Writers on writing
In honor of the National Book Festival, running Sept. 24 - 25 on the National Mall, we asked some of the authors participating to share their thoughts on a few writerly subjects.
What do writers think about writing? Here’s a small selection of what they had to say.
THE THING I’M HAPPIEST ABOUT IN MY WRITING CAREER IS . . .
That rarest of occurrences: being able to finance my writing life with the writing itself.
— Russell Banks
The sound of my father’s voice on the telephone when I told him that I had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. That the book, “Thomas and Beulah,” dealt with my home town and was about my maternal grandparents made the announcement that much sweeter.
— Rita Dove
The dream of becoming a writer as a young boy has been realized. I am so pleased I did not let my young self down.
— Jack Gantos
The writing. Which is an obvious thing to say but not obvious because so much goes into a writing career that’s not writing. And you have control over so little of it.
— Louis Bayard
When readers ask when my next book is coming out, especially my D.C. readers because they love recognizing the places, people and events that relate to the city.
— Kia DuPree
— Sam McBratney
That there are people who are neither friends nor relatives who actually read and appreciate what I have written.
— Jim Lehrer
By accident, I learned how to support myself comfortably enough to warrant the risk of adopting my three children, and life has never been the same since.
— Gregory Maguire
I WOULD LIKE READERS TO REACT TO MY WORK BY . . .
Laughing. I once watched a 6-year-old laugh so hard at my book “Diary of a Worm” that milk shot out of his nose — and I mean projected out like a jet stream. Hilarious.
— Harry Bliss
If an adult reads one of the stories to children, and they say at the end, “Read it again!”
— Joe Hayes
WRITING IS A SPIRITUAL ACTIVITY BECAUSE . . .
The fact that somehow, after hours and hours, a story will be there. . . . That’s a big leap of faith for me. Even after publishing 10 books. When it happens, though, it’s the closest thing to grace I know.
— Sarah Dessen
Actually, I think it’s quite physical.
— Linda Pastan
For me, anyway, [writing] is what infuses the world with meaning.
— Jennifer Egan
The five hindrances to successful meditation turn out to be identical to the five hindrances to successful writing: attraction, aversion, sloth, restlessness and doubt. In that way, I suppose writing resembles a spiritual activity.
— Sara Paretsky
I was once asked when I felt closest to God, and I surprised myself by saying, “When I’m writing.” I guess it’s because when I am really writing, I feel absorbed in a life that is much bigger than I am.
— Katherine Paterson
I find that it takes a lot of years of living, and many more of reckoning, to come up with one worthwhile paragraph. And when a deadline looms, prayer doesn’t hurt, either.
— Carmen Agra Deedy
For me writing is not a spiritual activity. Fishing is.
— Allen Say
THE BOOK THAT HAS HAD THE GREATEST INFLUENCE ON ME IS . . .
When I was a child, the book I read and re-read was “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years,” by Rachel Field. Later on, I discovered “Kristin Lavransdatter,” by Sigrid Undset. I re-read that book yearly. Eventually Philip Pullman published the three-volume “His Dark Materials.” That was truly a thrilling reading experience.
— Tomie dePaola
“The Color Purple” confirmed that it is all right to tell the truth about your life. This novel gave me the courage to say, “I am a little black girl from North Carolina. My grandmother could not read or write, but I can do it for her.”
— Shelia P. Moses
“The Autobiography of Malcom X” really changed my attitude toward reading for pleasure, something I can’t say I had ever done until I read this book in high school. After finishing it, I was hungry for another joyful reading experience. “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak has had the greatest influence over my picture book work. It is a visual storytelling masterpiece.
— Kadir Nelson
In recent years, it has been Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” As I was writing my book “Black Gotham,” “Beloved” greatly influenced my thoughts about the African American historical past, how much of it has been lost to us, and how family memories can help us to retrieve it.
— Carla L. Peterson
Pablo Neruda’s “Odes to Common Things” convinced me early on to explore, as a writer and a songwriter, the utterly ordinary and tease out the beauty therein. Picked it up used at a bookstore in Louisville when I was 19.
— John McCutcheon
“The Once and Future King,” which begins with “The Sword and the Stone” and continues to the imminent death of King Arthur, perhaps was most influential. It showed me that books for adults could be serious, comic, moral, epic, gripping, all at once, without having to give up the things that made children’s books so wonderful: a sense of play, of magic, of the numinous, of consequence.
— Gregory Maguire
Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls . . .” opened the world of literature to me, although I’d always been a reader. I’d read books with interesting characters and literary figures, but it was in Ntozake’s work that I felt the human experience in literature.
— Rita Williams-Garcia
My mother was a living “book” of poems for me — and I grew up swimming in the ocean of poems she knew by heart: Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Dickinson, Longfellow — along with “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” I remember one day in our backyard in St. Paul, Minn., when I was about 3 — my mother pushing me on our red swing and reciting “The Swing,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, as she flung me up into the air, then back. I felt as if I were swinging inside the poem itself, out on the first line, back on the second — the rhythm of the poem exactly in synch with my pendulum flight! “How do you like to go up in a swing?/ Up in the air so blue?/ Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing/ Ever a child can do!” Swinging within that poem, urged forward by my mother’s hands and voice, made me understand the “shape” of poetry or words — their inspiration and safe return to earth.
— Carol Muske-Dukes
THE BEST SENTENCE I’VE EVER READ IS . . .
“Dear Harry, enclosed you’ll find your royalty check and statement for the period ending September 2006.” The above sentence is my favorite because it represents my son Alex’s full college tuition.
– Harry Bliss
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” From “Charlotte’s Web”
— Mary Brigid Barrett
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” From “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
— Tomie dePaola
“But it is the memory of that woman, that boy and that vast field that continues to ride and ride in my mind, not only because it is a warm, safe and proud thing I carry with me like a talisman into cold, dangerous and spirit-numbing places, but because it so perfectly sums up the way she carried us, with such dignity.” From “All Over but the Shoutin’ ” by Rick Bragg.
– Terry McMillan
“I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes.” From Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too, Sing America”
— Shelia P. Moses
“And now abide faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.” From 1 Corinthians 13:13. It is the best because it tells me who I am and who I am meant to be.
— Katherine Paterson
THE COOLEST THING I’VE EVER DONE AS A RESULT OF MY WRITING IS . . .
Taking gladiator training in Rome at the Gruppo Storico Romano, a school on the Appian Way that trains gladiators for movies and reenactments. I got to wear the helmet, carry the shield and sword, and learn both offensive and defensive fighting techniques.
— Margaret George
Sesame Street! I was U.S. poet laureate at the time, and Big Bird kept introducing me to the TV audience as the poet Laurie Ett. It was a blast; Big Bird is really huge! For many years afterward, I’d meet people who had seen that show when they were kids.
— Rita Dove
My journey 1.5 miles down into a deep gold mine in South Africa. It was very, very hot and wet, and at the same time was the kind of subterranean environment that scientists think could support life on cold and dry planets like Mars. The imagination runs wild.
— Marc Kaufman
Last year in rural north India, I got to visit the descendants of one of the American loyalists I wrote about in “Liberty’s Exiles,” who still live on the land their ancestor settled 200 years ago. They took me to their forebear’s tomb, its red sandstone dome soaring out of a yellow mustard field: a Mughal monument built by a colonial American. It was one of my most powerful encounters with the past, because it was so alive.
— Maya Jasanoff
Landing and catapulting off an aircraft carrier a half-dozen times in high-performance jets for a book I wrote on Navy pilots.
— Douglas Waller