Eight Wise Pieces of Writing Advice from Alice Mattison’s “The Kite and the String”


When I came back to Flavorwire after maternity leave, I hadn’t written very much in months and I was wondering how to start again. My writing muscles, like my core muscles, had atrophied and the blank page intimidated me.

On my desk lay several books that had arrived in the interval, including Alice Mattison’s craft book The Kite and the String. The pages I initially glanced were full of warm but pragmatic wisdom, and so I sat down and read the whole thing cover to cover. In addition to providing fascinating studies of the writing process of female writers like Tillie Olsen and George Elliot (who don’t usually get discussed in these kinds of books), and a look at writers who prevailed despite state censorship, Mattison cuts through a lot of the bullshit mystique around the writing process, its focus on youth, glamour, sacrifice.

“If we do think of it as glamorous and thrilling and something that brings in lots of money, there will be very few of us,” Mattison told me on the phone last week, speaking of the writing life. “As long as a lot of us want to be writers, we have to find a way of managing.” That means paying the bills and spending time with loved ones, but also keeping our writing life, and time, sacred. Her whole approach was very bracing, so I asked Mattison, who teaches at the Bennington MFA program, to expound on eight of my favorite quotes from the book that tackle gender, fear, craft and process — many of which are relevant beyond writing and can be applied to any creative endeavor.

Writers don’t need rules as much as we need the freedom to take risks and to make decisions for simple, practical reasons — much like the workaday, unglamorous decisions we make in ordinary life.

“I meet students who want rules.” says Mattison. “It’s as though there’s a set of instructions, like working a complicated machine.” On the contrary, Mattison focuses on the other aspect of writing, which is the kite, in her central metaphor— letting it catch the breezes of inspiration and only holding it in check with a single, strong guiding string.

Invention comes about when we let it, when we don’t mind feeling stupid as we do it— it feels like what children do, it is what children do — when we clear a place for it, become quiet, and wait.

“Recently, my grandson started telling me about the utopia that he can get to by logging into the upper left hand corner of his pillow at night and putting in a password…it was absolutely dazzling,” says Mattison. “We continue to have that capacity — maybe not as brilliantly as young children do— to put things together, to jolt in a direction nobody would ever think of. But we have to be relaxed to do that.” She says that taking off our clothes, hanging out with animals or kids, or otherwise letting ourselves feel free is preferable to “trying to get grown up” to write.

The clumsy use of coincidence (like the melodramatic use of exciting action) has scared some writers away from coincidence altogether. It’s a loss.

One of Mattison’s best pieces of advice is to allow coincidence to propel our plots forwards, and she has an entire section of practical suggestions for how to do this. “Writers have all kinds of reasons for not putting trouble into their stories,” she says. ” We don’t want to upset ourselves, our readers, our poor characters. There’s also a sense that writing that uses coincidence or melodramatic events is cheap.” She notes that coincidence doesn’t have to be Dickensian, revealing that everyone is each others’ long-lost relative. Instead, acknowledging coincidence or making it seem like the many, “Huh, that’s strange” circumstances we run into every day can help us. “Incredible coincidences happen all the time,” she says.

When a draft looks terrible, I don’t try to convince myself that it’s actually good or even that someday it will be, only that it’s my job to work on it whether it’s good or not.

“A lot of trouble of writing would go away if people would stop trying to persuade themselves that the draft is good,” Mattison tells me, noting that the same applies to readings or other performances. “You have to make the decision, once and for all, that you’re going to work on it, and then work on it,” she adds. “You have to give it a try.”

It seems to me that when a female writer’s mother gets sick, the woman thinks she should stop writing and go look after her mother. When a male writer’s soother gets sick, he thinks he should work harder than ever, sell a story to the New Yorker, and earn money to buy medicine for his mother.

“Maybe some scientist will come up to me and say ‘no, you’re mistaken,'” says Mattison with a laugh. But anecdotally, this generalization usually holds true. “Many women I know regard writing as self-indulgent. Perhaps they’re bold and selfish enough to do it despite what they ought to be doing, but then it’s a present they’re giving to themselves. Meanwhile, the men I know regard writing as their work, their contribution.”

“Maybe women will always do more for the care for their elderly parents or kids, but they still don’t have to sacrifice all their time,” says Mattison. “And of course there are people who have no choice. I am not advocating brutality. I’m just advocating having respect for the work.”

A piece of writing too may begin with what’s personal, but by the time we offer it for publication, we had better think of it as a work product. We should have revised it until we’ve become detached enough that if it’ turned down, we’ll decide that maybe the beginning is confusing after all…

Mattison told me about her friend, the poet Donald Hall, who wrote a series of poems about his wife Jane Kenyon’s illness and death. “He was tireless reviser of his poems,” she says. “He would read them to audiences who would cry, but wasn’t as hard for him to read them because he had turned them into art. It was no longer pure feeling not reigned in, but rather carefully made into something else. You cry when you’re writing the first draft. After that initial time, it’s work — at least to a degree.”

A critique should make you want to get back to work. If it makes you want to quit, don’t turn to that reader again, no matter who he or she is…

“I could have printed that in red,” Mattison jokes. “We have to protect ourselves. There are people who don’t want us to write, or write well. Maybe they’re competitive. Or even if it’s well-intended, if what they say makes you want to give up, you really have to avoid that person.”

As we write, I believe we should recognize that we probably are being censored, if not by a government, then perhaps by publishers who impose standards that may not always be conducive to the making of art, often — especially if we are women — by people who are close to us, and most of all by ourselves.

“That takes a chapter to explain,” she says. “There’s such a long history of censorship, especially of official censorship.And often, I see problems in the writing of my students that I think results from self-censorship — sometimes people think terrible things will happen to them if they say what occurs. Sometimes there are real consequences, but sometimes it’s ‘I don’t want to say this because of what my mother will do, my brother will think, my husband will say.’ Or sometimes it’s just a fear that the story is boring. We have to work not to do that.”