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William H. Gass’s Advice for Writers: “You Have to be Grimly Determined.”

His work is invested in exploring the possibilities of literature as a form, in cadence, in sound, in weight and rhythm—which makes it sometimes impenetrable but often transcendent.

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William H. Gass, author of Omensetter’s Luck, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Middle C, died in 2017 at the age of 93 at his home in St. Louis. Gass was a boundary-breaking experimental writer (please read In the Heart of the Heart of the Country) as well as a critic, essayist and philosophy professor. Most importantly, Gass was a reigning master of the art of the sentence, and every one he wrote, he wrote with singular purpose. “If I am anything as a writer, that is what I am: a stylist,” he told The Paris Review. “I am not a writer of short stories or novels or essays or whatever. I am a writer, in general. I am interested in how one writes anything.” His work is invested in exploring the possibilities of literature as a form, in cadence, in sound, in weight and rhythm—which makes it sometimes impenetrable but often transcendent. To celebrate his life and art, here are a few of Gass’s instructions for writers and thoughts about the craft.

Put all those nasty thoughts you have to use:

“If someone asks me, “Why do you write?” I can reply by pointing out that it is a very dumb question. Nevertheless, there is an answer. I write because I hate. A lot. Hard. And if someone asks me the inevitable next dumb question, “Why do you write the way you do?” I must answer that I wish to make my hatred acceptable because my hatred is much of me, if not the best part. Writing is a way of making the writer acceptable to the world—every cheap, dumb, nasty thought, every despicable desire, every noble sentiment, every expensive taste.”

from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.

Be stubborn, even in the face of rejection:

“I was turned down for ten years. I couldn’t get a thing in print. My writing went nowhere. I guess you have to be persistent. Talent is just one element of the writing business. You also have to have a stubborn nature. That’s rarer even than the talent, I think. You have to be grimly determined. I certainly was disappointed; I got upset. But you have to go back to the desk again, to the mailbox once more, and await your next refusal.”

—from a 1995 interview with BOMB.

Get even:

“Getting even is one great reason for writing. The precise statement of the motive is tricky, but the clearest expression of my unwholesome nature and my mean motives (apart from trying to write well) appears in a line I like in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” The character says, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” . . . I also take considerable pleasure in giving obnoxious ideas the best expression I can. But getting even isn’t necessarily vicious. There are two ways of getting even: one is destructive and the other is restorative. It depends on how the scales are weighted. Justice, I think, is the word I want.”

—from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.

See around your subject:

“Even an ideologically driven artist who is working well has got to see all around the subject. Oh, he can create a character who speaks brilliantly from a half-baked point of view, but he cannot create a drama of conflict between points of view unless he can imaginatively put himself in two positions. . . . Any work of art is going to be dangerous to a point of view. If you are an artist, you have to see not only why you can’t walk on air, but also why people who think you can, think so. Art objects are inhospitable to secure truths. People who are fearful of protecting their own truth can’t have them around.”

from a 1991 interview with Arthur M. Saltzman.

Write what you need, when you need it:

“At a certain level, prose simply makes statements. There are times when all you need to know is that it is raining, but a hell of a lot more is going on. And there are other times when you’ve got to get into every raindrop. And sometimes the sentence has to do that.”

from a 1991 interview with Arthur M. Saltzman.

Keep a rigorous schedule for work and live:

“Compel yourself to write several hours every day no matter how bad you feel. Eat well three times a day. Ceremoniously. Candles at dinner time. Habits like iron. They will serve as a reward for writing several hours every day no matter how awful you feel. Read the newspaper. It will make you properly angry about everything. Regularly.”

from Publisher’s Weekly.

Don’t write performatively:

“I think contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going on, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying. The new mode is not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye, getting references and gists; you are supposed to see it flowing on the page, and not sound it in the head. If you do sound it, it is so bad you can hardly proceed. It can’t all have been written by Dreiser, but it sounds like it. Gravity’s Rainbow was written for print, J.R. was written by the mouth for the ear. By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write.”

—from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.

Write for the sake and art of writing:

“For me the only thing that the writer can discover is things about the art itself. If I discover anything at all, which I generally doubt, it would be something about the art, and the aim of writing for me is to advance the art of writing, and that is what, for example, it seems to me, Nabokov is all about, what Beckett is all about, too. The themes, the obsessions that writers have, are absolutely essential to the long process of writing novels. It is such a long-term job, it involves such an enormous commitment of energy, that the whole person has to be bound up with it, so that there’s got to be all kinds of personal idiosyncratic motives. These, however, don’t really supply the fuel; they don’t make the books good or interesting or anything else. What you indeed discover in reading a book, I think, is basically what the art is, what the art can do about itself.”

