The Psychology of Flow: What Game Design Reveals about the Deliberate Tensions of Great Writing

“The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.”

A full creative life requires equally that we cultivate a capacity for boredom, as legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips asserted, and learn to welcome rather than avoid difficulty, as Nietzsche believed. Great stories, like great life-stories, are woven of the same interplay between fertile ennui and surmountable frustration – so argues writer Peter Turchi in one especially rewarding section of the altogether stimulating A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic.

In a sentiment that illuminates the psychological machinery behind Nabokov’s famous assertion that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Turchi recounts poet C. Dale Young’s experience of reading and rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.

This notion of the elusive, Turchi goes on to argue, is essential to the alchemy of storytelling. Turning to pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on flow — that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger — Turchi explores the role of challenge in the “flow channel” of narrative.

flowchannel1

He cites game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which identifies the four elements necessary to put a game player (and, by extension, a reader) into a fruitful “flow state”:

  1. clear goals
  2. no distractions
  3. direct feedback
  4. continuous challenge

The last one, Turchi argues, is of especially delicate balance. He quotes Schell:

If we start to think we can’t achieve [the goal], we feel frustrated, and our minds start seeking an activity more likely to be rewarding. On the other hand, if the challenge is too easy, we feel bored, and again, our minds start seeking more rewarding activities.

Turchi considers this tricky balance against the great trickster that is time:

Simply establishing a constant state of challenge turns out not to be effective for long. Instead, the ideal situation, flow-channel-wise, is to keep the game player or reader moving within a tolerable range of new challenge and acquired skill — or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, between anxiety and boredom.

A child might be challenged by playing tic-tac-toe, for instance; but once someone learns how to win or force a draw every time, the game holds less interest. Books of sudoku and crossword puzzles are often labeled easy, medium, or hard because few people will pay for a book of puzzles they can’t do, and not many more will spend time with puzzles that are too simple. With a game like chess, new players might have trouble remembering how the different pieces move; after that, the level of difficulty changes with the opponents they play.

flowchannel2

A similar mechanism is at work in the game of narrative:

This cycle of satisfaction and frustration is familiar to every writer. We write sentences or drafts that disappoint us, and we feel frustrated. But then a sentence or paragraph or image delights us, and that success encourages us to continue. If we never felt pleasure from anything we wrote, we’d stop; but if we were completely satisfied, if we didn’t feel the urge to move beyond what we have accomplished or to take on a new challenge, we’d lose interest.

This is essentially what Zadie Smith captured in the last of her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” Except the sadness is simultaneously a stimulant for the satisfaction, for both reader and writer. Turchi captures this elegantly:

Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn’t intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. The ideal reading experience might be comparable to that flow state. The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.

Returning to Schell’s theories of game design, Turchi relates the basic paradigm to writing:

It isn’t enough for the story to be somewhere in between too hard and too easy; ideally, the story will provide the reader an ongoing series of challenges and satisfactions.

 

He illustrates the interplay between challenge and satisfaction with a befitting metaphor:

If, on a hike, all we care about is convenient travel — the physical equivalent of reading a kitchen appliance manual — we’re happy to have big stepping stones, close together, and a quietly flowing stream. But if we’re looking for an interesting experience, if the stream is quiet, the stepping stones can be smaller or farther apart. If the stream is wide and the water is rushing by, we want the security of flat, broad stones. Eventually, some of us will seek out greater adventures — a deep, rushing stream and small, uneven stones that are a long, uncertain stride apart — but if that experience goes on too long, we’re likely to grow exhausted (or fall and be swept to our death; happily, such a dire fate is unlikely when we tackle Absalom! Absalom or Ulysses).

To keep her readers in that vitalizing flow state, Turchi argues, a great writer ought to deliberately move them “between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release.”

***

Via: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/05/peter-turchi-a-muse-a-maze-book-flow/

Does The Perfect ‘Writer’s Space’ Exist?

Writing-Space

Image credit: Green Chameleon

Have you ever wondered if the perfect writing environment exists? Ever thought about whether or not our writing environment affects the quality of our work? Are there common components that define the perfect place to write?

In this feature, I ask four writers about where they conduct their business of writing: author, journalist and editor of Verandah Magazine Candida Baker; author of 15 books Robert Drewe; freelance writer and author Allison Tait; and television producer, writer and journalist Pascal Adolphe.

How important is where you write?

