The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Joan Didion on Creative Process

Joan Didion sat down with the Paris Review in 1977. In this great interview she talks about her process and the importance of a good first sentence.


I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I've done that day. I can't do it late in the afternoon because I'm too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I'm really working I don't like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don't have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I'm in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I'm near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That's one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn't leave you when you're asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.


What's so hard about that first sentence is that you're stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you've laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.


The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.


Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That's how it should be, but it doesn't always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you're eliminating possibilities. Unless you're Henry James.

Read the rest here.

Writers' Reel: Interview With Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Today on The Mark Blog we have the only full version of an interview with the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

"The two things that people always want to ask me...

...How I ever came to write the Sherlock Holmes stories... the other is about how I came to have psychic experiences..."




Bookmark this article from The Atlantic: Prodigy envy isn't a new thing. The article states, "Young writers have always been angsty about the ever-waning time left to become a literary wunderkind."

"The feeling of having hoped you'd be further along by age x is pretty common, whether the yardstick is in financial success or artistic achievement and critical acclaim (and often young writers aren't sure which they value more). This is evidently one of the reasons the coming of Girls has been such an emotional experience for viewers with literary or artistic aspirations: Character Hannah Horvath is going through a rough time becoming the "voice of [her] generation." But the star and the creator of the show, Lena Dunham, has just won her second Golden Globe Award, writes off and on for the New Yorker, and received a $3.7 million advance to write a book for Random House. She's 26. Jeez, what have the rest of us been doing?"

Read the full article here.

Writers' Reel: Footage of Mark Twain

Today on the Writers' Reel we have the only known film footage of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, best known for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Bookmark This: Maya Angelou on Editing

Today on The Mark Blog Maya Angelou shares some funny and very wise unsolicited advice on editing. This excerpt was taken from her Paris Review interview in 1990.

The full interview can be found here. 

"I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop—I'm a serious cook—and pretend to be normal. I play sane—Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I've done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That's the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn't work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them—fifty acceptable pages—it's not too bad. I've had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you're right. So what? Don't ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I've kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one's own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important."

Writers' Reel: Rare Film Clips of Anne Sexton

Today's Writers' Reel is a video compilation of some of Anne Sexton's poetry readings alongside a few brief insights into the poet's life.

"It was (because of) her therapy that she started to write poetry, initially at the suggestion of her therapist. It was to prove her lifeline."

Bookmark This: Geoff Dyer on How to Write Fiction


"Writing is a natural process – we're all geared up to do it." - Geoff Dyer

Today's Bookmark is an article from The Guardian featuring Geoff Dyer and his tips on how to write fiction:

The great thing about this cat – the writing one – is that there are a thousand different ways to skin it. In fact, you don't have to skin it at all – and it doesn't even need to be a cat! What I mean, in the first instance, is feel free to dispute or ignore everything in this introduction or in the articles that follow. As Tobias Wolff puts it in his masterly novel Old School: "For a writer there is no such thing as an exemplary life … Certain writers do good work at the bottom of a bottle. The outlaws generally write as well as the bankers, though more briefly. Some writers flourish like opportunistic weeds by hiding among the citizens, others by toughing it out in one sort of desert or another."

To read the full article, click here.

Writers' Reel: David Rakoff's Final Book

Today on the Writers' Reel: David Rakoff's final book.

From the incomparable David Rakoff comes Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish, a poignant, beautiful, witty and wise novel in verse that spans the 20th Century.

David Rakoff, who died earlier this year, built a deserved reputation as one of the finest and funniest essayists of our time. Written with humour, sympathy and tenderness, this intricately woven novel proves him to be the master of an altogether different art form.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish leaps cities and decades as Rakoff, a Canadian who became an American citizen, sings the song of his adoptive homeland--a country whose freedoms can be intoxicating, or brutal. Here the characters' lives are linked to each other by acts of generosity or cruelty. A critic once called Rakoff "magnificent," a word which perfectly describes this wonderful novel in verse.






Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with archetypal characters.  Just to be straight on the terminology:  archetype as in stock characters.  Archetype as in the way Carl Gustav Jung thought of archetypes, represented in people around the world, in the collective unconscious.  To borrow from “In Jungian psychology, a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.  Jung defined many of these types.  Examples include the sage, the jester, the magician, the rebel, the lover, the explorer, the hero, just to name a few.” 

In some ways, archetypal characters are important because they help the mind categorize.  The reader may think, Oh! That’s what type of person this character is at their core, Archetypes may help the reader identify the people who populate the page.  Also, since each person has one or more archetypes operating inside them, the reader can identify with the characters as well.  However, the danger in these types of stock characters is that they risk becoming too predictable, too blasé.   Characters need to rise above any sort of label.  Otherwise they’re two-dimensional and fall flat on the page.  You can start with an archetype, but then you need to flesh them out, make them real.  Just like people, characters are individuals with pasts.  Characters rise above stock status when details and specifics are given, and when their actions become their own, not what is expected of them.
There’s a red flag I try to keep in mind.  If a character isn’t surprising me, if I know exactly what they’d say and do in any given circumstance, then I need to examine him or her.  Chances are, I’m relying on their archetype to carry me through the story.  What to do?  Sometimes I do character-building exercises, writing in a notebook.  An example of a prompt is:  What is inside this character’s purse or brief case or satchel?  Why?  Another exercise I’ve used is to write a two-page story starring the character in question, and see where it goes. In telling this story, I imagine the most painful thing that has happened to this person, then write about the character handling this situation.  Lastly, reading any part of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri always inspires me and points me in the right direction where character is concerned.
Now that it’s summer, I’ve been catching up on my long list of things I’d like to do.  Today I listened to Mark instructor Antoine Wilson interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm.  Mr. Silverblatt observed that the main character in Antoine’s latest novel, Panorama City, plays the role of the sacred fool archetype (also known as the jester).  However, as Oopen, the main character, navigates through obstacles and changes, he transcends this role. It’s a fascinating interview, and I highly recommend it.
Summer reading has been another thing I’ve been catching up on.  Yesterday I finished Middlesex.  Jeffrey Eugenides has a miraculous way of weaving in exposition without crowbarring it into the prose.  Next up:  The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge.  I started it today.   Before I knew it I had read the first three chapters without glancing at the clock.  Crisp, clear writing that’s layered with strong metaphor in an unassuming way.  I found myself rereading parts to see how the writer pulled it off.  After that:  Midnight Rumba by Eduardo Santiago, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, and Hermie Lehman’s Fixing Time by Jeff Radt.  Cannot wait.

Bookmark This: 3 Tips on Overcoming Learning Plateaus from David Foster Wallace

This week's Bookmark is taken from 99U, a Webby Award-winning website whose effort is to provide a "missing curriculum" for making ideas happen.

In several passages from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a tennis coach cautions his pupils on three psychological traps that are essential to avoid in continuing to improve toward tennis mastery and to progress from one learning plateau to the next. Whether you’re playing tennis, improving your own craft, or trying to overcome writer's block, navigating these plateaus could be key to reaching your full potential.

Check out the 99U article here.