Lillian and Daphne on writing

I often think of advice from other writers. One of my favourites is Lillian Hellman’s advice to a young writer, which was, “Don’t listen to advice from writers.” If you take her advice, you’ve already failed to take it. It’s one of those paradoxes like, “I’m lying to you now.” She probably had her tongue in her cheek when she said it – or perhaps not. Think of it as a writer’s koan.

Another favourite of mine is one of Daphne DuMaurier’s from her autobiography “Myself When Young”. Daphne DuMaurier wrote a lot of what would now be called magic realism or science fiction. One of her best-known stories, “The Birds”, is head and shoulders above the movie and is still one of my favourite science-fiction pieces.

In the introduction to “Myself When Young”, she says, “Now, approaching late middle age…” The woman was seventy at the time. If she ever completed her autobiography, it hasn’t been published. In that first volume, she writes about writing. After her first novel, “The Loving Spirit”, was accepted by a publisher, she was asked to cut it drastically. She writes of that exercise, “I cut passages it had given me exquisite pleasure to write.”

I think of that whenever I have to revise a first draft. Often it seems to me that the things I enjoyed writing the most are not always helpful to the story. They’re delightful to me, maybe even something I need to write, but if they don’t advance the plot, build character, do something in the story, maybe they have to go.

The wonderful thing about working on computer is that I can save all this orphaned text and maybe use it somewhere appropriate later. But the wonderful thing about cutting that text out is – usually it improves the story. I don’t think I’ve ever once cut out a delightfully self-indulgent piece of prose, looked at the final draft of the story and said, “Nope – has to go back in.”

To be a writer is to write. But there are other skills, and one of them is to know the shape of your story, the direction it takes, its style as well as its substance. Then you need to remove anything that doesn’t serve that, even if – especially if – you love it to pieces.

Thanks, Daphne.

Lillian, stop snickering.

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