The Poetry Question

Discovering the Relevance of Words

How And Why We Write – Via “This Recording”

I’m always interested in what inspires the classic authors, so here’s something that wet my proverbial whistle, and will hopefully do the same for you:

Henry Miller

“Sometimes I would sit at the machine for hours without writing a line. Fired by an idea, often an irrelevant one, my thoughts would come too fast to be transcribed. I would be dragged along at a gallop, like a stricken warrior tied to his chariot.

On the wall at my right there were all sorts of memoranda tacked up: a long list of words, words that bewitched me and which I intended to drag in by the scalp if necessary; reproductions of paintings, by Uccello, della Francesca, Breughel, Giotto, Memling; titles of books from which I meant to deftly lift passages; phrases filched from my favorite authors, not to quote but to remind me how to twist things occasionally; for example: “The worm that would gnaw her bladder” or “the pulp which had glutinized behind his forehead.” In the Bible were slips of paper to indicate where gems were to be found. The Bible was a veritable diamond mine. Every time I looked up a passage I became intoxicated. In the dictionary were place marks for lists of kind or another; flowers, birds, trees, reptiles, gems, poisons, and so on. In short, I had fortified myself with a complete arsenal.

But what was the result? Pondering over a word like praxis, for example, or pleroma, my mind would wander like a drunken wasp.”

Toni Morrison

“Very, very early in the morning, before they got up. I’m not very good at night. I don’t generate much. But I’m a very early riser, so I did that, and I did it on weekends. In the summers, the kids would go to my parents in Ohio, where my sister lives – my whole family lives out there — so the whole summer was devoted to writing.

And that’s how I got it done. It seems a little frenetic now, but when I think about the lives normal women live — of doing several things — it’s the same. They do anything that they can. They organize it. And you learn how to use time. You don’t have to learn how to wash the dishes every time you do that. You already know how to do that. So, while you’re doing that, you’re thinking. You know, it doesn’t take up your whole mind. Or just on the subway. I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in that packed train, where you can’t do anything anyway. Well, you can read the paper, but you’re sort of in there.

And then I would think about, well, would she do this? And then sometimes I’d really get something good. By the time I’d arrived at work, I would jot it down so I wouldn’t forget. It was a very strong interior life that I developed for the characters, and for myself, because something was always churning. There was no blank time. I don’t have to do that anymore. But still, I’m involved in a lot of things, I mean, I don’t go out very much.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell students to make their characters want something right away — even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.

When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.”

 

 

***This post comes from a website called This Recording.***

 

About Christopher Margolin

Chris Margolin spent more than a decade in Education as a high school English teacher, and is now an Instructional Coach for the Longview School District. He is also the founder of The Poetry Question, an online journal which focuses on reviews of small press poetry publications, and runs a regular series called "The Power of Poetry," where notable poets share their personal stories of how poetry has affected their lives. Margolin resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife, and daughter.

One comment on “How And Why We Write – Via “This Recording”

  1. kiwiskan
    June 1, 2013

    I liked the bit where Henry said he had all sorts of memoranda on the wall to his right. I’m left-handed and mine are on the left. (Just a bit of useless information for you) 🙂

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