Writer’s Spaces, Places, and Advice About Writing

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“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”  ~ Stephen King, On Writing

Pictured above is Stephen King’s own attic writing space at his home in Bangor, Maine.  In contrast to his statement above, his desk does appear to be in the middle of his room, but surely he means “corner” to be taken metaphorically; that is, any place that is quiet, that is yours; the place where you sit to write your work.  While there are some writers who purportedly can write in the midst of chaos, most of us require a place of retreat. I believe it was J.K. Rowling who said that she cleared out a walk-in closet, put a desk and a lamp in there, and sealed herself off from the rest of the family while she was composing her first Harry Potter novel.

Here are ten intriguing places where writer’s write, along with some advice for all who write:

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1.  Neil Gaiman‘s Gazebo/Cabin

8 Good Writing Practices

  1. Write.
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you somethings wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But its definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

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2.  Edith Wharton‘s view from “The Mount” in Lennox, Massachusetts

“Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”

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3. Dylan Thomas‘s Boathouse at Laugharne, Wales

“Go on thinking that you don’t need to be read and you’ll find that it may become quite true: no one will feel the need to read it because it is written for yourself alone; and the public won’t feel any impulse to gate crash such a private party.”

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4.  Ernest Hemingway‘s Home in Key West, Florida

“Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else that I have ever done.”

“There’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

“Ordinarily I never read anything before I write in the morning to try and bite on the old nail with no help, no influence and no one giving you a wonderful example or sitting looking over your shoulder.”

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5. Rudyard Kipling: Dummerston, Vermont

“I am, by calling, a dealer in words; and words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

“I never made a mistake in my life; at least, never one that I couldn’t explain away afterwards.”

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

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6. Ian Fleming‘s home, GoldenEye, in Jamaica

“All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by a mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the philosophers, the religious leaders – all maniacs. What else but a blind singleness of purpose could have given focus to their genius, would have kept them in the groove of purpose. Mania … is as priceless as genius.”

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7.  Norman Mailer‘s Fourth Floor Apartment, Brooklyn Heights, New York

“I’ve written at times about the spooky element in writing. You go in each morning, and there’s a blank page. Maybe it takes five minutes, maybe it takes an hour. Sooner or later you start writing, and then the words begin to flow. Where does that come from? You can’t pinpoint it. You always wonder, “Will it all stop tomorrow?” In that sense it’s spooky. In other words, you’re relying on a phenomenon that’s not necessarily dependable. ” (“Norman Mailer Interview,” The Academy of Achievement, June 12, 2004)

“Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.”

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8.  Virginia Woolf‘s Writing Desk at “Monk’s House,” Sussex, England

“Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it. It is our business to puncture gas bags and discover the seeds of truth.”

“To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heartbreaking task for men who know good writing from bad. They do it, but instinctively draw out of harm’s way anything precious that might be damaged by contact with the public, or anything sharp that might irritate its skin.”

“Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”

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9. John Steinbeck‘s Summer Home in Sag Harbor, Maine

“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true. “

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen. “

“The discipline of the written word punishes both stupidity and dishonesty.”

“In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. “

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10.  Roald Dahl‘s “The Gipsy House,” Buckinghamshire, England

Dahl’s Advice on Writing

1.  You should have a lively imagination

2. You should be able to write well.  By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind.  Not everybody has this ability.  It is a gift, and you either have it or you don’t.

3.  You must have stamina.  In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and month after month.

4.  You must be a perfectionist.  That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.

5.  You must have strong self-discipline.  You are working alone.  No one is employing you.  No one is around to fire you if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick you off is you start slacking.

6.  It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humor.  This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it’s vital.

7.  You must have a degree of humility.  The writer who thinks that his work is marvelous is heading for trouble.


Eek, it’s Frankensteinbeck! And Other Literary Puns

I came across this fantastic gallery in the Rumpus today and had to share. The artist Timothy Lee Taranto illustrates literature’s most serious authors in a less than serious light. Check out our favorite, the “Vonnugget,” below, and many more. Happy Friday!


A Writer’s Best Friend: Ten Authors and Their Pets

For many of us, pets offer companionship, love, and a patient ear to listen to the wild thoughts we cannot share with fellow members of our species. It’s no wonder, then, that so many artists crave the company of furry (or feathered) friends, so often held in high regard as either the inspiration behind or the initiator of the creative process. Just take a look at the special relationships between the following writers and their pets for example. Either as a retreat from humankind, a reminder to take a pensive walk outside, or the means by which scraps of paper find their way into the bin, these pets are so essential to their writers, it’s hard to imagine that they did not choose their artistic owners themselves.

Read on to see for yourself, then tell us what role you feel pets can play in stirring creativity in a comment below.

Ernest Hemingway

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Hemingway had multiple cats, for which he held massive respect, remarking, “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”

Virginia Woolf

with her dog Pinka.

“This you’ll call sentimental — perhaps — but then a dog somehow represents — no I can’t think of the word — the private side of life — the play side.”

Woolf’s dog biography, inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog Flush, is surprisingly her bestselling work to date.

