Don’t Hand Me A Yellow Volkswagen

The Writers Almanac tells a story about Frank Conroy today. 

Once, while directing the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Conroy scolded a student for using irrelevant details in her short story. He said…

The author makes a tacit deal with the reader. You hand them a backpack. You ask them to place certain things in it — to remember, to keep in mind — as they make their way up the hill. If you hand them a yellow Volkswagen and they have to haul this to the top of the mountain…

What is a Poet?

What is a poet? A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music. . . . And men crowd about the poet and say to him, “Sing for us again;” that is as much to say, “May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be formed as before; for the cries would only frighten us but the music is delicious.”

Søren Kierkegaard

Hemingway on Writing

A writer’s problem does not change. He himself changes and the world he lives in changes but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes part of the experience of the person who reads it.

— Ernest Hemingway

The writing bug has been tickling my fingertips again. What do I know to be true? And, having discovered what I know to be true, how do I explain it in such a way that the person who reads it understands it?

Stay tuned . . .

A Few Good Men

Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.

We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise I suggest you pick a weapon and stand a post.

— Aaron Sorkin, monologue by Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men.

No apologies. This quote is simply a guilty pleasure.

More Steinbeck on Writing

Sometimes in a man or a woman an awareness takes place — not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplainable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through.

— John Steinbeck, Journals of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

This is another installment from Steinbeck’s journals written as he was giving birth to East of Eden. It has echos from my Julian Schnabel quote when he said “That is true about all art. The conflict is to try and take what is inside of you and put it inside somebody else.”

Steinbeck on Writing

I think there is only one book to a man. It is true that a man may change or be so warped that he becomes another man and has another book but I do not think that it is so with me.

— John Steinbeck, Journals of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

East of Eden was the first book that I read by Steinbeck. It was moving and well written and rich with characters. Then I discovered Journals of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters and suddenly I felt I had been given a back stage pass to the mind of a writer.

Steinbeck had already written Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939) when he set out to write East of Eden (1951). In the intervening years he lived through two divorces and served as a war correspondent. Despite the critical success of his earlier works, his standing as a major novelist had faded. As today’s quote reveals, Steinbeck also felt that he had not yet told the one story that was within him. His editor, Pascal Covici, did all that he could to encourage Steinbeck. Covici sent Steinbeck a number of notebooks and instructed Steinbeck to use them to write.


Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they are written.

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I have always been a deliberate reader. When I stumbled across this quote while reading Walden so many years ago, it simply gave me permission to enjoy the pace at which I read. Good writing is more than just conveying ideas or recounting a story. Good writing creates a mood, and images, and evokes emotions — and these cannot be digested while speed reading.

One of my favorite writers is Pat Conroy, and my favorite book of his is Prince of Tides. When I read this poetic prose I am drawn in to the rich and colorful images Conroy is able to create. Every sentence feels like a sculpture carefully crafted.

You ask me why I spend my life writing

You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worthwhile?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason? …

I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still.

— Sylvia Plath

For ten years during my late twenties and early thirties I kept a journal. I started writing modestly in college and it eventually grew into such a compulsion that I would often write for hours a day. The pen seemed to have a mind of its own. Sometimes I would start a sentence not knowing where it was going, only to be amazed at the journey that it would launch. Even as computers started to enter my life, I wrote everything longhand. There was something magic about the connection between my thoughts and the paper, linked through the pen clasped in my fingertips.