Candida Baker says that after writing for so many years, where she writes is not as important as when she writes…

I can pretty much write anywhere, but when I like to write is very early in the morning, as early as 4am, when the world is quiet, and the universe is fresh and new again.”

Candida uses meditation to guide her before and during these productive hours of her day. A cup of Lady Grey tea is never far away and her sofa is her office in the wee hours.

Robert Drewe admits that ‘the worst place on earth to write is next to a house with a constantly barking dog’.

His prerequisites are a place that is quiet and has natural light, with a desk and a chair and a power outlet for his computer. He sometimes writes in longhand first when the environment dictates it.

Allison Tait’s perspective has changed from a few years ago, now that her two small boys have grown. She admits to ‘wedging in words where I could’ and writing anywhere back then. She fantasises about being a writer who sits in cafes but says, ‘the truth is I get distracted. I need the quiet and the reminder that writing is work’.

She adds that the purpose of sitting at a desk also means work for her.

Pascal Adolphe believes that:

The physical environment and surroundings are largely immaterial to me as a writer. More important is the internal environment: that is, how I’m feeling. If I’m having a good day, I’m totally focused on the story and oblivious to my surroundings. In fact, I find that if you are in a place that’s romantically considered as the ideal place to write – such as a cottage by the sea or one with a view over some wondrous scene – it can be a distraction rather than an inspiration.”

Robert concurs: ‘You’re there to work. It’s not a holiday.’

What do you feel are the necessary components for a happy writing environment?

All four writers have had their share of chaotic newsrooms early on in their careers. Allison recalls ‘a fair bit of shrieking’ during her 14 years working in open-plan magazine offices.

It taught me great focus and how to work ‘inside my head’, which is to say that the entire outside environment fades away when I write. This has been particularly helpful as a freelance writer working around my children whilst trying to write fiction in any spare time available.”

These days Robert needs to have minimal interruptions and distractions. He also adds: ‘it’s a great help to have a partner who is sympathetic to these conditions and doesn’t feel threatened by your absorption in your writing, especially towards the end of a book’.

Pascal and Candida find that when there is a deadline they are happy writing anywhere. Pascal adds that writing under pressure in a busy, noisy environment is the most creatively fertile place for him. When Candida is not under pressure to deliver she can ‘get a bit prima donna-ish and decide I need absolute quiet’.

Allison tends to write quite late into the night. ‘As long as the lights are on, the room is quiet and I have my computer in front of me, I’m good to go.’ She has a messy desk and her walls are covered with her sons’ drawings.

Where have you written your best work?

‘I haven’t yet written my best work’ claims Candida. She continues, 

At least I hope I haven’t! But I hope that the novel I’m working on will be my best work, and that is my early-morning-on-the-sofa novel. Every now and then I experience complete aloneness and quietude, and the work that comes from that is some of my best, I believe.”

Pascal also thinks his best work is ahead of him in the shape of the novel he is writing. To date his best work as a paid professional are his television scripts, particularly for The New Inventors, created in a busy office environment and ‘on the road’ – in hotel rooms or on planes.

I have written in so many assorted places I can barely recall them,” says Robert. “In the city, when I began writing, I wrote The Savage Crows on an Olivetti portable on the kitchen table at night. And now, in the country, I write on a MacBook Air in a converted garage.”

Allison has a ‘Pavlovian response to putting my fingers on my keyboard when I am at my desk, and that’s where I do my best work. I don’t need a view because all I am looking at is the screen. When I wrote The Mapmaker Chronicles, I spent hours and hours looking at the wall in my study – but in my head there was a full-colour movie playing out.’

Did the writing environment influence the creation of your best work and why?

Candida now lives far away from the chaos of capital cities and their newsrooms. ‘I’m surrounded by massive fig trees, and the emerald grass is luminescent underneath the dark olive green of the macadamia trees. The green soothes my soul. Living in the country definitely informs my writing in the way that I see landscape and how I can meditate myself into the universe around me.’

Robert doesn’t think the environment affects the writing per se, as long as the conditions suit the individual. ‘You don’t need a sea view, for example, to write about the ocean. I think the imagination even works better when the writing environment is far from your fictional backdrop.’

Allison spent six weeks drafting each of the three books in The Mapmaker Chronicles. She thinks that because she has an established routine and just ‘got down to work’, the environment she created informed the speed and productivity of her writing.

She adds,

There’s no perfect place, except in front of your computer or notebook or whatever your writing tool of choice may be. I think people place too much emphasis on looking for the perfect place to write their novel. I often hear them saying things like ‘when I move to the country, I’ll write my novel, or as soon as I get a study of my own, I’ll write my novel‘.”