Kurt Vonnegut

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The larger than life author with his tiny friend, Pumpkin.

Tennessee Williams

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Williams named his black cat Sabbath. He also named his best-known play after a feline in a precarious position:

“What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? — I wish I knew… Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can…”

Edith Wharton

Throughout her life, Wharton was often photographed with her dogs, of which she had many. She so loved canines, she actually helped to found the SPCA in the United States. Wharton even included her pups in her writing process, working in bed alongside them–what a picture! She also wrote a beautiful little poem in dedication to them:

My little old dog:
A heart-beat
At my feet.

Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor’s stories are full of surprises, as was her taste in pets. This writer had quite the collection of peacocks.

“When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the peacock will face you. Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing haloed suns. This is the moment when most people are silent.”

Robert Penn Warren

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Warren’s love for his cocker spaniel Frodo (named after Tolkien’s character) was commemorated in his poem “Rumor Verified”:

English cocker: old and blind
But if your hand
Merely touches his head,
Old faithe comes flooding back—and …
The paw descends, His trust is infinite
In you …

John Steinbeck

…and his French poodle Charley, with whom he traveled the country, detailed in his book Travels with Charley.

“I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.”

William S. Burroughs

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Burroughs remarked of his beloved cat Ginger, “Like all pure creatures, cats are practical.”

Maurice Sendak

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And lastly, the lovable curmudgeon and creator of Where the Wild Things Are succinctly summarizes his love for his companion Herman (after Melville) with a simple phrase:

“I hate people.”

Images courtesy of Flavorwire and New York Social Diary.


Top Ten Famous Last Words and Final Stops: Writers and Their Gravesites

Halloween draws near, and with it, the reminders of our own mortality.  Ghosts and goblins are ways of coping with what George Bernard Shaw called “that troublesome business”: death. And, as Jim Morrison aptly noted, “No one here gets out alive.” So on that cheerful note, here are some of the last words of famous writers and images of their final resting places. At eNotes, we only haunt you with the very best!

1.  Ernest Hemingway  (July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961)

“Goodnight, my kitten.” ~ To his wife, before he shot and killed himself.

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2.  L. Frank Baum (May 15, 1856 – May 6, 1919)

“Now I can cross the shifting sands.” ~ Referring to the desert that surrounded his fictional city, Oz. Baum suffered a stroke from which he never recovered.

3.  Dylan Thomas (27 October 1914 – 9 November 1953)

“I had eighteen straight whiskies…I think that’s a record.”  While alcohol probably hastened the poet’s demise, new theories attribute undiagnosed pneumonia as the more likely cause of death.

4.  James Joyce  (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941)

“Does nobody understand?” No direct cause has ever been attributed to Joyce’s death but his heavy drinking almost certainly played a prominent role.

5.  Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888)

“Is it not meningitis?” ~ It was not, actually. Alcott died as a result of mercury poisoning.

6.  Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817)

“I want nothing but death.”  ~ To her sister, Cassandra, inquiring if she wanted anything. (It has never been determined from what, exactly, the 41-year-old author succumbed to (speculations have included stomach cancer, Addison’s disease and bovine tuberculous) but the latest research suggests arsenic poisoning may have been the culprit.

7.  Mark Twain (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910)

“Goodbye. If we meet…” ~ To his daughter, Clara. Twain died of a myocardial infraction (heart attack).

8.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ( 28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832)

“More light!” ~ The cause of Goethe’s death is unknown.

9.  Henrik Ibsen (20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906)

“On the contrary!” ~ Ibsen’s response to his nurse, who remarked that he seemed better. Ibsen died as a result of complications from a stroke.

10. Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937 – February 20, 2005)

“Relax — This won’t hurt.” ~ Thompson’s final line in his suicide note. The author shot himself. An iconoclast to the end, his widow said Thomas wanted to go out with a bang, and he did. On a platform he personally designed, Thompson had his ashes shot from a cannon to the music of  Norman Greenbaum‘s “Spirit in the Sky” and Bob Dylan‘s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” You can watch a video of Thompson’s final farewell here.


The Greatest Books of All Time

Is it possible to rank the world’s best literature?

Well, no, and we’re certainly not going to try. Although in 2007, one publication did. Now we ask, did it get it right?

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books is a collection of “Top Ten” lists provided by some of the world’s most respected authors–125 altogether, from Norman Mailer, to Jonathan Franzen, to Stephen King and Annie Proulx. In all, a total of 544 works were mentioned at least once in the 125 lists, which were further separated by different criteria to concoct a number of other lists:

• The Top Top Ten Books of All Time
• The Top Ten Books by Living Writers
• The Top Ten Books of the Twentieth Century
• The Top Ten Mysteries
• The Top Ten Comedies

… and many more.

Despite the book’s seemingly absolutist mission to seek out the best ten books ever, its editor J. Peder Zane views the collection more as a reading guide. He was inspired by a dream that other readers will probably find familiar; stranded on a desert island and thirsting for nothing other than a really good book, Zane suddenly found himself pelted from above with one masterpiece after another, turning his “little isle into a Tower of Biblio-Babel.” He interpreted the dream to represent the “opportunity and befuddlement” book lovers face, and resolved to answer that perpetual reader’s question, “What should I read next?”

