Gerald Howard in his essay, “Never Give an Inch”:
Work—especially the sort of work that gets your hands dirty and that brands you as a member of the working class—no longer seems germane to our novelists’ apprenticeships and, not coincidentally, is no longer easy to find in the fiction they produce. Whether one finds this scarcity something to worry about or simply a fact to be noted probably says a lot about one’s class origins and prejudices.
Zadie Smith on reading as a balanced diet for writing, in a lecture published as “That Crafty Feeling”:
I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I'm too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I'm syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are too baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aeshetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of substance over style.
Robert Coover on the writer's power, in an interview with Bookslut:
People, fearing their own extinction, are willing to accept and perpetuate hand-me-down answers to the meaning of life and death; and, fearing a weakening of the tribal structures that sustain them, reinforce with their tales the conventional notions of justice, freedom, law and order, nature, family, etc. The writer, lone rider, has the power, if not always the skills, wisdom, or desire, to disturb this false contentment.
Charles Baxter in an essay about Italian writer Dino Buzzati:
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois shrieks, “I want magic!” and so do ordinary readers. Fiction began its life in magic and fables and in efforts to instruct, and let’s remember that Borges pointed out that realism is merely a brief episode in the history of literature. Realism is bracketed on both sides by myths and fantasies and monsters of every variety.
Elif Batuman in The Possessed:
The premium on conciseness and concreteness made proper names a great value—so they came flying at you as if out of a tennis-ball machine: Julia, Juliet, Viola, Violet, Rusty, Lefty, Carl, Carla, Carleton, Mamie, Sharee, Sharon, Rose of Sharon (a Native American), Hassan. Each name betrayed a secret calculation, a weighing of plausibility against precision: On the one hand, the cat called King Spanky; on the other, the cat called Cat. In either case, the result somehow seemed false, contrived—unlike Tolstoy's double Alexeis, and unlike Chekhov's characters, many of whom didn't have names at all. In “Lady With Lapdog,” Gurov's wife, Anna's husband, Gurov's crony at the club, even the lapdog, are all nameless. No contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog. They were too caught up in trying to bootstrap from a proper name to a meaningful individual essence—like the “compassionate” TV doctor who informs her colleagues: “She has a name.”
John Cheever in an interview with The Paris Review:
The legend that characters run away from their authors—taking up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming president—implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft. This is absurd. Of course, any estimable exercise of the imagination draws upon such a complex richness of memory that it truly enjoys the expansiveness—the surprising turns, the response to light and darkness—of any living thing. But the idea of authors running around helplessly behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible.
Dan Chaon on the things he's had to unlearn as a writer, in an interview with Fictionaut:
The part that’s hardest is when I start thinking about the stuff beyond the scope of the actual work, because there’s an aspect of being a writer that feels constantly like being in Junior High.
Will I ever publish a story in the New Yorker? Probably not.
Will the cool po-mo hipster guys ever think I’m cool too? In a pig’s eye.
Will I ever please that Amazon reviewer who found my work boring and depressing, and my characters unlikable? Highly doubtful.
It’s very hard — weirdly hard — to clear your mind of all that crap so that you can just sit down and write and find that place where you’re just involved and enjoying the imaginary place you’ve discovered. All the other “problems” with writing are just puzzles, and they can be interesting to try to crack, even when it’s frustrating.
Edward P. Jones on the political world and fiction, in conversation with ZZ Packer:
When I write fiction it's far removed from everyday events. But you are a certain kind of person: you believe in a certain kind of right no matter what, so when you're writing, the everyday world is consciously on your mind, so what you know as being right seeps into the writing nevertheless.
Ursula K. Le Guin in the introduction to The Unreal and the Real: Volume One, talking about her choice to base a good part of her work in a made-up country, Orisinia:
By the early Sixties, when I finally began getting stories published, I was quite certain that reality is often best represented slantwise, backwards, or as if it were an imaginary country, and also that I could write about anywhere and anything I liked, with a hope though no expectation that somebody, somewhere, would publish it.
