Writers on Writing

Curing What Ails You

A writers' guide to facing the struggles of the writing life

As many of us know, it's hard to be a writer. Not only does it require incredible talent, but also confidence, self discipline, and perseverance. Here, writers offer advice on how to overcome procrastination, fear, failure, writers block, a terrible first draft, and more.


Ben Fountain on doubt

"I have a horror of being self-indulgent and wasting time, and there is that risk in doing this kind of work. Are you totally deluded in sitting down at a desk every day and trying to write something? Is it self-indulgent, or might it possibly lead to something worthwhile? At a certain point I decided to keep on because I felt like the work was getting better, and I was taking great pleasure in that. I thought I might never publish a book, and might live a very small, obscure life in Dallas, Texas. "I will raise my kids," I thought. "I’ll run the house. I’ll cook dinner in the evenings and try to take care of everybody, and in the meantime I’ll just see where this leads". I very definitely had to let go of all those notions of worldly success and focus only on the work itself."

To read the full interview with Ben Fountain, click here.


Dani Shapiro on procrastination

"Every day—every single day of my writing life—is an exercise in either overcoming, or succumbing to, procrastination. Oh, it can assume many guises. Research, say. Or bill-paying. Or checking email. Drafting that recommendation for a student that simply must be written. The doctor’s appointment. Mortage refinancing. It’s amazing what suddenly needs to get done when it’s time to actually sit down and write....But then, finally, there comes a turning point. Finally, it is more difficult and painful not to write than to write. The not-writing feels untenable, unbearable. The feeling, for me, is a kind of exquisite despair. Here goes nothing, I think to myself. What do I have to lose? Pen poised over paper, the world recedes.... After a good writing day, I tell myself that it shouldn’t be such a struggle. It’s so simple, really. Just sit down. Why fight this daily battle? But maybe—just maybe—the fight is necessary. Maybe the fight is where we crack ourselves open, push against our edges, shut down the voices that tell us what we can’t do, and move into the only place worth exploring, which is to say, the unknown."

To read the full craft post by Dani Shapiro, click here.


Fiona Maazel on revision

"First drafts can often be pumped out with some ease and speed. But first drafts are usually awful. The trick is learning how to outlast your worst ideas until the good ones start to make their way onto the page. The trick is always to demand more and never to settle. What’s needed for this work is a healthy ego and an even healthier capacity for self-disgust. Ego gets you writing; self-disgust makes you revise. It’s a delicate relationship that needs to be protected, lest you are steeped in one more than the other."

To read the full craft post by Fiona Maazel, click here.


Joyce Carol Oates on failure

"People probably know that Faulkner tried very hard to be a poet and he failed egregiously. Then he wrote a novel that was a very bad imitation of Hemmingway and failed. Then he wrote a novel that was a very bad imitation of Aldous Huxley. It was a failure. Then when he was about 28-years-old, he started writing about his old Mississippi and he found his voice. That's so corny I know, but it happened. So between the ages of 28 and about 34, he wrote these masterpieces one after another: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August."

To read the full conversation with Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates, click here.


Charles Baxter on kindness

"When I was trying to break into the writing life, I was usually treated like an ignorant know-nothing scumbag by a lot of editors and agents. I have their letters to prove it. The agents and editors and teachers who were kind to me—well, I never forgot their kindness or the way they made my life easier, and they served as a model to me of what I wanted to do for younger writers. If you want to practice an art, someone probably needs to be there to teach you the craft and to tell you what seems to be characteristic of your work."

To read the full interview with Charles Baxter, click here.


Caroline Leavitt on getting stuck

"The solution, for me, is always to put the novel down, move outside its confines, and try to do some extra work that may never see its way into the novel, but is sure to pay dividends....Rather than trying to force words into my character’s mouth, I try to get him or her to talk to me. I ask my character, "So tell me, what is it that you’re so pissed off about?" And then I let the character speak. It often comes out in a surge of words, so I inevitably feel as if I am simply transcribing what the character is saying to me. While not all of this character-speak is useable, there is almost always one diamond or two that I can use....I also might take the offending scene (and again, this is out-of-the-novel work) and rewrite it from the viewpoint of another character. I won’t ever use this work in the novel itself, but it’s astonishing what it can reveal, like a heat missile heading for a target I totally missed seeing." 

To read the full craft post by Caroline Leavitt, click here.


Yiyun Li on representation

"I don’t feel the obligation to represent China, but I would hate to misrepresent it. I’m a fiction writer; it’s very hard not to make up things. But I think that the historical period has to be right, has to be accurate, in so far as I can do that. And, of course, I’m always aware that I am only representing this history as I understand it, from my very particular, and partial, perspective. I am very conscious because there are two sides, especially for people who don’t know any Chinese history. I get very kind responses from readers saying, “I’m so sorry you had to live through this hell,” and that is not what I meant to evoke. On the other hand, Chinese audiences say, “Why do you have to write about this dark period in Chinese history? Why can’t you write about a brighter, a stronger country?” My only response to either group is that I’m only able to represent how I, as an individual writer, understand that world."

To read the full interview with Yiyun Li, click here.


Stefan Merrill Block on shame

"Artists (and writers, I think, especially) suffer shame in many forms: that we don’t have the necessary skills or gifts, that our own cramped perspectives could not possibly be meaningful to anyone else, that our stories aren’t worth telling. If there is one kindness we can do for ourselves, I think, it is to stop feeling ashamed about our shame....Shame, after all, is meticulous and creative; it is the fear of public shame that drives one to revise draft after draft, trying to find the better, more artful way to tell a story. But shame is more than our best tool. For most artists, it’s constitutional. Shame is self-awareness and empathy gone neurotic. It is an effect of our perception of how others perceive us, and it’s hard to imagine a good artist who is not very aware of how he is coming across."

To read the full craft post by Stefan Merrill Block, click here.


Renata Adler on excuses

"I stopped reading almost anything contemporary because of not wanting that excuse not to write. That is like having a term paper due, and you think, “Well, I’m just going to read this and then I’ll do it.” Joan Didion once said this wonderful thing, that she’s careful not to read anything she likes when she’s working and would throw it across the room, I think, because that voice gets in your head. I don’t know about you, but almost any excuse will do not to write, and reading is one of the best. I used to think that going for a walk was an excuse not to write, but I see now that I really need to go for a walk. That I can actually write on a walk."

To read the full interview with Renata Adler, click here.


M.G. Vassanji on responsibility

"I think first and foremost there is simply the need to write, and to write well, to tell stories. The moral responsibility is to the truth. This sounds trite and overworked, but I take it seriously and consciously—because even in writing there are the pressures of fashions, politics, the market, and so on. By choosing to write about what I have to write—Africa, Asians in Africa, minorities in India or Canada—unfashionable and nonmainstream subjects—I’m being true to myself, and I take on a moral responsibility."

To read the full interview with M.G. Vassanji, click here.