both of these suggest that writing is largely memoir in different forms, in opposition to Neil Gaiman’s “making it up.”

What writers write about writing is one of my favourite areas of reading. As with, as it is said, the bible and Shakespeare, you could find a quote from a published writer to fit just about any opinion on what writing/ literature is and how it happens. That’s one of the things that makes it interesting; writing is more complex than learning how to fix a bicycle, or knit a jumper.

Susan Sontag writes in the second edited (by her son, David Reiff) collection of writings from her diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, that she  wanted to “play only with the top team,” who she defined as “Those who become reference points for successive generations in many languages (eg, Kafka).” Earlier in the same book she says, “I’m good at understanding things …. But I’m not a genius, I’ve always known that. My mind isn’t good enough, isn’t really first rate … ultimately too conventional … I’m not mad enough, not obsessed enough.”

Gertrude Stein [Internet]. 2012. http://www.biography.com/people/gertrude-stein-9493261

Gertrude Stein, on the other hand, knew she was a genius, and said so, often. (There are a few references to her in Sontag’s diaries but she doesn’t put Stein in the same team as Kafka.)

I could do this for a long time—quote writers and compare what they say about writing to what other writers say about it. However, the one central idea, the incontrovertible core, is that a writer writes. And if, as Gertrude Stein said, “Remarks are not literature,” then I had better stop these remarks and do some writing. Whether what I then write can be called “literature” involves a whole other discussion which I’ll pick up in a later post.

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