Writing the Literary Essay



good evening everybody hi Isaac on good my name is Prince como villas I am the Acting Director of the master of professional writing program here at USC for those few of you who don't know the mpw program is the country's first multi-genre creative writing program where students come here to study fiction nonfiction poetry and writing for stage and screen we are particularly interested in the connections between forms tonight we are very very fortunate to be able to host a panel discussion on writing the literary SI featuring up for local writers with national reputation to continually draw from los angeles as a source of inspiration Tom Bissell Linnell George david newman & our moderator Dinah Lenny the discussion tonight will be followed by a QA with you the audience and after that we'll have a lovely reception right here well and the panelists will be happy to sign books which incidentally are on sale in the lobby so please buy and buy lots and multiple copies for your friends and family before we get started if you all take a moment to silence your cell phones and other noise making devices it would be greatly appreciated to introduce our panelists I'm going to hand it over to Dinah Lenny Dinah if you don't know her she is the author of bigger than life a murder a memoir and she co-authored acting for young actors a book inspired of course by her own career as an actor including a recurring role as nurse Shirley on NBC's critically acclaimed series ER for 15 years her writing has also appeared in New York Times the Los Angeles Times or nonfiction Wow shares and many many many other places please welcome dino egg come on a game a game show you are I I am I Monica these are my contestants on listen I'm like I am NOT going to do to them what was just done to me because you have these trusty programs so you know where here's your trusty program so you know that that I'm Tom and Linnell and David have written between them many books and essays and have won many accolades and awards and and and some of you have been reading their work for the last week or so so I just sort of want to launch it but I wanted to talk for a bit why did we call this panel the literary SI print said to me earlier today you know you're going to have to introduce the panel it was all I guess I will have to talk about the literary si we called it the literary essay because there are so many different kinds of essays and because this is a writing program and we wanted to sort of make sure that you understood that our primary concerns are literary but there are indeed many different kinds of essays back when I was a student you could study fiction or you could study journalism so this is no longer although the essay has been around for you know thousands of thousands of years or just a thousand thank you could save thousands thousands of years the essays been in fact you know there are books devoted to this but but um but you couldn't study it and now you can and you can study the lyric essay and you can study the personal essay and you can study New Journalism and you get other essay what other kinds of essays can you study you can study all kinds of hybrid forms that that our SaaS dick and of course one of the things that we will undoubtedly get into is whether or not um whether or not the essay has to be nonfiction but I'm not going to get into that right off the bat David okay so yeah so um so uh but what I wanted to do is talk a little bit um all three of the writers here are also journalists they've done a lot of work in journalism and so I wanted to start by asking you guys what distinguishes what's the difference for you between a personal essay and journalism is there a difference you wanna start looking at me can everybody not my own okay to me what I think distinguishes a piece of journalism from a quote-unquote literary essay is the complicated presence of the narrator and by that I mean it's a narrator who doesn't pretend to be this invisible presence like they do in New York Times pieces the the author of a piece of journalism particularly piece in straight up newspaper magazine journalism sort of operates under the assumption that trust has been pre earned for him or her by the gothic lettering that the magazine or newspaper that they write for sort of earns them but a literary sa you sort of started at a blank ur place you started a place where the reader doesn't know if he or she is going to trust you automatically and so you create that trust I think with you extend the hand of empathy you extend the hand of self-deprecation you extend the hand of carefully wrought detail but the literary sa doesn't shrink from the narrator being a participant in what he or she is seeing he doesn't he or she doesn't pretend to be an invisible presence an impartial recorder of things the literary sa takes it as a given that's honest subjectivity is actually what's what's being explored and I don't really think there's any real objectivity i think that the journalists idea that true objectivity is a desired state is i think it's kind of farcical in very old-fashioned so on a subjectivity and the complicated presence of the narrator are the two things that to me mark a literary essay and distinguish it from journalism guys do you want to add to that to lamela David um yeah I'd like to because i am i'm a journalist and I right and for various sections across newspapers so I right hardness and I'm ready our criticism and I've written music criticism and I've written essays and in the newsroom there are several different kinds of essays you can right there are if your columnist essentially you're writing an essay with you as the first person voice it is understood that it is your opinion if you are a colonist it's one of the few places in the paper where people know when they see that columnist named that that's going to be through their length there are other places in the newspaper like in the magazines for example where you can write what I love to do which are reported essays where you're trying to bounce with the hybrid you're trying to balance your reporting with your own voice and your observations and the reporting actually helps to