Category Archives: quotes

Harry Crews On Writing

Excerpts from Getting Naked with Harry Crews

“If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told. Sometimes the lies were told you by people who meant you well, and who meant the very best for you. Your mama might have. I know my mama told me some of them great lies. She didn’t mean it. She didn’t think they were lies. She didn’t think they were lies then, don’t think they’re lies now. I know in fact they’re lies. Don’t make her bad, it’s just the way we are. But if you’re gonna write fiction, you have to get right on down to it.”

“If you’re writing a thing honestly, there are plans you can make, there are outlines you can make, there are notes that you can make to yourself about your intentions. All of those things invariably change. They are reshaped and rethought. Writing is a very, very messy business.”

“Conception is pristine and pure and has all manner of hope in it, but between conception and execution, something gets lost. I’m sorry, bud, don’t let anybody shit you, there’s a big gap there. There’s always going to be a big gap there, and you can drink yourself to death over it or you can shoot yourself in the head over it or you can be an asshole to your family about it. There’s a lot of ways you can handle it, and everybody, every man and woman, comes to their peace with that however they do. I got no advice here, everybody works it out for him or her self.”

“As soon as something pleasant and cheerful and confectionery occurs to me, I’ll write about it; but I can only write about whatever comes. And what has come thus far has been a kind of blackness.”

“When I start writing, I say to God, ‘God, give me five hundred words. I don’t want to be greedy, although I am at times a very greedy person; but I’m not greedy today. Give me five hundred words and I’ll be satisfied. I don’t want to know the whole rest of the book. All I want to know is the next five hundred words. Thank you. Amen.’ And then, do it. Five hundred words, after all isn’t much. If you double-space and you’ve got good margins so you can make notes to yourself, you’re only writing two hundred and fifty words a page. That’s two pages. Now that’s going to sound very mechanical, very arbitrary, but that’s the way I do it. That’s the way I think. Many times those two pages go somewhere else, usually the trash basket or furnace. Andrew Lytle used to say, ‘Fire is a great refiner.’ And it is.”

“I’d give you this: that to be a fiction writer means you spend most of your time thinking about, meditating upon, trying to dissect and understand just those aspects of the human animal that other human beings try their damnedest never to think about.”

“Being a fiction writer is a good way to go crazy, it’s a good way to be a nervous wreck, it’s a good way to become a drunk. You continually pick at yourself, the little sores that you have. They scab over and you pick them open again. Other people not only let them scab over, they let them scar over. They leave it alone. Writers don’t do that. They can’t keep their fingers out of the sore. They’ve got to keep it bleeding. And it’s off that blood that they make their stuff.”

“And my mother to this very day does not understand why somebody would give you good money for something that was made up. As John Updike said when he accepted the National Book Award, ‘Fiction is a tissue of lies that’s truer than anything that ever happened.’ Yeah, the nuts and bolts in there may not be the truth, but the truth of the heart, again, those great abstract nouns, ‘hope’ and ‘despair’ and ‘love’ and ‘ambition,’ and all the rest of it. Those are the only things that are worth considering anyway, aren’t they?”

“Talent helps. Listen, get all the talent you can. But writing is guts and it’s courage. You cannot have a failure of courage. Everybody in the world is telling you you’re no good, and you can’t do it, and it’s not going to work. You’ve got to keep talking to yourself, say, ‘Come on, son. Come on…”

“I know writers are very fond of saying that they’re not in their own books: ‘Don’t look for me in my book, I’m not in here anywhere.’ Well, they probably are not in there in full form. But their prejudices, their sentiments, their biases, their angle of vision on the world – to say that’s not in the book is bullshit and they know it. ‘Don’t confuse me on some kind of one-to-one basis with somebody inside the book.’ This is particularly true if they’re writing a first-person novel. Readers are often inclined to confuse the voice, that ‘I,’ with the person that’s writing it, but that’s a distinction that writers insist upon, and I think rightly so. I know I sure as hell do.”

