- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Leon Forrest on Writing, Literature, Creativity, and More

Happy birthday, Leon Forrest! Here are some quotes from the writer:

 

“Generations have to pay for the bloodshed, avarice and madness of their forefathers.”

 

“Sleep for me is great and the deeper the better, for there I often dream and dreams awaken me to the crisis of living.”

 

“Chaos is a great driving force in all life. It’s a driving force in just the basic things of life, because when we get up in the morning we’re faced with chaos…”

 

“Well, I had originally wanted to be a poet. It seems to me that it’s in the poetry of language, what we call the prose style, and also finding the poetry of an individual character in his or her personality that brings on this sense of uniqueness. And I suppose that in the subterranean regions of my own psyche, let’s say, I’ve wanted to create a poem on each page of my prose, and if I can do that then I’m close to this magic. The magic is the ability to transform the reader’s imagination into something other and strange as he or she is confronting my text. How often that works? I don’t know. It probably doesn’t work nearly as much as I’d like it to, but the books that I read, the novels that I most admire, are novels in which there is a high degree of poetic sensibility that is part of the magic of making the text something else, something enduring—something possessing within it a constant resonance every time you return to the novel. You might read a great novel like The Sound and the Fury or Invisible Man every three or four years, but each time there is something marvelous and new and magical about it.”

 

“Now the problem though, going from poet to novelist, is that I had to say, well finally, that I am a novelist; I am interested in character and so on, so that’s where I have to plum the depths of human personality. But even there the lyricism, the particular lyricism of a character, is important to me. Lyricism can refer to an attribute of someone’s character and the way they voice things, the way they articulate their problems or their strengths in a most succinct way.”

 

“If a writer attempts to approach his materials in an imaginative manner, more than likely he’s going to be inventive about the mode he casts them in…the manner in which he reshapes or structures those ‘story-laden,’ symbolic patterns of human essence, culled from the consciousness of the family, race, and nation. Certainly this is true with much of the great literature , and the author-models of technical power, whose works I have found fascinating long before I attempted to write, and probably upon whose shoulders I have climbed, in order to attempt an entry into the ring of champions. All were master stylists to be sure: Joyce, Proust, Twain, Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, and Mr. Ralph Ellison. These craftsman were my principal literary mentors, and in the main, I am proud to say, authors that raised the moral questions and the spectre of moral hypocrisy.”

 

“I am always searching for ways in which I can take the richness of the black experience, the folk material, and project it to the highest levels of thought, of sensibility and creativity. I like to think that I try to do more with the ranges of black voices—as much as any writer.

But I also must remind myself that I’m a novelist. So I go and hear a sermon by a black preacher, I don’t wanna simply turn on the tape recorder and imitate what he’s doing. I wanna take it to another level. And it’s in taking this to another level that we are enriched by literature, by art.”

 

“The creation of literature may be a miracle, but the processes which you must go through are not miraculous at all. The whole business is that there’s a library underneath the letters. And the writer must find this library, by one means or another, or he or she will never develop as a serious writer. I know [Ralph] Ellison quite well, and his library in his home is probably as large as many community libraries in the city.”

 

“I look at satire as a cleansing, and as a way of never taking oneself too seriously. Also, satire is a way of cutting back on this dangerous sentimentality that we are developing.”

 

“Literature, I must say, saved my life. I’d be over there on skid row if it wasn’t for literature. [….] Literature, in teaching it and also trying to write it, gave me something extraordinary to live for. Because generally, and ‘bout nearly every other way, I’m an enormously mediocre to even less-than-average person. I was never good at anything particularly. In a crowd of people I never was able to assert my voice. But seemingly this was the one thing that gave me something to live for.

Also, I think, too, life has always to me been filled with chaos. And it’s in literature that I find some pattern, some order, in the misery and the heartbreak and the folly of life. The one place where I can find some leverage.”

 

“This is a problem in the modern world. That everything is given to us through these images. Even the J-schools teach you to write in short sentences and short paragraphs. But it’s an unfortunate thing that’s happened in society. We’ve moved away from this reverence for literature. That if it takes, say, two or three weeks to read a novel of this length, that the rewards will be life-sustaining. And that it will be something that you can return to all of your life.”

 

“[T]he thing that attracted me to literature then was the emotion of language, the romance of it. It was much later that I began to realize, if I was going to be a writer—and a good serious reader—that I would have to develop intellectually.”

 

“But literature is primarily the life of the mind and the spirit. It’s a much more intellectual enterprise, and it demands a much more sustained memory, sustained reflection and sustained commitment to time. Writing is a kind of priesthood, in a sense. I didn’t feel this way when I was a young man. I wanted to write very much, but I didn’t know of the extraordinary commitment that it takes. I mean, writing demands everything.”

 

“I guess though that for me the first connection with jazz is that I will take just a fragment of a story, or a fragment of a character, or a confrontation, and then build on it, build on it, riff on it like a jazz musician or a solo performer. So in fact a lot of scenes just start off with me working on a little riff, and then that develops into a scene. As far as the larger thing goes, I always try to orchestrate a scene so that it starts off in one way, gets involved with some other things, and then comes back to that—a little fugue-like method. But I’m always trying to both orchestrate a scene and orchestrate the novel really, as well as do those individual solos.”

 

“I want to look at the work. I don’t care if its white or black. I don’t agree that ‘If you’re white, you can’t write.’ I want to see what they can do. I also don’t believe that because I am a man, I can’t write about women. I had better quit writing, if I can’t write about women. Why can’t women write about men? It’s talent that’s important.”

 

“Is there no Balm in Gilead? Is that Tomorrow grieving and slouching in a Windstorm? For still our ancient enemy employs his woe; his craft and power are great, and mighty with avenging hate, on earth is not his equal for menace without mercy, for sabbath without soul, for fire without warmth.”

 

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.

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