On Writing(Essay) – Raymond Carver (nytimesreviewofbooks)

I had to share this great essay on writing from one of my favorite writers – Raymond Carver – great writing advice on the art of storytelling, enjoy !



February 15, 1981

A Storyteller’s Shoptalk


When I was 27, back in 1966, I found I was having trouble concentrating my attention on long narrative fiction. For a time I experienced difficulty in trying to read it as well as in attempting to write it. My attention span had gone out on me; I no longer had the patience to try to write novels. It’s an involved story, too tedious to talk about here. But I know it has much to do now with why I write poems and short stories. Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on. It could be that I lost any great ambitions at about the same time, in my late 20’s. If I did, I think it was good it happened. Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing. There has to be talent.

Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don’t know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that’s something else. ”The World According to Garp” is of course the marvelous world according to John Irving. There is another world according to Flannery O’Connor, and others according to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. There are worlds according to Cheever, Updike, Singer, Stanley Elkin, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, William Kittredge, Barry Hannah. Every great, or even every very good writer, makes the world over according to his own specifications.

It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.

Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk. I have some three-by-five cards on the wall now. ”Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.” Ezra Pound. It is not everything by ANY means, but if a writer has ”fundamental accuracy of statement” going for him, he’s at least on the right track.

I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: ”… and suddenly everything became clear to him.” I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that is implied. There is a bit of mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What’s happened? Most of all – what now? There are consequences as a result of such sudden awakenings. I feel a sharp sense of relief – and anticipation.

I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say ”No cheap tricks” to a group of writing students. That should go on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it a little to ”No tricks.” Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement.

Some months ago, in this Book Review, John Barth said that 10 years ago most of the students in his fiction writing seminar were interested in ”formal innovation,” and this no longer seems to be the case. He’s a little worried that writers are going to start writing mom and pop novels in the 1980’s. He worries that experimentation may be on the way out, along with liberalism. I get a little nervous if I find myself within earshot of somber discussion about ”formal innovation” in fiction writing. Too often ”experimentation” is a license to be careless, silly or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that’s all – a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists.

It should be noted that real experiment in fiction is original, hard-earned and cause for rejoicing. But someone else’s way of looking at things – Barthelme’s, for instance – should not be chased after by other writers. It won’t work. There is only one Barthelme, and for another writer to try to appropriate Barthelme’s peculiar sensibility or mise en scene under the rubric of innovation is for that writer to mess around with chaos and disaster and, worse, selfdeception. The real experimenters have to Make It New, as Pound urged, and in the process have to find things out for themselves. But if writers haven’t taken leave of their senses, they also want to stay in touch with us, they want to carry news from their world to ours.

It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earrings – with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine – the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me. I hate sloppy or haphazard writing whether it flies under the banner of experimentation or else is just clumsily rendered realism. In Isaac Babel’s wonderful short story, ”Guy de Maupassant,” the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: ”No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” This too ought to go on a three-by-five.

Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say. If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason – if the words are in any way blurred -the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader’s own artistic sense will simply not be engaged. Henry James called this sort of hapless writing ”weak specification.”

I have friends who’ve told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them – something, some apology for the writing not being very good. ”It would have been better if I’d taken the time.” I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist friend say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don’t. It’s none of my business. But if the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end it’s all we have, the only thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven’s sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living. Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don’t justify or make excuses. Don’t complain, don’t explain.

In an essay called, simply enough, ”Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor talks about writing as an act of discovery. O’Connor says she most often did not know where she was going when she sat down to work on a short story. She says she doubts that many writers know where they are going when they begin something. She uses ”Good Country People” as an example of how she put together a short story whose ending she could not even guess at until she was nearly there:

”When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized it was inevitable.”

When I read this some years ago it came as a shock that she, or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought this was my uncomfortable secret, and I was just a little uneasy with it. For sure I thought this way of working on a short story somehow revealed my own shortcomings. I remember being tremendously heartened by reading what she had to say on the subject.

I once sat down to write what turned out to be a pretty good story, though only the first sentence of the story had offered itself to me when I began it. For several days I’d been going around with this sentence in my head: ”He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang.” I knew a story was there and that it wanted telling. I felt it in my bones, that a story belonged with that beginning, if I could just have the time to write it. I found the time, an entire day – twelve, fifteen hours even – if I wanted to make use of it. I did, and I sat down in the morning and wrote the first sentence, and other sentences promptly began to attach themselves. I made the story just as I’d make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next. Pretty soon I could see a story, and I knew it was my story, the one I’d been wanting to write.

I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.

V.S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is ”something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” Notice the ”glimpse” part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we’re lucky -that word again – have even further-ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things; of how things out there really are and how he sees those things – like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.


