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Wesleyan University Press
About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews / Edition 1

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews / Edition 1

by Samuel R. Delany


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Award-winning novelist Samuel R. Delany has written a book for creative writers to place alongside E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel and Lajos Egri's Art of Dramatic Writing. Taking up specifics (When do flashbacks work, and when should you avoid them? How do you make characters both vivid and sympathetic?) and generalities (How are novels structured? How do writers establish serious literary reputations today?), Delany also examines the condition of the contemporary creative writer and how it differs from that of the writer in the years of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the high Modernists. Like a private writing tutorial, About Writing treats each topic with clarity and insight. Here is an indispensable companion for serious writers everywhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819567161
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 01/04/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 677,177
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

SAMUEL R. DELANY has taught writers workshops for over 35 years, and has won the William Whitehead Memorial Award for a lifetime's contribution to gay and lesbian literature. He has also been recognized with both Hugo and Nebula awards, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Darkroom Black Students Collective at Harvard University. Delany is Professor of English and creative writing at Temple University, and lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt



The young painter who has set about learning to paint "realistically" is often surprised that the eye must do the learning; the hand more or less takes care of itself. "But I can already see what's there! Tell me what I'm supposed to do to set it down."

Keep your hand still and look more closely.

As "realistic" painting does not exhaust art, neither does the comparatively high resolution of narrative storytelling exhaust fiction. But the young writer who has decided to utilize his or her experience of the world at this comparatively high resolution, for like reasons, is always surprised when he or she is told to go back and reexamine his or her experience.

"But I want to know how to write an exciting piece of action!"

Examine your reactions when you are excited; as well, when you are bored.

"But how do I create a vivid character?"

Look closely at what individualizes people; explore those moments when you are vividly aware of a personality. Explore the others when you cannot fathom a given person's actions at all.

"No, no! You don't get the point. Tell me about style!"

Listen to the words that come out of your mouth; look at the words you put on paper. Decide with each whether or not you want it there.

But it will always be a paradox to the young artist of whatever medium that the only element of the imagination that can be consciously and conscientiously trained is the ability to observe what is.

Teachers of narrative fiction fail or succeed according to the ingenuity with which they can present the above in as many ways as possible — a success or failure that, alas, has nothing to do with their own writing ability.

A teacher at the Clarion Writers' Workshop,* you may live in the dormitory with the students, or room in a separate building. The students are energetic, dedicated, writing and revising throughout the six weeks. The solution to most literary problems is time and thought. But if someone can be there immediately to suggest where thought might be directed, so much the better. I chose to room in the student dorm. I had given occasional lectures and one-day seminars. Summers ago I had taught remedial reading to a volunteer class of adolescents at a community center. But Clarion for five days was my first formal teaching experience. A handful of the students were older than I. Several had sold stories and novels already.

The situation would intrigue any teacher of fiction.

A writer of fiction, I could not resist it.

The real worth of that summer, as with any intense, living experience, is in the texture of the experience itself.

I had set up exercises and discussion topics for the formal three-hour morning classes. Part of this time was set aside for the group discussion of stories handed in the previous days.

In my first class, we began by discussing some complex ideas about the way information is carried by and between words. We read some sentences, a word at a time, to see just what the information given was — tone of voice, mood, order of presentation, and importance — and at which points in the sentence this information became apparent. I tried to examine just what happened in the microleaps between words. I had notes. But there were great silences in the discussion when I and the students were at a loss for what to say next. Afterward, I was very relieved when two people came up to discuss ideas of their own that more or less took off from things I had said in class. But later, when I asked two others, whose comments had seemed the most astute, what they thought of the session, I was cheerfully informed they hadn't the foggiest idea what I was talking about.

The next morning in class, a young woman whose writing had already struck me as among the most talented* asked guardedly, "But what do you feel about just pure storytelling?"

I wasn't quite sure what to say, so I came out with "I like it a whole lot!"

Then we spent five seconds wondering if we should say anything more, and decided on a truce.

An exercise fared better.

I asked the students to choose partners. Limiting themselves to written words (pencil, pen, and paper; or typewriters), each was to collect material from the other for a brief biography. "Write a question, exchange papers with your partner; write down your answer to her or his question (or your comment or request for further explanation of the question), then give the paper back. Read what you've obtained, and write down another question, and continue the process until you feel you have enough information for a short biography. If possible, conduct the experiment without seeing your partner — for example, pass your papers back and forth under a door."

The dorm hall, usually filled in the evening with frisbees and laughter, tonight was oddly quiet. I passed some four couples sitting on the hall floor, exchanging notebooks, and one young man with his typewriter before a closed door, sliding out a sheet of yellow paper.** Several people gave me rather odd looks. One girl, coming out of her room to deliver a paper to a boy in another, asked with somewhat amused belligerence, "Where did you get this idea, anyway?"

Next morning in class, I asked for someone to read the questions and answers. No one raised a hand.

"Someone must have done the exercise," I said. "I saw too many of you working on it."

People shifted in their chairs, glanced at one another.

Momentarily I suspected I was the victim of a practical joke.

