We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!
What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?
What matters most, I think, is not technique but feeling—the emotions with which we write. Writing an early draft, we have to let go, forget caution and embarrassment, confront trouble. Much of my writing time is spent getting into the frame of mind in which that’s possible. We all have different ways.
To revise, we need to ask the kind of obvious questions we ask in the rest of life. “This thing I wrote—does it make sense? Is it clear? Does it get boring?” There are no rules. Some pages and paragraphs and sentences will be good, some won’t. Much of the technique consists of not
treating writing as something with a special technique, treating it more like other things we manage to do, though we may not look very professional doing them—cooking a meal or getting ready to have people over. Writing is like that: sloppy, haphazard, but manageable if we work hard but don’t take it too seriously.
Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?
I wish I could say that I never
base characters on real people! I believe in the imagination! And generally I don’t start with someone real. I think of a situation—maybe “a woman on a wooden pier waiting to be picked up by a boat.” I try to glean what’s happening, and who she is. It’s a wobbly old pier, so she can’t pace comfortably, and she’s new to this kind of place. . . . She’s barefoot, and just got a splinter, and somehow that suggests her job teaching kindergarten and her cousin the cop. . . and is he the person coming in the boat? And who’s with him? I make up characters and stories the way we bring back lost memories, detail by detail. But Grace Paley says somewhere that all her characters are invented except the father, who is her father. And I’ve found myself putting pieces of my father into a couple of novels. Not all of him, and the characters also have traits he didn’t have. Aspects of my father. I don’t know why.
After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?
I envy the courage of writers who put random thoughts on pages for months without
an idea. They trust that their unconscious minds will eventually disgorge one, when the act of writing or typing lulls them into saying what’s most important to them. These writers suffer more than the rest of us, and have false starts, but eventually their work may be more authentic.
I have been known to begin a story that way, but for a novel, I wait for an idea, and make notes. But then I go someplace where I can be my uncensored self (not my desk, where business occurs) and write nothing until a word I don’t expect comes out of nowhere. After all, what’s hardest about starting anything new is to keep from writing what you expected to write. I too believe in letting the unconscious mind give us new thoughts when we’re drowsy and irresponsible—but I make it a little easier by having some notion of where I’m going.
What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you?
The short stories in Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle
and Grace Paley’s The Little Disturbances of Man
and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
made me think I could try writing short stories: they were about ordinary people, people in messy cities like those I knew, people from immigrant families, as I am.
Jane Austen’s Emma
is about a young woman with many flaws whom we like anyway, and E.M. Forster’s Howards End
is about a personal connection between two women—sisters—that is so nuanced and strong that it enables them to fix their lives when the world of “telegrams and anger” has made trouble for them. That’s what I want to write about: ordinary people, flawed people, people with intense inner lives for whom emotional connection can make a practical difference—who can do what they need to do because they understand each other.
Learn more about the book below: