Jeffrey Eugenides’ Advice to Writers

Adapted from a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award Winners:

When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish. As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness, special little teen-age omniscient you, wearing tennis shoes out in the snow, against your mother’s orders. Just then the sun came out from behind the clouds, revealing that every twig on every tree was encased in ice. The entire world a crystal chandelier that might shatter if you made a sound, so you didn’t. Even your dog knew to keep quiet. And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it.

For the full, read here.

And a response, from Todd Hasak-Lowy in The Millions:

Our language forces us to categorize writing as a direct object, “Mary wrote the wonderful story,” no different than we’d say, “Mary threw the red ball.” But Mary and the rest of us writers know it’s hardly ever so simple. Mary may have prepared for this act in all sorts of ways and then summoned up enough determination to sit on her butt for hours, days, weeks or more at her laptop or journal, but ultimately, if we’re talking about something we might justly call “literature” or “art,” then some other agent, some other thing, is involved, too.

Mary wrote the story, but she transcribed it as well. She managed, against all odds, to hear this not-yet verbal thing inside her, and she managed, against all odds once more, to give it the kind of sustained, careful attention that let it expand and solidify so that she might name it and in this way make it available to the world beyond her. We have a number of names for this other thing — a gift, talent, the muse, inspiration — each of which points to a slightly different feature from a slightly different perspective. But however we think about it, I’d claim that it’s both Mary and not Mary at the same time. It belongs to her, but only sort of. The miracle of becoming a writer is finding a way to receive this other thing inside you, to be an object of some internal thing seeking to give.

For the full, read here.


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