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Writing Wisdom from Anne Carson: “It is Very Fun to Delete Stuff”

And other insights from one of our greatest living writers.

Literary Hub

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Anne Carson is unique in the literary world. First of all, no one knows what to call her—she’s a poet, a verse-novelist, an essayist, a scholar, a translator, a professor, an experimenter, an inventor of forms. She is almost blindingly brilliant, both on the page and in interviews, but seems to think nothing of it. She harbors a longtime desire to be Oscar Wilde, but she is already much better. Her work, in whatever form, and whatever you want to call it, achieves that rarest of things: it is formally cutting-edge, experimental, and intellectually challenging—but also deeply moving. Obviously I want to learn how she does it. Perhaps you feel similarly. Carson rarely gives specific writing advice, and doesn’t even necessarily answer questions she was asked in ways that make sense to laypeople, but she does often speak beautifully about the process of writing and form-making. Do yourself a favor and revel in some of her literary wisdom.

Make problems for yourself:

Set yourself a problem which, in addressing it, will lead you to problems you didn’t set and couldn’t have dreamed up.

–from a 2016 interview with awesome high school lit mag Deltona Howl

Look at your ideas from multiple angles:

[My brain is] a basket of stuff that eventually looks like it has some informing idea. Then I grope around in it to see what that is, try different orderings and different concepts and then fix on one.

–as quoted in a 2006 profile at The Guardian

Try collaboration:

[Collaboration] works for me insofar as I can stand out of the center of whatever the work is. So I’m not organizing or directing or the fulcrum of it. . . . It allows me not to be anxious, which allows for invention. It’s a looser place than the center.

–in a 2004 interview with The Paris Review

Don’t worry about formal genre categories:

You write what you want to write in the way that it has to be.

–as quoted in a 2006 profile at The Guardian

Don’t shy away from the delete key:

Edit ferociously and with joy, it is very fun to delete stuff.

–from a 2016 interview with awesome high school lit mag Deltona Howl

Think of your poems as things:

Making a poem is making an object. I always thought of them more as drawings than as texts, but drawings that are also physically enterable through the fact of language. It was another way to think of a book, an object that is as visually real as it is textually real.

–as told to Eleanor Wachtel at a Montreal literary festival in 2016

Cultivate your own voice:

If I read somebody and I think, Wow, I’d really like to do that, I stop reading them because I don’t want to be an imitator. I have a monkey side; I could easily just imitate, which becomes parodic. Parodic because I really don’t want to become that person and the only relationship you can have to someone you want to imitate and not become is parody. But I do like, for example, Mavis Gallant, and I try not to read Mavis Gallant when I’m also writing because I’d just seep into her. So while I don’t have a sense of trying to craft a voice, I do have a sense of trying to avoid blending in with anyone else’s.

–in a 2004 interview with The Paris Review

Push language to its furthest possibilities (like the Greeks):

There is something about the way that Greek poets, say Aeschylus, use metaphor that really attracts me. I don’t think I can imitate it, but there’s a density to it that I think I’m always trying to push towards in English. It’s a kind of compacting of metaphor, without a concern for making sense … it’s just on the edge of sense and on the edge of the way language should operate.

–as quoted in a 2006 profile at The Guardian

Trust the reader:

He has a good sense of humour, Herodotus. But I think he’s not kidding. He does hand over opinions, as well as facts, and he doesn’t try to distinguish too much among opinions as to the good ones and the bad ones. He trusts the reader to do that. An admirable tolerance. . . I think in [Nox], or in everything I write, there is an attempt at tolerance, to put down as much as I can figure out and let the reader make what sense they make.

–in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel for Brick

Focus on making connections:

The things you think of to link are not in your control. It’s just who you are, bumping into the world. But how you link them is what shows the nature of your mind. Individuality resides in the way links are made. . . . You know, I could list things I saw but that’s not why I put them together, that would be an afterthought. I put them together by accident. And that’s fine, I’m happy to do things by accident. But what’s interesting to me is once the accident has happened, once I happen to have Simonides and Paul Celan on my desk together, what do I do with the link? What I do with it depends on all the thoughts I’ve had in my life up to that point and who I am at that point. It could be Simonides and celery, it doesn’t matter; it only matters insofar as I’m going to make a work of art out of it. It seems totally arbitrary on the one hand and on the other, totally particular about who I am as a thinker.

–in a 2004 interview with The Paris Review

Keep going back to your original idea—and even the paper where you first jotted it down:

[My work] does fall apart a lot. It gets just too weird for anyone to care about reading, or else it gets diluted into a sort of parody of itself. Intuition is the only way to keep on the line between them. And also focusing back on to the first time the idea came into your head has some kind of pristine conviction that it gradually loses. . . Because there’s something almost magically convincing about that piece of paper. The same words typed on a nice clean piece of paper wouldn’t have whatever it is—fidelity, to your original thought.

–as quoted in a 2006 profile at The Guardian

Capture the world around you:

[George Eliot] is good at evening, too. It’s like she describes the weather in the morning when the chapter starts and dusk when it ends.

Yes, and that’s the reason why I find Chinese and Japanese poetry satisfying. Because it seems to have the same aim. In fact, it’s their whole mechanism of insight into reality, to capture something of the phenomenal moment and then let that exude a meaning larger than the moment. I think that’s some kind of final achievement in writing. Which in my practice gets all messed up with also trying to describe my mother or my socks or my love life, but I think if I were a better person, I could get all that out of there and just describe the weather, the snow or the moment of light and it would be a better work of art.

–in a 2004 interview with The Paris Review

Keep working, even if you don’t know what, exactly, you’re working on:

I write to find out what I think about something.

–in a 2004 interview with The Paris Review

Not knowing what one is doing is no prohibition on doing it. We all grope ahead.

–as quoted in a 2006 profile at The Guardian

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

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published June 21, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.