You Have to Write As Though Your Parents Are Dead

Nicola Iarocci
2 min readMar 12, 2021

The Literary Hub has a great short interview with Ian McEwan.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? When I was living in London at the start of my career in the mid-1970s, I became friends with Philip Roth, who took an avuncular interest in my work. Where many others thought my writing was wild and weird, he thought I wasn’t being wild enough. He once came to my apartment and spread the typescript of my first novel (The Cement Garden) over the floor. He was on his hands and knees, moving the chapters around. What he wanted was for me to be bolder, crazier. He said, “You have to write as though your parents are dead.” My parents were alive. I took that advice.

Great advice. How often do we restrain from writing, posting, or expressing our thoughts because of our shyness? Or fear of being judged? Besides, I would take any advice from someone who has this to say about Bach:

Which non-literary piece of culture — film, TV show, painting, song — could you not imagine your life without? Since the age of 16, my constant resource has been the music of Bach. Piano first, then all the rest. Like all music, it is as abstract as literature is specific, but Bach’s inventions are more so — like the processes of thought before language, deeply human without saying anything at all. In his music I think I confront the most naked demonstration of genius. Wrapped inside the beauty is a form of merriness and a joyful pulse. The same pieces that thrilled me in my teens — the Goldberg Variations, the Well-tempered Clavier — thrill me now.

I loved how he saved the day by brilliantly answering the most boring writer question of all times.

What time of day do you write? The morning. My philosopher friend Galen Strawson divides humanity into those who feel they are living in a constantly unfolding narrative, a life story that informs our every moment, and those who existence is discontinuous. I now understand that I belong in this latter group, even while I’ve often persuaded myself I was in the first. […] Now I can relax. I belong with those whose lives are lived in discrete patches. We can, of course, remember our childhoods, our first loves, our failures and joys when asked to, but almost all of our daily experience is disconnected from any awareness of the past. We also acknowledge that most of that past is lost to us forever. We, the non-narrativists, or episodists, wake in the mornings and we begin anew. I am my own blank sheet. As the day wears on, familiar concerns — domestic, professional, political, crowd in. The thing about that waiting desk is that you must turn up — and get there before the blank sheet that is you turns dog-eared.

Originally posted on my website.

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Nicola Iarocci

Software Craftsman. Everything I post on Medium is a copy — the originals are on my own website, nicolaiarocci.com