On Writing

Now that the book lists of 2022 have subsided like the rains in California, here’s a glimpse of last year’s reading related to writing.

From How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Authors, Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanaugh, in which Szymborska responds to writers’ questions and pulls no punches.

A young writer from Lesser Wolka asked where he should travel to get the experience to be a writer:

In fact, the writer develops internally, within his own heart and mind: through an innate (we repeat, innate) propensity for thought, acute sensitivity to minor matters, astonishment at what others see as ordinary. Trips abroad? We sincerely hope you take them. But before you head off to Capri, we suggest a trip to Lesser Wolka. If you come back with nothing to write about, then no azure grottoes will save you.

This one wanted poetry defined:

A definition of poetry in one sentence—please. We know at least five hundred from various sources, none of which strike us as both all-embracing and pleasingly precise. Each expresses the taste of its own age…But Carl Sandburg’s lovely aphorism comes to mind: “Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly.”

An artist does what she must to get the POV she needs


From A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernández

It will take years to understand that writing makes everything else possible. Writing is how I learn to love my father and where I come from. Writing is how I leave him and also how I take him with me.

From Borges and Me: An Encounter, Jay Parini

What Alastair Reid told Parini:

I learned to write from Graves by sitting beside him, allowing him to ‘correct’ me, as he put it. …he gave me a few pages to translate. I worked intensely for hours, making what I thought was a perfect English version. And put the pages on his desk, standing beside him. He scanned them quickly and said, “sit!” I pulled up a chair. Then watched as he crossed out sentences with his fountain pen or circled them to move to another place. He crossed out adjectives but found better nouns, ones that didn’t need propping up with modifiers. The same with my adverbs, which got swallowed into better verbs. If you need an adjective or adverb, you’re still fishing for the right noun or verb.

From These Precious Days, Ann Patchett

How other people live is pretty much all I think about. Curiosity is the rock upon which fiction is built. But for all the times people have wanted to tell me their story because they think it would make a wonderful novel, it pretty much never works out. People are not characters, no matter how often we tell them they are; conversations are not dialogue; and the actions of our days don’t add up to a plot.

From Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood

An epigram Atwood keeps: “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like paté.”

 An art of any kind is a discipline; not only a craft—that too—but a discipline in the religious sense, in which the vigil of waiting, the creation of a receptive spiritual emptiness, and the denial of self all play their part.

From The Epicure’s Lament: A Novel, Kate Christensen

The subway train doesn’t match up exactly to the platform, mind the gap…successful metaphors cause us to look up abruptly from the page to catch them as they fly, and bad ones cause us to shift uneasily in our chairs as if in the grip of a bad smell, rubbing the page in hopes of erasing it. A bad metaphor makes the world seem dim and creaky; a good one shines a light into the gap for a brief instant.


I adore prompts. If you write to one of these, please post the results in comments on the blog. I’d love to see it.

from Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga

The first sentence of this 200-page novella: “I was not sorry when my brother died.”  Write something that begins, “I was not sorry…”

From Twenty-five Short Stories, Stephen Vincent Benét

The first sentence of Benét’s “The Die-hard”: “There was a town called Shady, Georgia, and a time that’s gone, and a boy named Jimmy Williams who was curious about things.”

Your prompt: There was a town called_______ and a time ______ and a ____ named _______ who was curious about things. Go!

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5 Responses to On Writing

  1. Blogert Dogert says:

    I love both the Atwood takes, and was surprised to see Mr. Benét! This is all a fun piece, all quotes with truth in them. Thanks.

  2. Fun read – love “no azure grottoes will save you”

    • dubrava says:

      I enjoyed Szymborska’s book so much: it was hard to settle on just two quotes from her advice to writers. And yes, if you can’t find inspiration in your hometown, those azure grottoes will do you no good. Thanks, Kathleen!

  3. Winnie Barrett says:

    Pat, I love free writes. They have been delightful and profound. We’ve been doing them for several years in our little group. Ha. Send more !

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