Author Lydia Davis, best know for her innovative short stories, offers insight and advice about the writing craft.
By Anita Lo '16
Lydia Davis is the prize-winning author of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009) and Can’t and Won’t (2014) translator for many French literary classics such as Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. She will be on campus April 20, in conversation with Harvard English Department senior lecturer and author Claire Messud as part of “Writers Speak,” a series curate by Messud and hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center. Below is an edited and condensed excerpt of my conversation with the writer.
Many of your stories take reality (or your life) and warp it a bit to "fictionalize it," but you also have stories that are completely “found.” Does it matter to you as a writer whether the words are yours?
I enjoy both inventing and finding. I'm not sure how I would feel about it if all my stories were “found,” ready-made. But then, life offers a rich variety of incidents and pieces of language, and I don't like to tamper with them more than necessary, just to feel I have contributed something from my imagination. The way I put them into language – even if it is only the title I give them – is my contribution.
You talk about noticing details, which is, of course, anyone can do, but you seem to notice ones that everyone else does not. What sorts of details do you find yourself noticing?
I'm not sure everyone notices details. Or, rather, of course they do notice certain details, but do they look closely at a scene and notice all there is to notice about it? Even asking the question, I realize that may be impossible. So let me revise my answer and say that each person probably notices details according to his or her own interests and personality. Several people could look at the same scene and one would notice clothing, another gesture, another architecture, another light, etc. We're all very different, which is why we produce such different kinds of writing, or should, anyway.
You consider some of your stories to be poems. What's the difference between the stories that are and aren’t poetry?
I'd say that one could define a poem as a song or something close to a song. A story in which the language is more prominent, more noticeable, might approach a poem more closely. Some of my so-called stories were actually written to be poems, and then some look like poems on the page but were written to be prose. Those might be flatter, more pedestrian, less lyrical. I don't mind there being a continuum from very prosy to very lyrical, with the stories occurring at places along that continuum.
Do you have any advice for aspiring college-aged writers?
I do have a lot of advice, but I'll restrict my answer to a few things. Read the best writers, and be sure to include writers of the past even more than contemporary writers. Try reading a writer from each century going back a certain number of centuries. You'll find the language very interesting, especially compared to the language being used now. Be patient with your own work, and keep revising it. Put it aside for a while if you can't figure out what to do with it, but don't abandon it. If you're very enthusiastic about something you've written, don't let someone else persuade you that you're going in the wrong direction. Again, it may be best to put it aside and come back to it, see how it strikes you now. Which leads me to add: Have several, or many, pieces of writing in progress at the same time so that you can work on one and then another when you run out of inspiration. And read books about language and writing.
Lydia Davis will be in conversation with Claire Messud 6 p.m. April 20 in Room 210, Emerson Hall. The event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited.