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amreading Commonplace Book writer's inspiration

Start with one page

I start with very short pieces, usually no more than a handwritten page. I try to focus on something specific: a person, a moment, a place. I do what I ask my students to do when I teach creative writing. I explain to them that such fragments are the first steps to take before constructing a story. I think a writer should observe the real world before imagining a nonexistent one.

In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri. pg 61

Many of the exercises Jhumpa describes for learning how to write in Italian can be used for improving your writing in English.

Start small. Start by filling one page.

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Drawings writer's inspiration

Sheila Heti: Story Machine

From the Paris Review’s video series – My First Time

Sheila’s original ambition was to become a playwright. She started writing stories after being kicked out/quitting theater school.

To master the writing process, Sheila would sit and write 6 or 7 stories in a row, as fast as she could type. Her thought was if she wrote hundreds of stories, then 20 or 30 would be good, exactly how they were written.

Sheila is all about lists.

She’d write down lists of titles of all the fables she could find. For the title of her first book, she wrote down hundres of titles to generate ideas.

She’d also sketch out book covers with the titles in them, to help visualize the finished book.

Parting words:

I have to work harder than any other writer in the world. I just wanted so badly to figure this out. To figure out how to write.

Sheila Heti
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amreading Commonplace Book

Spoiled Brats: A Collection of Voices

Simon Rich is a literary shapeshifter. A master impersonator.

With his the short story collection Spoiled Brats, I was no longer reading words. My earlobes were nailed to each sentence, listening for the voice.

Whether it was a desperate, widowed, classroom pet hamster:

They buried my wife in a shoe box in Central Park. I like to imagine that the funeral was respectful, that her body was treated with a modicum of dignity. But of course I’ll never know. I wasn’t invited to the ceremony. Instead, the guests of honor were the students of homeroom 2K.

Her killers.

Or a time traveling, pickle factory worker, adapting to a modern Brooklyn he doesn’t recognize:

As the saying goes in Slupsk: “Sometimes you must drink milk right out of the goat, because it costs two rubles instead of the three rubles.”

I think about this saying as I walk the streets of Brooklyn. There are so many decadent restaurants, each one more luxurious than the last. I pass one named in honor of the pirate Long John Silver, which serves assorted treasures from the sea. Then I pass one that serves chicken that is crisped, in the style of Kentucky. Most amazing to me is a large white castle that sells Salisbury steaks between two breads. Their food is so rich I can smell it from the street. My stomach is rumbling, but I know that these places are beyond me. Their signs are spelled out with electric flashing lights. If I want to survive, I must find someplace more humble.

Or even Death himself, picking up some pro bono work:

“Then why are you here?” Tim asked, a slight edge in his voice.

“To kill your dreams.”

He topped off Pete’s scotch.

“It’s a new thing I’m doing,” he explained. “Claiming lives is depressing. I mean, it can be fun, in a ‘gotcha’ sort of way. But it doesn’t do the person any good. By the time I show up at a guy’s doorstep, it’s too late for him to change his ways. That’s why I’ve decided, pro bono, to tell people when their dreams have definitively died. So they can move on with their lives.”

Rich’s encyclopedia of voices alone, is a reason to keep Spoiled Brats on your nightstand.