What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten?
The novelist Alison Lurie said that when writing a novel I would have to find a “passive gear” and let my characters take over the story and surprise me. I have found that suggestion useful again and again.
How do you get yourself back on track if you’ve gone down a blind alley in your writing?
When I reach a block in a story, I have found two things that are helpful. One is to ask myself why I was interested in the character and situation in the first place. Go back to the beginning and that will often bring the story alive again. Also when I reach an impasse in a story, I can have an “act of God” happen, a terrible storm strikes, a truck goes out of control and crashes into a house, the power goes off. The characters have to respond to the emergency, and the story continues.
How does a writer know when to listen to feedback and when to be true to his own vision?
Every reader will have different ideas about a work. Too many opinions can be confusing. But some readers you trust more than others. Ultimately you have to trust your own judgment and take responsibility for a work. It’s your baby and you have to follow your vision and instinct. That never gets easier.
What things do you always try to teach your students?
The first thing you always tell a writing class is that writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned. Like any art, writing is only learned by doing, by writing and writing. I use the analogy of athletics. How do you become a good basketball player? By practicing and practicing and playing and playing. For the young writer it is often a matter of confidence. One can’t write unless he or she believes he or she can write. Anything that builds up confidence is good, knowing you have written one really effective sentence, one exchange of dialogue, one surprising insight into a character.
The more you write the more you appreciate revision, having the chance to go back and improve what you have done. It has been said that the first draft is the falling in love, and the revision is the marriage. Writing good dialogue may be the hardest part of writing a story. I tell students to listen to their characters and read what they have written aloud, act what you have written to see if it works. Then cut out half of the dialogue, leaving only what is absolutely necessary to move the story forward.
Acting and fiction writing are very similar. The most important thing I ever learned about fiction writing is that a story is about the characters and their world, not about the author. A story is not about the opinions of the author. Get into the imaginative world of your characters and let them show you how to tell their story. . . . I tell writing students to never be caught writing. You are telling a story; don’t sound like you are writing it.
My advice to writing classes can be summed up in one word: persistence. Those who succeed are those who keep trying. The one who goes back to revise a rejected manuscript is the one who becomes a writer.
Robert Morgan’s Gap Creek was a New York Times bestseller. It was selected for the Southern Book Critics Circle Fiction Award in 2000, was chosen as a Notable Book by The New York Times, and was an Oprah Book Club pick. Morgan’s latest novel, The Road From Gap Creek, introduces readers to a new generation of the beloved Roberts family, a moving and indelible portrait of the change amidst the Great Depression and World War II. A native of North Carolina, Morgan currently lives in Ithaca, New York, where he is Kappa Alpha Professor of English at Cornell University. The Road From Gap Creek is available now.