Sunday, October 18, 2009

every writer absolutely must

read this beautiful essay about his time studying with Annie Dillard by Alexander Chee, the author of the stunning novel Edinburgh (via Angelle). Yes, the essay is pretty, but besides that, it packs a powerful punch of bullet pointable suggestions for being a better writer.

My favorite line:
Yes, everything’s been written, but also, the thing you want to write, before you wrote it, was impossible to write. Otherwise it would already exist. You writing it makes it possible.

Leave me yours in the comments.

(For further excitement with Mr. Chee, check out this picture of him in 1989, the year the essay takes place.)

Happy writing :) Put in a good hour for me today--you'll feel better at the end of it.

39 comments:

Ann Victor said...

Yes, like Edinburgh, it's excellent. There's lots of lovely stuff on Alexander Chee's blog!

Anita Saxena said...

Thank you for sharing this! All I can say is, wow.

Simon C. Larter said...

"Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time."

I shall do this from now on. Every time. Thank you for sharing.

Jenni Bailey said...

I really identify with this:

"Talent could give you nothing. Without work, talent is only talent, promise, not product. I wanted to learn how to go from being the accident at the beginning to a writer, and I learned that from her."

As someone who told myself for years how naturally great I was at writing, only to discover that it didn't really matter because I was naturally awful at some other aspects of being a writer, this line spoke to me. And it's embarrassing to admit that I had that inflated vision on myself, but I feel okay admitting it because I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one. ;)

Lydia Sharp said...

So many good things in that piece, it was difficult to choose one.

Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence.

This is how I feel every day.

I was already planning on putting in more than an hour today, but for you, I'll do an extra hour to say thanks for posting this. And I'm linking it.

Ann Finkelstein said...

Thank you for sharing the essay. My favorite part is about editing.

"Getting your pages back from her was like getting to the dance floor and seeing your favorite black shirt under the nightclub’s blacklight, all the hair and dust that was always there but invisible to you, now visible."

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Haven't read it yet, just had to write how much I enjoyed discovering Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek through a book club a few years ago.

Now, off to read.

Jaye Wells said...

"Lorrie Moore calls the feeling I felt that day “the consolations of the mask,” where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory."

So many quotable lines from this essay. I've bookmarked it for the subtle kicks in the ass I seem to need at least fortnightly.

Eliza Evans said...

Oh, the essay is wonderful! Thank you for posting.

My favorite line: "You can invent the details that don’t matter, she said. At the edges. You cannot invent the details that matter."

angelle said...

oh good, im glad you liked it. it really is so so so helpful, i can't stop thinking about the things he writes about. and of course, it's so well written!

Deb Salisbury said...

That is an excellent essay. I've bookmarked it.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

That was a wonderful essay, Moonie. Inspiring, for sure. And I always go to that place on the bookshelf. Now I'll put my finger in there.

But what do you do when they just don't seem to want literary fiction these days? What do you do when your last four reject letters say that you're talented and that they "admire" your work? Is this a new trend? Using the word "admire"?

I'm planning for the day when admiration turns into jubilation.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I agree. I've read the article twice already, printed it out and highlighted. I love everyone's favorite lines, but I'm also weirdly excited no one has already chosen my very favorite:

"You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you'd be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free."

Friday, when I discovered this article thanks to Twitter, I added a link to it on my blog. I don't know why I didn't do a post on it. Good thinking, moonrat!

The Rejectionist said...

So beautiful! We had a writing teacher who taught briefly with A.D. and told us stories about how she'd chain-smoke in class and send her grad students out to buy her hamburgers. Effing awesome.

_*Rachel*_ said...

You can invent the details that don’t matter, she said. At the edges. You cannot invent the details that matter.

That's my answer to the "You have to write from experience" comment, which I get a lot because I'm still youngish. Doesn't mean I don't have feelings--some of the details that matter.

Anita said...

Oh, Moonrat. I needed just a smidgen more motivation to put in a good hour. Thanks for giving it to me!

Kristan said...

The sentences Lydia and Jenni pointed out were my faves too.

Thanks for sharing this!!

Tina Lee said...

Thanks for the link. All of the essay was so memorable, but my favorite:
Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work.
Good to hear, because I CAN work.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'll check it out.

Dana said...

