The Book of Scott
a useful commonplace book
compiled by Scott Smith
Chapter 1: Discipline
Faire et se taire.
—Flaubert (translation: Shut up and get on with it.)
Read and revise, reread and revise, keep reading and revising until your text seems adequate to your thought.
I’m not happy when I’m writing, but I’m more unhappy when I’m not.
Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.
You put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.
I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms 39 times before I was satisfied.
Distractivity is what you’re doing when you get distracted from what you should be doing. It’s generally what you want to do, often what you need to do, and arguably, what you’ll do best.
That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier, but that our ability to perform it has improved.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
He who reigns within himself and rules passions, desires, and fears, is more than a king.
Nulla dies sine linea.
—Horace, reminding all writers, “Not a day without a line.”
The Muse visits while you are writing, not before.
The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.
—Sister Corita Kent, Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules
Writing to ‘get it right the first time’ is like driving a car with the emergency brake on. In order to write more good stuff faster, and suffer less, you need to focus on removing the stalling, obsessing, and nitpicking from your composing process, and to think about a different kind of process.”
Show up. Get to work even when you don’t feel like writing—especially when you don’t feel like writing.
If I have anything to say to young writers, it’s stop thinking of writing as art. Think of it as work.
Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and somthing else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.
Finish everything you start.
Every writer I know has trouble writing.
The first draft of anything is shit.
Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.
I run out of ideas every day. Each day I live in mortal fear that I’ve used up the last idea that it’ll ever come to me. If you don’t want to run out of ideas, the best thing to do is not to execute them. You can tell yourself you don’t have the time or resources to do ‘em right. Then they stay around in your head like brain crack. No matter how bad things get, at least you have those good ideas. That you’ll get to later. Some people get addicted to that brain crack. And then longer they wait, the longer they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed. And they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals. And everyone’s clapping. For them! But the bummer is, most ideas kinda suck when you do ‘em. And no matter how much you plan, you still have to do something for the first time. And you’re almost guaranteed the first time you do something that it’ll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person who’s still dreaming of all the applause. When I get a idea, even a bad one, I try to get it out into the world as fast as possible. Because I certainly don’t want to be addicted to brain crack.
—the show, Ze Frank, 2007-11-06
Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in … the edit.
One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book, give it, give it all, give it now.
Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
If writers had to wait until their precious psyches were completely serene there wouldn’t be much writing done.
Writer’s block is simply a failure of ego.
Don’t tell anybody what your book is about and don’t show it until it’s finished. It’s not that anybody will steal your idea but that all the energy that goes into the writing of your story will be dissipated.
Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
You put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.
Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.
Chapter 2: Awareness and Mindfulness
Result of self-consciousness: audience and actor are the same. I live my life as a spectacle for myself, for my own edification. I live my life but I don’t live in it.”
—Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963
Look, I really don’t want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you’re alive, you got to flap your arms and legs, you got to jump around a lot, you got to make a lot of noise, because life is the very opposite of death. And therefore, as I see it, if you’re quiet, you’re not living. You’ve got to be noisy, or at least your thoughts should be noisy and colorful and lively.
That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.
That if it be, it be at best
An ablative estate—
This instigates an appetite
You have to allow a certain amount of time in which you are doing nothing in order to have things occur to you, to let your mind think.
Universe is 14 billion years old. Seems silly to celebrate one year. Be like having a fucking parade every time i take a piss.
When you see death up close, a couple of things become clear. One is that we all die, and that death is just part of the deal. The other is that life is such a blessing, that’s it just so great, even though you know the inevitable might be near you still want as many bites of the apple as possible.
The point is that rapport with the marvelously purposeless world of nature gives us new eyes for ourselves – eyes in which our very self-importance is not condemned, but seen as something quite other than what it imagines itself to be. In this light, all the weirdly abstract and pompous pursuits of men are suddenly transformed into natural marvels of the same order as the immense beaks of the toucans and hornbills, the fabulous tails of the birds of paradise, the towering necks of the giraffes, and the vividly polychromed posteriors of the baboons… Seen thus, the self-importance of man dissolves in laughter.
We have to understand that only the present is real. There is no past. There is no future. ¶ Look at the practical wisdom of this in a great undertaking, like climbing a mountain. You’ve got a long task ahead of you and if you keep looking up at the top, you’ll feel wearier and wearier, and every step becomes like lead. Or, if you’re a housewife washing dishes, and you’ve got a great pile of dishes by the sink, and you begin to think as you wash through them that you’ve washed dishes for years, and you’re probably going to have to wash dishes for the rest of your life, then in your mind’s eye you see this prodigious pile of dishes piling up as high as the Empire State Building. This has been your drudgery in the kitchen all your life, and will be for all the years to come, and you are appalled and oppressed. But dispelling this dread isn’t a matter of trying to forget about washing dishes, it is realizing that in actual fact you only have one dish to wash, ever: this one; only one step to take, ever: this one. And that is Zen. ¶ That is concentration at its best.
