Insights From Best-Selling Authors

a collection of some of today's best-selling authors

At the inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival, some of today’s best-selling authors spoke about writing and their personal writing journeys. Here are some of the things they had to say.

As writers, we falter more often than not. We struggle to find narrative clarity, struggle with the purpose of why we write, struggle with beliefs that writing comes easier or more naturally for others, struggle with allowing who we really are to come through in our work, or that who we are, as we are, is enough. Sometimes words from other writers offer a lift.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be a press photographer and participant at one of the greatest literary events I’ve ever attended: The inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival.

According to the event founders, “Storytelling, like music and art, has the power to transport people across borders, cultures, and worlds beyond their own. The convergence of words, ideas, and imagination truly knows no bounds. At a time of extraordinary change in our world, the festival not only provides space to escape into great stories, but also a forum to explore important issues — in politics, race, immigration, the environment.”

All-star cast

A stellar lineup of world-class authors gathered, including Colson Whitehead, Sandra Cisneros, John Grisham, Joy Harjo, George R.R. Martin, Don Winslow, N. Scott Momaday, Margaret Atwood, and Jon Krakauer. Each day, authors took to the stage to share personal stories about their experiences as writers, pressing issues of today that impact their work, and unique relationships with teachers, agents, or other writers that helped shape careers.

The conversations were intimate and insightful and touched on the purity of writing, reading, and the unquestionable necessity of books — especially now, as ideas, truth, and reflective conversations become rarer commodities.

If you’re in the midst of struggle, DON’T GIVE UP! Here are gems I heard at the literary festival from several of the world’s most notable authors I thought I’d pass along.

sandra cisneros best-selling authorsSandra Cisneros

“I struggled in my MFA program. I could never make sense of the books or stories available to read. I couldn’t relate to those stories. I always wondered ‘why have I never seen books of people that know what I know?’ I got depressed. Trying to fit in. And I realized that on the other side of depression was rage. I got angry. I started thinking ‘well, if I don’t see what I know, can’t read what I know, what is it that I know?’

“Never forget you are the original you. I was once asked to write ten things that made me different from other writers. Other people. So now I’ll ask: what are ten things that make you different from other writers? From other people? What do you know that others don’t know? And from this place, of rage, I just started writing stories about what I know.”

joy harjo best-selling authorsJoy Harjo

“Poetry is and was always mysterious to me. I liked that. Initially, I was a painter. Being a painter meant I didn’t have to talk to people. I was also an activist. I was inspired by the people out in the world fighting to make a difference. To me, these people were connected to the stories of their lands. And in that connection, integrity is what always stood in the middle of their stories. I admired that. My view didn’t fit in the world view and with poetry, I didn’t always understand it and that felt good. Poetry is mystery; it’s the place without words.”

Jon Krakauer best-selling authorsJon Krakauer

“Writing is really a challenge for me. I’m a great researcher. I’m not a great writer. Every day, I wake up with crippling writer’s block. My work is really about compiling a lot of facts, doing the best I can to uncover the truth about people and their motivations, and mostly, the stories write themselves. A great thing about being a writer is that you don’t have to put it out until it’s right. I’ve always been fascinated by the nature of extremism. As a journalist, to follow the stories I end up wanting to write, I go on my intuition. I write the stories that won’t leave me alone.”

George RR Martin best-selling authorsGeorge R.R. Martin

“At a very early age, I started making up my own stories. I would write them and started selling them to other kids in the projects. It would just be a page long, handwritten on a piece of paper ripped from one of my notebooks. They were monster stories. Horror stories. But we didn’t use the word ‘horror’ then. They would have werewolves or vampires. And I would give a dramatic reading because I read better than the other kids. Even though I was the writer, I was really a reader. I charged a nickel and I’d have six listeners. With one nickel you could buy a Milky Way bar, and with two nickels you could buy a comic book, so I was good!