Love! So, so much! My favorite:
"Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time."
Thanks for the inspiration. I will try to get in one good hour today... just for you. :)

Jm Diaz said...

Quite nice... and its is always a relief to read something that gives authors hope, rather than the usual doom and gloom of the impossibility of getting published.

Thanks,

Merry Monteleone said...

Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.

The whole damn thing is quotable. Thanks, moonie, I needed that today.

And now, because of the picture looking like Morrissey... I'll have this damn song running through my head all day...

We hate it when our friends become successful... and if they're northern... that makes it even worse and... if we can destroy them.....

Come on, you know you're singing it now too... with the British accent...

Crimey said...

Moony, thank you for sharing this. I was feeling a little iffy about writing tonight and now I'm going to start with an hour and go from there.

My favorite graph: "...avoid emotional language. The line goes grey when you do that, she said. Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad. When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. She isn’t angry, Annie said. She throws his clothes out the window. Be specific."

Mim said...

"Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing."

"Talent could give you nothing. Without work, talent is only talent, promise, not product. I wanted to learn how to go from being the accident at the beginning to a writer, and I learned that from her."


This was simply an awesome essay. And I needed that quote. I want to print it out and put it up on my wall.

Ben-M said...

A fantastic article, thanks for sharing!

DebraLSchubert said...

This made my day. Thank you so much for posting it! I will revisit it often and soak in as much as I can.

stephanie said...

I watched as the sentences that didn’t matter fell away.

Perfect timing for this. Thank you.

JenniferWriter said...

What a wonderful essay. I loved this quote from AD:

I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.

I often feel the same: that I went to school with so many gifted writers and that I'm not worthy to be writing. Yet I am writing while they are not. On a bad day, just getting words on the page is a struggle, a victory.

Anna Claire said...

I love this line:
"I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing."

I worry too much about people who are more talented than me. That line really put it in perspective.

Rebecca Knight said...

"So many quotable lines from this essay. I've bookmarked it for the subtle kicks in the ass I seem to need at least fortnightly."--Commenter Jaye

Me, too! :D What a wonderful composite of all the things we should be looking for in our own writing. I especially like the bit about passive writing and how to overcome it.

Crystal Posey said...

Wonderful! Thanks for sharing. I have two favorite parts:

"You are the only one of you, she said of it. Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original, she said dismissively."

"If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel. No one likes to be told how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel."

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

So many solid pieces of writing advice, tender details, and I loved the bookstore anecdote at the end, but here is the part that made me nod and smile:

"If I’ve done my job, she said in the last class, you won’t be happy with anything you write for the next 10 years. It’s not because you won’t be writing well, but because I’ve raised your standards for yourself."

Thanks for sharing this with us. It's a keeper that I plan to read again and recommend to others. (Need I say I'm also envious of anyone who gets such a great teacher -- and has the wisdom to realize it. I usually don't wish to be 20 years old again, but this essay put me there for a moment...)

Christa said...

This article really resonated with me. It's odd, because most of the info in the article I had already heard or read about along the way. Everyone has heard of "show don't tell" and "minimize adverbs." However, the way it was presented gave me a much deeper apprecation and understanding of those concepts. So much so, that I actually had several 'aha' moments as things finally took root in my mind.

Thanks so much for sharing!

Elizabeth Benedict said...

I'm so gratified to see the response to Alex Chee's remarkable essay on Annie Dillard. I'm the editor of the anthology in which the essay appears - and was written for. The essay is one of 30 on the subject of mentors, muses & what I call monsters. The book is about to be for sale, and though I know I'm biased, the essays are ALL pretty incredible. The early reviews of the book are phenomenal. Please visit the book blog for more info- and THANK YOU for reading and writing! www.mentorsmusesmonsters.blogspot.com
-- EB

CKHB said...

I'm blogging about this today. Thank you!

Lou said...

Great blog. You have a new follower: me!

Thanks for sharing the essay. It's really informative and makes me want to write more and more! Inspiring. :)

Paul said...

Another thank you!

Anne Lyken-Garner said...

I had to read that quote twice before it made sense to me, but yes, how profound.

thepopeofbeers said...

Thank you for this essay. Like many other people here, the quote about talent giving you nothing was a favorite.

I say "a favorite" because, also like many other people here, I pretty much loved the entire damn thing.