Mary Gaitskill in an interview with The Believer:
One thing I’m very envious of men for is when they get married—this is less true than it was, but I still think it’s true—their wife is going to help them. Look at Nabokov. He was a brilliant writer. He would have been a brilliant writer no matter what. But do you know how much his wife did for him? She did the shopping. They would drive to the store together—she would drive. She did all the dealings with the landlord, she shoveled the walk. She typed his manuscripts, she edited them. I don’t think most women would go that far, but women are far more willing to do the support work, which is really, really helpful. Virginia Woolf—I’m sure she would have been a great writer, regardless, but she had a lot of help, too. Leonard was a wife. That’s invaluable. Women do not have that very often.
Martin Amis interviewed in the Paris Review
It’s not the flashy twist, the abrupt climax, or the seamless sequence of events that characterizes a writer and makes him unique. It’s a tone, it’s a way of looking at things. It’s a rhythm, it’s what in poetry is called a sprung rhythm. Instead of having a stress every other beat, it has stress after stress after stress. One’s a little worried about having one’s logo on every sentence. What’s that phrase about a painting consisting entirely of signatures? That obviously is something to be avoided, but it would never inhibit me. I never think, Let’s write a piece of prose that is unmistakably mine. Really, it’s an internal process, a tuning-fork process. You say the sentence or you write the sentence again and again until the tuning fork is still, until it satisfies you.
Jim Harrison in an interview with Joseph Bednarik:
I have such trouble, getting all these manuscripts every year by the hundreds, and galleys and so on, because you can tell right away if a person’s not in touch; if they want sincerity, or to be right, it’s hopeless. If there isn’t a primary intoxication with language and playfulness of their own consciousness, it’s hopeless. If they just want to be right, well then they’d be better off being a professor, wouldn’t they?
Sam Lipsyte in an interview with Gigantic:
I'm often keeping my ears peeled for some kind of language incident. To hear something wrong, to hear it anew, to hear it in a different way than I ever had before. I have a recent example. I was in the supermarket just buying supermarket things and it was really crowded and there were a whole bunch of cashiers in a row and my cashier mistyped the item or something and anyway the whole thing needed to be erased and we needed to start again. And she called out that phrase I've heard a million times in the supermarket—and there is always one guy there with a key who can help with this—but the phrase was, “I need a void!” At that moment I was receptive to other meanings of that phrase, not just the need to void the cash register but rather the idea of somebody saying, “I'm in need of a void in my life or my spiritual existence at this moment.”
Elif Batuman in an essay on Orhan Pamuk's real-life museum “full of stuff that had ‘belonged’ to the protagonists of his last novel, The Museum of Innocence”:
Pamuk calls it a ‘tactical error’ for writers to show their characters’ faces, on book jackets or elsewhere. I wondered why it was OK to show all Füsun’s personal effects when it was not OK to show her person. It occurred to me that the novel, though fiction, isn’t uniformly fictional. Endings are fake, because nothing in real life ever ends; characters are composites, because real people are either too close to you or too far. But the furniture and clothes: that stuff must almost all be real. There’s no way Balzac invented all that furniture. All those soaring ambitions and human destinies are just a pretext for telling the truth about the sofas and the clocks.
Mavis Gallant in the preface to The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant:
The first flash of fiction arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame, showing characters in a simple situation. For example, Barbara, Alec, and their three children, seen getting down from a train in the south of France, announced “The Remission.” The scene does not appear in the story but remains like an old snapshot or a picture in a newspaper, with a caption giving all the names. The quick arrival and departure of the silent image can be likened to the first moments of a play, before anything is said. The difference is that the characters in the frame are not seen, but envisioned, and do not have to speak to be explained.
Walter Mosley in Off the Page:
I think of novels as mountains, and short stories as far-flung islands that are the tips of mountains. The idea is that poetry and short stories are very crystalline. Each word, each idea, each movement is specific and unalterable. Whereas in novel writing, as E.M. Forster says, “It's 50,000 words more or less of spongy prose.”
