… in her new book, “Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing,” Margaret Atwood poses three questions to herself and other novelists: Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? And where does it come from?
Mr. McEwan answered them in quick succession: “I think you could only do it for yourself under the assumption that if you like it, someone else might like it, too. Why do it? I think it’s impossible not to. Not to write seems to me to be a gross rebuke of the gift of consciousness. Where does it come from? You have to dig fairly deeply and relax your control of it … [Fiction] is a random, associative business, just the white noise of daydreaming thought.”
I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time. I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.
In his 1988 book of essays, “Prepared for the Worst,” Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously,” Hitchens said, going on to explain: “By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.
We are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out.
Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.
I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours every day — and the sitting down is all.
There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day, you shall begin it serenely with too high a spirit to be encumbered by your old nonsense.
You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not actually believed, there is no strong revulsion either. We are all drowning in filth. When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has an axe to grind, I feel the intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends…. But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.
Do not believe those who try to persuade you that composition is only a cold exercise of the intellect. The only music capable of moving and touching us is that which flows from the depths of a composer’s soul when he is stirred by inspiration. There is no doubt that even the greatest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. This guest does not always respond to the first invitation. We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.
A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and today I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write today will have the power to make an impression and to touch the hearts of those who hear it. I hope you will not think I am indulging in self-laudation if I tell you that I very seldom suffer from this disinclination to work. I believe the reason for this is that I am naturally patient. I have learnt to master myself, and I am glad I have not followed in the steps of some of my Russian colleagues, who have no self-confidence and are so impatient that at the least difficulty they are ready to throw up the sponge. This is why, in spite of great gifts, they accomplish so little, and that in an amateur way.
I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not ‘audience.’ Not ‘readership.’ Just the reader. That one person, alone in a room, whose time I’m asking for. I want my books to be worth the reader’s time, and that’s why I don’t publish the books I’ve written that don’t meet this criterion, and why I don’t publish the books I do until they’re ready. The novels I love are novels I live for. They make me feel smarter, more alive, more tender toward the world. I hope, with my own books, to transmit that same experience, to pass it on as best I can.
I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
War hath no fury like a non-combatant.
The existence of good bad literature — the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one’s intellect simply refuses to take seriously — is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.
Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad — you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.