All writers learn from the dead. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you; you also feel judged and held to account by them. But you don’t learn only from writers – you can learn from ancestors in all their forms. Because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth.
The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.
Would-be novelists need to bring equal parts arrogance and ignorance to the task before them. The arrogance is almost self-explanatory. Walk into any bookstore or library, calculate how many lifetimes the average person would need to read all the fiction contained therein. To think that one has anything to contribute, to any genre or tradition, takes genuine hubris.
Beware of writers who tell you how hard they work. (Beware of anybody who tries to tell you that.) Writing is indeed often dark and lonely, but no one really has to do it. Yes, writing can be complicated, exhausting, isolating, abstracting, boring, dulling, briefly exhilarating; it can be made to be grueling and demoralizing. And occasionally it can produce rewards. But it's never as hard as, say, piloting an L-1011 into O'Hare on a snowy night in January, or doing brain surgery when you have to stand up for 10 hours straight, and once you start you can't just stop. If you're a writer, you can stop anywhere, any time, and no one will care or ever know. Plus, the results might be better if you do.
The less conscious one is of being “a writer,” the better the writing. And though reading is the best school of writing, school is the worst place for reading. Writing should ... be as spontaneous and urgent as a letter to a lover, or a message to a friend who has just lost a parent ... and writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.
Psychoanalysts in France, structuralists in the United States and France, conservative, liberal and left-wing thinkers in contemporary schools of linguistic philosophy agree about one thing; man became man not by the tool but by the Word. It is not walking upright and using a stick to dig for food or strike a blow that makes a human being, it is speech. And neither intelligent apes, nor dolphins whispering marvels in the ocean, share with us the ability to transform this direct communication into the written word, which sets up an endless chain of communication and commune between peoples and generations who will never meet.