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There is Such a Thing as Talent: Elizabeth Hardwick on Writing

The brilliant novelist and essayist tells it like it is.

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To celebrate the brilliance of Elizabeth Hardwick, the best thing to do is to pick up a copy of Sleepless Nights, or perhaps her Collected Essays, and find a quiet corner in which to read them. This may, however, leave you wondering how such literary magic is possible, and maybe even wishing you had a small compilation of Hardwick’s comments about the art and the making of it. Such wisdom is relatively hard to come by—she was not in the habit of tossing off literary bon mots or making sweeping statements about what every young writer must do—but just for you, I have found and collected some of it here. All things considered, the more Hardwick one reads, the better.

On beginnings:

“It takes many things to make a work of fiction, but I suppose it is true that there is a kind of starting point in the mind, a point that may be different for each piece of work. Sometimes I have had the impulse to begin fiction from a single line I had in my head. . . . I remember that I started writing Sleepless Nights because of a single line. The line was: ‘Now I will start my novel, but I don’t know whether to call myself I or she.’”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On why we write essays:

“You’re not writing an essay to give a résumé of the plots. You choose to write because you think you have something fresh to say on a topic. That is, if you’re writing from choice and not just as a journeyman doing a job. Perhaps it’s true that in reading certain works, not all works, I do sometimes enter a sort of hallucinatory state and I think I see undercurrents and light in dark places about the imagined emotions and actions. This often stimulates me to write, particularly about novels.”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On the muse:

“Those with the least gift are the most anxious to receive a commission. It seems to them that there lies waiting a topic, a new book, a performance, and that this is known as material. The true prose writer knows there is nothing given, no idea, no text or play seen last evening, until an assault has taken place, the forced domination that we call ‘putting it in your own words.’ Talking about, thinking about a project bears little relation to the composition; enthusiasm boils down with distressing speed to a paragraph, often one of mischievous banality. To proceed from musing to writing is to feel a robbery has taken place. And certainly there has been a loss; the loss of the smiles and ramblings and discussions so much friendlier to ambition than the cold hardship of writing.”

–from “Its Only Defense: Intelligence and Sparkle,” in The New York Timesin 1986

On writing to discover:

“As for writing fiction, well, you don’t have any primary text, of course. You have to create that, and yet the struggle seems to be to uncover things by language, to find out what you mean and feel by the sheer effort of writing it down. By expression you discover what you wish to express or what can be expressed, by you. Things that are vague in the beginning have to be made concrete. Often, what you thought was the creative idea ahead of you vanishes or becomes something else.”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On naming the narrator of Sleepless Nights after herself:

“Without using my own name I could not have written the book. I wanted to be free to reflect, to see in my own language, without disguise. I didn’t want to say I was a writer, either, and make up unwritten tomes for myself. Obviously the Elizabeth is writing the book and is therefore some kind of writer. Most of all, I wanted to accommodate my reading, to compare, without clumsy explanation, a New York woman to the old lady mentioned in Herzen’s memoirs, the one who blamed Napoleon for the death of her favorite cow. It is very difficult in fiction to create a narrator who is not oneself and yet one who must somehow express one’s ideas and feelings.”

–in a 1979 interview with Richard Locke, published in The New York Times

On plot and sensibility:

“I don’t have many plots and perhaps as a justification I sometimes think: If I want a plot I’ll watch Dallas. I think [the opening paragraph of Sleepless Nights mostly concerns] mood. No, I mean tone. Tone arrived at by language. I can’t write a story or an essay until I can, by revision after revision, get the opening tone right. Sometimes it seems to take forever, but when I have it I can usually go on. It’s a matter of the voice, how you are going to approach the task at hand. It’s all language and rhythm and the establishment of the relation to the material, of who’s speaking, not speaking as a person exactly, but as a mind, a sensibility.”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On essays:

“We would not want to think of the essay as the country of old men, but it is doubtful that the slithery form, wearisomely vague and as chancy as trying to catch a fish in the open hand, can be taught. Already existing knowledge is so often required. Having had mothers and fathers and the usual miserable battering of the sense of self by life may arouse the emotional pulsations of a story or a poem; but feeling is not sufficient for the essay. Comparisons roam about it, familiarity with those who have plowed the field before, shrewdness concerning the little corner or big corner that may remain for the intrusion of one’s own thoughts. Tact and appropriateness play a part. How often we read a beginner’s review that compares a thin thing to a fat one. ‘John Smith, like Tolstoy, is very interested in the way men interact under the conditions of battle.’ Well, no. Fortunately, the essay is not a closed shop, and the pages do vibrate again and again with the appearance of a new name with no credentials admired or despised. An unknown practitioner of the peculiar animation of the prose of an essay takes up the cause. It is an occasion for happiness, since it is always astonishing that anyone will write an essay. Some write them not once but more or less regularly. To wake up in the morning under a command to animate the stones of an idea, the clods of research, the uncertainty of memory, is the punishment of the vocation. And all to be done without the aid of end rhyme and off rhyme and buried assonance; without an imagined character putting on a hat and going into the street.”

–from “Its Only Defense: Intelligence and Sparkle,” in The New York Timesin 1986

On the process of writing:

“I don’t know what I’m thinking about a particular thing until I have some kind of draft. It’s the actual execution that tells me what I want to say, what I always wanted to say when I started.

. . .

