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James Baldwin Writing Advice

Jun 20, 2017
james baldwin on writing

James Baldwin was an essayist, playwright and novelist regarded as a highly insightful, iconic writer with works like The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head as well as essays like ‘Notes of a Native Son’. In this blog post, we look at what all writers can learn from him.

You write in order to change the world... if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.
—James Baldwin


What can James Baldwin teach writers?

Born on 2nd August 1924 in New York City to a young single mother, Baldwin never knew the name of his biological father. In 1946, Baldwin moved to France. The shift in location freed Baldwin to write more about his personal and racial background. ‘Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I see where I came from very clearly... I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both,’ Baldwin once told The New York Times.

As a gay black man, fatherless, who chose to leave his country, he looked beyond the binary racial politics of 1950s and 60s America, toward a future that could genuinely be called post-racial. Unlike his peers who took a hardline position – such as Malcolm X’s by-any-means-necessary stance, and the Black Panthers’ militancy – and offered solutions. Baldwin saw his job as bearing witness. 

James Baldwin published the 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, winning acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality and humanity. He died on 1st December 1987 in Saint-Paul de Vence. 

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
—James Baldwin

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

This is what a novel teaches us:

People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives, they lead.
—James Baldwin

This is what you do as a writer:

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.
—James Baldwin

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.
—James Baldwin

Never forget how good people are and how cruel they can be. If you can keep this saddest of paradoxes alive in your work, you will have succeeded in the calling of a writer.

‘Success’ is so much more than being published. You can be published, work hard and you will be published, but treat it warily.

People don’t have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you’ re dead, when they’ve killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn’t have any character. They weep big, bitter tears – not for you. For themselves, because they’ve lost their toy.
—James Baldwin

See the world as it is, tell how it is, make it and unmake it.

You’ll find James Baldwin waiting to salute you as you finish our Ninety Day Novel course.

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