Reflective thinking on the mysterious business of working with the imagination and the often unconscious creative faculty. Essays, meditations, speculations, quotations, and even less categorizable items. The underlying question here is: What is the sort of thinking that comes before and goes on beneath the writing of a story?


1. Writing Lessons from Haruki Murakami

Lessons extracted from Murakami’s fiction and non-fiction. Topics include:

How to write without having anything to say; piling up details until they become a reality; not making too much sense; how writing is like ET cobbling together a “cosmic communication device” from cast-offs and junk, in order to send a message over an infinite distance; handling with care the mental landscapes that are the basis of one’s writing and one’s Self.

2. Elusive Powers

“Because I must somehow inhabit the world of the piece of writing before that world even exists, before I know what words I will use to speak it, thus live in it and know it before it has attributes to be inhabited and known – because this logically impossible feat is absolutely essential to writing as I experience it, I can never sum writing up as a superior form of craft-work, cabinetmaking to the nth degree. No matter how much technique I have, or may come to have – and I feel the need for a great deal of it – all exercise of craft is secondary to an action that I always perform without knowing how.”

This essay was published in Many Mountains Moving in 1996.

3. A Writer’s Perception

“One is driven by an intuition that there is something more – more than we’re able to perceive, more than we have yet experienced, more perhaps than seems possible for a human creature to understand. Something very peculiar about human beings is that we are able to imagine states of being, ourselves being some ways, that can never possibly come to pass. How can we live with imagining such things? Why should we have such a capacity in the first place and what in the world are we to do with it? These are mysteries that drive writers to create something from nothing, with words.”

4. Know and Don’t Know

“Though creative work is somehow grounded in what I know, it hinges on the belief that certainty is overrated, that not-knowing is limitless, that the unknown does not exist to fill in the gaps of my already existing world-view, but rather that not-knowing is a door to a far larger world than I currently imagine.”

5. Making It to the Middle (and learning to live there)

“The reason that the transition to the middle of the story can be so difficult, and the reason the middle can be the hardest part or seem like the hardest part, is that it is different in kind to work at steady state as opposed to working in a state of acceleration. . . . Writing the middle of a story is something like going down to the shore and gathering mussels to eat for dinner.”

6. Novels for No One

A piece about my (un)relationship with that mythical being called “the reader.”

“I cannot escape this inordinate ambition: to write that which will matter to someone.

Yet without knowing who ‘someone’ is, how could I possibly know what will matter?”

7. Do You Read Me? Over

or, why reading and writing novels is not a form of communication

A companion piece to “Novels for No One” that elaborates on part of its argument.

8. Someone Else’s Memories

“What I must omit, what I must speak of only indirectly, what I must always leave room to disavow, so that I can always deny that I ever meant it…this, the unwritten, the half-written book, is also what I must try to write – or perhaps it is why I must try. Beneath the book that I do write lies the book that I dare not and in any case probably cannot write.”

“People don’t read novels to find out about the writer; they read them, I think, to enter a self-contained world where, magically enough, they stumble upon themselves.”

9. Why Fiction?

” . . . fiction is a kind of knowing that comes into our privacy and seems to make it co-extensive with another’s. It even takes in the parts of subjective experience for which there are scarcely words, and it does that for the reader (in the recognitions it stirs) as well as for its characters. Not only is this a good deal like what we think love is, it may be that literature constantly invents what we think love is, and keeps alive an inner inside that can be so reached.”

10. Deborah Digges

A page of artistic advice from the late poet, notes from a workshop I once attended, which I keep on the bulletin board in my study and often re-read.

11. Louise Bourgeois

One paragraph from the 20th century sculptor on what art is trying to do in the modern age.

12. Flannery O’Connor on Meaning

The crucial difference between theme and “experienced meaning.”

13. Knowing Ignorance Is Strength

Some questions to ask oneself while writing a story, mostly about things that aren’t known and maybe even cannot be written.

14. Thoughts on Form: Memoir and its Neighbors

“The power of form, which appears in countless manifestations in the human world, is that it enables congruence, mind to mind.”

A definition of memoir and ways to distinguish it from the forms it rubs elbows with, personal essay and personal narrative.

x. “Amateur”

Not strictly about writing, but a meditation on why we need some amateurs in this culture where increasingly every occupation aspires to style itself “professional.”