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On writing

Very good excerpts from Letters to a Young Novelist, a book I recently finished. (Italics author’s, bolds mine.)

On why writers write:

What is the origin of this early inclination, the source of the literary vocation, for inventing beings and stories? The answer, I think, is rebellion. I’m convinced that those who immerse themselves in the lucubration of lives different from their own demonstrate indirectly their rejection and criticism of life as it is, of the real world, and manifest their desire to substitute for it the creations of their imagination and dreams. Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with real life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities? Naturally, those who rebel against life as it is, using their ability to invent different lives and different people, may do so for any number of reasons, honorable or dishonorable, generous or selfish, complex or banal. The nature of this basic questioning of reality, which to my mind lies at the heart of every literary calling, doesn’t matter at all. What matters is that the rejection be strong enough to fuel the enthusiasm for a task as quixotic as tilting at windmills – the sleight-of-hand replacement of the concrete, objective world of life as it is lived with the subtle and ephemeral world of fiction.

Pg. 7

On how writers choose (or don’t choose) their themes:

I’ll venture a little further in discussing the themes of fiction. The novelist doesn’t choose his themes; he is chosen by them. He writes on certain subjects because certain things have happened to him. In the choice of a theme, the writer’s freedom is relative, perhaps even nonexistent. In any case, it is nothing when compared with his freedom to choose the literary form of his work; there, it seems to me, he enjoys total liberty – and total responsibility. My impression is that life – a big word, I know – inflicts themes on a writer through certain experiences that impress themselves on his consciousness or subconscious and later compel him to shake himself free by turning them into stories. We need hardly seek out examples of the way themes from life thrust themselves on writers, because all testimonies tend to concur: a story, a character, a situation, a mystery haunted me, obsessed me, importuned me from the very depths of my self until I was obliged to write it to be free of it.

Pg. 17

On the persuasiveness of a writer’s writing:

To equip a novel with power of persuasion, it is necessary to tell your story in such a way that it makes the most of every personal experience implicit in its plot and characters; at the same time, it must transmit to the reader an illusion of autonomy from the real world he inhabits. The more independent and self-contained a novel seems to us, and the more everything happening in it gives us an impression of occurring as a result of the story’s internal mechanisms and not as a result of the arbitrary imposition of an outside will, the greater the novel’s power of persuasion. When a novel gives us the impression of self-sufficiency, of being freed from real life, of containing in itself everything it requires to exist, it has reached its maximum capacity for persuasion, successfully seducing its readers and making them believe what it tells them. Good novels – great ones – never actually seem to tell us everything; rather, they make us live it and share in it by virtue of their persuasive powers.

Pg. 27

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