Pascal’s ‘light bulb’ moments can happen anytime. ‘Ideas for my writing sometimes are formed in that moment when I’m emerging from a deep sleep, thinking about a story.’ Such as when he got the idea for his latest challenge: writing his first novel, a political farce based on his experience growing up in Mauritius.

Conclusion

So it would seem, as the panel has indicated, the perfect writing environment is actually in our heads.

We carry it around with us. To get to that place of creativity we just need to focus on the task at hand, and get down to the job of writing.

Admitting that it is a job, that it is a ‘hard slog’ and that there is no way around this fact is the most pragmatic approach to productivity. As is establishing a routine. There is nothing romantic about the job of writing!

Deep within us writers there is an insatiable need to tell our story, to get the words down. Perhaps that novel, article or poem would never be written if we thought about the effort too much.

It’s the deep satisfaction of the creative process – of building something and then letting it go, starting anew – which drives us.

***

Via: https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/perfect-writers-space-exist/

Cassandra Clare: ‘We need more gay relationships in young adult fiction’

Cassandra-Clare

(Photo by Rex/Moviestore)

Found this article very interesting, it raises a good point. Enjoy!


Cassandra Clare, the New York bestselling author of the Mortal Instruments series, has called for more representation of homosexual relationships in Young Adult fiction.

Clare told the teenage visitors to the Hay Festival that publishers turned her award-winning novels down because one of its main characters, Shadowhunter Alec Lightwood, was gay and embarked on a relationship with another young man, Magnus Bane.

“If publishers are throwing up roadblocks to wider representation of different parts of society, then we need to try harder to write books about them,” she said.

Answering a question from the audience, Clare explained that she knew it “would be a problem” to have a gay character in her novels, but that the character Alec developed his homosexuality as she wrote.

“Sometimes characters tell you things about themselves,” she said, “Alec was angry, and I realised he was in love with [his adopted brother] Jace”.

Clare’s books portray the ostracism some young homosexual people sometimes face. Alec is excluded by his people for being gay. After he made his relationship with Magnus public, he inspired other young Shadowhunters to open up about their sexuality.

Magnus and Alec’s relationship is popular with readers of The Mortal Instruments series. During her talk, Clare read from part of the forthcoming Bane Chronicles which detailed voicemail messages that had been left on Magnus’s phone after the end of his relationship with Alec.

Clare admitted that even she found it difficult to remember aspects of the unwieldy universe she had created for her novels, and that she had made a ‘Shadowhunter Codex’ full of “family trees and massive amounts of notes” that she now uses as a research tool.

***

Via: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/Cassandra-Clare-we-need-more-gay-relationships-in-young-adult-fiction.html

How to Work Through Difficulty: Lewis Carroll’s Three Tips for Overcoming Creative Block

Lewis-Carroll-Charles-Dodgson-631

When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on.”

In addition to having authored one of my all-time favourite books, Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandLewis Carroll (January 27, 1832 – January 14, 1898) was a man of extraordinary and frequently prescient wisdom on matters of everyday life — his nine commandments of letter-writing offer timely insight into how we can make modern digital communication more civil, and his four rules for digesting information are a saving grace for our age of information overload. In The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, this blend of timelessness and timelines so characteristic of Carroll’s thinking comes vibrantly ablaze, but nowhere more so than in an 1885 letter to one of his child-friends, a young lady named Edith Rix.

Carroll addresses the age-old question of how to overcome creative block. More than a century before psychologists identified the essential role of taking breaks in any intense creative endeavor, and long before our earliest formal theories about the stages of the creative process, Carroll offers spectacularly prescient counsel on how to work through creative difficulty and seemingly unsolvable problems — a testament to the fact that in the study of creativity, psychology often simply names and formalizes the intuitive insights artists have had for centuries, if not millennia.

Carroll offers young Edith three tips:

When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on. Put it aside till the next morning; and if then you can’t make it out, and have no one to explain it to you, put it aside entirely, and go back to that part of the subject which you do understand. When I was reading Mathematics for University honors, I would sometimes, after working a week or two at some new book, and mastering ten or twenty pages, get into a hopeless muddle, and find it just as bad the next morning. My rule was to begin the book again. And perhaps in another fortnight I had come to the old difficulty with impetus enough to get over it. Or perhaps not. I have several books that I have begun over and over again.”

