Oct. 26, 2003

Advice to Young Writers

by Ron Padgett

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Poem: "Advice to Young Writers," by Ron Padgett, from You Never Know (Coffee House Press).

Advice to Young Writers

One of the things I've repeated to writing
students is that they should write when they don't
feel like writing, just sit down and start,
and when it doesn't go very well, to press on then,
to get to that one thing you'd otherwise
never find. What I forgot to mention was
that this is just a writing technique, that
you could also be out mowing the lawn, where,
if you bring your mind to it, you'll also eventually
come to something unexpected ("The robin he
hunts and pecks"), or watching the "Farm News"
on which a large man is referring to the "Greater
Massachussetts area." It's alright, students, not
to write. Do whatever you want. As long as you find
that unexpected something, or even if you don't.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal, in 1825. The idea for the canal came from the governor of New York, Dewitt Clinton. He was mocked for his plan to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes, and his project was ridiculed as "Clinton's Big Ditch." The canal was 360 miles long, 40 feet wide, and 4 feet deep—just deep enough to float abarge carrying thirty tons of freight. It was built by European immigrants—mostly Irish—who were paid ten dollars a month. They were also given whiskey, which was stored in barrels along the construction site. When the canal was finished, cannons were lined up along the towpath just barely in earshot of each other. They fired one after another from Lake Erie to New York City, finishing the relay in 81 minutes.

On this day in 1900, writer Henry James wrote the first of 167 letters to Edith Wharton, who was then a budding novelist. Though she only wrote a total of 29 in return to James, she remembered him as "the most intimate friend I ever had, though in many ways we were so different." The two met after only a brief correspondence, while they were both expatriates in Paris. Wharton was just starting to become famous as a writer, and she asked James to give her some advice. Wharton absorbed much of what she was told, and is often considered James's protégé. Both authors sent each other their writing the rest of their lives. James introduced a friend of his, Morton Fullerton, to Wharton, when they were in Paris. Wharton and Fullerton became close friends and lovers, nearly destroying Wharton's previous marriage. Throughout the crisis, James became much more to Wharton than a literary mentor, and together they confided about everything from Wharton's romantic troubles to James's own failing health at the end of his life. The day after Henry James died, Wharton wrote in a letter, "We who knew him well know how great he would have been if he had never written a line."

It's the birthday of the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, born in New Orleans (1911). She was born into terrible poverty and lost both of her parents in childhood. The family's house was right next to a church where Jackson first heard gospel music. She also listened to early blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. When she was sixteen, Jackson moved to Chicago and sang with the Johnson Gospel Singers. She had a beautiful voice and became well known in Chicago. Several record companies offered her contracts to record her singing the blues. But Jackson was a devoted Baptist, and refused to sing anything but gospel. She once said, "When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what's wrong. But when you are through with the blues, you've got nothing to rest on."

Jackson was a champion of the civil rights movement, and close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. She sang at the March on Washington in 1963, and she sang at King's funeral in 1968. She died of heart failure four years later, in 1972. Her autobiography is called Movin' On, and was published in 1966.

It's the birthday of the only daughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frances Scott Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1921). She became a well-known journalist for the Washington Post and the New York Times . She published three books, one of which is called The Romantic Egotists (1974) about the colorful lives or her parents.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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