From The Atlantic:
2016 was not an easy year to be a writer. Not just because of the constant, concentration-wrecking pull of our devices, their glowing screens beckoning with the promise of fresh horrors.
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For the past three years (see 2013, 2014, and 2015), I’ve compiled the best writing advice from this series. In 2016, as in the past, authors shared some great insights—Alice Mattison explained how to structure a short story without a traditional plot, for instance, while Ethan Canin unpacked the art of the last line. But the bulk of the advice writers offered this year was not about “craft,” so much, as about the work of becoming a better person. In order to overcome their creative challenges, the authors I interviewed didn’t need to write prettier sentences: They needed to become more disciplined, more generous, braver.
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2016 has been filled with ugly reminders of how factional humans can be. This year’s writers suggested that their work demands something different: openness, plasticity of thinking, the ability to entertain and evaluate multiple points of view. Canin, the author of A Doubter’s Almanac, described how writing is a process of self-questioning, a method of backing away from what you’re most convinced you know. As he put it:
I’ve seen plenty of students come in and say, I want to write a novel about blah blah blah. But you just can’t do it. You can only write a novel about a character who does something wrong, and see what happens from there. Novels are compendiums of bad behavior, and literature is the gossip about it.
In other words, if you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something. There’s no way to write anything powerful unless your unconscious takes charge.
With characterization, you have to let go. You’ve got to release yourself from your grandiose intentions, your ambitions, your ideas about humanity, literature, and philosophy by focusing on the being-another-person aspect of it—which, by the way, is freeing, delightful, and one of the few real joys of writing. Stop worrying about writing a great novel—just become another human being.
In his discussion of Borges’s great short story “The Aleph,” Michael Chabon, the author of Moonglow, spoke at length about detail and description—the process by which he chooses the right words from a sea of possible choices. Writing a convincing character, he said, is an act that requires a kind of radical empathy:
Infinite pity, I think, is the proper attitude to have towards your characters. Not pity in the way we mostly tend to understand it—which is the condescension of a superior looking down at an inferior and feeling sorry for them … It’s a much more self-implicating pity, where you see and understand the tragic and routine flaws people have, the ways in which your characters fall short of the marks they set for themselves—just as you fall short of the marks you set for yourself.
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Alexander Chee, the author of The Queen of the Night, made a similar point about following what gives you pleasure. A famous writing teacher warned him never to write about parties in fiction; he found himself wanting to do the opposite. In our interview, he made a case for using party scenes in fiction, even if they seem frivolous on the surface, and are challenging to write:
The qualities that make parties such a nightmare for people—and also so pleasurable—make them incredibly important inside of fiction. There’s a chaos agent quality to them: You just don’t know who’s going to be there, or why. You could run into an old enemy, an old friend, an old friend who’s become an enemy. You could run into an ex-lover, or your next lover. The stakes are all there, and that’s why they’re so fascinating.
Link to the rest at The Atlantic