- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Annie Proulx on Language, Writing, and More

 

Happy birthday, Annie Proulx! 87, today!

 

“I read omnivorously, I always have, my entire life. I would rather be dead than not read.”

 

“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”

 

“I am influenced by words and the chewiness of language.”

 

“Curiosity is what drives me. I am interested in everything, and all the people I know and like have fierce passions for places and things. I never thought it was peculiar or abnormal to be this way when I was younger, but I’ve learnt differently. Most people are remarkably incurious.”

 

“I’m extremely delighted with words, and writing for me is play—play with words and arrange them so that they have resonance and meaning that can carry the burden of a story.”

 

“What I find to be very bad advice is the snappy little sentence, ‘Write what you know.’ It is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given. If we write simply about what we know we never grow. We don’t develop any facility for languages, or an interest in others, or a desire to travel and explore and face experience head-on. We just coil tighter and tighter into our boring little selves. What one should write about is what interests one.”

 

“[I]magination is the human mind’s central life strategy. It is how we anticipate danger, pleasure, threat. The imagination is how our expectations are raised and formulated; it excites and ennobles our purpose in life. The imagination blocks out hunger, bodily harm, bad luck, injury, loneliness, insult, the condition of the marooned person or the orphan, grief and disappointment, restlessness, desperation, imprisonment, and approaching death. And from the imagination spring the ideas, the actions, and the beliefs that we hold.”

 

I’ve had a life. I see how slippery things can be.”

 

“I’m one of the ones at a party where you can always tell the writer because I’m leaning against the wall watching everybody else have fun.”

 

“You have time to have a life, to see change, to understand a bit how people work, how the world works, how society works, how things shift around, how slippery things can be, everything from politics to personal relationships. It’s a great advantage to have that stuff under your belt when you start to write.”

 

“Place and history are central to the fiction I write, both in the broad, general sense and in detailed particulars. Rural North America, regional cultures in critical economic flux, the images of an ideal and seemingly attainable world the characters cherish in their long views despite the rigid and difficult circumstances of their place and time. Those things interest me and are what I write about. I watch for the historical skew between what people have hoped for and who they thought they were and what befell them.”

 

“Much of what I write is set in contemporary North America, but the stories are informed by the past; I like stories with three generations visible. Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determine what happens to them, although the random event counts for much, as it does in life. I long ago fell into the habit of seeing the world in terms of shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings. I try to define periods when regional society and culture, rooted in location and natural resources, start to experience the erosion of traditional ways, and attempt to master contemporary, large-world values. The characters in my novels pick their way through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.”

 

“The construction of short stories calls for a markedly different set of mind than work on a novel, and for me short stories are at once more interesting and more difficult to write than longer work. The comparative brevity of the story dictates more economical and accurate use of words and images, a limited palette of events, fewer characters, tighter dialogue, strong title and punctuation that works to move the story forward. If the writer is trying to illustrate a particular period or place, a collection of short stories is a good way to take the reader inside a house of windows, each opening onto different but related views—a kind of flip book of place, time and manners.”

 

“Metaphors—a complex subject. What is involved in constructing them seems not so much a matter of seeking similitude or trying for explanation or description as multilevel word and image play. Metaphors set up echoes and reflections, not only of tone and color but of meaning in the story. The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded. For me, metaphors come in sheets of three or four at once, in floods, and so metaphor use often concerns selection rather than construction. There are private layers of meaning in metaphor that may be obscure to the reader but which have—beyond the general accepted meanings of the words—resonance for the writer through personal associations of language, ideas, impressions. So the writer may be using metaphor to guide the reader and deepen the story, for subtle effects but also for sheer personal pleasure in word play.”

 

“Where a story begins in the mind I am not sure—a memory of haystacks, maybe, or wheel ruts in the ruined stone, the ironies that fall out of the friction between past and present, some casual phrase overheard. But something kicks in, some powerful juxtaposition, and the whole book shapes itself up in the mind. I spend a year or two on the research and I begin with the place and what happened there before I fill notebooks with drawings and descriptions of rocks, water, people, names. I study photographs. From place come the characters, the way things happen, the story itself. For the sake of architecture, of balance, I write the ending first and then go to the beginning.”

