Welcome to issue five of On Writing, a fortnightly collection of writing advice I’ve found from across the internet.
I read a lot of writers talking about writing and I listen to a lot of podcasts about writing and I thought, why not share the love a little with these short links for you. I hope it’s of interest to you. I plan to keep this newsletter free but will be dropping in links to where you can support me and my work, if any of this resonates. Any links to buy books will be through my affiliate link at bookshop.org. Obviously buy your books wherever is easiest for you or get them from the library, but bookshop.org does give a chunk of every sale to independent bookshops and a small commission to affiliates like me.
1) Sanjena Sathian on riddles
I am reading Sanjena Sathian’s excellent, funny debut novel Gold Diggers at the moment. I really recommend it. She has appeared on a bunch of podcasts I really like, like Desi Books and The Maris Review. There are some great interviews with her about a range of subjects but pertinent to the point of this newsletter, I found this one on her creative writing teaching interesting. In response to the best writing advice she returns to most as a teacher, she said this:
‘I love my old professor Anne Fadiman’s favorite riddle: Q: How do you make a statue of David? A: You take away everything that isn’t David. We have to find the “David” of our pieces, leaving the rest of the marble on the floor. Other people offer different versions of this concept, asking what the “emotional question” or the “aboutness” of a story is. It’s about locating the heart of a piece, which the writer themselves may not actually recognize.’
She and her old professor are right. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the conceits of writing and think about wants and stakes and desire and need, but we can neglect the heart of what it’s about. It’s always important to keep the heart of the piece in mind.
2) Musa Okwonga on writing with ‘an open wound’.
Musa is one of my best friends and favourite writers. His two books this year, In The End, It Was All About Love and One Of Them are masterclasses in righteous, moral fury and beautiful subtle astonishing prose. I remember this keynote he did at the Story conference where he talked about the loneliness of a writer and the passion and pain it requires to write honestly about the way you see the world. I love this quote in particular:
‘Having broadened the scope of this talk, I would now like to narrow its focus again — to consider how to write with an open wound, and why I think that it is important to do so. If I look back at my career so far, the articles that have had the greatest positive impact have had one common feature: they have been written with a blend of cold reason and almost volcanic anger. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it is what I call “moral fury” — where I not only feel rage at the perceived injustice, but am able to locate and expose the source of it. I think that this style of writing has worked for me because it conveys a sense of urgency — a sense that I have not merely covered an area of human rights because I find it of passing intellectual interest, but because it needs genuine attention.
‘People who write with open wounds are often accused of being “bleeding-heart liberals”, as if compassion were a bad thing. As it stands, though, there aren’t nearly enough of us — and maybe our hearts still don’t bleed enough. After all, we are in a time of increasingly horrific and complex conflicts, with the migration of many millions due to climate change to come. So maybe it’s time for some of us to expose those wounds yet further, and write even more.’
3) Brian Dillon on sentences
Brian Dillon’s Essayism and Suppose A Sentence are two of my favourite books on writing. In Suppose A Sentence, Dillon takes 27 sentences from the likes of Elizabeth Hardwick, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Joan Didion and more to talk about the elegance of the sentence, what it is and howe it can be at once vulnerable, exposing, chaotic or measured.
The first section from his opening essay:
[Image description: the opening pages of SENSIBILITY AS STRUCTURE]
Okay that’s enough from me. I’ll drop into your inbox in a few weeks with another one of these. If you like this newsletter, please share with your writing friends; please buy some of the books mentioned; please subscribe; please support my work, either by buying one of my books https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-stuff or by buying me a coffee through this nifty site: https://ko-fi.com/nikeshshukla