discovery

Bret Lott’s ‘Against Technique’

September 29, 2011 | 7 Comments

If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than it can ever be to his reader.—Bret Lott This blog has been mostly about craft, even though I know craft isn’t the most important thing about writing. Not by far. A paradox about writing—maybe any art—is that craft, or call it technique, is what …

[Read More]

Igniting your need for words

July 3, 2011 | 7 Comments

From Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing: It doesn’t bother me that the word ‘stone’ appears more than thirty times in my third book, or that ‘wind’ and ‘gray’ appear over and over in my poems to the disdain of some reviewers. If I didn’t use them that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable. In fact, most poets write the same poem over and over again. Wallace Stevens …

[Read More]

“In Schooner Valley,” a pastel by David Owen

Art, craft, and the elusive self

April 12, 2011 | 9 Comments

I knew Dave Owen in another life—my Hoosier period—and since then he’s become an admired landscape painter in southern Indiana. In his thoughtful new blog post “With the Artist Added,” at David Owen Art Notes, Dave reflects on the nature of art and artists as he prepares for a show. I was struck by how much his insights apply to writers and writing.

In the first place, he isn’t wild about the three pieces he’s taking to the competition, including the landscape reproduced above. And yet: “. . . I have realized that my paintings become neither better nor worse when a judge gives them a thumbs down or a thumbs up. They have a life of their own and are whatever they are.”

To me, “In Schooner Valley” is lovely. But I can’t see what Dave sees—and certainly not what he’d hoped to see emerge from his brushstrokes. I too have finished pieces that I feel don’t quite work. Or at least fell short of what I’d imagined. Even successful and published stories, essays, and poems are handmade things and are lumpy or lopsided in spots. And what a mess we had to make to get halfway close to our intentions. Have you ever seen an artist’s studio, a potter’s bench, or a writer’s hard drive?

After fearsome effort, the creator sees flaws. “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” said Paul Valery. I believe it. Artists labor until they’re frustrated with what they have made—the work’s no longer an ego extension, far from it—and their feelings can’t be hurt by a judge or an editor. They did the best they could, got what help they could, and at some point they moved on. Not because they gave up too easily, but because whatever that object still needs is beyond their powers.

[Read More]

Dinty Moore on revision & discovery

September 9, 2010 | 3 Comments

“Too often, in my opinion, beginning writers focus on what point they want to make, what the message will be in their writing, the ‘theme’ or ‘thesis,’ whereas the seasoned and successful writers that I know are always after what they can discover. Being too sure of what you want to say from the outset can be a bad thing in writing—you just end up re-stating the obvious.” “If you want to be a writer, you have to love to write, …

[Read More]

America’s greatest essay

August 29, 2010 | 2 Comments

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from Notes of a …

[Read More]

Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

August 22, 2010 | 15 Comments

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty …

[Read More]

Noted: Tobias Wolff

August 16, 2010 | 2 Comments

“Only at the end of the day, reading over what I’d done, working through it with a with a green pencil, did I see how far I was from where I wanted to be. In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was pleasure in having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it …

[Read More]