“You have to go to considerable trouble to live differently from the way the world wants you to live. That’s what I’ve discovered about writing. The world doesn’t want you to do a damn thing. If you wait till you got time to write a novel or time to write a story or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read – if you wait for the time, you’ll never do it. ‘Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go to the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”

“I can’t understand anybody who tells me that they enjoy writing, that it’s fun. Frankly, I don’t believe them. It’s certainly never been fun for me. What is a real rush, for me, is after you’ve done it, before you even sent it to New York, and that’s it. I know this is strange, but when you look at it, and you think, ‘Before me, this was not. Because of me, this is.’ Now that’s a rush.”

Harry Crews (1935-2012) was an American novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist.

The Dirt Worker’s Journal: Jason E. Hodges talks to Harry Crews

Writing Confidence

White Cabbage Butterfly | Photo: Bruce McArthur

“On a Tuesday I see myself as so gifted that I think the cornflakes I left over for breakfast should immediately be wrapped and sent to some Literary Museum for bronzing and held for posterity… Come around on Thursday and I will grovel at your feet to take me on as a shipping clerk in a dockside factory that manufactures ‘I Love New York’ ashtrays. My confidence not only blows with the wind but is susceptible to the currents caused by a butterfly at rest.”

-Neil Simon, The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Vol.2

Muriel Barbery

Excerpts from The Elegance of the Hedgehog:

The Great Work of Making Meaning

“There is always the easy way out, although I am loath to use it. I have no children, I do not watch television and I do not believe in God – all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease. Thus, as I have neither future nor progeny nor pixels to deaden the cosmic awareness of absurdity, and in the certainty of the end and the anticipation of the void, I believe I can affirm that I have not chosen the easy path.”

Profound Thought No. 9

“. . . this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy. . . . As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone.”

Profound Thought No. 15

“You know what? I wonder if I haven’t missed something. A bit like someone who’s been hanging out with a bad crowd and then discovers another path through meeting a good person. . . . Sigh. I don’t know. This story is a tragedy, after all. ‘There are some worthy people out there, be glad!’ is what I felt like telling myself, but in the end, so much sadness! They end up in the rain. I really don’t know what to think. Briefly, I thought I had found my calling, I thought I’d understood that in order to heal, I could heal others, or at least the other “healable” people, the ones who can be saved – instead of moping because I can’t save other people. So what does this mean – I’m supposed to become a doctor? Or a writer? It’s a bit the same thing, no?”

Personal Obsessions

“It came as something of a shock . . . to discover that for over thirty years of writing my attention has turned again and again to the same unvarying gamut of sounds and images. I wish I hadn’t noticed this. In fact, it became an embarrassment and I began to wonder if I should file A CATALOGUE OF PERSONAL OBSESSIONS. And my agent was once heard to moan aloud . . . “Oh God, Findley – not more rabbits!
-introduction, Dinner Along The Amazon, Timothy Findley.

I could relate to the discovery of recurring themes, images, character traits, and worse – repeated phrasing I was finding in my stories (had I written this previous, or perhaps it was in a draft somewhere that never came to fruition.) I don’t have thirty something years experience which makes it all the more worrisome. It got me thinking of other things that creep into my fiction over and over again.

Felines have a habit of wandering onto my pages, and yes, many of my human characters are named after cats that have passed.

Recently, I wrote the dialogue tag ‘whispered loudly’ and a bell sounded. I scoured previous stories to find it  and exclaimed,  “My characters shall whisper loudly no more!”

I thought ‘the rolling waves of nausea’ was rather clever when I first wrote it, but it resurfacing for a third time made me feel sick to my stomach.

Other recurring bits include bars and their regulars, basements and their stairs, meatloaf, and hockey.

“. . . writers are never through with the world they see and hear . . . because it is a world inside their heads, which is the ‘real’ world they write about.”