support your argument or you can argue with the voices in that you have collected through your reporting to make to deepen the piece in some way shape or form so I sort of look at all these different places in ways i can write as four colors on my palette so i can stretch out so say there's some story that i have been wanting to go to dig deeper you know into and want to do it in a different kind of voice i may want to try to do it as a reported a say so so starting as a reporter you started as a journalist yes well if i really go way back i actually when i was in school i wanted i was writing fiction and I didn't intend to be a journalist at all so was it hard for you as a coming from fiction and then moving into journalism was it hard for you to find your way into a subjectivity me more it was harder to find a voice I felt when I first started I thought I have to be writing and when you were talking about the authoritative voice I thought that that's what I was supposed to be doing I was supposed to like strip everything away and I'm just reporting and what I found working with editors like no they didn't want that with the kinds of pieces I was writing was already I'm feature stories and they wanted the flavor of my voice but i had trouble trying to marry that you know it took a while for me to feel comfortable like oh I can do that I can use that voice uh-huh that was the hardest thing for me David talked about finding a voice oh thanks for the easy question but weirdly as a critic talk about I mean fine how subjective are you as a critic I'm utterly subjective I think y'all for me it all ties together because I also didn't train as a journalist and didn't I sort of back into journalism I'm so that when I started trying to sell pieces someone said write book reviews they're publishing them everywhere is totally true so I started writing book reviews and sending them out and lo and behold they were publishing them everywhere that's really how I became a book reviewer it was the easiest thing to get published was a book review and I have always been a creature of the path of least resistance so but I didn't have any journalistic training so it never occurred to me and also I grew up reading all weeklies and then writing for all weekly so I would never occur to me that journalism should be subjective and shouldn't be voice driven and that the journalists shouldn't wear his or her biases even reported story on his or her sleeve when I started writing for mainstream newspapers before I ever worked at the paper at the times when I was freelancing I you know I had to learn the ropes of that to the writing a feature an arts feature for the LA Times or Piper tribute of the New York Times was different than writing an arts feature for the LA Weekly or the village voice that that you know there are different set of requirements and I've always kind of had a i'm going to call it sort of a dreaming regard for all this stuff like I want to know how to do it all like I want to know how to write a you know a hard news story I'd like to do that I don't want to do it all the time you know when the Nobel Prize was announced night to get up at four in the morning and write a hard news story about the guy who want to know they'll prize you know I was like this is why I'm glad to do this once a year to remind myself of why I don't want to do this no more days here but I like being able to do it it all sort of pulls a different muscle but I think in some ways it all does kind of come from voice and I for me voices very much centered on or has a lot to do with point of view it can be a first person point of view in the sense of like Thomas saying sort of the narrator as a presence with Joan Didion calls triangulation between you know herself and the reader and the subject of the story which I think about a lot or it can simply be the way your point of view operates I mean even when you are writing a putative Lee objective piece of reporting there's no such thing as an objective piece of reporting right so you know for instance when I again just to sort of talk about that one piece of hard news when I wrote about the Chinese author who won the Nobel Prize one of the things that interested me and frankly concern me a little bit about him was it was a little bit too in bed with the authorities so I asked those questions when i did my reporting that was the thing that my natural interest or my natural bent led me to sort of focus my reporting on and so even though the story is theoretically objective it can that nothing can ever be objective because if you're an engaged in your material you're always approaching that material from your point of interest and i think that's true journalism or as they write right I think it wasn't a backup that said that everything that's worthwhile is at least a little bit subjective so can you know what else he said what he said literature did not begin when the boy came back to the village being chased by a wolf and said I'm being chased by a wolf he said literature began I came back to village and said I was chased by wolfen there was no wolf oh great thanks just jump right in David and I have been arguing for weeks now about nonfiction and fiction in non fiction and non fiction in fiction and we will get to that I just want to stay on this thing about voice though for a minute so um do you do use when you talk about the different requirements of different kinds of journalism you guys did Tom does it affect your voice depending I mean are you instructing a different narrative persona according to the core are you are you the same Tom running through all these kinds of literary essays no just because you know the contingencies of publishing sort of determine a lot of that so I've written three pieces for The New Yorker which is a very different place to write for because they kind of have a State Department of style there a little bit where it would be an over exaggeration to say they beat the style out of you but they definitely are not there to hear you talk about your personal feelings about what you're reporting and so when I've done those pieces I've been extremely conscious of the fact that the story is not about me