Aleksandar Hemon in a conversation with Book Forum:
If I try to tell you what happened to me in '91, I'll have to guess about certain things, I'll have to make up certain things, because I can't remember everything. And certain memories are not datable. You and I might remember our lunch, but some years from now we won't remember it was on a Friday. I will not connect it with what happened this morning because they are discontinuous events. To tell a story, you have to —not falsify—but you have to assemble and disassemble. Memories are creative. To treat memory as a fact is nonsense. It's inescapably fiction.
John Steinbeck on Louis Paul's novel, The Wrong World –as read in Working Days:
But the sureness of touch, the characters that move about, the speech that sounds like speaking, the fact that it happens, that one is never conscious of how a thing is said but only of what is said. I know the why and how of that. It's the millions of words written, all the short stories, even the ones that weren't any good. Without the millions of words written it is impossible to write a book like this. And by the same token–those millions of words are a guarantee that the last half will not falter for a moment.
Muhammad Umar Memon in introduction to The Seventh Door and Other Stories by Intizar Hussain:
If you want to know how simple, ordinary lives are wasted by politics and history, read a novel, a short story, a poem.
Which is not to suggest some inevitable causality between politics and creative endeavor, or that fictional aesthetics invariably do or should lie in the socio-political reality that in fact inspired a work. Of course something of the empirical will always survive in a fictional piece—however oblique and tenuous its ascription to the times—if only because fiction knows no way wholly to transcend temporality; even the best attempts in the “spatial form” have not accomplished that. But the writer's world is a radically autonomous world. It is equally fictive. An action of the imagination. It will always be different from the sum of its empirical parts. In the final synthesis of the real and the fictive, objective truth will always be subverted, almost of necessity, in favor of a fierce personal vision. Nothing, however, can stop this “personal vision” from providing insights into socio-political reality that are truer than any afforded by even the most objective chronicle of events.
Thomas McGuane in The Art of Fiction No. 89:
When I start something it’s like being a bird dog getting a smell; it’s a matter of running it down in prose and then trying to figure out what the thing is that’s out there. Sometimes it might be a picture. This morning when I was writing I was chasing down one of those images. It was just a minute thing that happened to me while I was recently down in Alabama. We had rented a little cottage on the edge of Mobile Bay and at one point there was stormy weather out on the bay; I wandered out to see what kind of weather it was and the door blew closed and locked me out of the cottage. I thought about getting back inside and I sat down and there was one of those semi-tropical warm summer rains starting to come down like buckshot. Somehow the image of stepping outside to see what’s going on and having the wind blow the door shut has stuck in my head. I don’t know what that image is exactly, or what it means, but I know that ever since I came home I’ve been trying to pursue that image in language, find out what it is. That image begins to ionize the prose and narrative particles around it so that words are drawn in, people and language begin to appear. That’s when things are going well. When that’s happening, any reader will recognize that flame-edge of discovery, that excitement of proceeding on the page that is shared between the reader, the writer, and the page.
Lawrence Durrell in The Big Supposer:
If you write bad French you end up with bad French. Whereas in English you can make any number of grammatical errors and still retain control, so that mistakes (whether or not they are deliberate) turn into gems. Take Conrad: his mistakes had such a beauty about them that the English ended by imitating them. A French poet needs a lot more temerity before he sets about destroying the grammar. When Rimbaud writes ‘Je est un autre’ he is deliberately attempting to break down logical structure; as a result he thought of as a phenomenon. In England we take that sort of thing in our stride, as if the language belonged to each individual.
Geraldine Brooks in introduction to Best American Short Stories 2011:
The best short stories and the most successful jokes have a lot in common. Each form relies on suggestion and economy. Characters have to be drawn in a few deft strokes. There’s generally a setup, a reveal, a reversal, and a release. The structure is delicate. If one element fails, the edifice crumbles. In a novel you might get away with a loose line or two, a saggy paragraph, even a limp chapter. But in the joke and in the short story, the beginning and end are precisely anchored tent poles, and what lies between must pull so taut it twangs.
Truman Capote in a Paris Review interview:
When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium.
Milton Crane in introduction to 50 Great Stories:
What makes a great short story?
