In this post, we share six bits of writing advice from Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine short story writer, poet, and essayist.
Who Was Jorge Luis Borges?
Jorge Luis Borges (born 24 August 1899, died 14 June 1986) was an influential Argentine writer, poet, and academic.
His writing is famous for exploring topics like philosophy and surrealism. Countless writers have credited Borges as an inspiration, including J.M. Coetzee.
He published his first poem called Hymn to the Sea in 1919. He would release his first collection of poems entitled Fervor de Buenos Aires later, and make regular contributions to literary journals like Sur.
Borges loved using philosophical or surreal topics in his work. He drew from elements like mythology, dreams, and modern philosophy to drive his narrative.
Blindness later affected Borges and his writing approach. He would later prefer shorter writing forms as a result. He commented: ‘Who knows themselves better than the blind? For every thought becomes a tool.’
Here’s what writers can learn from one of the most famed writers ever translated into English.
6 Bits Of Writing Advice From Jorge Luis Borges
1. Know Your Story’s Type
‘It is worth remembering that every writer begins with a naively physical notion of what art is. A book for him or her is not an expression or a series of expressions, but literally a volume, a prism with six rectangular sides made of thin sheets of papers which should include a cover, an inside cover, an epigraph in italics, a preface, nine or ten parts with some verses at the beginning, a table of contents, an ex libris with an hourglass and a Latin phrase, a brief list of errata, some blank pages, a colophon and a publication notice.’ ~Evaristo Carriego: A Book About Old-time Buenos Aires
Borges gives a broad definition of what people imagine as a physical book. He was defining it with broad strokes, but he wasn’t wrong.
Study various literary forms. Know what you’re working with when it’s your own story. Are your characters living in a novella, or are they better suited to a novel-length story instead?
Style, structure, and writing approaches are different for each.
2. Reading Is Exploration
‘Every novel is an ideal plane inserted into the realm of reality.’ ~Labyrinths: Selected Poems & Other Stories
Borges loved using surreal elements. His work often expressed fantastical visions through prose and poetry.
The above quote refers to why people read at all. Reading is escapism. People don’t just read, but escape from their current surroundings.
Can readers get lost in your writing?
Writers have a responsibility to craft the reader’s escape. Good reading absorbs the reader, and we’ll often read good writing again to return to specific moments.
3. Read Out Loud
‘Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not allow itself to be read in a low voice or silently. If we can read it silently, it is not a valid poem: a poem demands pronunciation. Poetry always remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art.’ ~Seven Nights
Writing has a different quality when it’s recited out loud. Editing writers can benefit from saying sentences to see what they will sound like. Does the sentence seem ‘right’ to you?
Have you ever seen a good poetry reading compared to a bad one?
Specifically, Borges referred to Dante’s poetry in this quote: another artist who loved the use of surreal and mythological aspects.
4. Writers Read
‘Reading… is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.’ – A Universal History of Infamy
Borges was well-read person throughout his life.
He attributed the childhood discovery of his father’s library as one of the most important formative events of his life and literary career. A lot of writers today still recall their first encounters with books and stories.
Read, and continue reading. One cannot learn to write without an enthusiasm for reading.
5. Imagination Is Key
‘Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.’ ~Doctor Brodie’s Report
Dreams are special things. Imagination takes hold when we dream, and the subconscious takes over.
A lot of people (and writers!) can say that they dream weird things. Many writers including King and Borges have used the substance of their dreams for ideas.
Borges meant that both dreams and writing can rely on the subconscious. Learn to trust your instincts, and let your imagination run.
6. Let Experience Fuel Your Work
‘A writer – and, I believe, generally all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.’ ~Twenty-Four Conversations With Borges
Whether they are a fiction writer or an investigative journalist, writers need experience to write better.
Anything and everything that happens to you of a lifetime is something that could add to your understanding of the world (and its subsequent portrayal).
View your life experiences just like raw artistic material, as Borges advises other artists to do. It makes for a better, stronger writer.
The Last Word
Jorge Luis Borges set the tone for an entire generation of surrealist authors beyond his time. Modern writers are still discovering translations of his work, and learning from the messages behind them.
If you want to write well, read often, and experience everything you can. It’s worked well for Borges, and almost every other writer you could name. It can work for you, too.
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TIP: If you want help writing a book, buy The Novel Writing Exercises Workbook.
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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