His second tip is particularly noteworthy for the way it compares and contrasts Carroll’s two domains of genius, writing and mathematics — for, lest we forget, behind the pen name Lewis Carroll always remained the brilliant mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson. He writes:

My second hint shall be — Never leave an unsolved difficulty behind. I mean, don’t go any further in that book till the difficulty is conquered. In this point, Mathematics differs entirely from most other subjects. Suppose you are reading an Italian book, and come to a hopelessly obscure sentence — don’t waste too much time on it, skip it, and go on; you will do very well without it. But if you skip a mathematical difficulty, it is sure to crop up again: you will find some other proof depending on it, and you will only get deeper and deeper into the mud.”

In a way, this dichotomy also illuminates the difference between reading and writing. Writing is almost mathematical, in the sense that it requires a clarity of logic in order for the writer to carry the plot forward. A reader may be able to read over a muddled sentence and still follow the plot — but only if that sentence was unmuddled for the writer in carrying the plot forward. In that sense, while Carroll’s advice to Edith considers her experience as a reader, his advice to a writer regarding creative block would be more closely aligned with the mathematician’s experience — if a writer were to skip over a difficulty in the construction of a story, which is essentially a logical difficulty, it too “is sure to crop up again.”

Carroll’s third tip is at once remarkably simple and remarkably challenging to apply for anyone who has ever tussled with the mentally draining but spiritually sticky process of creative problem-solving:

My third hint is, only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest, or your penalty will be that you will never learn Mathematics at all!”

***

Via: https://www.brainpickings.org/lewis-carroll-creative-block-letter/

The Best Fictional Friends | Books, TV and Film

HarryPotterFriends

There have been countless posts about fictional crushes, but what about fictional BFFs? You know, the kind of friends who will literally help you defeat evil, save the world, and forgive you after you let spiders crawl over their faces. This post is an homage to them, the fictional friends you wish were real (and yours):

Ron Weasley, (Harry Potter). Ron stuck with Harry from the beginning, sacrificing himself so that Harry could get to the Sorcerer’s stone and facing his fear of spiders for him. Not only did he join Harry on his many (mis)adventures, but he also stuck by him in his moody moments, even welcoming the Boy Who Lived into his own family. On top of all this, Ron is a goofy, fun guy at heart, and Harry and he would still be friends even if the world didn’t depend on it.

Hermione Granger, (Harry Potter). Where there’s a Ron, there’s a Hermione. Hermione stuck with Harry through it all, and never once abandoned him on the Horcrux Hunt. She even picked her friend (and the cause) over her love interest. Not to mention she’s clearly the smartest one in the group.

Hassan, (The Kite Runner). Those of you who have read or seen The Kite Runner know that Hassan is about the best best friend you could ever hope to have. He believes in Amir, loves him, sticks with him and defends him no matter how Amir treats him. If that’s not a great friend, I don’t know what is.

Team Dracula, (Dracula). This is what I’m collectively calling Quincey Morris, Arthur Holmwood, John Seward, Jonathan Harker, and Abraham van Helsing. These five were initially bonded by their mutual love of Lucy Westenra and hatred of the evil Count Dracula, but that bond deepens as they hunt for the Count in an attempt to save Mina. The strength of their friendship is underscored by the fact that Mina and Jonathan name their son after all the male members of Team Dracula, but call him Quincey, after the one member who died. It takes a special kind of friend to risk his life for you, and that’s the kind of friends Mina and Lucy had in Team Dracula.

Horatio, (Hamlet). Horatio not only sticks with Hamlet through all his depression and moodiness, he’s also the only one who calls him on the things he’s done that were less-than-moral. A real friend isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re wrong, and that’s the kind of friend Horatio is.

Sydney Carton, (A Tale of Two Cities). Lucie should have chosen Sydney. Beyond that, Sydney managed to put aside his own feelings for the sake of Lucie’s happiness over and over again. I mean, how many of you could genuinely be happy for your crush when he fell for someone else if you still had feelings for him?

Berton “Gus” Guster, (Psych). Gus has more book smarts and common sense than Shawn, not to mention a stable job. He keeps Shawn grounded with his own particular brand of uptightness. He’s stuck with Shawn ever since they were kids; not even college or vastly different careers could break up their friendship. And, despite everything, he really believes in Shawn (well, not the psychic part).

Morgan Grimes, (Chuck). The quintessential sidekick, Morgan is part wingman, part support system, all comic relief. Not many friends would stick by you once they find out you’ve been lying to them for months, but Morgan does. And he knows when to give Chuck space – a sure sign of a true friend.

