The writing life

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    Six reasons writers just have to write

    Maria Popova quotes Mary Gaitskill on the sources of the writer's muse, including this vivid passage: "It's why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it's an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world … For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it's like!"

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    A ballplayer loses his magic

    Nieman Storyboard annotates a classic Roger Angell story about Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass — a World Series hero in 1971, an All-Star in 1972, and an utter flop after that: "I didn't know Steve Blass. I may have met him at the World Series. I probably called him up and said, 'This is Roger Angell,' and told him he was going through something unique in the history of baseball. 'I'd like to write a story about it.' And he said, 'Come on over.'"

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    What Joan Didion learned at Vogue

    Leaving Berkeley for New York after college, Joan Didion took a job writing captions at the fashion journal. Maria Popova quotes her about the routine there: "At Vogue one learned fast, or one did not stay, how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely thirty-nine characters. We were connoisseurs of synonyms. We were collectors of verbs."

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    A glimpse into Melville's daily routine

    "A book in a man's brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism," Herman Melville wrote to a friend in a letter contained in a 1954 book excerpted by Maria Popova. The letter, written less than a year before publication of Moby-Dick, shows Melville immersed in the nautical world even at home on his Berkshires farm: "I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic."

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    The freelancer's merged life and work

    As a writer, most of what he does with his time is work, Noah Berlatsky writes in Salon, and that means working evenings, weekends, and holidays, utterly blurring the line between job and leisure: "As this essay shows, even work can get converted to work product. My life and my keyboard form a seamless whole, a ravenous ouroboros, with my laptop screen eternally swallowing my brain." He celebrates getting paid for his life, but worries about the wider implications.

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    The "best reads" on writing from 2013

    Maria Popova shares advice from authors on her Brain Pickings site. Here's Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Big Short: "Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it. That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination."

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    You shouldn't blog, says Susan Orlean

    The problem with blogs is the lack of editing, The Orchid Thief author says in a podcast quoted by Jim Romenesko: "I still feel that there's more value in trying really hard to find somewhere where you're going to write and have to kind of square off with another perspective — somebody who says, 'This doesn't make sense to me,' or, 'Why are you writing this piece?' or, 'This lede just doesn't engage me.' A blog just doesn't offer you that."

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    On Hemingway's writing routine

    More than a half-century ago, George Plimpton interviewed Ernest Hemingway for the Paris Review and the entire interview is posted here. Plimpton starts with a discussion of his subject tracking his progress on an office wall: "The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream."

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    How a reader inhabits your story

    Nobel laureate Alice Munro has shared some thoughts in the past on writing and reading, and Maria Popova collects a few for a post on her Brain Pickings site. Quoting Munro: "A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows."

  • Nieman Storyboard's top 75 posts

    The Nieman Foundation is marking its 75th anniversary, and Nieman Storyboard has collected its most popular posts on narrative writing. Here's Rebecca Skloot on the structure of her The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: "The story of the cells and what happened to Henrietta take on such a different weight if you learn about them at the same time that you’re learning about the science, the scientists and her family, what happened to them and where they are now."