Writing in the Real World: Four Quotes

As embarrassment has both private and public functions, so, too, do writers’ self-criticisms have several purposes, which are more complex and performative than an outright condemnation of their writing. Though, to some extent, it comes from a real and desperate need to admit how awful it is to have to live with the things one has made, it is also a way of controlling the narrative around one’s work: pre-empting the failings others might find, and therefore mitigating them.

Considering First Books – Lamorna Ash

SM: Ha. Maybe I’ve just been lying all this time? Maybe I was never married. If I wrote a real book about a divorce it would be the most boring and mundane thing in the world. I know that sounds like some bullshit writer answer, but it’s true. The trouble I have with most fiction is it just feels like a bunch of dumb stories made up by rich kids.

For example, this is the way most fiction feels to me: Richard Madden looked down from his window on the 58th floor and wondered if he would die today.

That’s just a bad liar who starts a story like that. People believe lies that contain the details of a real life. That’s what I do. I’m a good liar.

Scott McClanahan interview with LitHub

I remember teaching workshops at the Tin House Writing Retreat, which is basically a scam like all the other writing classes and academic programs while also not being a scam. Which is to say, it’s an excuse to get away from your home and surround yourself with people who also believe that writing is a valid way to spend your time. I got much of my best writing done in that kind of an environment when I was a Stegner fellow at Stanford.

Still, most of the writing programs are Ponzi schemes. They train people to teach the next generation of writers, and it’s well known among conmen the world over that the quickest way to make a buck is to sell someone their dreams back with a markup.

Stephen Elliot’s Self Help newsletter: (which he describes as the “process of writing a self-help book, tentatively titled How To Make Money: Financial Advice For Poets. For new readers it’s best to understand that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve done almost everything wrong in my life.”)

Yesterday I started work at half past nine in the morning and ended up at five o’clock in the afternoon in a foul mood because I’d been interrupted every twelve minutes by one of my four children or one of their three or four friends or telephone calls…It’s domestic life. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t bear that sort of monk writer. I knew one once who worked in a garage and they had to slip notes under the door. I think one should stop for the children and not make the children stop for the writing.

Tom Stoppard in Hermione Lee’s biography

Came across these four quotes in the past few weeks. I think there’s a unifying thread here, although I’m not sure I’m able to quite articulate what it is. I think it’s probably a certain level of realism that cuts through the typical pieties that dominate public discussion of writing. The embarrassment of “how awful it is to have to live with the things one has made,” the need to get the real into the made-up to make it up, the writing-industrial-complex’s mission of selling “someone their dreams back with a markup,” and the down-to-earth reality of doing the work amid the realities of life (and I’m always a sucker for examples that run counter to the stereotype of the “monk writer” as Stoppard puts it – although, to be clear, lots of boarding school and domestic help for the Stoppard clan).