I suppose the familiar becomes a handle of sorts. There lies the honesty in fiction that is required to make it believable. Too many layers covering up truth kills a story.

Life Before Writing

“I am distracted; I am weary to the bottom of my soul; sorrow lies heavy on my heart; and yet I am expected to sit down and write! And this is called ‘living!’” – Anton Chekhov, “Hush”

Writing is a disease—a never ending dissatisfaction. Of course, there is joy when you discover the perfect phrase, piece of dialogue, or when to kill a character for story’s sake. And news of accepted work is great, but all these woohoos! are fleeting—one quickly turns back to ideas and unfinished work. Whatever I’m doing, wherever I am, I think about writing, that I should be writing—more.

Writers share that moment when they knew their destiny. They mention the first zine they stapled together in grade two or the poem they carved into a desk in junior high.

I didn’t write fiction much of my adult life. I was free, and I didn’t even know it. After my first creative writing class, I was hooked. I became obsessed, but I thought (as with many safe addictions)that it would peter out in six months. Had I known this wasn’t the case, I would have enjoyed my guilt-free existence a little more.

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” – Lawrence Kasdan

What if I quit right now? Writing keeps me out of trouble (for the most part). The disease is spreading. I study editing now so I can link my day job to my writing.

Writers and Cats

”Having a bunch of cats around is good. If you’re feeling bad, you just look at the cats, you’ll feel better, because they know that everything is, just as it is. There’s nothing to get excited about. They just know. They’re saviors. The more cats you have, the longer you live. If you have hundreds, you’ll live ten times longer than if you have ten. Someday this will be discovered, and people will have a thousand cats and live forever. It’s truly ridiculous.” -Charles Bukowski

Mum with kids that just happen to have fur.

Hemingway, Burroughs, Capote, Twain, Shaw, and other writers were also fond of felines. Photos HERE. 

Reading is Writing

‘Everywhere I go I am asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.’
-Flannery O’Connor

When I began researching literary publications I would turn to read the author bios. It was MFA this and MFA that. I prefer the funny bios, and think mentioning higher education to be showy. I often wonder how I know how to write at all, given that high school classes are a blur and the college courses eighteen years after have been brief in discussing craft components. Reading is writing, or this is how I primarily learned to write – things that are interesting to me, and sometimes others. Of course, everything helps – classes, workshops, discussions with writers, books on writing. But, I do think too much academic study on the craft can quash one’s voice or vision.

My first publication bio reads: Julie McArthur lives and writes in Parkdale with her three kids/cats, Annabelle (Superbubs), Harold and Mona. I couldn’t resist the chance to immortalize my cats. Still working on a clever biography.

Technology as Time

When writing stories I avoid using references to technology. I think I have only once mentioned a computer and I’ve never written the words cell, text, blog, i-pod, kindle, facebook etc. in a story.

I don’t find technological devices ascetically pleasing in real life or on the page. Then, I stumbled upon this Kurt Vonnegut quote:

‘I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.’

I admit, technology is a great way to pinpoint a specific time period, but I think it can also date a piece or exclude certain readers. Wondering if my characters need to get with the times.

We Are Who We Are

I believe our individual personalities are formed by age five, often earlier. I have every report card from kindergarten to grade eight. The same adjectives were used over and over by teachers to describe me – quiet, diligent, conscientious, neat, well organized, polite, reliable, and consistent. These are still me, as well as some not so flattering ones. In my family, the kids were good in school, bad at home.

Mrs. Hobbs, my grade two teacher wrote, “In her stories, Julie writes good sentences and expresses interesting ideas.” Hope this still applies.

Frankenstein and Mary Shelley

‘My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.
-Frankenstein, the creature

‘I am sick of myself… My head aches. My heart – my hapless heart – is deluged in bitterness… I strive to survive, I strive to write, but I cannot live without loving and being loved, without sympathy; if this is denied to me, I must die. Would that the hour were come!
-The Journals of Mary Shelley, September 5, 1826