Sunday, April 27, 2008

How Writers Talk About Writing

The ostensible point of this post is to let you know that I've just posted an interview with poet Eavan Boland over at the Writers At Cornell Blog. Boland read at Cornell last week, and the following day spoke with me about Irish poets in the literary consciousness, the difficulty of being a woman creator in a national literature that romanticizes women, and the idea of the writer--particularly the Irish writer--as exile. I also recommend her New Collected Poems, which I just finished reading, and which is really excellent.

But also wanted to address, in a more general sense, the diversity of approaches writers take in talking about their craft. Over the year and a half that I've been conducting these interviews, I've talked to nearly 20 writers, and have found that the conversations have been nearly as different from one another as the work we've discussed. Eavan Boland is a precise and succinct conversationalist, when it comes to her poetry; she answered my questions with the air of an experienced writer who has long ago made some decisions about what she does and how she does it, and didn't feel the need to elaborate. Junot Diaz was her near-opposite--ask the guy where he got his sport coat and ninety seconds later you'll be hearing about dictatorship and literature as seen through the lens of Foucault. George Saunders' self-deprecating amiability, Alison Bechdel's careful soul-searching, Heather McHugh's mad energy--their ways of seeing what they do are as divergent as their personalities.

This might seem kind of obvious, but I bring it up because I feel as though, often, we listen to what writers have to say in order to find out the "key" to what they do, maybe so that we can read them with greater sophistication, or imitate them in our own work. We want to know what time of day they write, or whom they like to read, or whether they're married or not, or have children, or are religious, or gay, or like music or sports.

What do we expect to get out of this exactly? For me, I've left behind the notion that I can, say, write novels like William Kennedy's by listening very carefully to what his childhood was like. I no longer mine literary interviews, memoirs, or writing guides for trade secrets. Rather, I like to read writers' personalities the same way I read their books--as inimitable expressions of individuality. I like to be reminded that there is no right way to do anything, and there might not even be a good way to do anything. There is only the way you can do it, nothing more. The only material, the only talent, that you can work with is your own; and imitation serves mostly to show you precisely what you can't do.

So how do you figure out what you can do? I honestly don't know. Sometimes I get optimistic and think that I've only scratched the surface of what I'm capable of, if only I can figure out how to get at the good stuff. At other times I feel as though I hit my ceiling years ago. But listening to other writers talk about their work, I understand that most of them have the same problem. Most of them are hopelessly groping around in the darkness of their own potential, wondering if and when they're going to bump up against something great. At the best of times, it's this search that creates the good work--the effort of the thing turns out to be the goal. At the worst of times, though, it can get pretty lonely in there.

These interviews, for me, have been like postcards from the no-man's-lands of other writers' minds: It's dark as hell, wish you were here.


Unknown said...

Great post! -ss

Warren Adler said...

Excellent points. Really enjoyed this.

Anonymous said...

I like reading/ listening to writers talk about the ideas in their work. That can really open up a book for me. But I do get weary of the "writers at work" articles -- photos of their desks and details of their work habits and what pencils they use. There was one recently in The Guardian, and I was staring at photos of Seamus Heaney's office, and thinking "What the hell am I looking for? The magic? It's in his books, not his in-tray."

That freed up a lot of time to spend groping about in my own darkness, hoping to bump into something interesting. So far, it's been fun.

Anonymous said...

It's analagous to rock geeks (I don't exempt myself) wondering what kind of amps their heroes use. They have these stompboxes now that allow you to dial in the "sound" of Jimi Hendrix or Eric if you could just hop up on stage and fill in for those guys, and as long as you didn't switch amps, it would sound more or less the same.

How's it goin', SS?

Anonymous said...

'cept if I used the Clapton stompbox I'd still sound like the "Eric Clapton Shreds" video on YouTube.

Anonymous said...

:-D Those videos are genuinely hilarious. Especially the Metallica one, which sounds like a bunch of toddlers banging on a pianosaurus.

I should do a "J. Robert Lennon shreds" video in which I'm sitting at my desk typing and nothing but random gobbledygook appears on the screen.