On Writing

On Writing

A Translation

By Abdón Ubidia
Translated from Spanish by Nathan D. Horowitz

Excerpted from a longer essay, “50 sombras de un escritor.”

Abdón Ubidia
Photo: Leonardo Parrini

The writer should obey only his own poetic animal. Find yours. Search even the stupidest places in your heart.

If something in your writing sounds wrong to you, it will sound even worse to other people.

Listen to the music of the god of syntax. A sentence has a certain logic. You can tweak it, but don’t lose it. How you start or end a sentence doesn’t matter. It will find the structure it needs. Words will join themselves together if you let yourself be carried along by their need to include verbs, nouns, adjectives, et cetera, no matter how long the sentence may become.

Nathan D. Horowitz

Rewrite. Add what’s necessary. Remove what’s repetitive or useless. Find substitutions: one adjective for another, one sentence for another.

Your intelligence as a reader and your intelligence as a writer will always be less than the intelligence that your work demands. Your work demands an ideal form of expression. Read and re-read, write and rewrite your text.

If your path is wrong, keep going. Great texts have been born from the urge to explain the inexplicable.

Don’t listen to advice. Including from me. Literature isn’t transferable.

The only thing you can ask of me as a writer is to tell you, with metaphors or without, my deepest life experiences.

The great writers were great readers. Books beget books.

The great writers took great care of a great asset: their memory. If you don’t have a photographic memory, don’t waste any note you write, even if it’s on a napkin.

Save your scraps. A text that started off strong, and that you saved, can sleep for a decade before reawakening with new strength and forcing you to finish it.

Seek perfection. It’s hard to find. Don’t give up. Others have found it. Borges said great patience can simulate genius. If Flaubert was able to work on a single page for up to a month, you have no right to spare yourself the hard work required to find the ideal form for your writing.

“The ideal form.” All art is the same in this respect, whether it’s music, visual art, literature, or anything else. Let’s think of a sculpture. You have two ways to make it. Start from nothing and add clay to clay to find the ideal form you’re dreaming of. Or start from everything, a great block of marble, and set about devastating it, chisel blow by chisel blow, until you find the ideal form nested within it.

García Márquez said nothing kills a writer. If I remember that Faulkner wrote in a brothel, and Cervantes, de Sade, and Genet wrote in prison, and Dostoyevsky in a garret, and Kafka at night after ten hours of a job he hated, I have no right to demand any special conditions for exercising my own office as a writer.

Jorge Icaza said literature is a struggle between ethics and aesthetics. When Oedipus kills his father, marries his mother, and gouges out his eyes, and when Medea kills her children to get revenge on her husband (and there are a thousand other examples), we see that the dream of aesthetics is the destruction of ethics.

“I eat panic for breakfast.” The phrase is by Henrich Böll. When you wake up, your fears wake up. You may feel like they’re boiling you alive. You’re feeling the pain of life itself. To cope, there’s nothing better than writing: continuing your current text or jotting down a new one. Thus, pain changes to relief, to therapy, and, often, to pleasure.

Don’t fear insomnia. It’s an unsolicited gift that life gives you, a free block of time you can use to think about your writing, or, better, to work on it.

Nulla dies sine linea. No day without a line, the Romans said. It’s a wise maxim. When you follow it, you have the sweet feeling that your writing is progressing on its own.

Procrastination is the greatest danger to the creator. It can kill your text. The cure is simple: Don’t run away. Force yourself to stay a few minutes. Face your work with its problems and your doubts. Your reluctance will vanish.

Don’t fear the blank page. It’s an invitation. Accept it. You’ll always have plenty to say. And you can help yourself with resources like automatic writing.

Automatic writing. It’s a Surrealist practice invented by André Breton. It consists of writing, without any plan, whatever comes to mind, so that your unconscious expresses itself with complete freedom and without pressure. If we want, we can tweak the recipe, because a little pressure can help. And a starter phrase too. Over the years, I’ve proposed, to participants in my writing workshops, texts that start with one phrase or another. For example, “Today, I thought that….” The exercise consists of writing without stopping, and without paying attention to spelling or syntax, and leaving a space for any word that doesn’t occur to you at the moment, until after five minutes or fifteen, you have a text that almost always surprises you with its consistency. We recall Lacan’s maxim: The unconscious is structured like language.

Heuristics: this is the old wisdom of the Greeks that Russians like Pushkin, 2400 years later, turned into what they called the science of creative thought. The point is that your unconscious never rests. When a problem in physics, mathematics, chess, art, or literature seems difficult or impossible, suddenly, you don’t know how, the solution unexpectedly appears, whether you’re on the street, or in a theater, or in a stadium. It’s not magic or intuition that lights up your brain, it’s your unconscious, which, without your knowing it, kept working on the problem. Of course, that will only happen if you’ve spent many hours searching consciously and unsuccessfully for a solution.

