Writers write. (Profound, no?) And one of their favorite subjects to write about is the craft of writing. (Because we all do a little navel-gazing now and then, for which those of us who look up to these folks as mentors are grateful.) You’ve probably read many reflections by writers: Strunk & White, Flannery O’Connor, Stephen King, Anne Lamott. I’m drawn to these books like June bugs to a screen door. Yes, sometimes they’re a crutch; I read and re-read them when I should be writing instead. But sometimes they’re just the thing to inspire or provoke. Among the many titles of their kind, here are three of my favorite writers on writing, and a quote that characterizes the flavor of each book.
On Writing by Eudora Welty
One of America’s great short story writers, Welty describes fiction as truth, a lie “never in its inside thoughts, but always in its outside dress.” This slim collection of essays and speeches includes some of the best insights I’ve read on the significance of place in fiction and the shared writer/reader experience. I keep one of her quotes near my writing desk:
What can a character come to know, of himself and others, by working through a given situation? And can he know it in time?…Spiritual or moral survival lies not so much in being rescued as in having learned what constitutes one’s own danger, and one’s own salvation.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
I think of Rilke as the ultimate poet-philosopher. These ten letters, written over the course of five years of correspondence with a fan, focus more on the complex inner life of the artist than on the act of writing itself. One of my favorite sections comes as Rilke is encouraging his protege not to wait until he has everything sorted out to start writing. Instead, he says:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart…try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Time to Be in Earnest by P.D. James
Though she’s never kept much by way of diary, James decided to mark her 77th year with a memoir, noting the big events of that year, what she was reading, and a variety of random observations. She notes that this one-year autobiography is in many ways no different from the literary mysteries for which she is famous, because:
The past is not static. It can be relived only in memory, and memory is a device for forgetting as well as remembering. It, too, is not immutable. It rediscovers, reinvents, reorganizes. Like a passage of prose it can be revised and repunctuated. To that extent, every autobiography is a work of fiction and every work of fiction an autobiography.