Writing Tips from the Masters

The Paris Review Interviews, II includes in-depth interviews with numerous literary luminaries. These timeless interviews provide invaluable inspiration and insight for accomplished and aspiring writers alike. Here are just a few of the many gems found in the book:

James Baldwin
James Baldwin: ‘Find a way to keep alive and write’

What do you tell younger writers who come to you with the usual desperate question: How do I become a writer?
: Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.
Can you discern talent in someone?
Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.

Stephen King: ‘The book is the boss’

: Do you ever do extensive rewrites?
One of the ways the computer has changed the way I work is that I have a much greater tendency to edit “in the camera” — to make changes on the screen. With Cell that’s what I did. I read it over, I had editorial corrections, I was able to make my own corrections, and to me that’s like ice skating. It’s an OK way to do the work, but it isn’t optimal.

Photo courtesy Stephen King
Photo courtesy Stephen King

• With Lisey I had the copy beside the computer and I created blank documents and retyped the whole thing. To me that’s like swimming, and that’s preferable. It’s like you’re writing the book over again. It is literally rewriting. 
   • Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. • As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book. And I’ve had bad books. I think Rose Madder fits in that category, because it never really took off. I felt like I had to force that one.

Toni Morrison: ‘My characters are fully invented people’

: When you create a character, is it completely created out of your own imagination?
Toni MorrisonMORRISON: 
I never use anyone I know. In The Bluest Eye I think I used some gestures and dialogue of my mother in certain places, and a little geography. I’ve never done that since. I really am very conscientious about that. It’s never based on anyone. I don’t do what many writers do.
Why is that?
: There is this feeling that artists have — photographers, more than other people, and writers — that they are acting like a succubus…this process of taking from something that’s alive and using for one’s own purposes. You can do it with trees, butterflies, or human beings. Making a little life for oneself by scavenging other people’s lives is a big question, and it does have moral and ethical implications.
   • In fiction, I feel the most intelligent, and the most free, and the most excited, when my characters are fully invented people. That’s part of the excitement. If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction.

For complete interview with these and other literary luminaries, get a copy of Paris Review Interviews, II at your favorite bookstore.

© The Paris Review.



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