But when a discussion did, haltingly, begin, it seemed that, almost without exception, the twenty-five very bright, very sensitive young people had found, when their communication was limited to the written word, that almost in spite of themselves they had shunted into personal areas and intensely emotional parts of themselves that felt too uncomfortable for oral display ... though no one was averse to my or another's reading these papers.

As the discussion progressed, some people volunteered to read sections out loud. Even from this, it became clear that when a one-to-one situation was fixed between information wanted and information granted, with the communicants checking out one another after each step, the result was a strange freedom, an obsessive honesty, a compelling and rising clarity. The general superiority of the prose style to most of their fictional attempts was duly noted.

This was certainly what I had hoped the point of the exercise would be. But I had never tried it in this way. I was surprised by the emotional force behind the point.

Another exercise we did in class.

"This morning," I said, "I want you all to look around the room — get up and walk around, if you'd like. Observe the people in the room with you, very closely. Keep looking until you notice something about one of your classmates that you've never noticed before. Now examine this thing about them, this aspect of her behavior or his appearance, until you see something about it different from the way anyone else you've ever seen exhibits this feature of appearance or behavior. Then write down what you've seen in a sentence or two."

I drank two styrofoam cups of coffee from the urn in the corner while the class milled and prowled by one another. One girl came up to me and said, "But I just don't see anything!"

"Make up something," I told her softly, "and see if anyone notices."

Twenty minutes later, most people were seated again. I suggested we bring the class to order and hear some of the examples. If there was any embarrassment here, it was of a lighter tone. Before we started, there was some humorous anticipation of the crashing triviality of what had been observed. But by the third example, the giggles had ceased. People were leaning forward in their chairs, or looking back over their own examples with renewed attention.

If the previous exercise had discovered a lucid, working prose, this one, in example after example, pushed language to the brink of the poetic. The readings, as we went about the room, became a torrent of metaphors — how many of the unique things noted were resemblances between something present and something else! And those that were not metaphorical still had an astonishing vividness, the gesture, expression, or turn of speech caught with the stark economy of the tuned ear, the fixed eye.

There were other discussions on the economic significance of story setting, the natural tendency of words to say things other than you intend and obscure your meaning, and the necessity for rendering your fictional incidents intensely through the senses. Whenever one of my convoluted arguments brought us to a point of confused silence, Robin Wilson, who led the half of the class devoted to story discussion, patiently and kindly extricated me from the snarls of my own inexperience.

The high point of the five days' classes for me was when, after a discussion of the way the vividness of fictional characters usually lies between rather than in the facts we know about them, one young woman produced a character sketch of an aging, alcoholic midwestern lady with bohemian pretensions. I had asked the class to put together these sketches of fictional characters through a collection of actions — purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous — which should be observed with the same astuteness with which they had observed one another. Unfortunately I cannot reproduce the sketch here. But when it was read, among the dozen or so other examples, the class was silent in that way which makes someone who has previously been uproariously applauded feel he has turned in a poor showing after all.

I left Clarion aware just how short five days were — I had actually been on campus five days and two weekends. Besides the three hours a day of classes, I had read some sixty-five or seventy student stories (and one novel) and had managed at least one story conference with each student — in some cases, with the more prolific, three, four, or five. It was stimulating, intense, even numbing. Most of the students seemed to feel that the individual work with particular stories was the most valuable part of the workshop. The most repeated exchange in these sessions was:

"Now in this paragraph/sentence/section here, can you tell me just what you were trying to say?"

Answer ...

"Well, I think it would have been better if you'd written that ..."

In perhaps three or four cases I was able to reassure some people who had worked very hard that the work, at least, was evident. For the rest, I just felt very flattered.

Rilke says in a letter that in the end all criticism comes down to a more or less happy misunderstanding.

I suspect he is right — which is why the literary worth of a workshop like Clarion cannot be defined by simply reviewing what, critically, went on.

— New York City 1970


Thickening the Plot

I distrust the term "plot" (not to mention "theme" and "setting") in discussions of writing: it (and they) refers to an effect a story produces in the reading. But writing is an internal process writers go through (or put themselves through) in front of a blank paper that leaves a detritus of words there. The truth is, practically nothing is known about it. Talking about plot, or theme, or setting to a beginning writer is like giving the last three years' movie reviews from the Sunday New York Times to a novice filmmaker. A camera manual, a few pamphlets on matched action, viable cutting points, and perhaps one on lighting (in the finished film, the viewer hardly ever sees the light sources, so the reviewer can hardly discuss them, but their placement is essential to everything from mood to plain visibility) would be more help. In short, a vocabulary that has grown from a discussion of effects is only of limited use in a discussion of causes.

A few general things, however, can be noted through introspection. Here is an admittedly simplified description of how writing strikes me. When I am writing I am trying to allow/construct an image of what I want to write about in my mind's sensory theater. Then I describe it as accurately as I can. The most interesting point I've noticed is that the writing down of words about my imagined vision (or at least the choosing/arranging of words to write down) causes the vision itself to change.

