Friday, November 15, 2013

Writing lessons

In her charming little book Survival Lessons, reviewed here on Wednesday, Alice Hoffman has almost as much to say about writers as she does about cancer survivors. Today I want to give a few quotes on writing from her book, then add my own comments.

"It's possible that I became a writer because of my mother's fear of being alone after her divorce. A novelist, after all, is never alone."

Oddly enough, this is true, although it certainly doesn't seem true. Writing seems like the loneliest of professions because it is best done in isolation with the door closed and the radio off. Hoffman speaks about the novelist's many characters, which become real and constantly present during, and perhaps before and after, the creation of a book. Then there are the writer's eventual readers. This blog has very few readers, and I have no idea who they might be, yet they are always on my mind as I write.

"If I could, I would invite the Brontes and Edgar Allan Poe. They would be my first choice for dinner guests. I would want to know about their minds and his life. I would also want to invite Emily Dickinson ..."

I, too, if I could invite anyone from history into my home, would have writers high on my guest list. Wouldn't it be fun sitting at a table listening to the conversation between Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis? Add Hoffman's dinner guests, and Hoffman herself, and you would have a perfect dinner party. I guess we would need one more man to balance things up. How about Ernest Hemingway, to add a little zest to dinner?

"In my family, a book was a life raft."

She is speaking here again about loneliness. Reading, like writing, can be a cure, though it is something that also is best done alone.

"All writers should be made to knit a hat before they start writing a novel. It would help with understanding the importance of revisions, and that the process is what can bring you the most joy."

Knitters knit because they enjoy the knitting, not just because they like the hats, sweaters or whatever their final product might be. The same goes for writing, although I think most writers already know that. Still, if knitting a hat were a prerequisite for writing a novel, there would be a lot fewer novels to choose from.

"When I couldn't write about characters that didn't have cancer and worried I might never get past that single experience, my oncologist told me that cancer didn't have to be my entire novel. It was just a chapter."

"Write what you know," novice fiction writers are told, as if they need to be told. To a great extent, they have no choice but to reproduce their own life experiences and the people they have known into their stories. And when one particular experience, such as a battle with cancer, is so overwhelming, it may be difficult for writers to write about anything else. Perhaps this explains why some war veterans who have written great war novels, say Joseph Heller or James Jones, were unable to write anything else as powerful. The advice from Alice Hoffman's oncologist seems wise to me.

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