Sebald on Writing

Check out Max Sebald's Writing Tips!

I've been collecting some of my favorite writers' advice on writing, and it's a treat to add W.G. Sebald to the list -- all thanks to two students in that final semester in East Anglia who wrote down some of what Sebald said in class. There are no recordings of him teaching, apparently, and so the record is scant but awesome.

All of the advice is sensible, and useful to anyone, but the more of these I read, the more it feels like this is advice tailored specifically to the writer giving it, which makes total sense: "Fiction," Sebald says, "should have a ghostlike presence in it somewhere, something omniscient. It makes it a different reality." Which helps everyone out, but it is most helpful if the writer getting the advice is writing The Emigrants. Or The Rings of Saturn.

We tend to accidentally reflect our current preoccupations, our bent and disposition, when we are asked for advice: to turn the general and universal into the particular and the individual. I don't know if there's any helping it, nor do I think it's a bad thing -- the best advice comes from whatever you've wrestled yourself. But it does remind me that I used to proofread in Orlando for this outfit that put together the entertainment pages of regional and Metro newspapers, so I read hundreds of bridge columns, and also an untold number of astrology columns. And I was most struck that -- read sequentially, as I had to -- an astrology column reflects not so much the reader's state but the writer's. What his or her current nagging thought is. ("LIBRA: Today is a good day for shopping! SCORPIO: Maybe you should think about your savings. PISCES: Seize the day! Have fun!")  

Not a bad thing, though. And a sensible way to go about the world: be generous with what you've learned, and be aware that what you've learned comes from stuff that's way particular to your own experience. What you carry with you shapes how you see the world, and how you go about the world. Which reminds me of the weird congruence between the discovery of the rubber heel and a famous passage from Santideva's Way of the Bodhisattva.

On the discovery of the rubber heel:
The story goes, as documented in a typewritten page dated 1926 (source unknown), in 1896 Humphrey O'Sullivan was a young printer in Lowell, Massachusetts. He walked on a stone floor while feeding a printing press, and to ease his footsteps, he bought a rubber mat on which to stand. His fellow employees kept "borrowing" the mat, so Humphrey cut out two pieces of the mat the size of his heels and nailed them to his shoes. The results pleased and astonished him.
On how training one's mind is like wearing shoes:
Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered
On quoting:
Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.
That last one is Sebald's. Good morning!