William Faulkner

  • May. 5th, 2014 at 7:01 PM
beth_shulman: (stock: boat in sunset)
At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is... to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes much difference, whether you've got that or not.

Mark Strand

  • May. 28th, 2013 at 7:36 PM
beth_shulman: (stock: open book rose)
You don’t read poetry for the kind of truth that passes for truth in the workaday world. You don’t read a poem to find out how you get to Twenty-fourth Street. You don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life. The opposite. I mean, you’d be foolish to. Now, some American poets present the reader with a slice of life, saying, I went to the store today, and I saw a man, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew we were... thieves. And aren’t we all thieves? You know, this is extracting from everyday experience a statement about life, or a moral.

But there is another type of poetry, in which the poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world. Wallace Stevens was the twentieth-century master of this. There’s no other poetry that sounds like a Wallace Stevens poem. But then, there’s nothing that sounds like a Frost poem, either. Or a Hardy poem. These people have created worlds of their own. Their language is so forceful and identifiable that you read them not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience of the world, but simply because you want to saturate yourself with their particular voices...

I think what happens at certain points in my poems is that language takes over, and I follow it. It just sounds right. And I trust the implication of what I’m saying, even though I’m not absolutely sure what it is that I’m saying. I’m just willing to let it be. Because if I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and could verify it and check it out and feel, yes, I’ve said what I intended, I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am. I think the poem would be, finally, a reducible item. It’s this “beyondness,” that depth that you reach in a poem, that keeps you returning to it. And you wonder, The poem seemed so natural at the beginning, how did you get where you ended up? What happened?

William Faulkner

  • Jan. 25th, 2013 at 12:16 AM
beth_shulman: (stock: boat in sunset)
I doubt that a man trying to write about people is any more interested in blood relationships than in the shape of their noses, unless they are necessary to help the story move. If the writer concentrates on what he does need to be interested in, which is the truth and the human heart, he won't have much time left for anything else, such as ideas and facts like the shape of noses or blood relationships, since in my opinion ideas and facts have very little connection with truth.

Mark Strand

  • Jan. 16th, 2013 at 9:16 PM
beth_shulman: (Default)
...If I were absolutely sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and could verify it and check it out and feel, yes, I’ve said what I intended, I don’t think the poem would be smarter than I am. I think the poem would be, finally, a reducible item. It’s this “beyondness,” that depth that you reach in a poem, that keeps you returning to it. And you wonder, The poem seemed so natural at the beginning, how did you get where you ended up? What happened? ...I like that, I like it in other people’s poems when it happens. I like to be mystified. Because it’s really that place which is unreachable, or mysterious, at which the poem becomes ours, finally, becomes the possession of the reader... In the act of figuring it out, of pursuing meaning, the reader is absorbing the poem, even though there’s an absence in the poem... And eventually, it becomes essential that it exists in the poem, so that something beyond his understanding, or beyond his experience, or something that doesn’t quite match up with his experience, becomes more and more his. He comes into possession of a mystery, you know—which is something that we don’t allow ourselves in our lives... We feel we have to know what things mean, to be on top of this and that. I don’t think it’s human, to be that competent at life.

Elizabeth Wein

  • Jun. 13th, 2012 at 1:59 AM
beth_shulman: (book: meg powers)
As a student pilot, the lengthy “outside aircraft checks” and “cockpit checks” before takeoff used to drive me crazy. I was just anxious to be in the air. Then one morning I made a conscious readjustment of my brain to acknowledge that these things were part of the process. You have to get the groundwork done so that you are free to concentrate on the most important task, which is to fly the plane.

In the air, you check every fifteen minutes that you have sufficient fuel, that your engine is operating efficiently, and that your radio and altitude and heading instruments are all set correctly. Only then can you marvel at the snow-capped Scottish Highlands with the low winter sun gilding them pink and gold.

In writing, the groundwork consists of background reading, fact-checking, drawing up timelines and outlines, taking in suggestions and criticism, and finally the long chore of actually putting all this together and writing the book. Flying has taught me to embrace the entire process. Fly the plane—write the book.

E. B. White

  • Jul. 3rd, 2011 at 1:35 AM
beth_shulman: (Default)

Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlottes Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.


William Faulkner

  • Jun. 7th, 2011 at 12:28 AM
beth_shulman: (stock: boat in sunset)
Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut.

Diana Wynne Jones

  • Mar. 27th, 2011 at 4:01 PM
beth_shulman: (stock: violin)
...I realized you can actually influence people really rather profoundly, and of course, this feeds back into your duty to the book, and if you're not careful it completely hamstrings you, because you go backwards and forwards between these two things. This does make me very, very careful, particularly in the second draft, to get it right, because you do feel that somebody in the future, who may be extremely important for everybody, is going to have me behind them, and this is a responsibility, a huge one.

From an Interview with Norton Juster

  • Feb. 20th, 2011 at 6:35 PM
beth_shulman: (book: meg powers)
One of the things that seems to really strike a chord with people in "The Phantom Tollbooth" is Milo's state of mind at the book's beginning: "When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him - least of all the things that should have." I suspect that the first thing people today would say about Milo is that he's depressed.

That was a problem I had back then, too. Milo's not a dysfunctional kid. He's very typical. I kept having to rewrite those sections because I didn't want him to come across as someone who had these deep psychological problems. He just couldn't figure out why he was being oppressed by all these things. When you think about it, kids get an extraordinary number of facts thrown at them, and nothing connects with anything else. As you get older, all these threads begin to appear, and you realize that almost everything you come across connects to six other things that you know about. Kids don't know this. You give them a date, or a historical figure, or some fact in math or science and that's it. They're just disembodied things that don't mean anything. Milo doesn't know where he fits in any of this and why he has to learn all of it.