 

“I read manuals of work and repair, books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology, regional weather, botanists’ plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. I read bulletin boards, scraps of paper I pick up from the ground. I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.”

 

“I have never fallen in love with one of my characters. The notion is repugnant. Characters are made to carry a particular story; that is their work. The only reason one shapes a character to look as he or she does, behave and speak in a certain way, suffer particular events, is to move the story forward in a particular direction. I do not indulge characters nor give them their heads and ‘see where they go,’ and I don’t understand writers who drift downriver in company with unformed characters. The character, who may seem to hold center stage in a novel, and in a limited sense does, actually exists to support the story. This is not to say that writing a character is like building a model airplane. The thoughtful and long work of inventing a believable and fictionally ‘true’ person on paper is exhilarating, particularly as one knowingly skates near the thin ice of caricature.”

 

“I don’t think prizes have affected me as much as they have my publisher. It is pleasant to have one’s work recognized and praised, and prizes certainly have an effect on the way the body of work is perceived, and on one’s income, but for me, when the manuscript of a story or novel is completed I am done with it and on to new work. I have a feeling of detachment for awards, perhaps because they come a year or more after publication, perhaps because it is difficult to believe that the work is considered prizeworthy. I am critical of my writing and tend to see the flaws and weaknesses. The best time for an award would be the instant one finally makes a stubborn paragraph or sentence lift its own weight off the page.”

 

“Response of readers . . . depends on which readers you mean. Readers come in a highly variable assortment—critics, other writers, old friends, fans, reading groups, adversaries, error-chasers, punctuation mavens, clever scholars, those who deeply understand the territory of the book or story, those who don’t get any of it. Probably I value the response of fellow writers most highly because they under-stand the work of making fiction. But fine letters have come from every kind of reader, and I am grateful for them.”

 

“The novel should take us, as readers, to a vantage point from which we can confront our human condition, where we can glimpse something of what we are. A novel should somehow enlarge our capacity to see ourselves as living entities in the jammed and complex contemporary world.”

 

“America is a violent, gun-handling country. Americans feed on a steady diet of bloody movies, television programs, murder mysteries. Road rage, highway killings, beatings and murder of those who are different abound; school shootings—almost all of them in rural areas—make headline news over and over. Most of the ends suffered by characters in my books are drawn from true accounts of public record: newspapers, accident reports, local histories, labor statistics for the period and place under examination. The point of writing in layers of bitter deaths and misadventures that befall characters is to illustrate American violence, which is real, deep and vast.”

 

“Immigrants to this country suffered unbelievable damage, both psychological and physical. Rural life, too, is high in accident and, for many, suffused with a trapped feeling, a besetting sense of circumstances beyond individual control. Real rural life, enlivened with clear air, beautiful scenery, close-knit communities and cooperative neighbors, builds self-reliant, competent, fact-facing people; but it is also riddled with economic failure, natural disaster, poor health care, accidental death, few cultural opportunities, narrow worldviews, a feeling of being separated from the larger society. Literary critics who live and work in urban and suburban milieus characterized by middle-class gentility and progressive liberalism are rarely familiar with the raw exigencies and pressures of rural life.”

 

“One is born, one lives in one’s time, one dies. I try to understand place and time through the events in a character’s life, and the end is the end. The person, the character, is one speck of life among many, many. The ending, then, should reflect for the reader some element of value or importance in the telling of this ending among the possible myriad of stories that might have been told.”

 

“I have the bad habit of falling in love with difficult places.”

“I am swept away by the beauty of words, places and music.”

“From the time I was very young the outdoors was important, that’s where life happened and it was interesting.”

 

“Like most people I am attracted to shorelines, whether lake, river or ocean. All of these locales have been severely damaged by humankind over the millennia—wetlands drained, rivers dammed, ocean-shores faced with armored rock walls, estuaries polluted. My interest in today’s warming oceans is based on concern as the waters move toward acidity, as coral reefs die, as kelp and eelgrass decline. I watch with trepidation as fish stocks dwindle and the shells of tiny pteropods dissolve. I walk regularly on the shore, picking up plastic as I go and feeling grief at the damages inflicted on these habitats.”

 

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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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