Judith Ortiz Cofer, 1994 winner for fiction, shares her advice on becoming a writer in this quick clip. She stresses the importance of taking your craft seriously and making room for your goals in your life:
“You have to imagine yourself as an artist before you can become an artist. And the way that I did it, was getting up at 5 in the morning and writing for two hours before everyone else woke up. You have to allocate a place and time to become an artist. Just like if you want to be the best basketball player who ever existed. You can’t sit in a room and say, ‘I am going to be the greatest.’ You have to get out to the court and practice and practice. A musician has to practice. A singer has to sing. A writer has to write.”
Watch the entire video above and get inspired!
Do you have to be a voracious reader to be a splendid writer? Some might argue that consuming mass quantities of the written word is the only way to a successful career as a master of it.
In his 16-year career as a novelist, Junot Diaz has only written two novels and one collection of short stories. In a recent interview with the New York Times, he confesses why it takes him so long to produce new material and where he gets the inspiration from. He also talks about his “one superpower”—reading.
On coming up with his collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her:
That’s why I never want to do this again. It’s like you spend 16 years chefing in the kitchen, and all that’s left is an amuse-bouche.
On his one “superpower”:
I read a book a week, man. And I don’t have a great memory, but I have a good memory about what I read.
On whether he’ll ever be able to pick up the pace when it comes to producing material:
The thing is, you try your best, and what else you got? You try your best, really, that’s all you can do. And for me, my best happens really so rarely. I was so always heartened by people like Michael Chabon who write so well and seem to write so fast. Edwidge Danticat writes really well and really fast. I was always heartened by them. I keep thinking one day it’ll happen. It might.
When it comes to the writer’s life, sometimes you have to wonder how much the audience’s expectations play in to the production of a book. Do writers worry that their stories won’t connect, that this book won’t be as successful as previous works, or do they approach each book from a space of clarity, with their only concerns on whether or not they’ll be able to finish it?
In the video above, 1999 winner Russell Bankstalks with PBS’ Evan Smith about why he writes and whether he writes for arts’ sake or for commerce. In his latest book, Lost Memory of Skin, Banks makes his main protagonist a paroled sex offender, someone who, Banks admits might not be the most sympathetic or intriguing of characters.
We love it. We absolutely love it. When we read Colson Whitehead’s “How To Write,” we doubled over in laughter. Finally, a writer who gets it and has fun with the process.
Writing is a mysterious endeavor. Those who don’t write don’t quite get what we do or how we do it or why we do it. But it’s an exercise in exploration. Every word, every paragraph, every page, every book — it’s all exploration. Whitehead doesn’t take himself too seriously. He knows the writer’s life well.
For example, in rule #2 (“Let Your Subject Find You”), his description of a compelling subject will sound…familiar. And funny:
Once your subject finds you, it’s like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, “Only you understand me.” Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.
2005 Anisfield-Wolf winner Edwidge Danticat visited the Tavis Smiley show on PBS to discuss her latest work, Create Dangerously. She discusses the origins of the book’s title, the difference between immigrant artists and American-born artists, and whether art should be considered a luxury or necessity.
…If you know where to look.
We enjoy getting writing advice from our winners because they’re so impossibly good at telling stories. Whether the story is about a 13-year-old girl winning a spelling bee or a look at three Southerners who tried to reinvent themselves in the unfamiliar North, telling a compelling story is the focus.
2004 nonfiction winner Adrian Nicole LeBlanc knows her way around a good story. She was honored for her 2003 work “Random Family,” a look at the decade-long immersion she spent tracing the lives of one Bronx family. Adapted from a presentation she gave at the Conference on Narrative Journalism, here’s her technique for finding stories worth writing:
I like to insert myself in situations – identified as a journalist but not necessarily working on a story – to educate myself. After my book “Random Family” came out, I spoke at conferences for social workers and youth workers. At these conferences, I signed up for every mailing list, so I’d receive notices for their workshops. One was called “How to Handle Traumatized Children.” I attended, not knowing whether it would become a story, but I was sure that by the end of five days there I would have 10 story ideas. An idea might be a simple profile of an interesting social worker. Or it could be an analysis of how the skill sets that social workers are encouraged to adopt both liberate and confine them.
I keep story files. I clip and file whatever strikes me: new slang words, fashions, particular towns and neighborhoods, someone’s turn of phrase. My idea files are full of things that interest me, in ways that often aren’t clear to me. Some story ideas hit me immediately when I meet a person who engages my interest. Other ideas take years to develop in my mind, and even longer to sell to an editor. My story files provide the ammunition to convince an editor, to explain why a story is worthwhile. They allow me to draw from a whole pack of information, not just one or two anecdotes.
Major stories come to me through my straying curiosity. Even as I lose myself in that story, I’m keeping track of new people and ideas that surface during the fieldwork – half hunches and ideas that I hope to explore, eventually.
We realize the headline is a bit of hyperbole but in researching Mr. Gaines for this week’s exploration of his life and works, we realize that he has a tremendous way with words. Not just on the page, but in interviews as well. English rolls off his tongue in a way that to the ear often sounds like poetry, and his fingers create rich worlds without burdening the reader with five-dollar words. We gathered some of his best quotes from interview past so you could see for yourself how he does it:
I write as well as I can and I learned from reading people like Hemingway, and others, that writing less is better. If I can say something in five words instead of seven words, I’ll use five. Sometimes it’s a little difficult for some people to understand it if they don’t read very much.
I’m not one of those people who has a large, wide brush for canvas. I can’t use words, words, words. I try to get as few words as I possibly can to express myself. I believe in telling a story when I’m writing. I’m not just giving a philosophy or an ideology or social writing. I try to be honest with all my characters whether they’re good or bad, cowardly or brave.
