Tag Archives: Susan Sontag

Directions: Write. Read. Rewrite. Repeat steps 2 and 3 as needed.

In December 2000 Susan Sontag wrote an essay for The New York Times on the relationship between writing and reading.

…to write she says is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.

We are often our first and most critical judges, she maintains, referring to the stern inscription Ibsen put on the flyleaf of one of his books:

 To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.

Writing, reading, rewriting and then rereading our efforts sounds like an never-ending cycle of punishment – especially if as a writer you are as exacting and unforgiving as suggested by the Ibsen quotation – yet this, Sontag says, is the most pleasurable part of writing.

Setting out to write, if you have the idea of “literature” in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit. 

Revising after reading is a second chance (or third or fourth or fifth or…) to get it ‘right’ – to be clearer, or deeper, more eccentric, or eloquent. As Sontag writes:

You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative. You want to winch yourself up from yourself. You want to winch the book out of your balky mind. As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it. You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book should be — what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be. 

When it goes well, you can experience that most rare of pleasures – a reader’s pleasure – of what you yourself have written on the page. Invariably, it is the love of reading which prompted you to try and write in the first place. Getting absorbed and ‘lost’ in a book  is surely one of our greatest pleasures and, I think, achievements. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in a letter: Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.

Writing Sontag says, is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating…. Allowing yourself, when you dare to think it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration’s shove.
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As someone who consistently wrestles with the demands of writing, my ambitions and hopes for the work, and my so evident short-fallings, I find Sontag’s words warm, wise, familiar and encouraging. Writers beat themselves up. Writers are critical. Why? Because, Sontag reminds me, it matters.
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With thanks to Susan Sontag and The New York Times.
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The full article can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/18/arts/18SONT.html?pagewanted=1

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 141 – 144

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A few more provocations on the writing life…

141).  A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?
  (Susan Sontag)

142).  If you’re actually allowing your creative part to control your writing rather than a more commercial instinct or motive, then you’ll find that all sorts of interesting things will bubble up to the surface.  (Emma Thompson)

143).  You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done. For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality. How so? Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration. The artist learns what to leave out. His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go. The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.  (Ray Bradbury)

144).  Write for tomorrow, not for today.  (Andrew Motion)

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 137 – 140

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A few more shots in the arm from published writers on process and making fiction, and a life.

137).  The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart.   (Susan Sontag)

138).  Keep human.  See places, go places, drink if you feel like it. Don’t be a draught horse! Work with pleasure only.  (Henry Miller)

139).  Language is lazy, it wants to revert to what’s obvious, to what’s been said before, to short cuts to seeing (blue sky, torrential rain, a kindly old lady, and so on). The writer is pushing back against that inertia in expression all the time, refusing the package of familiar associations that offers itself, refusing the comfort of easy moralising, refusing the well-worn perspective.  (Tessa Hadley)

140).  You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.  (Joseph Campbell)

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 133 -136.

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A few more thoughts about writing by those who have written and published spectacularly…

133).  The solution to a problem — a story that you are unable to finish — is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution. Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it. 
 (Susan Sontag. Diary notes. 7/31/73)

134)   I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.  (H.G. Wells)

135)   Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.  (William Wordsworth)

136).  The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle, is the most important time for a writer. Escaping from the typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give the subconscious time to think. Real thinking always happens at the subconscious level.  (Ray Bradbury)

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction:129-132.

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Jet lagged from working in Singapore, here’s some further pieces of advice from the great and the good, whilst I recuperate and formulate a blog on my trip…

129).  In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.  (Rose Tremain)

130).  When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.  (Haruki Murakami)

131).  Moving around is good for creativity: the next line of dialogue that you desperately need may well be waiting in the back of the refrigerator or half a mile along your favorite walk.  (Will Shetterly)

132).  Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stopping too often to think it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along.  (Susan Sontag)

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 115 – 119

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More quotations on writing collected from interviews and festival interviews over the years…

115)  Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stopping too often to think it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along.  (Susan Sontag)

116)  Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.  (Hilary Mantel)

117)   Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.  (Ray Bradbury)

118)   Never fear [the audience] or despise it. Coax it, charm it, interest it, stimulate it, shock it now and then if you must, make it laugh, make it cry, but above all . . . never, never, never bore the hell out of it.  (Noel Coward)

119)  The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.  (William Saroyan)