—from a 1979 interview with G.A.M. Janssens.

“It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word.”

—from On Being Blue

Sound is everything:

“I think that what often makes writers is a continued sense of the marvelous palpable quality of making words and sounding them. My God, how Beckett has it. I have a very strong feeling about that love of making sounds. . . . When work is going well for me—which is rarely—I have a clear metrical sense of sound and pace. This whole problem is vital. When one section is singing, it sings the rest.”

—from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.

Revise, revise, revise:

Something gets on paper, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised. And then I’m finally at the end.

—from a 2005 interview with The Believer.

I write slowly because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity. Time can give you a good critical perspective, and I often have to go slow so that I can look back on what sort of botch of things I made three months ago. Much of the stuff which I will finally publish, with all its flaws, as if it had been dashed off with a felt pen, will have begun eight or more years earlier, and worried and slowly chewed on and left for dead many times in the interim.

—from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.

Don’t write for anybody:

“I don’t think much about the reader. Ways of reading are adversaries—those theoretical ways. As far as writing something is concerned, the reader really doesn’t exist. The writer’s business is somehow to create in the work something which will stand on its own and make its own demands; and if the writer is good, he discovers what those demands are, and he meets them, and creates this thing which readers can then do what they like with. Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers,” and then eventually she said that she wrote only for herself. I think she should have taken one further step. You don’t write for anybody. People who send you bills do that. People who want to sell you things so they can send you bills do that. People who want to tell you things so they can sell you things so they can send you bills do that. You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do.”

—from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.

Don’t write what you know:

Too many writers write about their lives. It’s easier, and it’s seductive, and it can be catastrophic. “It happened to me, and therefore it must be interesting.” You know, that’s sort of awful.

from a 2011 interview with Tin House.

Sacrifice your mind for your art:

“What is psychologically best for a writer is what produces his best work. I suspect that in order for me to produce my best work I have to be angry. At least I find that easy. I am angry all the time.”

from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.

But also protect it:

“Stay away from the machinery of the modern world. It will ruin your imagination. It will shape a heart break and make demands of their own kinds. . . . Stay away from pop music. It is too crudely percussive. Sounds like gun fire. We [already] have enough of that.”

from Publisher’s Weekly.

Don’t write to teach:

“I don’t believe in the novel that teaches. When you’re teaching, you’re engaged with something other than yourself. When you’re writing novels, you’re bringing things mainly out of yourself. You may be trying to make something that’s not autobiographical or self-reflective, but it’s made out of your character like a cake from flour. The consciousness it constructs may not be your everyday consciousness; nevertheless, it comes from your depths and not someone else’s. Whereas when you’re teaching you’re engaged with texts; it’s a different kind of thing.”

—from a 1981 interview with Jan Garden Castro. 

Take sentences seriously:

“We must take our sentences seriously, which means we must understand them philosophically, and the odd thing is that the few who do, who take them with utter sober seriousness, the utter sober seriousness of right-wing parsons and political saviors, the owners of Pomeranians, are the liars who want to be believed, the novelists and poets, who know that the creatures they imagine have no other being than the sounding syllables which the reader will speak into his own weary and distracted head. There are no magic words. To say the words is magic enough.”

—from “The Ontology of the Sentence.”

“Actually, you have a little story, even in a sentence. For me, formally, the sentence is a narrative in the sense of what word comes after what, that whole linear progression. So I have to read the words that way. Then with my mind, I am bringing back everything in the predicate to the subject and making the modifications that have these various pieces that make whole sense of the sentence or paragraph, or whatever it is. And then it’s the narration that gets complicated, because narration at that level is just “Shall I put Goliath first in ‘David slew Goliath,’ or’ Goliath was slain by David?’ And of course, the grammarian isn’t going to help you there, because they think that the passive voice is, first of all, weak. But why weak? They don’t even know. And they don’t see the tremendous difference between those two sentences. They tell a different story.”

from a 2011 interview with Tin House.

Be patient:

“The real writing process is simply sitting there and typing the same old lines over and over and over and over and sheet after sheet after sheet gets filled with the same shit. And then I discard or abandon material for weeks, months, during which time I start something new. Usually I have a great many projects going at the same time—in the sense that a start of some sort has been made.”

—from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.

Put art and form before emotion:

“Most poets fail . . . because they bewail their state instead of describing it; they evaluate their feelings instead of forming them; and although they believe their joys and sorrows should be known, they are unable or unwilling to transform their consciousness into an adequate poetic language, they fail to make of their poem “a thing” that can sit in the world as fat and steamy as a teapot, or in the way, in Peter Jaffe’s poem, the apple simply lay.”

—from A Temple of Texts.

Don’t despair:

“Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any. Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.”

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published December 7, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.