Forrest Gump, (Forrest Gump). Forrest is ready to be friends with anyone and everyone he meets, even if they aren’t interested in being friends with him. Despite being in love with Jenny, Forrest contents himself with being her friend until she decides otherwise; he’s even ready to welcome her into his home knowing she only came because she was out of options. He runs back into the jungle towards gunfire and death to rescue Bubba, and no matter how snippy Lieutenant Dan gets, Forrest is always ready to work on a shrimp boat with him.

Dr. Wilson, (House). Does he enable the heck out of House? Yes. Is that a good thing? Probably not. But he’s also the one who let House stay with him after he was released from the mental hospital, who encouraged his relationship with Cuddy, who always makes sure he doesn’t kill himself, and who explains to him exactly why he did whatever particularly jerky thing he’s done in any given episode. Let’s face it, no matter how much House acts like he doesn’t need anyone, he’d be lost without Wilson.

Team Avatar, (Avatar). Aang really couldn’t have mastered all four elements without them, and their personalities compliment each other in such a way as to create a perfect team. Sokka’s the comic relief and the leader at the same time, Katara’s the parental figure and the overemotional/optimistic one, Toph’s the snarky yet insightful one, Aang’s the fun-loving glue that holds them all together, Suki’s good in a tight spot, and Zuko’s the gloomy bad boy who’s also incredibly passionate and determined. Together, they’re a heroic dream team; apart, you’d still want to hang out with all of them.

Who’s your favourite fictional BFF?

***

Via http://community.sparknotes.com/the-best-fictional-best-friends

Hemingway on Writing, Ambition, the Art of Revision 

Hemingway-writing

“As a writer you should not judge. You should understand,” Ernest Hemingway (July 21, 1899–July 2, 1961) counseled in his 1935 Esquire compendium of writing advice, addressed to an archetypal young correspondent but based on a real-life encounter that had taken place a year earlier.

In 1934, a 22-year-old aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson set out to meet his literary hero, hoping to steal a few moments with Hemingway to talk about writing. The son of Norwegian immigrant wheat farmers, he had just completed his coursework in journalism at the University of Minnesota, but had refused to pay the $5 diploma fee. Convinced that his literary education would be best served by apprenticing himself to Hemingway, however briefly, he hitchhiked atop a coal car from Minnesota to Key West. “It seemed a damn fool thing to do,” Samuelson later recalled, “but a twenty-two-year-old tramp during the Great Depression didn’t have to have much reason for what he did.” Unreasonable though the quest may have been, he ended up staying with Hemingway for almost an entire year, over the course of which he became the literary titan’s only true protégé.

Samuelson recorded the experience and its multitude of learnings in a manuscript that was only discovered by his daughter after his death in 1981. It was eventually published as With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba — the closest thing to a psychological profile of the great writer.

Shortly after the young man’s arrival in Key West, Hemingway got right down to granting him what he had traveled there seeking. In one of their first exchanges, he hands Samuelson a handwritten list and instructs him:

Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.

This is the list of heartening and hopeless-making masterworks that Hemingway handed to young Samuelson:

hemingway_readinglist

  1. The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane
  2. The Open Boat by Stephen Crane
  3. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  4. Dubliners by James Joyce
  5. The Red and the Black by Stendhal
  6. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
  7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  8. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  9. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
  10. Hail and Farewell by George Moore
  11. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse
  13. The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings
  14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  15. Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson
  16. The American by Henry James

Not on the handwritten list but offered in the conversation surrounding the exchange is what Hemingway considered “the best book an American ever wrote,” the one that “marks the beginning of American literature” – Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Alongside these edifying essentials, Hemingway offered young Samuelson some concrete writing advice. Advocating for staying with what psychologists now call flow, he begins with the psychological discipline of the writing process:

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.

Then, echoing Lewis Carroll’s advice on overcoming creative block in problem-solving, Hemingway considers the practical tactics of this psychological strategy:

The next morning, when you’ve had a good sleep and you’re feeling fresh, rewrite what you wrote the day before. When you come to the interesting place and you know what is going to happen next, go on from there and stop at another high point of interest. That way, when you get through, your stuff is full of interesting places and when you write a novel you never get stuck and you make it interesting as you go along. Every day go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing and when it gets too long, read at least two or three chapters before you start to write and at least once a week go back to the start. That way you make it one piece. And when you go over it, cut out everything you can. The main thing is to know what to leave out. The way you tell whether you’re going good is by what you can throw away. If you can throw away stuff that would make a high point of interest in somebody else’s story, you know you’re going good.