The sudden unforgettable revelation of character; the vision of a world through another’s eyes; the glimpse of truth; the capture of a moment in time.
All this the short story, at its best, is uniquely capable of conveying, for in its very shortness lies its greatest strength. It can discover depths of meaning in the casual word or action; it can suggest in a page what could not be stated in a volume.
Grace Paley in “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” collected in Just as I Thought:
What I’m saying is that in areas in which you are very smart you might try writing history or criticism, and then you can know and tell how all the mystery of America flows out from under Huck Finn’s raft; where you are kind of dumb, write a story or a novel, depending on the depth and breadth of your dumbness. Some people can do both. Edmund Wilson, for instance — but he’s so much more smart than dumb that he has written very little fiction. When you have invented all the facts to make a story and get somehow to the truth of the mystery and you can’t dig up another question —change the subject.
Let me give you a very personal example: I have published a small book of short stories. They are on several themes, at least half of them Jewish. One of the reasons for that is that I was an outsider in our particular neighborhood — at least I thought I was — I took long rides on Saturday, the Sabbath. My family spoke Russian, but the street spoke Yiddish. There were families of experience I was cut off from. You know, it seemed to me that an entire world was whispering in the other room. In order to get to the core of it all, I used all those sibilant clues. I made fiction.
Kevin Barry discussing his story, “Ox Mountain Death Song,” on Page-Turner:
At the level of the sentence, what interests me above all is its sound. I will happily subvert a sentence’s meaning for the sake of how it sounds, and then just go with whatever change results; I’ll let the sound dictate the story. I work it along like this, sentence by sentence, and try to give the story a melody or a tune. And yes, I very much wanted that mythic note—or maybe better to say an epic note. I was trying to write a compressed epic. I wanted a Big Story but told as economically as possible. It was kind of a test for me—how quickly can you tell something epic, mythic, of great proportions? Technically, this involved removing chunks of the narrative spine and presenting it in these fragments. It’s a story that’s also very influenced, I would say, by the fact that I spend a lot of my time now writing film scripts—it has jump-cuts, pans, fades, and so forth.
Steve Almond's “Funny is the New Deep” in The Writer's Notebook II
The idea isn't to crack jokes about your life. On the contrary, the idea is to engage in a ruthless pursuit of the truth, and to allow the comic impulse to do its intended and instinctual work. It's not some wrench you hoist out of your writer's toolbox when the action seems to be flagging. It's the impulse that naturally arises when you reach a moment that is too painful to confront without some form of self-forgiveness. It's not a conscious decision, but an unconscious necessity.
Frank O'Connor in epilogue to The Lonely Voice:
The story, like the play, must have the element of immediacy, the theme must plummet to the bottom of the mind. A character is not enough to make a play; an atmosphere is not enough to make a play, for the audience falls asleep. It must have a coherent action. When the curtain falls everything must be changed. An iron bar must have been bent and been seen to be bent.
Etgar Keret in an interview with Rain Taxi:
All my writing-life people kept telling me that I should stop writing short stories and start writing novels: my agent, my Israeli publisher, my foreign ones, my bank manager—they all felt and keep feeling that I'm doing something wrong here. But for me taking a pragmatic decision when it comes to art is almost an oxymoron. The reason I first picked up a pen and wrote a story had nothing pragmatic in it. Making up characters and places and plots, unlike fixing your plumbing or doing dishes, is anything but practical or rational. I write what needs to be written the way that seems genuinely right. If what comes out of it are stories, then it is my vocation to believe in them and in the fact that they'll interest people and maybe affect their lives.
Richard Ford in the introduction to The Granta Book of the American Short Story:
...there is no perfect English — not in America anyway, and certainly not for the purposes of imaginative writing. There is only interesting and not interesting English, vivid and boring English.
...I've always liked stories that make proportionately ample rather than slender use of language, feeling as I do that exposure to a writer's special language is a rare and consoling pleasure. I think of stories as objects made of language, not just as reports on or illustrations of life, and within that definition, a writer's decision to represent life ‘realistically' is only one of a number of possibilities for the use of his or her words.