35 Beautiful and Insightful Quotes about Short Stories (aerogrammestudio.com)

35 Beautiful and Insightful Quotes about Short Stories http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2014/06/25/35-beautiful-and-insightful-quotes-about-short-stories/

One App to Rule Them All: 30 Ways Evernote Can Improve Your Life(artofmanliness.com)

One App to Rule Them All: 30 Ways Evernote Can Improve Your Life





Update: This article is NOT a sponsored post. We received absolutely nothing from Evernote in exchange for this post and have never communicated with anyone at Evernote. Even though we put this disclaimer below as well, we thought we’d put it up here too because some folks missed it and claimed this recommendation was paid for. Again, we’re just users of the app ourselves who sincerely think others will find it useful as well. Scout’s honor.

We don’t talk a whole lot about the specific tools of modern productivity here at AoM. We’re generally more interested in principles, skills, mindsets, etc. Every once in a while, though, we come across something so useful, we just have to share it.

Enter Evernote. It’s an app for your smartphone, tablet, computer, and even your Moleskine notebook. It’s just what the name implies: an application that serves as your notetaker, PDA, pocket notebook, to-do list, etc. The beauty of Evernote is that it syncs automatically across all your devices, and across all your operating systems. Never lose another post-it note, scrap piece of paper, or notebook that has important information on it. You’ll also streamline your desk from a jumble of notes and folders into a single digital storehouse.

The app is roughly organized into notebooks and notes. Just like in real life. You create a notebook for a particular subject/topic, then fill that notebook with notes. Besides syncing across devices and operating systems, there are some features that make Evernote really stand out:

  • The ability to share notes and whole notebooks with classmates, coworkers, family, etc.
  • The ability to take and attach pictures to a note right from within the app.
  • The ability to take and attach voice memos and audio to a note right from within the app.
  • The ability to attach files (spreadsheets, images, docs) to any note.
  • The ability to scan text in a photo using Optical Character Recognition technology.
  • The ability to set reminders for yourself for various tasks, goals, and projects from within the app.
  • The ability to create checkboxes that serve as virtual to-dos.
  • The ability to sync automatically between all devices, meaning you can access your notes even when offline. (This feature is somewhat limited in the free version.)
  • Best of all – it’s FREE! There’s a premium version that offers a few bonus features, but the freebie offers all of the above.

Evernote has been around for nearly five years now, and although the AoM team has dabbled with the app before, Brett and I have finally become full-blown evangelists for it. Before we get too far in, we should say upfront that this is not a sponsored post; we have no affiliation with Evernote whatsoever. We just really love the app and we think that every man could benefit from using it.

We don’t get into the specifics of how to set up Evernote or how to use its basic features in this post. For that, we highly recommend the bookEvernote Essentials by Brett Kelly.

Utilizing even just a few of the ideas below will make you a more productive man. And please, add your own ideas of how to use Evernote in the comments!

1. Track your time. One of the most effective productivity systems out there is the relatively simple (but not necessarily easy) task of recording how you spend your time. Checking email, working on the spreadsheet, attending your sales meeting, even the 15 minutes you wasted on Facebook. At the end of the day, you’ll often realize just how much time you wasted. There are computer programs that will track time for you, but in our experience they just aren’t effective in tracking it specifically enough to mean anything. Use Evernote to track your productivity by stopping and making a note of what you’ve just been doing every 15 or 30 minutes. It may seem like a lot of work, but after a week, you’ll have a clear understanding of how you spend your time.

2. Write a note to your significant other. Many a husband and wife like to trade instant messages, texts, or emails with each other while they’re apart. Using Evernote is another option for sending your missives. Create a shared note between you, and send notes back and forth throughout the day. It’s less interrupting than a text, and more private than an email (especially if it’s a work email address).

3. Journaling. Did you participate in our our 31-day challenge and decide that you wanted to continue this journaling habit? If so, maybe Evernote could be a good digital option for making your entries. Create a notebook for your journaling, and a new note for each day (or entry). You can even create a template (here’s the one Michael Hyatt uses) so that you can use the same daily prompt and not have to come up with new journaling ideas every day.

4. Book notes. Use Evernote to take down your favorite quotes and jot down comments and questions while doing your reading for the AoM Book Club (and for your other reading as well of course!). Create a notebook for your book notes, and use tagging to categorize between fiction, non-fiction, business, classics, hobbies, etc.

We’ve also come across a brilliant little trick for saving and cataloging any highlights you make through the Amazon Kindle devices or apps. When logged in on kindle.amazon.com, you can click “Your Highlights” at the top of the page and view any highlighted passage you’ve made in any book you’ve read on any Kindle device or app. You can click a specific book title, view all the highlights and notes you made in that book, and either copy/paste them into Evernote, or even use the web clipper and do it automatically. This feature is especially handy for doing research for college papers or work projects, and even allows you to use lengthy quotes without the hassle of transcribing. You can thank us later.

