‘Building Blocks’ for Writing – tips from Philip Roth

(If you’re looking for the Mini Saga competition, just scroll down a couple of posts to June 28th…. !)

If you caught The Book Review programme on BBC 2 last weekend (and it’s still on I-player until 8th July), you’ll have seen Kirsty Wark’s interview with legendary American writer, Philip Roth.

Roth has recently and controversially (one of the judges resigned in protest when he was chosen as the winner), won the International Man Booker prize and he’s one of those writers that you either love or hate but that you can’t ignore.

I must admit, I’ve only read one of his novels , ‘The Human Stain’ (and only because it was a book club choice). I can’t remember absolutely loving or hating it but it clearly didn’t inspire me to read any more! (I’d like to see the film though!). But I do feel I should try some more (can anyone make any recommendations?).

Roth has won more awards than you can shake a stick at, he’s often described as ‘One of America’s Greatest Writers’ and, in his late seventies, he’s still writing award-winning novels. So he must be doing something right.

In the interview with Kirsty Wark, I was struck by two things: one, that Philip Roth seemed really likeable (and I wasn’t expecting that. This is a man who’s been accused of all sorts – including anti-Semitism and misogyny) and secondly – and this is the bit I want to pass on to you – when he’s writing, Philip Roth gets stuck too!

In his study, Roth has what Kirsty described as a ‘child’s letter set’ on display. She asked him to explain why and he said that when he gets stuck or frustrated by writing and doesn’t know how to proceed, he tells himself to forget that he’s writing a book, ‘that the book is unimportant’. His goal (he tells himself), is ‘to write a sentence’ and then, within that sentence ‘just one word, attached to another’ and then, within that word, his goal is ‘just to attach one letter to another. That’s all you have to do’. Breaking it down like that, into childish terms, is his strategy. It comforts him when he becomes frustrated.

Kirsty Wark commented that viewers will be surprised to hear that Philip Roth, even now, ‘panics’. ‘Panic’, he laughed, ‘is probably over-stating it’. He doesn’t run around screaming, he admits but he does get ‘frustrated’.

Next time I get stuck and frustrated (which will probably be the next time I try to write!), I’m going to give that strategy a go.

“Writing has to be larger and darker and deeper than life.” – Philip Roth

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5 Responses to ‘Building Blocks’ for Writing – tips from Philip Roth

  1. raven26 says:

    That’s good advice. It’s easy to get stuck trying to overcome one obstacle rather than going around it and coming back, or as Roth suggests, break it down to its most basic component. Nice share!

  2. I think that Roth is right. I find the only way to tackle a bigger project is to see it as a series of small goals. I don’t go quite as far as saying that a single word or sentence is my goal. But it might be to force just one scene of my short story down on paper or get through a particularly awkward passage in an article. Sometimes looking at the thing as a whole is just too daunting!

  3. Alice says:

    I remember applying this strategy when I was trying to write tricky essays at school! I’d tell myself ‘If I can just get to the end of this sentance…’ and not think about the remaining 2000 words or so I needed to get through!
    If I stumble across a difficult bit when writing my fiction, I find that gritting my teeth and trying to get my thoughts down as quickly as possible works quite well. I usually cringe when I read it back but at least I have some raw material to work with!
    I’ll have to remember Roth’s approach as well as it certainly makes sense!
    Very interesting post.

    • Alice
      I agree, that writing down your thoughts and ideas as quickly as possible, without too much thinking, is a great way of at least ‘getting something down’. When you come back to it, you often find some ‘gems’ or something you can work with, amongst the rubbish! It’s better than a blank page, that’s for sure!

  4. David says:

    Roth is one of a small handful of America’s greatest living novelists. People can’t stand him because he’s a real artist. Barely suppressed resentment is a key element in many of his detractors. He has one of the most honest narrative voices of any fiction I’ve read, whether modern or Victorian or of any time or place. And that’s remarkable because he is himself his main subject. To be so honestly self-excoriating you have to have a fairly large ego. He’s always struck me as a frustrated–but frequently successful–genius, no more a misogynist than a misanthrope, and simply too overfilled with a love for life and people to be preoccupied by hatefulness. Of course, that hectic surfeit, that desire for more life, is probably what has led to what to outsiders and non-artists looks like an unhappy life, as well as to accusations of hatred and bigotry.
    When I look at the state of fiction today, I realize Roth is one of the few great humanists left.
    What to recommend? Well, The Human Stain may be just about my favorite, truly a Great American Novel, and I’m sorry it didn’t make a greater impression on you.
    I would recommend the two novels prior to the Stain; they are in a similar vein.
    Everyman, however, is his most powerful novella. Unlike his more typically exuberant and self-conscious works, it is spare and all the more painful for being so direct in its dealings with fate.
    Portnoy’s Complaint and the underrated My Life As a Man are among his funniest works; if anywhere, that’s where you might misread Roth as a misogynist. But then, if you read a little of his life story from which those works were traumatically inspired, you might be hesitant to jump on the band wagon of judgment.
    If you’re a writer, you know that the first thing you are going to be met with in life is misprision, and denunciation and neglect will be more frequent and probably outlast appreciation–not appreciation by rote, but intimate and transformative appreciation.
    You can probably tell I’m not one of Roth’s detractors.

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