For those days, most days, when your confidence wanes, there is this:
From Berryman, by W. S. Merwin
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
So forget about validation. Do it because you do it. The work is its own reward.
The editor works in disappearing ink. If a writer takes a suggestion, it becomes part of her creation. If not, it never happened. The editor’s work is and always should be invisible.
—Michael Pietsch, from an interview with Donna Tartt in Slate
We are people, there is no doubt, who exist solely insofar as we write, otherwise we don’t exist at all.
Italo Calvino’s letters are solid gold. Excerpts at the New Yorker: part one, part two, and part three.
From the Paris Review interview with Tobias Wolff comes this gem, in answer to the question of why writers don’t like to talk about their work:
But I have also learned that you can be patient and diligent and sometimes it just doesn’t strike sparks. After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous. No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light. You can be faithful, work hard, not waste your talents in drink, and still not have it happen. That’s what makes writers nervous—the sense of the thing being given, day by day. You might have been writing good stories for years, then for some reason the stories aren’t so good. Anything that seems able to jinx you, to invite trouble, writers avoid. And one of the things that writers very quickly learn to avoid is talking their work away. Talking about your work hardens it prematurely, and weakens the charge. You need to keep a fluid sense of the work in hand—it has to be able to change almost without your being aware that it’s changing.
What levels me is how he clarifies the whole issue by admitting that it isn’t so much about losing the story as it is about the whole enterprise falling apart. In a moment of clarity, seeing your sense of yourself as a writer become just what you suspected it might be: a failure of imagination. Reluctance to discuss the work is an attempt to prevent that moment from coming true. To make it just another of many possible fictions.
Read the rest of the interview.
A draft page from Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. It’s been my desktop background for months, to remind me that it all starts here, with words scribbled on a page.