I’m not sure I understand the process of writing. There is, I’m sure, something strange about imaginative concentration. The brain slowly begins to function in a different way, to make mysterious connections. Say, it is Monday, and you write a very bad draft, but if you keep trying, on Friday, words, phrases, appear almost unexpectedly. I don’t know why you can’t do it on Monday, or why I can’t. I’m the same person, no smarter, I have nothing more at hand.”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On separating text from author:

“Of course the text is the object, the given, and the period is not often one’s own and if there is anything detestable it is the looking at fictional characters as if they were your friends. I have found that horrible inclination among students, more and more so. They don’t know the difference between calling a character ‘silly’ and realizing that they are reading a masterpiece of created, located, visionary ‘silliness.’ I think every reader and critic falls into a hallucinatory state and that is as true of the technocrats, the deconstructionists, as of any others.”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On whether writing gets any easier:

“For me, writing has not become easier after all these years. It is harder—perhaps because of the standards you set for your work. I suppose you have, by effort, a greater command than you imagine. The fact that writing remains so difficult is what puzzles.”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On what writing is really for:

“Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”

—from “Grub Street: New York,” in NYRB, 1963

On distractions:

“Nothing interferes with my own writing except my often irresolute character and of course the limitations of my talent.

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On whether writers should be concerned with “the issues of the times”:

“Not necessarily. Of course they usually are concerned with the issues of the times in some way. The variety and strangeness of literary works is amazing. You wake up one morning and someone’s done something a little bit new, something fresh and genuine, a new accent, quality of experience, way of composing and structuring. That’s very beautiful to me. I am very happy when I see an interesting, gifted struggle with fictional form. I know as well as the next person that many fine things use traditional methods of narration and there will be, naturally, much that is traditional in those who experiment. Here I am not talking about a great innovator like Joyce, but about lesser struggles. When I open a new work of fiction I like to notice the way it is constructed, to learn something from it. Like Milan Kundera’s latest novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The narrator comes in and out and yet the form shifts to stories, to feelings, actions the narrator could not have known. I think it is done successfully there. There is always the problem of who is seeing, who is thinking. I am excited when I feel the author is trying to cope with this dilemma—and it is often a compositional dilemma.”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On switching genres:

“Poets can, of course, write prose. They can write it as well or as ill as they write verse, although I think certain slothful and not very intelligent poets are more daring in mediocrity when they write prose, the prose of a review for instance. Sometimes these items on the passing scene show a distraction about word and idea more suitable to the shooing away of the family dog than to a compositional task. Still, when the habit of poetry exists, it will usually invade the poet’s prose with a natural suffusion of its peculiar ways. . . . Nothing is more striking to me than the casual prose of poets, with its quick and dashing informality, its mastery of the sudden and offhand, the free and thrown away. ‘The wretched, fishing jealousies of Leontes.’ Fishing? Yes. That is Coleridge.”

—from “The Magical Prose of Poets,” an essay on Elizabeth Bishop

On whether there are “there are special difficulties in being a woman writer”:

“Woman writer? A bit of a crunch trying to get those two words together . . . I guess I would say no special difficulty, just the usual difficulties of the arts.”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

On the complexity of novels:

“A novel is a long and complex creation. The parts bear a mysterious and clouded relation to the whole. The pages turn, one after another, and it is a distinguishing aspect of the novel that, around the next corner, almost anything can happen. We hardly know which to treasure most: expectation confounded or satisfied. A new chapter is a psychological shift and the interesting dislocations afforded by a flashback make great demands on the imagination. In the older works we were often grateful for the relief, the relaxation, as if for a short nap, brought to us by a sudden shift to the sub-plot.

In the novel, length is of obvious importance in excluding the merely anecdotal and in making a distinction from the short story. Yet the interesting thing about length is the calculation of its effects upon our mind, the way it dominates the art and defines its relation to the reader. How difficult it is to remember the mere incidents in a long work of fiction. Novelists themselves forget what has gone before. The passage of time need not be long to promote forgetfulness, nor the incident trivial. What indeed was Bulstrode’s crime in Middlemarch? If sometimes one cannot quite remember the shape of Bulstrode’s part in the plot, or even the final resolution of the Rosamund-Lydgate story, what can one mean when he says, with passion and conviction, that Middlemarchis a favorite novel? (Middlemarch is only an example; many great books are much more dense and clotted in incident than this one.)

. . .

So much of a novel, after all, is information, necessary fact that gives a floor of understanding from which the flights of inspiration are launched. Filler, stuffing, dressing: all are dutifully manufactured—or at least they were in the past. But many writers question the production of so much direction and advice, analysis and landscape. The machinery of fiction is simply ignored in Burroughs and Genet. Only the genius of Vladimir Nabokov keeps alive the rather disappointing development of a surrealistic fiction. The destructive power of Joyce had a peculiarly disguised effect upon the history of the novel. The effort to move along the same rubble-filled road did not prove practical and most novelists simply turned back as though nothing had happened, back to more or less regular sentences and to stories, fractured and not very ample, but stories nevertheless. Still, there is always an uneasiness about a retreat, a feeling of anxiety and guilt, and many good novels show a degree of panic about the form. Where to start and how to end, how much must be believed and how much a joke, a puzzle; how to combine the episodic and the carefully designed and consequential.”

—from “Reflections on Fiction,” published in the NYRB, 1969

On the one essential piece of equipment every writer must have:

“Well, you know, there is such a thing as talent, a bit of talent. I’ll leave it at that.”

–in a 1985 interview with Darryl Pinckney, published in The Paris Review

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 July 27, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.