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Susan Sontag on Being a Writer: “You Have to Be Obsessed”

And other insights on craft from the legendary critic and novelist.

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In 2017, FSG published Susan Sontag’s Debriefing, a new collection of the writer’s short fiction. I’m always excited to read more of Sontag’s work—which is convenient, because it seems there’s always more to read. Sontag, who died in 2004, was remarkably prolific, especially if you count her journals, which I consider ecstatic texts in and of themselves. Speaking of ecstasy, Sontag is also a figure of worship for a lot of writers, in part because of the many, many opinions she had on writing, and what good writing should be. All of which, despite their occasional contradictions, are probably correct. To celebrate this posthumous release of her work, I have collected some of these below.

On what a writer must be:

The writer must be four people:

1. The nut, the obsédé
2. The moron
3. The stylist
4. The critic

1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence.

A great writer has all 4—but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.

from Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963

Or, more simply:

To be a great writer:

know everything about adjectives and punctuation (rhythm)
have moral intelligence—which creates true authority in a writer

–from As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

On finding inspiration in daily life:

Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. 

–from Sontag’s 2003 commencement speech at Vassar

On the morality of the writer:

Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent. . . This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate—and, therefore, improve—our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement.

–from Sontag’s “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning”

On carving out a place in contemporary fiction:

I’m glad to be free of the kind of one-note depressiveness that is so characteristic of contemporary fiction. I don’t want to express alienation. It isn’t what I feel. I’m interested in various kinds of passionate engagement. All my work says be serious, be passionate, wake up.

–from a 1992 interview with Leslie Garis

On ego:

My “I” is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity. Sane me, critics, correct them—but their sanity is parasitic on the creative faculty of genius.

–from Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963

On the two kinds of writers one can be:

One is either an outside (Homer, Tolstoy) or an inside (Kafka) writer. The world or madness. Homer + Tolstoy like figurative painting—try to represent a world with sublime charity, beyond judgment. Or—uncork one’s madness. The first is far greater. I will only be the second kind of writer.

–from Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963

On attention:

Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. It’s all about taking in as much of what’s out there as you can, and not letting the excuses and the dreariness of some of the obligations you’ll soon be incurring narrow your lives. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.

–from Sontag’s 2003 commencement speech at Vassar

On what gets her started writing:

Reading—which is rarely related to what I’m writing, or hoping to write. I read a lot of art history, architectural history, musicology, academic books on many subjects. And poetry. Getting started is partly stalling, stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless. Feeling guilty about not writing.

–from an interview with The Paris Review

On what kinds of books to read:

I need to care about and be touched by what I read. I can’t care about a book that has nothing to contribute to the wisdom project. And I’m a sucker for a fancy prose style. To put it less giddily, my model for prose is poet’s prose; many of the writers I most admire were poets when young or could have been poets. Nothing theoretical in all that. In fact, my taste is irrepressibly catholic. I shouldn’t care to be prevented from doting on Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt and Didion’s Democracy, Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk and Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father.

–from an interview with The Paris Review

On writing as self-expression (or not):

Writing is a mysterious activity. One has to be at different stages of conception and execution, in a state of extreme alertness and consciousness and in a state of great naivete and ignorance, Although this is probably true of the practice of any art, it may be more true of writing because the writer—unlike the painter or composer—works in a medium that one employs all the time, throughout one’s waking life. Kafka said: “Conversation takes the importance, the seriousness, the truth out of everything I think.” I would guess that most writers are suspicious of conversation, of what goes out in the ordinary uses of language. People deal with this in different ways. Some hardly talk at all. Others play games of concealment and avowal, as I am, no doubt, playing with you. There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment. A life-long commitment to writing involves a balancing of these incompatible needs. But I do think that the model of writing as self-expression is much too crude. If I thought that what I’m doing when I write is expressing myself, I’d junk my typewriter. It wouldn’t be liveable-with. Writing is a much more complicated activity than that.

from an interview with Geoffrey Movius

On what good writers ought to do:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

And . . . if you’ll allow me one more: “Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you would be definitively exalted and influenced by Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Chekhov.

from Sontag’s “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning”

On the uses of the writer to the world:

One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.

Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference—for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences—experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted—made cynical, superficial—by this understanding.

–from Sontag’s speech after being awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2003

On writing the self:

To write mainly about myself seems to me a rather indirect route to what I want to write about. Though my evolution as a writer has been toward more freedom with the “I,” and more use of my private experience, I have never been convinced that my tastes, my fortunes and misfortunes have any particularly exemplary character. My life is my capital, the capital of my imagination. I like to colonize.

–from an interview with Geoffrey Movius

On art as salvation:

To me, literature is a calling, even a kind of salvation. It connects me with an enterprise that is over 2,000 years old. What do we have from the past? Art and thought. That’s what lasts. That’s what continues to feed people and give them an idea of something better. A better state of one’s feelings or simply the idea of a silence in one’s self that allows one to think or to feel. Which to me is the same.

–from a 1992 interview with Leslie Garis

On how to be a writer:

It’s lunacy. . . You have to be obsessed. People write me all the time, or get in touch with me about “what should I do if I want to be a writer?” I say well, do you really want to be a writer? It’s not like something you’d want to be—it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed.

Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument, and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were. Why can’t people have this as an art activity? . . . But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery, obviously. You are both the slave and the task-master, and it’s a very driven thing.

–from a 1992 talk given at the 92nd Street Y

And just for our collective joy:

Photo by Annie Leibovitz

Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published November 15, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.