5. Collaborate at work. This is how we use Evernote here at AoM. Since our team is based in two locations very far away from each other (Denver and Tulsa), we don’t have a physical whiteboard we can all see each day. That’s where Evernote comes in. We use shared notebooks primarily for blog ideas and research, but the possibilities are endless.

6. Gift ideas. If you’re like me, you’ll come up with a brilliant gift idea for a loved one, jot it down on a sticky note, and promptly lose said note less than a week later. Create a notebook, with a new note for each person in your family. Share notes for your kids with your wife, for your wife with your kids, etc. Bounce ideas off each other, and never lose a good gift idea again. As a bonus, create a list for yourself of stuff you’d like, share it with your family, and they’ll never run out of ideas for you.

7. Grocery list. Our household goes through endless scraps of paper for meal planning and grocery lists. They end up lost more often than not. Create your weekly list in Evernote, share it with your wife or roommates, and everyone will be on the same page. You can each add items to the list as you think of them instead of risking forgetting and needing to make a return trip to the market.

8. Save articles and other interesting things for later. Use the Evernote web clipper to save all the articles and fun links you want to read later, but can’t go through during the day. So you saw the latest article on AoM while at work, but don’t have the time to read it immediately? Hit a single button and save it to Evernote; you can enjoy it on your bus ride home, even when you don’t have an internet connection.

9. Keep your clothing sizes and measurements handy. I know many a man who can’t remember their clothing sizes, especially when it comes to dress clothes that have specific numbers. Get yourself properly measured, and keep the numbers in Evernote. When you’re shopping, you’ll know exactly what you need. When you find that certain brands fit your body differently, you can note that as well.

10. Track goals. Make a notebook for your 2014 goals (and beyond). Within that notebook, create a note for each goal, and use that note to create action items, next steps, and progress reports. Check it out every week (or even every day) and make sure you stay on track.

11. Digital rolodex. Take pictures of all the business cards you acquire. Evernote’s OCR (optical character recognition) will read the text of the cards, meaning you can search for names and titles when you’ve inevitably forgotten things.

12. Track finances. While other apps (like Mint or your banking app) will keep better track of the minutiae of your daily finances, you can use Evernote to take pictures of work receipts or large expenses, tag them appropriately, and not have to save shoeboxes of receipts anymore.

13. Master meal list and journal. This is a fairly creative idea, if I don’t say so myself. When my wife and I are trying to meal plan (we plan a week at a time), we often have a hard time even remembering what’s in our wheelhouse and what we like. What we need is a master list of meals we’ve made and enjoyed. Can you see where this is going? Create a master meals list in Evernote, take notes on what part of the meal went well and what didn’t, and never be stuck asking, “What should we have for dinner?” again.

14. Fitness/weight journal. Diet and exercise remain the number one New Year’s resolution year after year. And for good reason; our fair country needs a healthy dose of getting our butts off of the couch. Unfortunately, most people give up on their resolutions between 45 and 60 days from January 1 (that date is quickly approaching!). To help motivate you, keep a daily note of your weight, what you ate, and any exercise. There are numerous benefits, especially to keeping an eating journal; the first of which being that in studies on the subject, people who keep a journal lose nearly twice as much weight. And it’s free.

15. Write a book. Looking to bone up your wordsmithery by writing a book? Use Evernote! Every writer knows how the best inspiration often strikes at the most inconvenient times: in bed, on the train, while out on a run, etc. Instead of trying to remember these flashes of inspiration until you can conveniently write them down, do it instantly! While a pocket notebook can do the trick, you risk losing your notes. Also, with Evernote, you have your notes wherever you go no matter what — a definite bonus.

16. Send yourself voice memos. If you’re in the car or on a brisk walk and can’t type in a note, use Evernote’s voice note feature to record yourself a memo. You can then email it to yourself and rest assured that you won’t forget to buy flowers for your anniversary.

17. Record interviews or other important meetings. For AoM, we do quite a few interviews for articles. When they end up being phone interviews, we want a way to record them so we can go back later and transcribe and pick out the highlights. Instead of paying for an app on your phone or computer, just use Evernote’s recording tool. It works surprisingly well, and when you record on your phone (just make sure it’s on speakerphone if you’re recording a phone call), you can just open up the computer and have it waiting for you when it’s time to transcribe. If you use an Android device, Evernote can even transcribe the audio for you (this also means the feature is likely soon coming to other platforms as well).

18. Master to-do list. Instead of keeping piles of sticky notes everywhere, why not keep your to-do list all in one place? You can even create a to-do notebook, with different notes for your different roles: employee, husband, hobbyist, father, etc. Use the checkbox feature to make it even more user friendly.