Does the writer capture description well? Does he use dialogue well? Are things believable? Is the writer prejudiced when describing blacks or whites, males or females? I think readers look through all these things and then draw their own conclusions. You know, readers see things their way. You might have a good story and you don’t know how to write it. You can have a bad story and not have a thing in the world to say, but you can write so well. . . . I’ve had those kinds of students. They have nothing to say, but they’re good at writing.
I did not know I wanted to be a writer as a child in Louisiana. It wasn’t until I went to California and ended up in the library and began reading a lot that I knew I wanted to be a writer. I read many great novels and stories and did not see myself or my people in any of them. It was then that I tried to write. There were very few people on the plantation who had any education at all, especially the old people my aunt’s age and my grandmother’s age. They had never gone to school, and they didn’t have any books. I used to write letters for them. I had to listen very carefully to what they had to say and how they said it. I put their stories down on paper, and they would give me teacakes. If I wanted to play ball or shoot marbles, I had to finish writing fast. So I began to create. I wrote about their gardens, the weather, cooking, preserving, anything. I’ve been asked many times when I started writing. I used to say it was in the small Andrew Carnegie Library in Vallejo, California, but I realize now that it was on the plantation.
What I would like people to say is that he wrote as sincerely as he could possibly write. He could have done more writing and that’s the way I feel about myself. I could’ve done more. I’m proud of most of what I’ve done, but I could have been better. I might have studied harder and written longer. I could’ve spent a longer time at my writing desk.
My six words of advice to writers are: “Read, read, read, write, write, write.” Writing is a lonely job; you have to read, and then you must sit down at the desk and write. There’s no one there to tell you when to write, what to write, or how to write. I tell students if they are going to be writers, they must sit down at a desk and write every day.
We enjoy a good list just as much as the next person, and even more so when it comes to advice for writers. We’re an interesting bunch, full of quirks and idiosyncrasies, and doubts and fears and ambition. We devour information and try to spit out prose. So when we came across this bunch of tips from Zadie Smith, we decided that yes, we needed to share it with you.
When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
It’s always a question of whether the story will come when a writer sits down to begin a work and for Nicole Krauss, it’s always a mystery. In an interview with Interview magazine, she talks about her strengths as a writer:
Part of the work of writing a novel is to uncover these symmetries or connections that make it whole, which might not reveal itself at first. I have a very strong sense of architecture in my novels. But, yes, at first it’s sometimes like it’s like building a doorknob before you have a door, and a door before you have a room.
When asked about her writing process for Great House, she admits that this is her favorite part of her job:
On different days I would work on different sections and sometimes I would get really absorbed into one voice and I would write that for some months, come to a close, and then open another back up again. What interests me very much as a writer is the ability for writing to have our lives to be occupied so vividly by others. I think that’s what we long for as writers and that’s the unique thing that literature provides: To be able to step so fully into another situation and condition.
In this series of videos from BigThink.com, 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Award winner Walter Mosley gives answers to all types of questions: What big ideas have you had lately? What’s the biggest misconception about a writer’s life? And perhaps a question every writer and aspiring writer wants to know: What is your writing routine? Get the answers to all these and more below:
In this brief interview, Kamila Shamsie, a 2010 Anisfield-Wolf award winner, talks about the joy of reading, the upside of ebooks, and whether she considers herself a political writer. A must-listen for anyone who is a fan of her work or a fan of literature in general.
What makes a writer a writer? It’s a simple question with many possible answers and if you ask 10 authors, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll get 10 different answers. Junot Diaz answered the question as only he can:
My novel, which I had started with such hope shortly after publishing my first book of stories, wouldn’t budge past the 75-page mark. Nothing I wrote past page 75 made any kind of sense. Nothing. Which would have been fine if the first 75 pages hadn’t been pretty damn cool.
But they were cool, showed a lot of promise. Would also have been fine if I could have just jumped to something else. But I couldn’t. All the other novels I tried sucked worse than the stalled one, and even more disturbing, I seemed to have lost the ability to write short stories. It was like I had somehow slipped into a No-Writing Twilight Zone and I couldn’t find an exit. Like I’d been chained to the sinking ship of those 75 pages and there was no key and no patching the hole in the hull. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, but nothing I produced was worth a damn….
I was living with my fiancée at the time (over now, another terrible story) and was so depressed and self-loathing I could barely function. I finally broached the topic with her of, maybe, you know, doing something else. My fiancée was so desperate to see me happy (and perhaps more than a little convinced by my fear that maybe the thread had run out on my talent) that she told me to make a list of what else I could do besides writing. I’m not a list person like she was, but I wrote one. It took a month to pencil down three things. (I really don’t have many other skills.) I stared at that list for about another month. Waiting, hoping, praying for the book, for my writing, for my talent to catch fire. A last-second reprieve. But nada. So I put the manuscript away….
One night in August, unable to sleep, sickened that I was giving up, but even more frightened by the thought of having to return to the writing, I dug out the manuscript. I figured if I could find one good thing in the pages I would go back to it. Just one good thing. Like flipping a coin, I’d let the pages decide. Spent the whole night reading everything I had written, and guess what? It was still terrible. In fact with the new distance the lameness was even worse than I’d thought. That’s when I should have put everything in the box. When I should have turned my back and trudged into my new life. I didn’t have the heart to go on. But I guess I did….
Because, in truth, I didn’t become a writer the first time I put pen to paper or when I finished my first book (easy) or my second one (hard). You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. Wasn’t until that night when I was faced with all those lousy pages that I realized, really realized, what it was exactly that I am.