“I can’t separate my experience as a mother from my life as a writer. Writing has always been the way I order the universe and make sense of chaos. It’s how I figure out what I think and feel. It’s where I pour my anger and dread. It’s where I feel most free, and it’s where I fight. Becoming a parent has profoundly shaped my vision of the world, the same way that becoming a pirate or an arsonist or chronically ill changes your perspective and how you move in the world. You never look at the world the same way. The stakes are different. You are different. I know stuff about the world, about myself, I’d never know if I wasn’t someone’s mother. I’d like to think it’s made me a smarter, more compassionate human being. By the same token it also changes how people look at you. It’s funny we so often regards mothers as being one-dimensional, sexless, creatures—toothless, when in fact I know I’m a much more interesting and dangerous person now than I ever was before.”
“Learn to live on air… Avoid all messy and needy people including family; they threaten your work… Once you’ve truly begun, slow down. The difference between publishing two good books and forty mediocre books is terribly large.”
“For me, at least, writing consists very largely of exploring intuition. A character is really the sense of a character, embodied, attired, and given voice as he or she seems to require. Where does this creature come from? From watching, I suppose. From reading emotional significance in gestures and inflections, as we do all the time. These moments of intuitive recognition float free from their particular occasions and recombine themselves into nonexistent people the writer and, if all goes well, the reader feel they know.”
“Memory belongs to the imagination. Human memory is not like a computer that records things; it is part of the imaginative process, on the same terms as invention. In other words, inventing a character or recalling a memory is part of the same process. This is very clear in Proust: For him there is no difference between lived experience—his relationship with his mother, and so forth—and his characters. Exactly the same type of truth is involved.”
“Montaigne said of his essays, “I have no more made this book than this book has made me.” I think he means his writing revealed him to himself, and the revelations weren’t always consciously intended. Again and again in his essays he seems to discover himself inadvertently, which is to say only that your radically personal identity, with or without your consent, is made evident in your writing. Like a fingerprint.”
“I think we name ourselves, more or less, whenever we write, and thus tend always to write about ourselves. When people ask if you write by hand or use a typewriter or a computer, they are interested to know how personal your writing is. But even now in the age of electronic writing when the revelations of handwriting have become rare, a ghostly electronic residue of persons remains faintly discernible in words and sentence structure.”
“Nothing should be easier than talking about ways in which I write about myself, but I find it isn’t at all easy. Indeed, in writing about myself I encounter a problem that engages me even as I write this sentence. The problem is how not to write merely about myself. I think the problem is endemic among writers whether or not they are aware of it. The basic elements of writing—diction, grammar, tone, imagery, the patterns of sound made by your sentences—say a good deal about you, so that it is possible for you to be writing about yourself before you even know you are writing about yourself. Regardless of your subject, the basic elements, as well as countless and immeasurable qualities of mind, are at play in your writing and will make your presence felt to a reader as palpably as your handwriting. You virtually write your name, as it were, before you literally sign your name, every time you write.”
“Usually, when writing about myself, I will disguise the people I talk about and never use their real names. Occasionally, when I want to say something innocuous or affectionate, I’ll ask permission to use the real name. One of my writer friends, also a former student, found it mysteriously impossible not to use real names when writing about herself, though it could make no difference to the quality or the sale of her book. She simply couldn’t bring herself to change the names. As a result, people were hurt and family relations were irreparably damaged. There is something horrific about seeing your name in print. For some of us, it’s almost as disturbing as a photograph. Even when writing only about myself, I’m reluctant to use my name in a sentence and I do it only when I have no choice. It gives me the creeps to write “Leonard” or “Lenny,” except in letters.”
Mike Meginnis discusses the dirty secret behind the writing community: you’re asked to support and read far more than you can afford to spend money and time on, and so you do what anyone would do. You lie.
“In this ecosystem, you feel certain pressures. We call this mess a community because we want to believe that we’re all sharing something. We have limited resources: limited time, limited money. And yet we want to share. And so we share our praise. We praise things we don’t really like. We praise things because we see other members of the community praising them. And it feels good to praise, to be generous. The less sympathetic motive, the core one, is that we pretend to care about others so that others will pretend to care about us.”
From The Paris Review:
“The questions I wanted to answer with a ‘yes’ as I wrote were, Is this surprising? Does it make me laugh? Does it submit totally to the horny madness? Is it strange? I like strangeness. When something feels strange but doesn’t feel off-putting or unpleasant, that’s a sign that you’re on the right track. So I was hoping for a certain amount of that. I thought the part where she ends up in the guy’s urethra was good and weird.”
To celebrate the opening of the Denis Johnson archive at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, we’ll be posting materials throughout the day. The celebrated author of Tree of Smoke, Jesus’ Son, and Train Dreams keeps out of the public eye, making this a rare look into his process.
Above: Johnson’s motivational notes.
From The Paris Review:
“My twenties weren’t terribly productive. I wasted a lot of time. I had a mental deadline that I would finish a book by the time I turned thirty. I blew the deadline. I had a job doing technical writing, which was really consuming me. I wasn’t sleeping. So my wife and I figured out that we could live for six months, mostly with the money she had saved up. I quit the job and wrote as hard as I’ve ever written. I would get up at eight in the morning and write until seven at night.
“My wife was working two days a week, so I would take care of our daughter, Alice, on those days, and she took care of Alice on the other days. When you have a child, you get a surge of ambition, or a surge of hormonal urgency, to get something done, something worthy of your new station in life. I gave myself a new deadline: Finish the novel while you’re still thirty. Do something your child might be able to read when she grows up.
“My code name for the book was ‘Desperation.’”
“That is one thing I am sure of amid my many uncertainties regarding the literary vocation: deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him, because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life, never mind the social, political, or financial rewards of what he might achieve through it.”
-Mario Vargas Llosa, Letters to a Young Novelist