19. Distraction to-do list. Related to the above, but this version of the to-do list is intended to keep you from browsing the infinite depths of the web and instead keep you focused on your work. In our post about attention exercises, we mentioned how it takes, on average, 25 minutes to get back to work after you’ve been distracted online. Keep that from happening by using Evernote as your distraction to-do list. We all know how this goes — we’re working away when all of a sudden something pops into our head (“What was that company I saw on Shark Tanklast night?”) and we immediately look it up, and then we’re lost in the rabbit hole of the world wide web. When you feel the urge to pop open a new tab to look something up, instead of doing it right away, file it in Evernote, and come back to it during one of your regularly scheduled breaks (you are using the Pomodoro Technique, aren’t you)?

20. Honey-do list. In this to-do list spirit, if you’re bold, create and share a honey-do list with your wife. She can add little things around the house she’d like you to get to, and you don’t have to worry anymore about being reprimanded because you forgot to fix the toilet. If you don’t enjoy the honey-do list (personally, I don’t mind tinkering around the house on weekends), we can keep this tip just between you and I.

21. Keep your insurance policy info and phone numbers handy. When an errant driver ran through our front yard fence a few months back, I had to scramble around the house and dig online to find our policy information and rep’s phone number. I learned my lesson, and immediately made a note in Evernote for that info. With just a policy number and phone number, you’re not storing anything too private.

22. Vacation itinerary and info. The Kayak app does a good job of this, but why not just use Evernote so all your info is in a single place? Also, Kayak just stores your reservations automatically — you can’t make notes or add comments about things like excursion or restaurant recommendations you got from a friend. Keep hotel reservations, flights numbers, car rental confirmations, etc. in a note. Also make a note for restaurants, event ideas, attractions, and other things you plan on doing with your family.

23. Bucket list. Similar to your goals notebook, but this is more of a life dreams list. Instead of checking this note every week or every day, check it every few months, or even just once a year and see how you’re coming along on any bigger things that you’d like to do or accomplish someday.

24. Class/meeting notes. In college, it seemed like everyone I knew (myself included) had experienced the dreaded hard drive fail, only to lose precious notes and papers. Protect yourself against that by using Evernote to keep your notes, and even write first drafts of a paper, so if lost, you have at least something to show for it. It’s also easily shareable for fellow classmates or coworkers if they missed a class/meeting.

25. Pocket notebook. While I still love my paperpocket notebook, I also keep a note in Evernote just titled “Notes.” This is sort of a dumping ground for anything that pops into my head when I don’t have my paper version on me. Always accessible, always synced across devices…it’s just too easy.

26. Resource organization. If you’re working on a big project, you likely have multiple different resources coming at you: papers, links, spreadsheets, meeting notes, etc. Organize it easily by keeping all this stuff in an Evernote notebook. It’s extra handy because you can share this notebook with the other folks on the team and all be on the same page at all times.

27. Remind yourself of the things you want to do.This seems a little silly at the outset; why do you need to remind yourself to do something you want to do? Well, it’s mainly because us humans are forgetful and a little lazy. Use the reminders feature to send yourself a wake-up call every morning with a nice message like, “Get off your butt and GO FOR A RUN!” or, “Sleeping in is for the weak, go work on your novel!” Pick a couple things that are most important to you, and use Evernote to help keep them a priority.

28. Record DIY projects you’d like to do. Have a DIY/Projects notebook, and take pictures of the cool things you see that you want to do. When you see a restored axe at an antique store, snap a pic, and you’ll remember to look up how to restore an axe on AoM. Or if you see something online you’d like to do, like build a shoe shine box, use the Evernote web clipper to save it for later and you’ll be full of inspiration for years to come.

29. Learn your family’s history. Evernote can become your handy genealogy notebook. You can scan in old family photos, birth/death certificates, immigration records, and even family tree charts and PDFs. You can record audio of interviews you conduct with grandparents, or even long-lost relatives over the phone. When you come across new tidbits of family info, record it all into Evernote instead of that cumbersome notebook you tote around with you.

30. Commonplace book. This is perhaps the most handy benefit of using Evernote. The commonplace book, while no longer terribly common, was something that was incredibly popular in the 17th through early 20th centuries. It was basically a physical book where you recorded all the information you didn’t want to forget. Recipes, poems, quotes you liked, pieces of literature that spoke to you, things you learned at college, quips handed down from grandpa and dad…anything that you were interested in could go in your commonplace book for later reference. While the information age has largely done away with the practice, there’s still a benefit to keeping this type of “book.” Use Evernote as your modern commonplace book. Use tags, and make your book even more searchable, so you don’t have to flip through digital pages and pages of info.