Writer’s Desk: Read in Cafes

You would think that the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (born March 6, 1927) was one of those people fated to be a writer. How else to explain his golden pen? But no, as a young man in the 1940s, he was just another Columbian law student. Fortunately for the rest of us, though, he decided to waste his free time on a different pursuit: reading.

From “How I Became a Writer“:

On free afternoons, instead of working to support myself, I read either in my room or in the cafés that permitted it. The books I read I obtained by chance and luck, and they depended more on chance than on any luck of mine, because the friends who could afford to buy them lent them to me for such limited periods that I stayed awake for nights on end in order to return them on time…

He discovered Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, and many other greats. Then came Kafka. And a challenge:

When I finished reading “The Metamorphosis,” I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise. The new day found me at the portable typewriter that Domingo Manuel Vega had lent me, trying to write something that would resemble Kafka’s tale of a poor bureaucrat turned into an enormous cockroach. In the days that followed I did not go to the university for fear the spell would be broken, and I continued, sweating drops of envy, until Eduardo Zalamea Borda published in his pages a disconsolate article lamenting the lack of memorable names among the new generation of Colombian writers, and the fact that he could detect nothing in the future that might remedy the situation. I do not know with what right I felt challenged, in the name of my generation, by the provocation in that piece, but I took up the story again in an attempt to prove him wrong…

Writer’s Desk: (Don’t Just) Write What You Know

Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) casts a little cold water on limiting your writing to what you’ve experienced personally:

I think the most famous piece of writing advice that there is is “write what you know,” and I think it’s—honestly, I think it’s the best piece of advice there is, but I think it’s the most misunderstood, most mis-taught, most misinterpreted piece of advice that there is. It’s so simple and so obvious. It used to terrify me, this idea of “write what you know.” I was dreaming, I was in suburbia, in my house, dreaming of being of a writer, and I thought, what am I going to do with “write what you know”? What I know from childhood is I was on the couch, watching TV. So I should simply rewrite a whole series of sitcoms for you. I should write a book called What’s Happening? and then I should write a book called Little House on the Prairie is on at 5 o’clock. . .

Writer’s Desk: Lie Truthfully

If writing isn’t truthful, readers can tell. That doesn’t mean it’s all pulled from real life. Writing is also about creating new realities. You have to make things up sometimes to get at the truth. It’s a contradiction that non-writers can have a hard time wrapping their heads around.

Here’s what Jamie Quatro told The Paris Review:

Fiction begins with small, lower-case truths, then translates them into a larger lie that ultimately reveals the largest truths. “None of it happened and all of it’s true,” said Ann Patchett’s mother.

And remember what Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story“:

Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

Writer’s Desk: Find a Group

In his great literary guide and memoir On Writing—read it now, if you haven’t already—Stephen King unpacked many secrets of the scrivening trade. Among the more salient was this:

Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.

Finding a writers’ group helps. So does suborning your friends and family to read what you’re working on. Feedback is never a waste, even if you end up ignoring it completely.

Writer’s Desk: Keep Trying

There is almost no greater cliche in publishing than reminding aspiring writers that even Stephen King got rejection letters by the basketful early in his career. But it is still worth repeating.

To that end, here’s a few notable bestsellers that were originally considered unworthy of publication:

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Writer’s Desk: What Dickens Said

As a belated seasonal homage to A Christmas Carol, this week’s writing advice comes courtesy of Charles Dickens, who never saw a narrative trick he didn’t like.

Per William Cane’s Fiction Writing Master Class, Dickens had a motto that went thus:

Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.

There’s fiction for you, in just nine words.

Writer’s Desk: Write About Cats

This one should speak for itself. Per the Times:

The author of the short story “Cat Person,” which became a viral phenomenon after appearing in The New Yorker this month, has received a seven-figure book deal, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

A collection from Kristen Roupenian, whose debut story in The New Yorker became the magazine’s second most-read article of 2017 despite being published in the Dec. 11 issue, will be published by Scout Press in 2019.

Roupenian’s story hit just about every meme-worthy topic of the age: Cats, dating, creepy guys, social media, intellectual insecurity masked by blithe confidence. It’s all there.

This is what they call a teaching moment.