In his autobiography, The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography, Philip Roth says he was a bad fiction writer in college.  He wanted to be a famous novelist.  But his writing mimicked his favorite authors more than it revealed his own creative thinking.


He describes what I'm calling "creative thinking" as thought that leads you, rather than you willfully leading it.  Instinct leads a novelist's storyline more than will does.  Of course, everything a writer has studied or planned does inform where his pen goes, but the writing itself takes on a logic that overpowers the author's first intentions.  Roth says something similar in his autobiography: "For me, as for most novelists, every genuine imaginative event begins down there, with the facts, with the specific, and not with the philosophical, the ideological, or the abstract."  That is: creativity begins with an image and not with your thought of that image. 


A novelist gets an image--say, of a coffee shop.  The logic of the coffee shop--with its people and what it serves and where it is and what the prices are--leads to a scene.  Fiction writing means tracing a relationship between objects which emerges through the author's attention to how those things operate in the world.


Roth said that in college, he wanted to write like Kafka or Dostoevsky, so he kept leaving his own world--its "facts" or people and their voices--out of his writing.  In contrast, when he was simply killing time with friends, away from the intimidating writing desk, he could talk with detail about his own life in Newark, about being Jewish, about the people around him: "I [talked about] someone's shady uncle the bookie and someone's sharpie son the street-corner bongo player and of the comics Stinky and Shorty, whose routines I'd learned at the Empire Burlesque in downtown Newark.  The stories I told...were about...the tiny immigrant Seltzer King and the amazing appetite--for jokes, pickles, pinochle, everything--of our family friend the 300-pound bon vivant Apple King, while the stories I wrote, set absolutely nowhere, were mournful little things about sensitive children, sensitive adolescents, and sensitive young men crushed by coarse life.  The stories were intended to be 'touching'; without entirely knowing it, I wanted through my fiction to become 'refined.' ...I wanted to show that life was sad and poignant, even while I was experiencing it as heady and exhilarating; I wanted to demonstrate that I was 'compassionate,' a totally harmless person."  Roth claims it was his desire to embody another time and place, to be famous in history and not Philip Roth in Newark, that suffocated his own instinct to follow a storyline as it might emerge from his own unique life experience.


Roth describes the ideal writing stance as one that is not polite or intentional.  A fiction writer lets one image lead to another image, so that the author is following that relationship, ready to see sides of his own life that he represses when he's trying to present just one theory of things.


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by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎09-10-2009 01:39 PM

I'm glad Roth changed his writing style - the Jewish boy from Jersey is more fun to read than a 20th century Dostoyevsky imitation.

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎09-10-2009 06:29 PM

Hi Melissa,

Thanks for the reply.  I'm in the middle of my own fiction-writing attempt these days, and I'm seeing just how darn hard it is to separate "my life" from "what I've read."  I start to write a scene--and I have no idea what's real and what simply feels real because I've read about it so often.  Do you know what I mean?

by on ‎09-10-2009 08:09 PM

Ha!  Join the club!  Try writing something you don't know anything about....let your characters lead you...good advice for some.  Other writers say no...they want total control. Start to finish.  I personally don't think you CAN have total control...but I won't argue these fine each finds his/her own way.


Good luck and have fun, Ilana... Oh, and thanks for the poked open a storyline idea I had in my head today!  I wonder if you can sell ideas?  Hmm.



by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎09-11-2009 12:13 AM

I know exactly what you mean, Ilana.  I write something and then think, Haven't I read that somewhere before?  phooey

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎09-11-2009 07:00 PM

Hi Melissa,

I wanted to edit my note to you, but didn't yet get around to it.  I think I (also) meant to say that as a kid in college, I also wanted to be a Dostoevsky or a Kafka, so I molded my identity to some unseen Russian writer-hero.  Now when I write, I don't even know when I'm being what others would call "fake."  My fake sometimes feels authentic.  phhooooey.

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