He then returns to the psychological payoff of this trying practice:

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing. When you can do that, the reader gets the kick and you don’t get any. You just get hard work and the better you write the harder it is because every story has to be better than the last one. It’s the hardest work there is. I like to do and can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write I feel like shit. I’ve got the talent and I feel that I’m wasting it.

When Samuelson asks how one can know whether one has any talent, Hemingway replies:

You can’t. Sometimes you can go on writing for years before it shows. If a man’s got it in him, it will come out sometime. The only thing I can advise you is to keep on writing but it’s a damned tough racket. The only reason I make any money at it is I’m a sort of literary pirate. Out of every ten stories I write, only one is any good and I throw the other nine away.

Hemingway tempers this with a word of advice on ambition, self-comparison, and originality:

Never compete with living writers. You don’t know whether they’re good or not. Compete with the dead ones you know are good. Then when you can pass them up you know you’re going good. You should have read all the good stuff so that you know what has been done, because if you have a story like one somebody else has written, yours isn’t any good unless you can write a better one. In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better, but the tendency should always be upward instead of down. And don’t ever imitate anybody. All style is, is the awkwardness of a writer in stating a fact. If you have a way of your own, you are fortunate, but if you try to write like somebody else, you’ll have the awkwardness of the other writer as well as your own.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neil Gaiman’s magnificent commencement address on the only adequate response to criticism, Hemingway cautions Samuelson about the petty jealousies that arise with success:

When you start to write everybody is wishing you luck, but when you’re going good, they try to kill you. The only way you can ever stay on top is by writing good stuff.

***

Via: https://www.brainpickings.org/hemingway

Before They Were Famous: The Oddest Jobs of 10 Literary Greats

 

Odd-Jobs

Plenty of acclaimed and successful writers began their careers working strange – and occasionally degrading – day jobs. But rather than being ground down by the work, many drew inspiration for stories and poems from even the dullest gigs. Here are 10 of the oddest odd jobs of famous authors, all of them reminders that creative fodder can be found in the most unexpected places.

1. Kurt Vonnegut managed America’s first Saab dealership in Cape Cod during the late 1950s, a job he joked about in a 2004 essay: “I now believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: Why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for Literature.”

2. John Steinbeck took on a range of odd occupations before earning enough to work as a full-time writer. Among his day jobs: apprentice painter, fruit picker, estate caretaker and Madison Square Garden construction worker.

3. Stephen King served as a janitor for a high school while struggling to get his fiction published. His time wheeling the cart through the halls inspired him to write the opening girls’ locker room scene in Carrie, which would become his breakout novel.

4. Harper Lee worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines for more than eight years, writing stories in her spare time. This all changed when a friend offered her a Christmas gift of one year’s wages, with the note, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.” She wrote the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird within the year.

5. J.D. Salinger mentioned in a rare interview in 1953 that he had served as entertainment director on the H.M.S. Kungsholm, a Swedish luxury liner. He drew on the experience for his short story “Teddy,” which takes place on a liner.

6. Before joining the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen GinsbergWilliam S. Burroughs worked as an exterminator in Chicago. It served as a handy metaphor years later in his novel Exterminator!

7. Richard Wright worked as a letter sorter in a post office on the south side of Chicago from 1927 to 1930, while he wrote a number of short stories and poems that were published in literary journals.

8. William Faulkner also worked for the Postal Service, as postmaster at the University of Mississippi, before his writing career took off. In his resignation note, he neatly summarized the struggle of art and commerce faced by many authors: “As long as I live under the capitalist system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”

9. T.S. Eliot worked as a banker, serving as a clerk for Lloyds Bank of London for eight years. The job must have been a bummer – he composed passages of The Waste Land while walking to work each day.

10. Sometimes, an odd job can actually lead to opportunity. Poet Vachel Lindsay was interrupted as he dined at a hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C., by a busboy who handed him some sheets of poetry. At first irritated by the young man, Lindsay was quickly impressed by the writing. When he asked, “Who wrote this?” the busboy replied, “I did.” Langston Hughes was about to get his big break.

So, whatever you are doing now to pay the bills, take heed that dreams can come true and keep writing. You never know when your time might be!

***

Via: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/before-they-were-famous-the-oddest-odd-jobs-of-10-literary-greats-2