Two companions you’ll have to accept are loneliness and self-doubt. They’ll always be a writer’s faithful, unavoidable friends.

There’s a narrator head and a poet head. One tells and the other sings. Most great novelists didn’t write great poems and most great poets failed to write a novel that was up to their standards. There are exceptions, such as Hugo and Rilke. But they’re rare. Find your head.

The greatest device for the poet is metaphor. For the novelist, metonymy. Look it up. Some postmodernists erase the boundaries between genres, which is fine. But an author will always know what comes to him most easily: metaphor or metonymy, poem or story, discontinuity or continuity, association or discourse.

Novelists and poets meet in the short story, which is the novelist’s poem and the poet’s novel.

What’s your output? Balzac wrote 146 novels and Rulfo two. Faulkner wrote in a torrent and Hemingway managed, with a lot of work, barely a page a day. Remember the words of Musset: My glass is small, but I drink from it.

Sartre said writing with fewer than four or five interpretations doesn’t make sense. All literary texts are polysemic, lending themselves to various interpretations, some that the author never imagined. All of them enrich it.

Curate the world you create. The author and reader agree to pretend that what is told is true. Within a story, certain rules of plausibility must be followed. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing realism, science fiction, or fantasy. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Father Nicanor levitates when he drinks a cup of hot cocoa. That can’t happen to the priest of a realistic novel like Huasipungo. It wouldn’t be plausible. In García Márquez’s novel, there’s a fascinating scene: when liberals and conservatives are killing each other, to distract them, Father Nicanor begins to levitate. They ignore him and continue their war. The reader smiles. He’s not surprised that the priest levitates. He’s surprised that the fighters ignore him. That is to say, he has accepted, as if hypnotized, the narrated truth, the created world of magical realism. Be true to the level of reality you’ve chosen and don’t break it. Each literary trend, be it romanticism, realism, magical realism, or any other, is a matrix of thought, an episteme, and each establishes its own world.

You recognize great writers by their style. Critics have said that a great style is the result of the author’s having overcome certain language-related difficulties. We see this in Borges. He tried to hide and destroy the copies of his first three books, but after he died, María Kodama republished them. In those books, we see an unskilled, pedantic young writer yearning to be who he ended up as: the wonderful Borges, whose style is unmistakably his own, once he overcame the awkwardness in those first three books.

The writer is a concrete thinker. What the philosopher tells in concepts, the writer shows with examples. Around a writer is a structure of thought that supports him, be it philosophical, religious, or magical. For Dostoevsky and Kafka, there’s Kierkegaard. For Proust, Bergson. For Borges, Plato and Berkeley, and for Cortázar, Huizinga. When a writer doesn’t come from a culture that has developed great philosophical systems like Europe has, he may use the Bible, as North Americans from Melville to Faulkner did. In Latin America, the magical realism of Asturias, Rulfo, García Márquez, and Amado was only possible thanks to the oral tradition of our land, a tremendously rich and complex system of thought.

Abdón Ubidia is the 2012 winner of the Eugenio Espejo National Prize for his literary work and four-time winner of the National Narrative Prize. He is the writer and editor, author of urban stories and novels such as Ciudad de invierno (1979, more than 20 editions, including one in Argentina); Sueño de lobos (1986); La Madriguera (2004), selected for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize; Callada como la muerte (2012). He has also written collections of speculative fiction such as DivertInventos (1989), El palacio de los espejos (1996), and La escala humana (2008); collections of essays such as El cuento popular ecuatoriano (1977), La poesía popular ecuatoriana (1982), Referentes (2000), Lectores, credo y confesiones (2006), Celebración de los libros (2007), La aventura amorosa (2011); and plays such as Adiós Siglo XX. His stories and books have been published in English, French, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Greek, and Hindi.

Born and raised in Michigan, writer/teacher/translator/proofreader Nathan D. Horowitz has a BA in English and an MA in Applied Linguistics. After four years in Latin America and fifteen in Austria, he lives with his wife and daughter in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of two volumes of creative nonfiction about Ecuadorian ayahuasca shamanism and the translator of three volumes of Ecuadorian fiction, one volume of Venezuelan poetry, one volume of Bolivian poetry, and the autobiography of the last shaman-chief of the Siekopai people of the Amazon Rainforest. His work has been published in Ashé, Cenacle, Dragibus, Driesch, Psychedelic Press UK, Qarrtsiluni, Kritya, Maquina Combinatoria, WordCityLit, Global City Review, and the Michigan Quarterly Review.

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