“Part Rand-McNally, part Zagat’s, part cultural Prozac, it takes the anxiety out of bibliophilia by offering a comprehensive and authoritative guide to the world’s best books.”–J. Peder Zane

Something notable about the reduction of a near infinite choice of works to one relatively small collection is the resultant ability to point out patterns in the writers’ selections. Amongst all of them, there is an overwhelming prevalence to go for “memorable character-driven dramas of love and death, delineated by nuanced prose,” as Sven Birkerts so elegantly puts it. We can also see that across all of the lists, the 1920s produced the most popular works, comprising 15 novels named on two or more lists. (The twentieth century in all was the far more appreciated century.) The book’s appendix cross-references the 544 books by many other illuminating standards.

And yet, can we really reduce the supposed best literature of all time into lists, no matter how many we have of them? Annie Proulx, who submitted a list of her own top ten didn’t seem to think so as she penned, “Lists, unless grocery shopping lists, are truly a reductio ad absurdum.”

Whatever you believe, whether the 544 books in The Top Ten can be considered the best books ever or not, the collection must at least highlight a multitude of books that can all be deemed “worth your time.” Close your eyes and stab your finger on any one of its pages and you’ll stumble upon a good read (or at least somebody’s good read). After all, given that 125 famous and respected living writers contributed to the list of “top top ten” below, it wouldn’t do you any harm to give each a try. At least, I know what my next New Year’s resolution will be.

Thanks to Flavorwire, we have a nifty infograph to pictorially dilute the massive amount of information found in the book. Have a look through the results and tell us what you think in a comment. Who was shafted? Who doesn’t deserve to be on the list? We want to hear your thoughts!

 


Hemingway’s Last Farewell

“But after I got them to leave and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”
– Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, Chapter 41

So ends Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, a famously simple, perfunctory line at the end of an epic tale of war and love. But it almost wasn’t to be.

It has become the stuff of writing lore that Hemingway admitted to writing 39 variations on the novel’s ending before deciding on the published version. 39 could-have-been lines that the public never got to see–until now, that is. 

Hemingway’s long-time publishing house, Scribner, is releasing a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, complete with every possible alternate ending the novelist imagined (there are actually a total of 47, by his grandson’s careful analysis). The edition will also feature the original cover art for the book, at right, as well as the list of Hemingway’s other options for its title: these include “Love in War,” “World Enough and Time,” “Every Night and All,” “Of Wounds and Other Causes,” and “The Enchantment.” The last was crossed out by the author, but who knows how close the work could have been to being called by one of these other names.

The New York Times was able to provide a sneak peek to a few of these 47 endings, each of which was numbered and named. They range from the nihilistic…

No. 1, “The Nada Ending”:

“That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”

..to the optimistic.

No. 7, “The Live-Baby Ending”:

“There is no end except death and birth is the only beginning.”

One was even suggested by Hemingway’s good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, and is named after him. In this, the author concluded that the world “breaks everyone,” and those “it does not break it kills…”

No. 34, “The Fitzgerald Ending”:

“It kills the very good and very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

If you recognize the quote, it did in fact make its way into the published copy of the book, but earlier on, in Chapter 34.

So, why the need to uncover these now, after many decades safely tucked away within the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library? Though Hemingway is still a strong seller for his publisher, they admit the need to constantly present his body of work afresh. There has also been a push to place the author’s collected works further into the limelight than his formidable persona, which has appeared recently quite dramatized in the films “Midnight in Paris” and “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” as well as the bestselling novel The Paris Wife. Finally, the fact that the collection of alternate closing lines exists is a testament to a bygone way of writing, as well as to Hemingway’s commitment to “getting the words right,” as he once put it. With so many writers today composing on computers, would it be possible to uncover such a glimpse into the writing process as this? But also, is it fair that we should get to see it?

Not according to Sean Hemingway, one of the author’s grandsons:

“I think people who are interested in writing and trying to write themselves will find it interesting to look at a great work and have some insight to how it was done,” he says. “But he is a writer who has captured the imagination of the American public, and these editions are interesting because they really focus on his work. Ultimately that’s his lasting contribution.”

Others may disagree. Do you feel that the drafts should go unpublished? Or are you happier knowing how Hemingway arrived at A Farewell to Arms‘ classic ending? Did Hemingway, in your opinion, make the right choice with the ending he selected?


Salinger’s Letter to Hemingway

(AP Photo/courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)

If you are lucky enough to be in Boston on Sunday and attending the PEN/Hemingway Awards, you’ll get a chance to sneak a peek at a J. D. Salinger letter to Ernest Hemingway. It was written in 1946, when Salinger and Hemingway were serving in Europe during World War II. In it, Salinger addresses Hemingway as “Poppa” and closes the letter by saying that “[t]he talks I had with you here were the only hopeful minutes of the whole business.” Five years later, Salinger published his masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye.


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