The mere act of reading a sentence containing this information—that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby at age 28—puts a writer immediately in the humble place where she belongs.
This quote from Zadie Smith explains why the technically competent and even expert writing in the New York Times and, often, outlets like The New Yorker has a sameness to it that flattens you:
I kind of feel suspicious of pure writing, of something that never embarrasses you, which is completely clean. It’s just, in my experience, writing which is completely clean is writing that has had shorn from it almost everything that’s of interest.
The artistic insights of one age become the cliches of the next.
Fiction has to surprise me. If a character is going around doing only what such a person would do, I get very bored. I want to know more. Or have them come to a point where they’re not what I thought they were. Or that they’re not what they thought they were. It’s probably a form of childish curiosity that keeps me going as a fiction writer. I probably want to open everybody’s bureau drawers and see what they keep in there. I’m nosy.
Margaret Atwood, in a 1986 interview for the book Canadian Writers at Work. (via behindthepage)
I find this so instructive when thinking about writing characters.
I think [society’s] general attitude towards me when I started to be a writer was that I was crazy or somehow undecorous … I think that’s society’s attitude towards anybody when he’s first starting. But if you become successful, then it’s an okay thing for you to be doing because, as we all know, this society pays a lot of attention to success. But that is not a respect for writing per se as a legitimate activity; that’s a respect for success, which is a different thing. It would have the same respect for you if you were a successful used-car salesman.
Margaret Atwood, in a 1972 interview with Graeme Gibson.
This is exactly why we, in spite of ourselves, continue to accept and even extol the “accomplishments” and lifestyles of Wall Streeters.
It’s probably also exactly why I still sometimes get uncomfortable calling myself a writer out loud, even though there’s nothing else to call myself by now and it’s where my money comes from. Does this mean I am successful, but not quite successful enough?
It should also be said that even the writing industry at large (magazines, newspapers, publishing houses, etc) continues to see the working writer as crazy or indecorous, right up to the moment that writer becomes a household name. To break this attitude in industry insiders is the number one factor in attaining a successful writing career (much more so than the writing itself, I have found).
Thirteen chapters into this 18-chapter book I’m writing, I’ve started daydreaming about a moment of surprise when I find out that in fact the book is only to be 15 chapters long, and I can go sit under a palm tree and nothing else.
Is anyone using Medium yet? I figured Tumblr was the best place to ask.
I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.
Ernest Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon (via behindthepage)
Any writer worth anything will at many points face these challenges head on. I’m always struggling to extract my pure reaction to things from the conventional reaction to them.