Susan Vreeland's Thoughts on Writing

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Award-winning author Susan Vreeland gives students advice on creative writing, from tools of the craft to revision strategies.

Voice in Fiction
Historical Fiction
Vreeland's Revision Checklist Or Am I Really Finished?

"Be humbly what you aspire to be," says Henry David Thoreau. "Man's noblest gift to man is his sincerity, for it embraces his integrity also." This helps me to dispel a sense of inadequacy in order to probe a topic freely, without preconceptions.

Emily Carr, the Canadian painter and subject of my book, The Forest Lover, wrote this reminder to herself in her journal: "You yourself are nothing, only a channel for the pouring through of that which is something, which is all. Your job is to keep that channel clear and clean and pure so that which passes through may be unobstructed, unsullied, undiluted, and thus show forth its clear purity and intention."

Similarly, the more I lose any willful egotism or a hurried frame of mind and give myself the gifts of solitude and time so that I may listen with an open, humble heart, the more likely I am to recognize good material, fresh ideas, felicitous phrasing, from what the universe is offering. Henry James advises writers to try to be a person upon whom nothing is lost. To me, that cultivation of receptivity is based on knowing that we don't create the thoughts that come to us. We select them. This is in line with what Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us: "All writing comes by the grace of God."

This is not to say that one can do without studies in craft. On the contrary, absorbing the recognized masters of fiction by careful reading and rereading is essential. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter once, "A good style simply doesn't form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year." I can't say that I've been able to do that, but it's a worthy goal.

In addition, I try to be reading one book about writing at all times. These four have been particularly helpful:

  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway.
  • From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler.
  • The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner.
  • Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, by Charles Baxter.

In The Courage to Create, Rollo May wrote, "We cannot will [ourselves] to have insights. We cannot will creativity. But we can will to give ourselves to the encounter with intensity of dedication and commitment. The deeper aspects of awareness are activated to the extent that the person is committed to the encounter."

Commitment to the encounter or to the experience of writing must include deep, honest revision in which one comes to recognize embedded connotations, multiple dimensions undeveloped, and yes, excesses, carelessness, facile satisfaction obscuring greater possibilities, phrasing too easily achieved, wrong turns. For me, the ratio of first draft work to revision is probably one hour of writing new material to at least forty spent revising. Revisioning one's fiction is not just a mechanical process to make a better, deeper story; it will make the writer a better, deeper person for having delved. It is a coaxing process that yields greater fullness to the material originally conveived, which, in the end, must humble us with gratitude.

In every stage of writing, there is the element of risk-taking. I take courage from this poem by Christopher Logue:

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
Come to the edge!
And they came,
and he pushed,
and they flew.

And finally this from Psalms, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord."

Voice in Fiction
Historical Fiction
Vreeland's Revision Checklist Or Am I Really Finished?

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