Most writers find their individual voice only after they sojourn through periods of imitation. Though it’s an excellent way to appropriate experimental techniques and move out of comfortable ruts, imitation can only take us so far. But more prescriptive guidelines from famous authors can offer ways to refine our individual styles and visions. Advice, for example, from such a clear and succinct theorist as Kurt Vonnegut can go a very long way indeed for aspiring fiction writers.
Another reason for appreciating great writers’ how-to guidelines accords with the injunction we often hear: to read, read, read as much as possible. Learning how William Faulkner conceived of his craft can give us useful insights into his novels. What did Faulkner think of the writing enterprise and the social role of the writer? How did he come to formulate his impressively dense style? What was his view of learning from other writers?
We can answer the last question by reference to seven writing tips we previously compiled from lectures and Q&A sessions Faulkner conducted while serving as writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia from 1957 to ’58. The first tip? Take what you need from other writers. To that end, we offer seven writing tips each from four American greats (or 28 tips in total). As writers, we’re free to take or leave their guidelines; as readers we may always find their philosophies of keen interest.
Take What You Need From Other Writers
During a writing class on February 25, 1957, Faulkner said the following:
I think the writer, as I’ve said before, is completely amoral. He takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly because he himself hopes that what he does will be good enough so that after him people will take from him, and they are welcome to take from him, as he feels that he would be welcome by the best of his predecessors to take what they had done.
Faulkner’s advice can help tremendously--at least in a psychological sense--those writers who might have qualms about “stealing” from others. You have permission to do so from none other than perhaps the greatest American modernist writer of them all.
Faulkner also said “the young writer would be a fool to follow a theory,” a piece of advice we might bear in mind as we peruse famous writing theories. “The good artist,” he said, “believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice.”
Faulkner’s modernist foil and sometime rival Ernest Hemingway had some characteristically pragmatic advice for budding writers. Like many writers’ tips, some of his advice may do little but help you write more like Hemingway. And some of it, like “use a pencil,” is perfectly useless if you’ve already found your preferred method of working. One guideline, however, is intriguingly counter-intuitive. Hemingway counsels us to
Never Think about the Story When You’re Not Working
This is one thing Faulkner and Hemingway might agree on. In an Esquire article, Hemingway describes his experience during the composition of A Moveable Feast, one Faulkner characterizes in his writing advice as “never exhaust your imagination.”
When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again. I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
Read all of Hemingway’s 7 writing tips here.
F. Scott Fitzgerald:
Despite his reputation as an undisciplined and messy writer, Fitzgerald has some of the most practical tips of all for organizing your ideas. One of his more philosophical prescriptions takes a similar tone as Hemingway’s in regard to the private world of the imagination:
Don’t Describe Your Work-in-Progress to Anyone
Fitzgerald offered this piece of advice in a 1940 letter to his daughter, Scottie, writing,
I think it’s a pretty good rule not to tell what a thing is about until it’s finished. If you do you always seem to lose some of it. It never quite belongs to you so much again.
This seems to me a good piece of advice for holding on to the magic of a creatively imagined world. Trying to summarize a good story in brief—like trying to explain a joke—generally has the effect of taking all the fun out of it.
Edgar Allan Poe:
Finally, we reach back to the 19th century, to the father of the American gothic and the detective story, Edgar Allan Poe, who had some very specific, very Poe things to say about the art of fiction. In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe focuses on how to achieve what he vaguely called a “unity of effect,” the quality he desired most to produce in his narrative poem “The Raven.” Perhaps the clearest piece of advice Poe offers in his treatise is:
Know the Ending in Advance, Before You Begin to Write
You will likely find other authors who advise against this and tell you to write your way to the end. Bearing in mind Faulkner’s disclaimer—that we would be “fool to follow a theory”---we might at least try this practice and see if it works for us as it did for Poe. As he described it, “nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.”
Keeping the end “constantly in view," wrote Poe, gives “a plot its indispensable air of consequence.” Poe’s advice applies to short works that can be read in a single sitting, the only ones he generally allows can achieve “unity of effect.” Novel-writing is different. I don’t know if it’s necessary to fully know the ending of a short story before one begins, but Vonnegut counsels writers to “start as close to the end as possible” when writing one.
Should you desire more writing advice, you’ll find no shortage here at Open Culture, from writers as diverse as Stephen King, Toni Morrison, Roberto Bolaño, H.P. Lovecraft, Haruki Murakami, Ray Bradbury, and many more. Whether or not we decide to take any of their advice, it always opens a window onto their art of creating fictional worlds, which can seem to many of us a creative act akin to magic.