To have a child is to give fate a hostage.
Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Chapter 3: Fear
Let a man once overcome his selfish terror at his own finitude, and his finitude is, in one sense, overcome.
I had a strange realization that time passes whether you’re doing something with it or not. It would be easy to let every day go by easily with no risk and then, at the end of the day (my life), I would look back and realize that fear ruled me: At that point there would be nothing I could do about it. So, I got off my butt! It wasn’t easy and I had a lot of lapses (I still do) but the experience of being ruthless with myself was an amazing lesson to learn.
People say, “Oh, Mr. Sendak, I wish I were in touch with my childhood self, like you!” As if it were all quaint and succulent, like Peter Pan. Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth. I say, “You are in touch, lady—you’re mean to your kids, you treat your husband like shit, you lie, you’re selfish… That is your childhood self. In reality, childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious, and profound.”
All my life, I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.
—Gabriel García Márquez
Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.
Chapter 4: Creativity
I never start with characters. I start with a moral area and then try to work out who it happens to.
People like me write because otherwise we are pretty inarticulate.
A story describes a sequence of actions and experiences done or undergone by a certain number of people, whether real or imaginary. These people are presented either in situations that change or as reacting to such change. In turn, these changes reveal hidden aspects of the situation and the people involved, and engender a new predicament which calls for thought, action, or both. This response to the new situation leads the story toward its conclusion.
A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
“Try to make Hank give up.”
—Reminder Ken Kesey kept on his desk as he wrote Sometimes a Great Notion
Rage is to writers what water is to fish.
Caress the Detail, the Divine Detail….
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.
For me, the most important thing in life is leaving behind something beautiful, something that finds its way into the lives of strangers, and forever alters them in a positive manner.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
—Chekhov (Anton, not his brother-in-law Murray)
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Chapter 5: General Tonic
If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,—
Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?
—”Danse Russe” by William Carlos Williams
The primary goal of parenting, beyond keeping our children safe and loved, is to convey to them a sense that it is possible to be happy in an uncertain world, to give them hope. We do this, of course, by example more than by anything we say to them. If we can demonstrate in our own lives qualities of commitment, determination, and optimism, then we have done our job and can use our books of child-rearing advice for doorstops or fireplace fuel. What we cannot do is expect that children who are constantly criticized, bullied, and lectured will think well of themselves and their futures.
Whoever invented marriage was an ingenious tormentor. It is an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings. The whole point of marriage is repetition.
—Susan Sontag, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963
I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.
II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.
III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.
IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.
V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.
VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.
VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.
VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.
IX. Nulla dies sine linea — but there may well be weeks.
X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.
XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.
XII. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.
XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.
—Walter Benjamin’s tips for writing
What the heart has once known, it shall never forget.
The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading. In order to write a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.
You just do what you want to do for your own sense of your creative life. If no one else wants to see it, that’s fine.
“[Raising a child] is the simple, nerve-wracking, mindless, battering-ram process of trying to teach a savage to use a fork. It requires bloodless patience, a deadly will, enormous physical stamina, and a stable disposition, but no precision instruments. It takes strength and determination.”
Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.
—From a translation of an inscription on an Assyrian clay tablet, circa 2800 B.C.E. (Via Bart King.)
The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals—not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them—we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.
The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.
Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.
The novelist is more like a pregnant woman who delivers her own child unaided. A messy procedure, with lots of groaning.
When I get up in the morning… my real concern is to discover whether I’m in a state of grace. And if I make that investigation, and I discover that I am not in a state of grace, I try to go [back] to bed. A state of grace is that kind of balance with which you ride the chaos that you find around you. It’s not a matter of resolving the chaos—because there’s something arrogant and warlike about putting the world in order—but having a kind of escape ski down over a hill, just going through the contours of the hill.
I suppose that there are endeavors in which self-confidence is even more important than it is in writing—tightrope walking comes immediately to mind—but it’s difficult for me to think of anybody producing much writing if his confidence is completely shot.
My grandfather used to say: “Life is astonishingly short. Now, in my memory, it is so compressed that I can hardly understand, for example, how a young person can decide to ride to the next village without being afraid that—apart from accidents—even the time allotted to a normal, happy life is far too short for such a journey.
—Franz Kafka, “The Next Village”
I think the most important part of storytelling is tension. It’s the constant tension of suspense that in a sense mirrors life, because nobody knows what’s going to happen three hours from now.
Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert.
The novel is an effort to assuage homesickness. The more profound the yearning for hte lost home, the more profound the novel.
—Joyce Carol Oates
I find that I’m really good with other people as long as I get twenty-two hours of alone time per day.
—@michaelianblack, Michael Ian Black
Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
When asked what he wished he would have known earlier, Seth Godin answered “It’s going to be ok.”
via @rameadows via @swissmiss