Advice to Writers From Two Great Names of Portuguese Literature

These two books about the writing process and the experience of being a writer are must-have guides for writers in Portugal (and any other writers who have access to them). Aspiring writers in the Lusofone world are lucky to have these books, as two big literary names share years of wonderful – and sometimes painful – creative work.

Both João Tordo and Mário de Carvalho are literary novelists. However, their guidebooks for aspiring writers aren’t pretentious or ‘highbrow’. João Tordo is the younger of the two, born in 1975, de Carvalho the older, born in 1944. Both have won multiple prizes in their native Portugal, and also internationally, achieving great critical success (if not always commercial success).

As you can see, the front covers are wonderful. Initially, as I browsed Bertrand bookshop on Rua Ferreira Borges in Coimbra, I absolutely judged both of these books by their covers. I think the covers are classy and creative, communicating the tone and theme of the book. These books are for booklovers, and lovers of words. The typewriter on the de Carvalho book and the ink spill on the Tordo book are lovely details, as is the use of subtle, toned-down colours.

I thought twice about writing this post, because it may have limited appeal – the books in question are not translated into English. I wondered whether the ideal reader for this blog post is a Portuguese speaker who reads reviews in English. I’m hardly aiming at a wide audience. And yet…

And yet I believe that the highs and lows of creative writing are universal experiences, which any writer can connect to. João Tordo and Mário de Carvalho aren’t known in the anglophone world, but their knowledge and advice is valuable in any language.

First, a comment on the titles. Joao Tordo’s book translates as Writer’s Survival Manual or The Little I know About That Which I Do. It’s a great title for a book of its kind. It communicates the uncertainty of the writer: always using your skills, yet wondering how you are doing it, and whether you can do it again. All writers have imposter syndrome to some degree. As for the book by de Carvalho, I have to ask myself the question whether a book title has sounded so good in Portuguese and so awkward in English. Whoever Says the Opposite is Right: Letters Without Bullshit.

Tordo’s book is far more personal that de Carvalho’s. He shares the pain of failure, the struggle not just to write the book but to navigate the world of publishing. In parts it’s negative (Tordo describes the ardent aspiring writer as being “condemned to literature”). He tells stories of skirmishes with unscrupulous publishers, of the various writers’ retreats he has been to in France and America; about his journey to Brazil, and in all this how he found a way of bringing his imaginative ideas to the page.

While de Carvalho casts his net wide to incorporate reflections on Socrates, Shakespeare, Rabelais or Homer, Tordo often uses examples from his own body of work. He shows the genesis of an idea, and how it finally ended up as a book, after taking several twists and turns along the way. I mentioned that both writers have achieved critical success. Tordo especially writes about living without the luxury of the high income which great commercial success can bring. His attitude is very pragmatic: if a well-known writer needs to earn extra money by teaching creative writing, then so be it. He points out that there will always be someone who is a better writer than you, always someone who sells more, often someone who starts much later than you and quickly overtakes you in terms of sales, celebrity or prestige.

There is advice from Tordo on editing (“The process is of humility, not of humiliation”) and on the relation between reading and writing: the writer needs to “read like a writer” and consequently “write like a reader”. His advice seems more grounded than that of de Carvalho.

De Carvalho’s scope is impressive, bringing in the whole history of literature, especially through the Greeks, then the great names of European letters. Some advice is very direct. He tells the aspiring writer that reading half a dozen stories by Chekhov is more valuable than countless writers’ workshops. He extols the literary value of ripping up conventions, while acknowledging that as readers we all like convention. He says that there are no dogmas or impositions in what he advises. Both de Carvalho and Tordo emphasize the freedom of the artist to create. Tordo links it to childhood play – the novelist is like a child still at play with toys.

It’s long established that for writers in the English language there are some key books on writing: Stephen King’s On Writing, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and several others depending on who you ask. For the aspiring Portuguese writer, these books by Tordo and de Carvalho will become classics. I doubt whether the average English reader will ever have the chance to read them. I’ve never seen a Tordo novel in English, despite his success in Portugal and France. An Amazon search shows one Mário de Carvalho book in translation, available second hand, but currently out of print.

Acknowledging the literary landscape of another culture gives us the knowledge that there is so much going on ‘out there’. Writers are writing, readers are reading. The passion we have for books, for stories, and for exploring the human heart is universal, despite language or borders.