When the book first came out in the early '60s, the revealed wisdom was that you could not give kids anything to read beyond what they knew already. There were vocabulary lists. Lord help you if you put words in a book for ages 6 to 8, or 8 to 10 that they felt a child of that age couldn't understand. They also thought that fantasy was very bad for children because it disoriented them. It's changed somewhat for the better. The publishers told me that they had great misgivings because they thought that the book was too far beyond children.

But I've found in my travels, talking with kids, that they like the story and if a story is compelling for them, they'll get by any difficulty. They'll get involved with something that interests them. I think that's the great secret; it's being interesting rather than sticking to those artificial standards that they set up.

Some critics have said that kids won't be able understand this book. )
beth_shulman: (book: wizard heir)
One of the texts I sometimes quote - it's not a text, it's just a pronouncement - was made by Pope Gregory the Great in about 592, I think. This was in connection with the question of whether it was okay to paint pictures on the wall of churches, given the commandment that forbids us to make representations of things. What he said was, "What words are to the reader, pictures are to those who cannot read." Which, on the face of it, seems to make sense. It seems sound, good policy. If you can read, you have the words; if you can't read, you have the pictures.

But what it does actually is make ... assumptions that I think have bedeviled our understanding of pictures for a long time since then. One is that words and pictures are equivalent, whereas they are not. When you see an actor in a role on a screen, for example, that actor's face is forever afterward associated with that character. It is very hard to disentangle the two. When we read about that character in a book, we can supply what the person looks like, and we supply all sorts of other things that are not there, because they don't have to be there. Words and pictures are not the same.

Another interesting difference between them is that words work in time, and pictures work in space. Pictures are very good at showing you where things are, what things look like, how far away things are -- that sort of thing. But a single picture on its own cannot show us the order of things happening. Stories are all about the order of things happening. This happened, and then that happened because of what happened earlier on. To do that, you need words, which are extremely good at depicting this because of the way verbs have tenses, and the way sentences have grammatical sequence of clauses and so on, all of which help us to understand the order of things. So words and pictures aren't equivalent. That's the first kind of mistake that Pope Gregory made about them...

These things have interested me for a long time. Why was I happy, then, to say, "Go ahead and make a film of The Golden Compass?" Apart from the small question of the fee involved, there was the fact that I had come to think that stories are not actually made of words. Stories can be presented in the form of words, but they can also be presented in the form of pictures. You can even present a story in the form of a dance. Whatever stories are made of, words aren't fundamental to it. Something else is. And what I think is fundamental to the narrative process is events -- stories are made of events.


There was a sort of embarrassment about storytelling that struck home powerfully about one hundred years ago, at the beginning of modernism. We see a similar reaction in painting and in music. It's a preoccupation suddenly with the surface rather than the depth. So you get, for example, Picasso and Braque making all kinds of experiments with the actual surface of the painting. That becomes the interesting thing, much more interesting than the thing depicted, which is just an old newspaper, a glass of wine, something like that. In music, the Second Viennese School becomes very interested in what happens when the surface, the diatonic structure of the keys breaks down, and we look at the notes themselves in a sort of tone row, instead of concentrating on things like tunes, which are sort of further in, if you like. That happened, of course, in literature, too, with such great works as James Joyce's Ulysses, which is all about, really, how it's told. Not so much about what happens, which is a pretty banal event in a banal man's life. It's about how it's told. The surface suddenly became passionately interesting to artists in every field about a hundred years ago.

In the field of literature, story retreated.
The books we talked about just now, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Vanity Fair - their authors were the great storytellers as well as the great artists. After modernism, things changed. Indeed, modernism sometimes seems to me like an equivalent of the Fall. Remember, the first thing Adam and Eve did when they ate the fruit was to discover that they had no clothes on. They were embarrassed. Embarrassment was the first consequence of the Fall. And embarrassment was the first literary consequence of this modernist discovery of the surface. "Am I telling a story? Oh my God, this is terrible. I must stop telling a story and focus on the minute gradations of consciousness as they filter through somebody's..."

So there was a great split that took place. Story retreated, as it were, into genre fiction - into crime fiction, into science fiction, into romantic fiction - whereas the high-art literary people went another way.

Children's books held onto the story, because children are rarely interested in surfaces in that sort of way. They're interested in what-happened and what-happened-next. I found it a great discipline, when I was writing The Golden Compass and other books, to think that there were some children in the audience. I put it like that because I don't say I write for children.  I find it hard to understand how some writers can say with great confidence, "Oh, I write for fourth grade children" or "I write for boys of 12 or 13." How do they know? I don't know. I would rather consider myself in the rather romantic position of the old storyteller in the marketplace: you sit down on your little bit of carpet with your hat upturned in front of you, and you start to tell a story. Your interest really is not in excluding people and saying to some of them, "No, you can't come, because it's just for so-and-so." My interest as a storyteller is to have as big an audience as possible. That will include children, I hope, and it will include adults, I hope. If dogs and horses want to stop and listen, they're welcome as well.

So I have always hoped that my audience would include children, and that means that I have to pay close attention to the story, and how the story is unfolding, and whether the story is clear and comprehensible. They don't have to understand everything that's happening, but they have to know what's happening. They don't have to understand why everything is happening, because that's a puzzle to the people in the story as well. The reason children, quite young children have read this story and followed it all the way through is because they know that Lyra is puzzled about the things that are happening, but she is going to find out. So they don't mind being puzzled, because they know that Lyra is, too, and they are following her. They are with her.

Credit to [livejournal.com profile] hazelwillow for the link.


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