I loved this advice from Peter Carey – it makes me feel there’s no right way to start writing.
Australian novelist Peter Carey, author of Parrot and Olivier in America and Oscar and Lucinda, and twice the winner of the Booker Prize, on writer’s block and what inspires him.
Q: What is your method for overcoming writer’s block ?
A: I have never suffered from writer’s block. This may have something to do with the muddy way I begin each chapter – a poorly typed incorrectly spelled mess of messages and questions to myself. For instance, approaching Chapter 1 of Parrot and Olivier in America:
Here he is in the chateau.
Everything, these horrors hanguing over him, blood death, deadly, deathly.
The stories of the royalist martyrs and how they died.
The mess, confusion.
The terror of centralized power.
How can you have writer’s block when you approach your art like this? In the two following pages I go on to wonder if Olivier is “shirt or tAll.” I wonder how a Chateau works. I draft a letter to Jean-Marc Devocelle, the French architectural historian. There is nothing to be blocked by, certainly not the prospect of a perfect sentence. Yes, I have written 12 novels, but now the inside of my head is like a teenager’s bedroom – paper, paper, paper scattered amongst the dirty socks. That’s me, the stooped and grey-haired figure attempting to tidy up, reading sometimes, tearing, crumpling, sitting with a grunt, gathering together a very small sheaf which will, at day’s end, be my night’s companion. I suspect I dream about those pages in their ideal form. In any case, I forget my dream on waking. Next day I begin to write again, although you could not call it writing. I follow what threads of thought I have gathered from the mess. I begin to clarify them. That day I will begin a chapter. That night I will have one or two pages written. I begin to imagine what I could not have imagined yesterday. Jean Marc writes back. He gives me a village road which I can use. On it goes, day after day. There is nothing I will not use, nothing I will not write down, nothing that is not liable to the most severe judgment, because – even if I did not confess this earlier – I also have an excellent large scale map. I know where I want to start and I never forget why I wish to take this journey.
Q: What are your favorite or most helpful writing prompts?
A: I don’t know what a writing prompt is, but if it’s something that lifts the level of your ambition to the heavens, if it makes you drunk with the possibility of making something that never existed in the world before, then any piece of great art will do the trick. Rembrandt and Van Gogh will do it, for instance. Long ago I read Faulkner in the morning. Now Thomas Bernhardt will keep my high going all day. For years I listened to Bob Dylan until I reached that dizzy place where I would rather write than listen. More often, of course, the situation is not at all ecstatic. It’s nine o’clock. I turn on my computer. It makes its distinctive appley sound, and then I start.
Q: What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?
A: There was so much advice. It fell like rain. The best advice is to ignore the advice. The source is Anon.
Learn more at petercareybooks.com
This first appeared in the Gotham Workshops newsletter:
Cliff BurnsOctober 5, 2011 - 10:23 am ·
Great advice from Carey, smartly avoiding the smarmy “self-help”, do-it-yourself writing notions that proliferate out there. Writer blocks? Writing prompts? What do those silly workshop words mean to an author of his caliber? Writers write; every single day is focused on the printed word. Let the wannabes and NaNoWriMo idjits worry about motivation.
Real writers WRITE.