“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” – William Faulkner
I want to be a writer like you. Even though I write everyday—professionally, creatively and otherwise—reading plays an important role (if not the most important role) in my development as a writer. By reading “everything”, I am able to see how different writers approach our complex craft, from style and prose to dialogue and punctuation.
But what do we read to learn about the elements of a writer that extent far beyond fundamentals and talent into the realm of intangibles? These things—be they abstract thought, an appreciation for prosaic or a tolerance for ambiguity—cannot be learned from a textbook (find me a book that starts with “the key to imbuing the details of the world around you into your writing effectively is”). They can, however, be gleaned from a lifetime of good reading. And so we arrive at The Art of Fiction, a series of interviews by the Paris Review that dates back to the middle of the 20th century.
The amazing thing about this collection (all of which is available online) is that it houses the insight of real, established, even legendary authors into the most challenging questions that a writer faces. Where does a good writer draw inspiration from? How do writers see themselves when compared with their contemporaries? How does one deal with rejection? Am I a good writer?
Am I doomed?
I know that many writers grapple with the elusive answers to these questions, too. I think we can all benefit, then, from the clues that are embedded in the dozens of interviews in The Art of Fiction series. No, the interviewer was never so blunt as to ask Ernest Hemingway to explain the secret to good writing, or to ask Joseph Heller about the prerequisites that any writer who longs for literary fame must have. But throughout the course of these interviews both authors inevitably gravitate toward that mysterious ethos of writing that—to the amateur—can seem impossible to put a finger on.
The juxtaposition between the Hemingway interview and the Heller interview is especially profound. As a reader that treats certain works of Hemingway’s as gospel, I was naturally drawn to his interview when I first discovered The Art of Fiction. Ironically, as much as I identify with Hemingway’s style and characters, my eyes went cold at his elitist tone. His responses to some of the interviewer’s questions made me feel like the writing profession is reserved for literary deities born of some clandestine nebula that hovers over the French countryside.
Heller, on the other hand, was humane, relatable and candid in a way that a legendary writer like Hemingway might never be capable of. Heller’s words on the writing process, on his first two novels (Catch-22 and Something Happened) and on the inspiration for some of his characters is easy to identify with.
Heller gives me hope.
The Art of Fiction interviews are certainly not limited to these two authors (there are over 200 hundred). Regardless of which writers you identify with, you will find something that you can relate to if you just take the time to look.
I don’t believe that writing, or becoming a writer, needs to be shrouded in a cloak of unattainable mystique—at least not such a dark one.
For the times that it is, though, I always know where to find my flashlight.