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Sage Advice from Gary Lutz

Check out a new interview with Gary Lutz at We Are Champion. An excerpt:

One piece of advice would be to slow down. It doesn’t matter if it takes you all night or two nights or even longer to write one sentence. Every sentence should feel like the nucleus of the story in which it will eventually appear. Another suggestion is to keep hacking away at your paragraphs, cut as much as possible, but save what you’ve trimmed away: a word or a phrase from the trimmings might be enough to get a fresh sentence started. I would also recommend entertaining doubts about every word you choose, and enjoy the entertainment of your doubts; live, in fact, to doubt yourself—so that no one else might take your place as the most damning doubter of you and all you do.

And you’ve seen his incredible essay “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” right?

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

9 thoughts on “Sage Advice from Gary Lutz

  1. Wow, I couldn’t disagree with this line more:

    “Every sentence should feel like the nucleus of the story in which it will eventually appear.”

    The idea that every line should essentially occupy the same position (center stage) in a story is absurd. Really? No such thing as a supporting line? Sentences should have personalities dependent on where they are in the story. If they all “act” the same, the story doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe.

    I’ll bet I’m in the minority here, but after having been pretty blown away by Lutz’s work when I first discovered it, this is exactly why I quickly grew tired of it.

    Reading Lutz is like going to David Byrne’s heaven: you encounter a beautiful, jaw-dropping sentence, and then have to read it over and over and over again.

    1. I didn’t mean to be so mean. I actually do like Lutz’s writing. I just think the advice is crazy. It’s a great way to wind up with a story full of elegant variation.

  2. I think it’s important not to read Lutz’s use of the word “nucleus” as literally, as you’re, perhaps, taking it. He did after all say “should feel like” rather than “should be”. And I think that’s a critical distinction here. Also, you should take his suggestions in context. They are coming from someone who loves to linger over the minutiae of a sentence. He cares very little, if at all, for the forward propulsion of plot and character development, for hierarchical sentences. This is the way he works. Take it or leave it. I like to take Lutz’s thoughts on writing less as dictums but as insight into his own process, how and why his work takes the peculiar form that it does.

    I think that what he’s suggesting is actually quite dynamic. The sentences aren’t at all acting the same. They change position as you encounter them. The center is a shared space or place. Perhaps what Lutz is suggesting here is that the usual hierarchies present in conventional stories may actually impede “movement” and “breathing” (well, at least for him as a reader). Sounds like a fluid approach to me, an approach that is not more or less valid than any other.

    But even understanding Lutz’s use of the word “nucleus” (which, among many other things, means: “The central part or thing around which others are grouped or collected; the center or kernel of an aggregate or mass; an initial part or collection of things to which others may be added) in a literal way might still be useful. I’ve read so many stories with so much fluff and filler that sifting through every sentence to see if it is integral to the story, that is, making sure that around any single sentence the rest of the sentences can group and collect themselves around, may result in much more dynamic and provocative prose.

    Also, it’s important to place this in the context of this interview where he says, “Documentarian fiction doesn’t do it for me (with the exception of the late John Updike’s, whose descriptive accuracies and exactitudes I revere).” How does Lutz’s enjoyment (albeit especially for his “descriptive accuracies and exactitudes”) of this standard-bearer of conventional storytelling strike you?

    And your argument, if I understand it, that sentences that are given the same degree of attention, that is, constructed so that none is subordinate to another, may result in an overall flatness is, of course, a possibility. And one to be aware and critical of while writing a certain kind of fiction. But, then again, overall flatness could be very interesting and could be another valid approach to making fiction. Personally, I don’t think Lutz’s work has the flatness that you may be suggesting.

    1. I don’t know, John. It’s pretty clear he means it as advice. He uses that word. Anyway, I’m well aware that it’s the way he works, and as I said, I think it makes his fiction impressive superficially, but ultimately less powerful than if he resisted the urge to MAKE EVERY SENTENCE A SHOW-STOPPER. (Of course I agree that a writer can err equally on the side of, as you put it, “fluff and filler.”)

      Ultimately, it’s all just a matter of taste, and I’m not trying to invalidate Lutz’s approach to what is obviously compelling, innovative fiction. I’m just saying I’d never give his advice, which seems as limiting as, say, passing off the principles of noir as necessary elements to any good novel. I’ve read about his process before–his worrying over each word and turning it around and around on the page until it fits like some elaborate puzzle–and I’d never wish that on any writer still green enough to accept advice.

    1. Well, a technicality first: his “process” is what I wouldn’t wish on an aspiring writer. Ultimately, I don’t think writers should take one another’s advice. But you can’t avoid it in the beginning.

      So, the why. Basically, because I think young writers should experiment and err on the side of volume, not agonize over minutia and try to make every sentence count. It’s crippling and neurotic.

      Don’t get me wrong, I certainly think it’s critical to pay attention to word choice, to make beautiful sentences. But sometimes that perfection comes from assisting–if you’ll forgive the basketball analogy–instead of taking the shot.

      1. I hear you. And I agree that a writer certainly has to pick and choose. It also may be useful to go through the process of considering advice that goes against the grain.

        I’m not so sure though that every young writer “should experiment and err on the side of volume, not agonize over minutia and try to make every sentence count” as this can be as “crippling and neurotic,” since I think that any piece of advice unwarily taken can be “crippling and neurotic”.

        I think there may be many embryonic writers for whom Lutz’s advice might be well-timed, perfect for their own unique development as a writer.

        What’s critical for anyone regardless of level is to absorb whatever propels them to write the kind of writing that resonates most for them. I don’t think there’s any one way to achieve that.

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