November 20, 2018

The National Book Award winning author Sigrid Nunez on writing


Writing never seems more impossible than when you’re right in the middle of it. 

Suddenly the end is no longer in sight and the sentences become unwieldy. This is when you just want out, or worse: you doubt your ability to achieve even the smallest feats, the ones you’ve done before, time and time again. The National Book Award winning author of The Friend, Sigrid Nunez is no stranger to these worries. In fact, any writer that’s dared to achieve anything has felt the sting of creative despair. But there’s hope, and Nunez has advice to get you through. Let’s have a look.

1. Writing as religion.

“I think writers now are more likely to see writing as a possible means of advancing oneself in the world,” notes Nunez, in an interview for The Rumpus, “and increasing self-esteem rather than as a vocation.” The choice to see writing less as a craft and more as a stepping stone devalues the very thing you spend so much time on, the years of practice getting to the point where a story shines like a prism. Nunez believes in writing as vocation, as something you turn to for spiritual sustenance as much as discovery.

2. Beware the advice of others.

You read that right–Nunez suggests that “some of the worst advice I’ve seen is in writing manuals, with their endless mechanical exercises.” You shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, try ideas out, and most of all: edit, deconstruct your narrative, and inspect. Don’t look for easy answers because you’ll find that even the best formulas are just that: formulaic.

3. Let the story breathe.

“As a writer you find the form that best allows you to tell the story you want to tell.” Let those paragraph breaks fly if it helps free the line and better facilitates the story being told. Nunez is key to stress that it should be in service of the narrative, not just for the sake of a writing device. Be careful: It’s incredibly easy to hide behind a device, never letting the reader close enough to the story.

4. Acceptance of the struggle.

In regards to writer’s block, Nunez believes it’s best to accept it as a piece of the puzzle, all part of the process of writing the book. You can’t have a consistent run of amazingly productive and encouraging writing sessions. It just doesn’t work that way. I’m going to quote Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) from Bad Santa (the good one, not the sequel), “They can’t all be winners.”




Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.