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April 1, 2002
Advice From a Pulitzer Prize Winning Novelist
by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
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". . . the novelist’s gift arises from dedication and very hard work and the ability to analyze his own life experience."
Maybe as a child you loved to write stories and still have some of those marbleized notebooks filled with pages of your laborious script with the backwards S’s and enjoy the early stories even now when you read them aloud. But according to Nobel prize-winning author, Mario Vargas Llosa in Letters to a Young Novelist (Picador, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1997) there are prodigies in music such as Mozart, and perhaps in poetry (Rimbaud who wrote as an adolescent) but the novelist’s gift arises from dedication and very hard work and the ability to analyze his own life experience. Llosa says that writing is not a sport or hobby, but a full-time, all-consuming occupation. Writers don’t write to live (especially in this day when publishing is in flux) but live to write. He compares writing to having a tapeworm: it consumes you. You must lead your life in service of your craft. Llosa also thinks that you don’t choose writing, that writing is a rejection of the ordinariness of the ordinary life. Anyone who is content with life as he lives it would never be compelled to create fictional realities.
I often think of the serious, dedicated writer as the horrified skeletal figure in Edvard Munch’s famous pastel, The Scream, with its iconic open mouth, popping eyes, its hands clutching the sides of its head as if to keep it from flying off into the violent sky.
". . . you never know if you’ve done the book right until the reviews are out.”
The figure (unclear whether it’s male or female) stands apart, seeing and feeling the horror of the world and what is in his own mind. How else could you tolerate the isolation and the frustration that comes along with dedicating yourself to writing? After all, unlike doing a crossword puzzle, you never know if you’ve done the book right until the reviews are out. And even then, you don’t know what will be said of your work in the next century, if it’s remarked on at all.
All fiction, Llosa says, is rooted in experience, in the writer’s memory, what impresses itself on the writer’s unconscious, but that doesn’t mean that it should be thinly disguised biography. “Fiction writers,” Llosa says, “are not responsible for their themes. Life assigns them. And that you have to go with the themes that are most urgent to you, that you’re most obsessed with, and avoid all others instead of trying to choose themes that you think you might be more successful with. Yet themes themselves, no matter how meaningful to you, do not make a book great. What is told and how it is told is inextricably bound together.
A novelist must have the power of persuasion."
A novelist must have the power of persuasion. In Metamorphosis, Kafka makes you believe that Gregor Samsa, a meek office clerk, has been transformed into a giant cockroach. You identify with Gregor because you know the heavy and unfair responsibilities that can be placed on you by family, forcing you to give up your own dreams. You suffer with Gregor until his death when his family members go back to a new, but ordinary life without him. You believe the story because Kafka has given the details, revelations, and narrative flow that overcome any disbelief that the reader could harbor.
Your job in writing fiction is to persuade the reader that the world you present them truly exists, that your characters have life, an inhabitable world even if it’s on the moon, and deep themes or the story will never come alive.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.