Annie Proulx (born in 1935) is the celebrated author of Brokeback Mountain, The Shipping News, and Barkskins, among others.
Here are four wonderful quotes she’s shared with us about the writing life.
1. I find it satisfying and intellectually stimulating to work with the intensity, brevity, balance and word play of the short story.
So many aspiring authors push the short story aside to focus on the big kahuna: the novel, of course. It’s the novel that can bring immense change to your writing life. It’s the novel that can bring you fame and fortune, not the short story. At best, that new short story you just finished might find a home in a prestigious literary magazine. Or maybe you’ll write enough stories to compile a short story collection at some point. But you’re never going to get rich writing short stories, and the sooner you learn that the better.
You know what, though? They’re still worth writing anyway. I firmly believe short fiction is where you grow as a writer. Because you’re free to take chances and try different things. When you’re writing a long novel you can take chances, too, but you also have to follow where that narrative leads you and stick to a structure that makes sense. Things don’t necessarily have to make sense in a short story. It doesn’t need a clean beginning, middle, and end. You can try writing it in the second person. You can write in a genre you’ve never attempted before. Writing a new short story is always satisfying regardless of what comes of it in the long run.
2. If you get the landscape right, the characters will step out of it, and they’ll be in the right place.
Setting is something you shouldn’t ignore in your fiction writing, whether it’s a five-page short story or a 400-page novel. A well-chosen setting won’t necessarily help you deliver a great narrative, but it will absolutely enhance the quality of your story in so many ways. Character comes first usually, along with your central concept. You want to think about the stakes of your story and the conflicts and the theme you want to play around with. But setting should be right up there with the initial elements of your latest piece you’re thinking deeply about. Where your story is set tells the reader so much right off the bat. And it helps you navigate the world of your story as the writer, too.
Annie Proulx loves to write about the west, and there’s no way to imagine her classic short story “Brokeback Mountain” set anywhere else but Wyoming. There’s an almost tangible quality to the places that Ennis and Jack roam. And putting those two characters somewhere vastly different in the world would probably hurt that story. So please, whenever possible, be specific about your setting choices. Don’t just throw your characters into Los Angeles or New York or Miami and call it good. Make your setting another character in the story, and your narratives will become richer always.
3. What I find to be very bad advice is the snappy little sentence, ‘Write what you know.’ It is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given. If we write simply about what we know we never grow. We don’t develop any facility for languages, or an interest in others, or a desire to travel and explore and face experience head-on. We just coil tighter and tighter into our boring little selves. What one should write about is what interests one.
Agreed. When you start writing, you might want to start by writing what you know. It might be easier to picture something that’s actually happened to you and then translate that experience to the page. My first short stories were all based on things that happened to me, and I liked that element to my storytelling in the early days. I could rely on my memories to get certain characters and scenes on the page.
But the problem with only writing what you know is that eventually you don’t ever grow as a writer, as Proulx points out. You have to at least occasionally write a short story or novel that exists somewhere way outside the realm of what you know. If you fail, you fail. It’s okay to fail. Sometimes you are actually growing in a big way as a writer when you’re failing at something. Write what you’re passionate about and what interests you, and you can even write in the same genre over and over, but take substantial risks occasionally and give us something unexpected. Don’t just write the same characters over and over doing the same kinds of things in book after book. Write something well outside your own experience here and there, and then see what happens.
4. You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.
You might find a trend in the advice among many of our most beloved and successful authors, and it’s that being a good writer always starts with being a good reader. You can’t improve very much as a writer, and you’ll likely struggle finding your voice, if you don’t get your hand on all kinds of books and stories and read, read, read. You want to read things outside of the genre you normally write in. You want to read both fiction and non-fiction. You want to take a chance at times on an author you’ve never heard of, if for nothing else than to see how this particular person tells their tale.
I always learn something when I pick up book and read for even twenty or thirty minutes. You’ll notice a specific way an author uses description or dialogue. You’ll see how this person writes suspense or comedy or romance in a way that’s vastly different than that last author you read a few weeks ago. You don’t want to ever copy what somebody is doing on the page, but especially when you’re starting out, you want to try different things in your writing and see what sticks, see what feels right. You’ll always get some inspiration from those books and stories you’re reading as new ideas are slowly percolating in your mind.
So keep reading and keep writing. Fall in love with the shape of stories and sentences. Fall in love with creating, and you’ll have years of great joy in your writing life to come!
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