By Joe Fassler
I once heard John Irving give a lecture on his process at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an in-depth account of the way his novels come to be. He kicked it off by writing a single sentence on the chalkboard—the last line of Last Night in Twisted River. All his books begin with the ending, Irving explained, a capstone he works and reworks until it’s ready. From there, he’ll generate a detailed summary that ultimately builds towards the finale, like SparkNotes for a book that does not yet exist. Only when he has the synopsis and last sentence in hand will he actually start writing.
I remember being fascinated by this. The approach had clearly been successful, and made sense in theory, and yet was so unlike any creative strategy that had ever worked for me. Which is an important thing to keep in mind when trafficking in the familiar genre of writing advice: Just because John Irving does it that way doesn’t mean you should. Not only is every writer different, but each poem, each story and essay, each novel, has its own formal requirements. Advice might be a comfort in the moment, but the hard truth is that literary wisdom can be hard to systematize. There’s just no doing it the same way twice.
And yet. In the five years I’ve spent interviewing authors for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series—the basis for a new collection, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process—it’s been impossible to ignore the way certain ideas tend to come up again and again. Between the column and the book I’ve engaged a diverse group of more than 150 writers, a large sample size, that nonetheless has some defining traits. Here are the recurring ideas, distilled from dozens of conversations, that I think will most help you—no matter how unorthodox your process, how singular your vision.
Neglect everything else.
It starts with a simple fact: If you’re not making the time to write, no other advice can help you. Which is probably why so many of the writers I talk to seem preoccupied with time-management. “You probably have time to be a halfway decent parent and one other thing,” David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, told me. That can mean mustering the grit to let other responsibilities languish. As he put it in short: “Neglect everything else.”
Many authors need to put blinders on, finding ways to simplify their experience and reduce the number of potential distractions. That might mean consistently keeping a single two-hour window sacred, as Victor Lavalle does, morning time he safeguards against the demands of parenting and full-time teaching. For others, it means finding ways to ward off digital derailment. Mitchell does this by setting his homepage as the most boring thing he can think of: the Apple website.
Ultimately, the literary exercise is about finding ways to defend something fragile—the quiet mood in which the imagination flourishes. As Jonathan Franzen put it: “I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from.”
Everyone knows that the opening line is a crucial invitation, something that can make or break a reader’s interest in a book. But far less attention has been paid to the role first lines play for writers, leading them through the work’s dark, uncertain stages like a beacon.
“The first line must convince me that it somehow embodies the entire unwritten text,” William Gibson told me, a radical, koan-like conviction that nonetheless seems to be commonplace. Stephen King described spending “weeks and months and even years” working on first sentences, each one an incantation with the power to unlock the finished book. And Michael Chabon said that, once he stumbled on the first sentence of Wonder Boys, the rest of the novel was almost like taking dictation. “The seed of the novel—who would tell the story and what it would be about—was in that first sentence, and it just arrived,” he said.
Follow the headlights.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the kind of writer who plans meticulously: Give yourself some leeway in the early drafts. Throw out all your plans and assumptions, and make room to surprise yourself.
Andre Dubus calls this following the headlights: it’s like driving a car down a dark, unfamiliar road, simply describing as things become visible under the beam. “What’s on the side of the road?” he asked. “What’s the weather? What are the sounds? If I capture the experience all along the way, the structure starts to reveal itself. My guiding force and principle for shaping the story is just to follow the headlights—that’s how the architecture is revealed.”
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