Here are two of the several ways it changes:

First — it becomes clearer. Sudden lights are thrown on areas of the mental diorama dark before. Other areas, seen dimly, are revised into much more specific and sharper versions. (What was vaguely imagined as a green dress, while I fix my description of the light bulb hanging from its worn cord, becomes a patterned, turquoise print with a frayed hem.) The notation causes the imagination to resolve focus.

Second — to the extent that the initial imagining contains an action, the notating process tends to propel that action forward (or sometimes backward) in time. (As I describe how Susan, both hands locked, side-punched Frank, I see Frank grab his belly in surprise and stagger back against the banister — which will be the next thing I look at closely to describe.) Notating accurately what happens now is a good way to prompt a vague vision of what happens next.

Let me try to indicate some of the details of this process.

I decide, with very little mental concretizing, that I want to write about a vague George who comes into a vague room and finds a vague Janice ...

Picture George outside the door. Look at his face; no, look closer. He seems worried ...? Concerned ...? No. Look even closer and write down just what you see: The lines across his forehead deepened. Which immediately starts him moving. What does he do? ... He reached for the ... doorknob? No. Be more specific ... brass doorknob. It turned ... easily? No, the word "brass" has cleared the whole knob-and-lock mechanism. Look harder and describe how it's actually turning ... loosely in its collar. While he was turning the knob, something more happened in his face. Look at it; describe it: He pressed his lips together — No, cross that line out: not accurate enough. Describe it more specifically: The corners of his mouth tightened. Closer. And the movement of the mouth evoked another movement: he's pressing his other hand against the door to open it. (Does "press" possibly come from the discarded version of the previous sentence? Or did wrong use of it there anticipate proper use here? No matter; what does matter is that you look again to make sure it's the accurate word for what he's doing.) He pressed his palm against the door ... And look again; that balk in his next movement ... twice, to open it. As the door opens, I hear the wood give: You could hear the jamb split — No, cross out "split," that isn't right ... crack — No, cross that out too; it's even less accurate. Go back to "split" and see what you can do; listen harder ... split a little more. Yes, that's closer. He's got the door open, now. What do you see? The paint — No, that's not paint on the wall. Look harder: The wallpaper was some color between green and gray. Why can't you see it more clearly? Look around the rest of the room. Oh, yes: The tan shade was drawn. What about Janice? She was one of the first things you saw when the door opened. Describe her as you saw her: Janice sat on the bed ... no, more accurately ... the unmade bed. No, you haven't got it yet ... Janice sat at the edge of the bed on a spot of bare mattress ticking. No, no, let's back up a little and go through that again for a precise description of the picture you see: Janice sat on the bare mattress ticking, the bedding piled loosely around her. Pretty good, but the bedding is not really in "piles" ... the bedding loose around her. Closer. Now say what you have been aware of all the time you were wrestling to get that description right: Light from the shade-edge went up her shoulder and cheek like tape. Listen: George is about to speak: "What are you doing here ...?" No, come on! That's not it. Banal as they are, they may be the words he says, but watch him more closely while he says them. "What —" he paused, as though to shake his head; but the only movement in his face was a shifting — Try again: ... a tightening ... Almost; but once more ... a deepening of the lines, a loosening of the lip —"are you doing here?" Having gotten his expression more accurately, now you can hear a vocal inflection you missed before: "are you doing here?" There, that's much closer to what you really saw and heard. What has Janice just done? She uncrossed her legs but did not look at him. Ordinary grammar rules say that because the sentence's two verbs have one subject, you don't need any comma. But her uncrossing her leg and not looking up go at a much slower pace than proper grammar indicates. Let's make it: She uncrossed her legs, but did not look at him ...


Excerpted from "About Writing"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Samuel R. Delany.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
An Introduction: Emblems of Talent
Seven Essays - Teaching / Writing
Thickening the Plot
On Pure Story Telling
Of Doubts and Dreams
After Almost No Time at All the String on Which He had Been Pulling and Pulling Came Apart into Two Separate
Pieces So Quickly He Hardly Realized It Had Snapped, or: Reflections on
"The Beach Fire"
Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student
Four Letters - Letter to P-
Letter to Q-
Letter to R-
Letter to S-
Five Interviews - A Para•doxa Interview: Experimental Writing/Texts & Questions
An American Literary History Interview: The Situation of American Writing Today
A Poetry Project Newsletter Interview: A Silent Interview
A Black Clock Interview
A Para•doxa Interview: Inside and Outside the Canon
APPENDIX: Nits, Nips, Tucks, and Tips - Name, Date, Place
Read Widely
Grammar and Parts of Speech
Punctuating Dialogue
A Final Note on Dialogue
Dramatic Structure
Excitement, Drama, Suspense, Surprise, Violence
Point of View
First Person
Trust Your Image
Write What You Know

What People are Saying About This

Robert Elliot Fox

"Useful and thoughtful advice for aspiring (and practicing apprentice) authors. About Writing is autobiography, criticism, and a guidebook to good writing all in one."
Robert Elliot Fox, Professor of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

From the Publisher

"Useful and thoughtful advice for aspiring (and practicing apprentice) authors. About Writing is autobiography, criticism, and a guidebook to good writing all in one."—Robert Elliot Fox, Professor of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

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