Maria Popova, the Bulgarian writer behind the blog Brain Pickings, loves literature. For proof, look no farther than the mountains of tips for writers by writers on the site. Between her work and the millions of other pontifications published by writers out there, it’s almost impossible for an aspiring writer today to find a path of his or her own. Yet trying to take someone else’s path is strangely addictive. To fuel the addiction, feast your eyes on some of the best that they have to offer on writing.
A Selection from Brain Pickings
“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration”
The Irony is palpable that Ernest Hemingway is warning against the folly of egoism but, once again, he is right. Hemingway decries the all-too-common pursuit of “the epic,” with descriptions eerily reminiscent of much of modern journalism. These snippets, like all of his writing, cut straight to the core of the issue.
“I don’t know the rules of grammar. If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.”
David Ogilvy is the original “Mad Man.” His books on advertising have long since entered the canon for business students. In 1982, Ogilvy sent a short memo to his entire agency, titled simply: “How to Write.”
“What does it matter how one comes by the truth so long as one pounces upon it and lives by it?”
Henry Miller is one of my favorites. The man wrote all day and did watercolors in a cabin in Big Sur. The dream. His first book, Tropic of Cancer, reads like a coked-out psychopath’s pornographic fantasy. And it works. Here, Miller offers more measured instruction for writing and living.
“Try never get drunk outside yr own house”
This list of thoughts from Kerouac ranges from writing and life to choice locations for intoxication (see above). Strange as they are, they probably merit some thought and/or meditation since Allen Ginsberg was said to have them in his hotel room when he composed the famous Howl.
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
Having written everything from Of Mice and Men to The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck knows a thing or two about quality writing at various lengths. He also firmly believes that writers should not take advice. If you want to take this advice, do not take his other advice on writing.
“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”
If you’ve read the last few authors’ thoughts on writing, you know that they contradict each other. Vonnegut continues this trend with enthusiasm but, perhaps, offers the simplest and best advice on crafting a good story. His points are blunt, but this is the only man in our group who graduated from college with a degree in Chemistry. He was never taught to be flowery.
“[Some people] feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint.”
The most famous essayist in history knows a thing or two about what makes a good essay. Spoiler alert: it probably doesn’t reflect your SAT or college application essay. White leaves us with two central points: the essayist is necessarily an egoist and the essay is essentially a person.
If none of these tips get your juices flowing, remember that Hunter S. Thompson would type The Great Gatsby over and over so that he could know what creating greatness felt like. Typing out Fear and Loathing a few times would be quite a ride.
If you’re a major lit nerd or like the idea of reading some famous lines to a pre-determined musical backdrop, check out Papova’s literary jukebox.