In this post, Writers Write explores bits of writing advice from Patricia Highsmith.
About Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith (19 January 1921 to 4 February 1995) was an American thriller writer. Her novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers On A Train, were made into films.
Highsmith loved controversy: broke up relationships, carried snails in her handbag for shock value, and hated almost every group equally.
5 Bits Of Writing Advice From Patricia Highsmith
‘I can’t write if someone else is in the house, not even the cleaning woman. I like to work for four or five hours a day. I aim for seven days a week. I have no television – I hate it. I listen to the BBC World Service starting at 2 in the morning until 4. I switch off the light and listen in bed. I don’t set the alarm to get up. I get up when I feel like it.’ – BFI.org.uk, 1988 Interview
Writers don’t surround their desk with others, and tell them to gather around when they type. Writing is a lonely craft, that asks little distraction.
Patricia Highsmith wanted to write completely alone. She had her own writing routine, and hated interference. She wrote more than 20 books doing this, and had time for other things.
Set your writing routine, and write alone.
Anything Is Possible
‘…an imaginative writer is very free-wheeling; he has to forget about his own personal morals, especially if he is writing about criminals. He has to feel anything is possible.’ – Armchair Detective, 1981 Interview
An interviewer asked what she thinks of George Bernard Shaw, and the idea that writers have to think criminally. This is what Highsmith said in response: she believed that writers should give their characters free reign, and see what happens.
Writing fiction is about experiences, and conveying ones that you (as writer) didn’t have yourself.
Argue With Yourself
‘Every book is an argument with myself,’ – NY Times, Quoted 2021
Writing is a discussion, a constant debate, for the writer and their characters. A story proposes an idea, and then pulls it apart every time you edit. Highsmith was quoted as saying that she sees every book as a lone argument.
Approach writing the same way.
Discuss everything, and always have a counterpoint. This is how you see your own plot holes, and fix them, all at once.
Use Your Emotion
‘I am now cynical, fairly rich … lonely, depressed, and totally pessimistic.’ – DW, Quoted January 1970 Diary Entry
Highsmith was hated, and she hated everything. When she achieved her writing goals, she was still not happy.
Assume that the same will be true for you, even when you are fourteen royalty checks into your career. Philosophy calls it the ‘hedonic treadmill’, that humanity is always chasing one more thing.
Use your emotion, it makes for powerful writing. Always set new goals, or you will get stuck.
‘For some time when living in France, she enjoyed eating beef as it came from the butcher, uncooked. Not tartar, but in a bloody lump. Again she appeared to think that eating dead cattle unadorned accorded them some respect.’ – RTE, Quoted From Her Biographer
Highsmith’s biographer shares this wonderful, perhaps horrible, anecdote. Writers don’t need shock value, writers need experiences.
If you are taking anything from the above story about Highsmith, it’s that she did things in her own way. Don’t turn yourself into a copy of any other writer, but build your own experiences. Highsmith travelled a lot.
Learn from every experience you have, and don’t worry too much about your critics.
The Last Word
In this post, Writers Write looked at writing advice from Patricia Highsmith. We have writing advice from many other writers, and hope you can learn from them too.
Source for image: AnonymousUnknown author / Harper & Brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Patricia-Highsmith-1962.jpg
By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.
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