Isherwood on Writing

Very important advice:

“…thinking about writing and getting excited about the wonderful writing that you are going to do is the most dangerous occupational vice of a writer. The thing to do is to get something down on the paper, and then you have something to work on.”

Isherwood on Writing. p. 135

“On the level of human suffering and struggle the novelist obviously has to be involved, engaged. He has to mind that people suffer, he has to condemn the bad and rejoice in the good. … He has to have a moral code. Every writer who really has any kind of vitality has some sort of moral code. … What matters is the intensity with which this struggle on the human level is realized. […]

“He is also the eternal, who looks down upon everything and enjoys it. Because, of course, in the world of art if something is well done it is enjoyable. One has to face the fact that the most dreadful descriptions of agonizing death are, artistically speaking, just as enjoyable as great love scenes or charming scenes of domestic happiness with children. … This sense of joy, of contact with life, of the vitality of life, can be related to any set of circumstances or characters you choose to name. […]

“He has to have, I suppose one can say, compassion. He has to see the just and the unjust as being all his children.

What is the nerve of interest in the novel?, 66.

If the writer has managed to meld human passion and divine compassion, the result is, as he said of Hemingway’s “The Capital of the World”:

… not in the least depressing. It is in fact full of this strange joy in the experience of all these people. (79)


The theater is a box, a place of imprisonment in which the audience is shut up with the actors. The effects are created by means of claustrophobia: you can’t get out. […]

Remembering that the whole point of the play is that the people are in the theater and cannot leave until they have been dismissed by the working out of the play itself, remembering this, think of Beckett’s extraordinary use of pauses.

A writer and the theater, 91 & 93.

The theater is for speech, and the theater is also for character. … What is the film for? The film is primarily for image and for movement. This thing about image, about the actual, visual effect of something on the screen, can sometimes be very disconcerting.

A writer and the films, 101.

The sound in the film should always be, as it were, balanced against the image and not go with it.

p. 106

In addition, Isherwood outlines the role of the writer as a consumate and socially engaged outsider.

He [the writer] must always hold them [shared beliefs] with the possibility of dissent. Without the freedom to dissent, he is just that much less valuable to the community.
…the truly cooperative and social outsider is one of the most valuable members of the community, and a writer should strive to be such an outsider, sometimes assenting, sometimes dissenting, but always, one hopes, in some way illuminating the problem under discussion.

p. 131 & p. 132

Which reminded me….

Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness.

But let us be realistic. These ways of understanding the enemy are the prerogative of poets, saints, or traitors.

Umberto Eco, “Inventing the Enemy.” 2008.

From Isherwood on Writing, 2007.

Author: despina durand

part-time goth, full-time critic

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