For the sake of breaking the ice on this river, and so that I might have them at close hand myself, here are a few of W.G. Sebald's "writing tips," as recorded by two of his students in his last fiction class at East Anglia in 2001, three days after which he died in his car crash (although not from his car crash). (And, I'll always remember with grave regret, from the same fall when he came to Elliott Bay to read from Austerlitz and I, who never think I'm too sick to miss anything, was so wiped out by a 24-hour bug I couldn't make it.)
The "tips" cover a variety of subjects, and some of the others are note-worthy too ("Fiction should have a ghostlike presence in it somewhere, something omniscient. It makes it a different reality."), but when they get to this section, suddenly it feels like true Sebald territory:
On Reading and Intertextuality
- Read books that have nothing to do with literature.
- Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.
- There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.
- You must get the servants to work for you. You mustn’t do all the work yourself. That is, you should ask other people for information, and steal ruthlessly from what they provide.
- None of the things you make up will be as hair-raising as the things people tell you.
- I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.
- Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.
- Look in older encyclopaedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.
- It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest. You don’t have to declare it or tell where it’s from.
- A tight structural form opens possibilities. Take a pattern, an established model or sub-genre, and write to it. In writing, limitation gives freedom.
- If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.