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Writing Advice and Other Insights from Salman Rushdie

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On Wednesday, Kristin Nelson, Chris Hutt (our NLA intern), and I listened to Salman Rushdie speak at the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. We were in the middle of a spring snowstorm but that wasn’t going to stop us! The commute from Denver took twice as long as normal and the campus was blanketed with nearly a foot of snow, but wow, were we glad we went. With his signature eloquence (and quite a lot of humility), Rushdie talked about truth in fiction, the role of artists in oppressed societies, and the patience needed to grow one’s writing talent. Here are a few of his insights—paraphrased, so I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse my less eloquent delivery.MidnightsChildren

On the media and “unintentional fiction”:

Rushdie pointed out that the news media, thanks to 24-hour broadcasting and social media, has to fill so much air time on so many venues that what is “true” in the morning often has been proven false or inaccurate by evening. The result is that fiction becomes a more reliable source of truth. Rushdie referred to the Boston Marathon bombing two days prior, and it became a striking example as the news coverage played out in the course of the week.

On fiction and politics:

When politicians and governments lie, fiction writers become the tellers of truth; that is why writers and artists are so often the first targets of oppressive regimes.  Art is stronger than artists; often a writer’s work survives much longer than the writer himself during times of upheaval.

On capturing the universal in fiction:

Writers should not try to write directly about the universal; capturing the local (i.e. a specific character and his or her world) becomes a way to understand and portray larger themes.

On developing your writing talent:photo

Rushdie said writers rarely have their talent fully formed at a young age (he mentioned some exceptions, including Zadie Smith). It took him twelve years after finishing university to publish his first novel. As a writer, you must have the hunger and the patience to pursue it until your skill has developed sufficiently. Though he didn’t refer to self-publishing, there are interesting implications. The ease of getting started with this new model gives writers license to be impatient, but by going public with their work before it is ready, writers do themselves no favors in the long run.

On bridging differences through literature:

Rushdie talked about the role of fiction in promoting tolerance and plurality; before he visited the U.S. for the first time, he felt like he already knew it through stories and literature. Stories bring us a personal connection to people, cultures, and situations we might not encounter in our daily lives. The number of titles coming into the U.S. from abroad is much lower than in most countries, but he hopes that will change. I couldn’t agree more!

For more about Rushdie’s talk, read Kristin’s blog post on Pub Rants.

What is some great insight or advice you’ve heard recently from a famous writer?