“My writing life has had its fair share of ups and downs. Around the time I was considered washed up as a writer and novelist, Hollywood came calling. Working with Hollywood remains quite an experience. What we consider low in terms of ideas, Hollywood considers high. I wrote about strange people doing strange things for strange reasons. I wasn’t successful for a long time. I’d go back and forth with ideas, trying to find homes for these strange things and ideas that always came back.

“I’d always heard about what goes on when they talk about Hollywood and ‘the room.’ And by ‘the room,’ they mean where agents pitch television or streaming series ideas to a bunch of executives. I’ll never forget my agent’s 30-second pitch for Game of Thrones, it was something like, ‘it’s Sopranos meets Middle Earth…’”

John Grisham best-selling authorsJohn Grisham

“People always ask why I don’t write about sex in my books. First of all, and my wife would tell you, that is not my literary wheelhouse. She might joke ‘John, let’s save that for people who actually know what they’re talking about.’ The real reason, however, is growing up in the south, as a Southern Baptist, I promised my mother I’d never write anything in a book that she herself couldn’t read. Even though I’ve had lots of requests and suggestions from well-meaning fans and friends, I’ve made sure I’ve kept that promise.”

Colson Whitehead best-selling authorsColson Whitehead

“People tell me on occasion I have these tics or habits or words that I tend to use a lot. One guy was like, ‘you use to wit a lot as a transition, like to wit, he’s out of money,’ which I guess is like a recurring thing. So I made the decision that the overuse of certain words was on purpose. Let’s just say I now claim that as part of my style.”

Don Winslow best-selling authorDon Winslow

“I went to school with these mobsters. I ate dinner with these mobsters. These people were neighbors and friends. It wasn’t a stretch to write about some of the circumstances or things that happened around us. But we’re talking about Rhode Island mobsters. Some of the things they said or did were actually as bad as one might imagine. And yes, some of the more outlandish things I’ve written about based on things these mobsters said or did did not derive from people as bright as you imagine mobsters might be. And when I go back to Rhode Island, it’s common for these people to ask if anything they said or did ever made it into one of my books. I’m no dummy. I know when to be quiet. I also joke with them when I say I bank my safety on the fact that most don’t read.”

Margaret Atwood best-selling authorsMargaret Atwood

“When it comes to extremism, either the left or right, we have to be careful. If we were to draw a circle, up at the top, it says ‘tyranny.’ Down at the bottom, it says ‘chaos.’ Through the middle is the part you actually want to live. On the outside are arrows going up to the left and going up to the right towards tyranny. There’s an arrow going down on the left and down on the right going towards chaos. If you reach chaos, there are two big arrows going all the way up and you skip everything that’s in the middle; and those arrows go all the way up to tyranny from either side. We’ve had totalitarianism from the left and the right. So, if someone claims just to be a progressive, the next question that needs to be asked is, what kind?”

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  1. I have written twelve books. They are all based on Lucid Dreaming. I am just a reporter sharing those encounters. Lucid dreams are an endless source of magic and mystery. The books write themselves. I am merely the facilitator putting stuff down on the blank page one dream at a time. Give yourself permission to remember your dreams and writer’s block will vanish and never return. I too do not consider myself to be a writer or a poet but I even have a book of archaic Elizabethan poetry almost three hundred pages long, crazy.

  2. I like where Martin says ___ meets ___.

    The novel I’m writing is where Tessa (Rachel Weisz type), an Amnesty activist, becomes a anti circus activest, & meets Dan Brown, conspiracy theory author, at a regatta in Florida; while saving some almost extinct birds they all discover what is the true value of a treasure & where it really originated.
    Thanks for the interesting author’s suggestions. Always appreciated.

  3. I have a list of quotes that sometimes help me through my writing day – one of the more pertinent is from the late Carl Sagan: “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. “(‘Cosmos, Part II: The Persistence of Memory.’ 1980)

    • I LOVE this quote! How inspirational, thanks for sharing. I think we need our lifts from time to time, and to allow our heroes to carry us forward in moments of doubt. I’m glad you find your inspiration.


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