These 7 reflections on the art of writing are a rereading of the various texts in which I deal with this theme – and which can be found here on the site. In this article, I will go deeper into some issues and recover others that I consider to be essential:
Eyes open to reality
Observation is fundamental. The writer needs to be a master of attention. We live believing that reality offers itself to us in an evident way – but the truth is that not everything is simple. Behind every human reaction, every gesture, there are influences, choices, doubts, certainties, interests, desires, fears. The good writer dialogues with all these elements, tries to discover them, imagines them, while exercising that indispensable quality: observation.
But this is not passive observation. The writer must put himself in people’s shoes and try to understand their reactions – and then imagine how he himself would react in similar situations. Many people have the innate power to do this exercise – but it is not impossible to train such observation skills.
The whole of reality must serve the writer’s work: from dreams to a quick dialogue at the bus stop; from childhood memories to the disappointments, uncertainties and joys that he witnesses or experiences. One must remain attentive to life; and abandon the idea, so widespread today, that “only what I consider real is reality” – true nonsense.
Being curious, the writer feeds his imagination. Understanding the strange, the different, the other that disturbs or delights us, will help the writer not only to know his own self, but also to create convincing, complex characters.
Yes, never dismiss reality. But not to forget, as Henry James says, that “experience is never limited and never complete. For this brilliant novelist, experience is similar to “a sort of vast spider’s web, of the finest silk, suspended in the room of our consciousness, catching every particle of air in its fabric.” That is, experience – the opening to the real, must be “the very atmosphere of the mind,” it must take “to itself the faintest traces of life,” it must “convert the very pulsations of the air into revelations.”
What are notes good for?
To such an intense and constant load of observation must correspond the necessary mistrust with regard to the capacity of the memory. To put it more simply: never trust your memory, write down everything, every inspiration, every idea.
The medium doesn’t matter – notebooks or cell phones, notepads or tablets. (For my part, I have returned to paper and fountain pens, because they are more pleasant and safer). And write it down without worrying about logic, about a possible relationship between the notes. Don’t be distressed if, at the end of the day, the notes seem incoherent, without any sense. Each note is a particular universe that can be used for one or several stories – or not.
But it is important to keep all your notes. If possible, in some kind of thematic file – they can be simple envelopes – and review them according to a certain periodicity or when you need an idea. Put them on the desk: unexpected trends or the outline of a plot may emerge. The note not used today may become, in the future, the theme of a short story, the scene of a novel, the core of an essay.
Work environment and time
It is very important to create a space in which one can write without interruptions – a space that is suitable for the creative process. The writer needs inner stillness – and some achieve this state of concentration amidst noise. Not everyone enjoys silence – some need a background noise, such as music or the buzz of the café, the bar. The important thing is to find the space in which you feel predisposed to writing.
From my point of view, the writer must get away from the social agitation, the urban euphoria, the fugacity of the small groups and the bar tables. Silence and recollection are fundamental if we wish to discover a working method, an organized process that allows creation to flow with the minimum of obstacles. Such a method, when repeated and perfected, allows the writer to take advantage of time – that is, not to waste what, by itself, dissipates easily.
Creative work demands time – and therefore a special form of leisure, which is not the complete absence of disturbance or restlessness of the mind. On the contrary, the body may give the idea of inactivity, but the mind works profusely – otherwise, Point 1 of this text, the exercise of constant observation, would be impossible.
Discipline and full attendance
More than setting a time period for the work – while producing a short story, a novel, an essay – one should set a daily number of pages. Such a volume of work needs to be faced in a draconian way – and, of course, the writer will have the good sense not to set himself impossible goals. It is essential to establish a discipline – with a place, time and a forecast of how much one will write daily – because it is not a matter of spending hours daydreaming in front of a blank piece of paper, but of writing.
In periods of leisure or intense activity, the fundamental thing is to “be completely present. This, by the way, is the rule for all of life, not only for the writer, as the American poet and critic Mark Van Doren advises: “There is something we can do, and the happiest people are those who can do it to the best of their ability. We can be fully present. We can be whole here. We can…give our full attention to the opportunity that is before us.”
To some extent, past and future should be strangers to the writer – only by nurturing such strangeness can he open himself to all the potentialities that the present offers him.
Living with the censor
The writer must also be clear that his work is a continuous exercise in overcoming fear. Behind his mind there will always be the tireless judge who will keep suggesting what people will say or think about his texts.
If such a censor exists in every consciousness, in the smallest decisions, it will be even more present in creative work. Accepting this censor is the first step to knowing how to use it to our own benefit. It is not all bad, if we think how many stupid things it has prevented us from doing – and writing. The man – and the writer – who has no self-censorship is also the one who has no self-criticism.
Thus, it is a matter of accepting the judge’s sentence – but for the right reasons. And among these is not the opinion of others.
In the same way, one must learn to live with the discomfort that certain ideas cause, with discouragement, with doubt, with thoughts that come and go, restless, often ready to put the writer in front of anguishing, labyrinthine decisions.
The writer should understand his craft from a practical perspective: just as he learns to circumvent or yield to the inner judge, he should not be bound by his own limits. That is, in the act of writing, at the moment of creation, he must not worry about grammatical doubts, about the inevitable gaps in his intellectual training, or let himself be discouraged by insecurity about the quality of his text.
You must improve, of course, especially by studying good writers, but with the certainty that the absence of absolute perfection is not your problem, but everyone’s. The solution is to write.
The solution is to write. Always write. The more you produce, the more you will perfect yourself. You must strive to be great – but without allowing perfectionism to destroy your will to write.
A common mistake is to try to enrich, in an artificial way, one’s own vocabulary or the form of sentences or periods. The writer builds his style gradually, with patience. First of all, he must be himself – he must allow his personality to speak – and write at his own pace, with his own words.
Those who think that to produce literature is to write “pretty” or “difficult” are mistaken. In fact, the writer’s first goal is to tell his story clearly, as best he can. So, once the daily work period begins, the writer should just write. He should not go back over each sentence, correcting it, improving it. This is left for a second phase, when he will rewrite, roughing up the text, adding new ideas, new scenes – or not.
In the elaboration of the first draft, mistakes in Portuguese or imprecision of thought, the length of sentences or the logic of the paraphrasing are of little importance. In the first stage, one must only write. Write without worrying, also, about originality. Remember what André Gide said: “Everything has already been said once, but as nobody listens, it is necessary to say it again. Your personal way of “saying it again”, of saying it with your own style, will surely become established with each new text.
Having a plan – and not writing for everyone
The beginner can feel more secure by following two suggestions: first, imagine a reader. It is easier to achieve objectivity when you are not writing for everyone, which is equivalent to writing for anyone. However, it is not about writing to please that reader or group of readers; it is just about having a reference. As the story is constructed, the writer may end up having fun in contradicting the imaginary reader.
Second, you must have a plan – as thorough as possible. But feel free to change it, for no writer knows, in full detail, the beginning, middle and end of his story. Also, the writer has absolute power over his creation and his characters – which means he doesn’t have to worry about writing following the chronological order of his plan. Thinking about the characters, you can kill them off and then, months later, count their births.
Incidentally, no one more than the writer believes in the power of synapses – neurons talk to each other, create unusual connections every millisecond. Let us not forget the synaptic event experienced by Victor Hugo: while exploring Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, he found the word “fatality” engraved by hand on a wall; the strong impression made by this discovery triggered the process of creating the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.