Joan Didion (born in 1934) is one of the most acclaimed writers of her generation. The winner of a National Book Award, she was most recently a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her book, The Year of Magical Thinking.
Here are three of her fantastic quotes to give you some writing inspiration!
1. What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.
It’s something I try not to think about a great deal, but it’s absolutely true: your first chapter, your first page, your first paragraph, your first sentence, is so important when it comes to every new writing project, especially a short story or novel. Where do you begin? It’s almost always a head-scratcher. Begin too early, and you might lose the reader. Start too late, and you might confuse the reader. I always try to start as late in the story as possible, but you’re never convinced it’s the exact right spot ever.
And then you have to draw the reader in with something. You can’t start a new story or a novel talking about the weather or about the main character’s feelings or on a random line of dialogue. That first sentence is everything. And Didion is right: what’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything flows from that, the entire narrative, really. Even if you change the sentence in revisions later.
That first sentence is the starting point and always will be. So make sure it’s a good one!
2. [Writing is] hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.
I absolutely love this quote. It’s one of my favorites I’ve shared in this long series about author inspiration. I’ve now written twenty novels in less than ten years, and never for a second have I ever thought of writing as hostile.
But it kind of is, isn’t it? You are trying to make somebody see something the way you see it. Sure, every reader will come at a story from a different place and imagine different things, but every author still imposes ideas and pictures on that reader through a deliberate choice of words.
I like to think of writing as good hostility. It’s not bad hostility. It’s the kind of hostility I want from a writer when I pick up a book and go on a new journey. The hostility, in a way, is what makes the best books so great. Because the writer has a clear vision of what he or she wants the story to be, the characters to be, and I absolutely love to give myself over to that. It’s when a writer doesn’t have a lot of hostility actually, and leaves most of the narrative up to the reader’s imagination, that the book often doesn’t work.
3. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.
I don’t know about you, but I often revise a novel three or four times before I send it to anyone. I will often spend six months on a project or longer before I feel it’s ready to query, to pitch, to get feedback. And then later I will often revise even more. I’m currently in the middle of my tenth draft of a novel I first wrote in 2017. And a novel I currently have on submission to editors? It went through sixteen drafts over the course of three years. Yep, sixteen!
But you know what the funny thing about revising is? No matter how much you change, no matter how much you add and cut in the long run, the original strokes are almost always still there in the story, Didion is absolutely right. I look at the sixteenth draft of my middle grade book on submission, and while so much has changed throughout the years, definitely for the better, my original intention of what I wanted the book to be remains. That initial vision, that initial idea, hasn’t been wiped out in any way, it’s still there.
I don’t often think of writing novels like painting a picture, but the two are fairly similar, wouldn’t you say? You paint a picture one brief stroke at a time, the same way you write a novel one word at a time, putting one hopefully solid sentence after another. So many writers don’t attempt a novel because it seems intimidating, but once you think about it as tiny strokes, as one word at a time, you soon realize that it can be done, that you can write an entire book.
If you’ve ever thought about writing a novel, go for it! And never forget to look to Joan Didion for some extra inspiration along the way.