Sunday, July 6, 2008

A Few Words on Writing Them

By Meredith H. Kaiser
Columbia II Writers Workshop

One of my favorite books on writing is Parting the Curtains: Voices of the Great Southern Writers. Through Dannye Romine Powell's interviews with 22 writers, the rich variety of writing experience is revealed and celebrated. I read it every couple of years and underline newly recognized wisdom each time. Here are a few excerpts.

Shelby Foote, Civil War historian and novelist, recommended reading works of a great writer chronologically to watch him or her grow. He also said that writers who want to write better (who doesn't?) should read and reread the great writers of the past. "When you know where he's going, you can better perceive how he went about getting there. And that's what can teach you really about writing."

Novelist and short story writer Doris Betts said writers must be observant. "It's like being a child, because children can't tell what's important and what's unimportant, so they have to pay attention to everything. Well, writers are like that, I think. They are always just kind of -- I don't know -- watching and listening, and you just can't tell what you are going to use."

Essayist and novelist Walker Percy said, "The best thing about writing is to repeat the ordinary experience, and by putting that experience into language, it makes it available to the person who reads it in a way that hasn't been available before."

T. R. Pearson, author of humorous novels, said, "I don't have any inclination to hang around with people who write books. I know how I am, and I wouldn't want to hang around with me." He also said, "I'm sorry to say that I think writing is a semi-sick compulsion. An itch. It's not very healthy. I feel guilty when I don't write. I can remember, even as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, sitting down and writing, and I can't even begin to tell you why. There was no prospect that I was going to win the Pulitzer Prize when I was thirteen. I don't know what I was doing."

I love this book because I recognize myself in many of its passages. And if someone interviewed me -- a wild-eyed woman, breathing through labor pains as I birth my first novel (I'm sweaty and scared to push, though I know out is the only direction this thing can possibly go!) -- I would say this: Writing expands my heart and it terrifies me. It's like that relationship you know is good for you, but tests you in all the ways you've avoided for so long. I've decided to say yes to it. What choice do I have?

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