Great Writing Advice From Elena Ferrante

Anyone who has been following writer Elena Ferrante knows that she's publicity-shy. Even as her Neapolitan novels have catapulted her to the highest echelons of the literary establishment, she’s steadfastly refused to engage in the usual rounds of interviews and readings. But with the much-anticipated The Story of the Lost Child coming out September 1, she’s consented to two in depth interviews about her writing, one that came out this spring in The Paris Review and one just published on Vanity Fair’s website.

Neither interview sheds much light on the particulars of Ferrante’s mysterious biography, but they’ve got plenty of far more interesting details about her intellectual and creative life. In the Paris Review interview, Ferrante breaks down her writing process for her publishers, Sandra and Sandro Ferri. In the first part of the Vanity Fair one, Elissa Schappell speaks to Ferrante about her influences and the power of the female perspective. Both interviews offer plenty of insight into a contemporary master’s remarkable work and some surprising ideas about how to write a great book.

Although Ferrante would probably never call her thoughts advice, you can probably learn a lot from what she has to say. Here are eight quotes that will inspire you in your own writing.

Know Literary Conventions, But Don't Stick To Them

"I pay attention to every system of conventions and expectations, above all literary conventions and the expectations they generate in readers. But that law-abiding side of me, sooner or later, has to face my disobedient side. And, in the end, the latter always wins."

Clichés Are The Enemy Of Honest Writing

"In general, we store away our experiences and make use of timeworn phrases—nice, ready-made, reassuring stylizations that give us a sense of colloquial normality. But in this way, either knowingly or unknowingly, we reject everything that, to be said fully, would require effort and a torturous search for words. Honest writing forces itself to find words for those parts of our experience that is crouched and silent."

Always Remember "The Personal Is Political"

"I owe much to that famous slogan. From it I learned that even the most intimate individual concerns, those that are most extraneous to the public sphere, are influenced by politics; that is to say, by that complicated, pervasive, irreducible thing that is power and its uses. It’s only a few words, but with their fortunate ability to synthesize they should never be forgotten. They convey what we are made of, the risk of subservience we are exposed to, the kind of deliberately disobedient gaze we must turn on the world and on ourselves. But 'the personal is political' is also an important suggestion for literature. It should be an essential concept for anyone who wants to write."

Engage With Ideas, But Don't Wed Yourself To Them

"I am a passionate reader of feminist thought. Yet I do not consider myself a militant; I believe I am incapable of militancy. Our heads are crowded with a very heterogeneous mix of material, fragments of time periods, conflicting intentions that cohabit, endlessly clashing with one another. As a writer I would rather confront that overabundance, even if it is risky and confused, than feel that I’m staying safely within a scheme that, precisely because it is a scheme, always ends up leaving out lots of real stuff because it is disturbing."

Be Flexible

"The cultural education of any high school student should include the idea that a writer adapts depending on what he or she needs to express. Instead, most people think anyone literate can write a story. They don’t understand that a writer works hard to be flexible, to face many different trials, and without ever knowing what the outcome will be."

Announce Your Intentions From The Beginning

"I tend toward an expansive sentence that has a cold surface and, visible underneath it, a magma of unbearable heat. I want readers to know from the first lines what they will have to deal with."

Great Literature Isn't Boring, Nor Is It Predictable

"I publish to be read. It’s the only thing that interests me about publication. So I employ all the strategies I know to capture the reader’s attention, stimulate curiosity, make the page as dense as possible and as easy as possible to turn. But once I have the reader’s attention I feel it is my right to pull it in whichever direction I choose. I don’t think the reader should be indulged as a consumer, because he isn’t one. Literature that indulges the tastes of the reader is a degraded literature. My goal is to disappoint the usual expectations and inspire new ones."

The Writer Doesn't Matter — The Words Do

"The voice is part of your body, it needs your presence. You speak, you have a dialogue, you correct, you give further explanations. Writing, on the other hand, only needs a reader. It doesn’t need you. "

Image: Meredith Turits/Bustle