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!

Progress Report!


Here's what is currently on our coffee table: the rough draft of my novel. Most of the rough draft is staying, the stuff on the left -- maybe 3/5, maybe even 3/4. The stuff on the right is going away. The stuff that is staying is about to go through some major, major rewriting.

The chucking/major-rewriting is what you do -- what everyone does -- so the following remains a mystery:
  1. Why I somehow assume (and always assume) that whatever I write is going to emerge as this brilliant and perfect thing the first time around.
  2. Why -- even though I somehow know 1. is never going to happen -- I hope no one else will notice, which is also never the case.
  3. Why I despair when facing 1. & 2., even though it always happens, and then temporarily give up on the thing.
  4. Why I end up forgetting that there are ways one goes about fixing, finessing, and making something not-currently-awesome into something awesome -- and that they are not terribly mysterious, or even that laborious.
  5. Why I will forget this entire cycle the next time around.
Nabokov had some pretty strong words re. folks who displayed their rough drafts ("Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one's sputum.") So by way of apology for all the spit here is what is currently on our bay window (blanket, basket, Hodge, fox, elephant, flowers). 



Limits are Possibilities

I'm a huge fan of formal constraints, and years ago was pleased by finding this bit in Chip Kidd's graphic-design bildungsroman The Cheese Monkeys:
Always remember: Limits are possibilities. That sounds like Orwell, I know. It’s not – it’s Patton. Formal restrictions, contrary to what you might think, free you up by allowing you to concentrate on purer ideas. As graphic designers you want the world as your palette. But beware: You can be crippled by too many choices, especially if you don’t know what your goals are.
So it's a thing I do for myself: set arbitrary rules, some rational, some less so, in whatever I write. It helps beyond the telling.

And so then it's no surprise that it's also a thing I love doing to my students: giving them assignment sheets with insane strictures, which they at first blanch at and then wholly embrace when they find themselves so pleased with the end results. This is the sheet I assigned near the beginning of the semester. And this is the one they just got for their final story. I am very much looking forward to the results.

Also! It's nice to see one's hunches and personal experience confirmed by science. And by Russell Smith, who also, I'm pleased to note, also asks that students produce more material than is seemingly reasonable to ask. But again: it's worth doing because it works.