it's about the person all three of these pieces were profiles which helped and then you just let the subject in the environment that you're talking to the subject in sort of tell the story itself and I wouldn't dream have inserted myself in there because I wasn't I wasn't what anyone was paying money to see so but are you there are you so is it implicit that you're in this of course yeah yeah I'm the I there but i'm only the I there is the camera I I'm not there as the opinionated I whereas I've done pieces for Harper's and the Virginia quarterly review I'll talk about the Virginia quarterly review one I did a reported piece on the Loch Ness monster which was an incredibly hard hitting piece of investigative report and the whole purpose of that piece was to put me next to Loch Ness which is a place that obsessed me since I was a kid I don't believe there's a monster there but the whole purpose of that piece was my going there and actually describing what it felt like to be someone who loved this monster no longer believed in it what that felt like and so you see these two occasions are very very different things one I was going to talk to chuck lorre the guy who made two and a half men and big bang theory the other i was going to investigate my own personal feelings about this rather mythic long narrow Lake in the middle of Iberia right so yeah I mean you don't have to it doesn't take a lot of cogitation to just figure out like where the weights and presentation are going to shift their and so it's actually a very instinctive thing and if you have a brain as a writer you realize pretty quickly when you're the main attraction when you're like an extra and when you're when you're somewhere in between and in terms of your comfort zone both you and Linnell candy David's you can talk about this when you're doing a researched piece how how does that how quickly do you move from one voice to the other how do you know what the requirements are and how do you find that balance when they'll talk about that a little bit in terms of the pieces that I may be read here it definitely it changes with venue you know i'm who i'm writing for who I expect my audience to be but often I have to know if this is a really informed audience I don't have to go all the way back to a and you know really explain a lot of stuff I they want to meet them where they are but if I'm going to be leading them into something that they don't know then I want to be really aware that ok I'm going to have to that's part of what I'm going to need to do and maybe even within the piece there's going to be a voice shift because I have to do that but I want to do it in such a subtle way that it doesn't it's not going to feel so jarring that okay she's stepping back now to explain the history of this so they're those things are going on soon about like well you know what is this supposed to be I really really have to establish in my head before I start anything for anyone especially for a really long form piece what the mood of the piece is going to be that's essential and that's if I can locate the mood then I can then I start to hear the voice that I'm supposed to tell the story in it so and and if you're dizzy so you're all talking about writing on assignment what about when you what triggers the writing of something personal for you that isn't how often do you not write on assignment David what what would trigger an essay for you that they ran an essay one of you right yep all right as an example I went to Texas two weeks ago and I realized when I got on the plane that I always wear my shittiest clothes when I fly no really it's like I have a uniform it's the same t-shirt currently at superstition and their other superstitions which I can't reveal or else it will invalidate the superstitions but I always wear my crappiest clothes and I think that it has to do with comfort because I hate flying so much and I generally you know um I generally dress really well as you guys all know so I like to be comfortable anyway these are old clothes like they're you know faded may be torn a little bit that I've worn a lot so I feel comfortable in them I think that they're related and so I started actually started writing this essay about this while I was in text not it wasn't wife anyway whatever but that knows the dressing on the plane boat yeah and comfort in levels of comfort and there's a great line in a Don DeLillo play where he talks about how only in hospitals and on airplanes are we polite to each other because we sense the presence of death and and I think he's absolutely right and I'm fascinated with those questions of solemnity and fascinated with questions of death so it became a kind of interesting lens to sort of look at comfort and discomfort and private space in public space and being on the plane the company of my own death which is how I generally feel when I want an airplane and so I but but to go back to the initial question about voice I mean that idea just sort of popped up and then it seemed to have legs sometimes ideas pop up and they just are stupid and disappear fairly quickly like I once wondered what it would be like to be inside a big apartment building when I got tented for termites but that seems really unworkable as I'm writing on how you actually research that piece so that piece got rid of that that idea got put aside but it all does sort of come out of the same voice well and I think that the other part of it i would say is that you know when I was sort of i think all writers have a voice i think it's like a fingerprint or it's just who they are as a writer and for me the big process was accepting what my voice was it wasn't necessarily the voice I wanted it to be the voice that I would have wished it was it wasn't like the iter writers I idolized although it takes some things from them I think but it was a real matter of coming to an accommodation this is my voice I can play with it in certain ways but there is a kind of way a natural way that I tell a story and it's the same way I tell a story if it's an essay like the one you read or if it's a piece that I'm writing on assignment or if it's a book or anything like that I think that there is a kind of continuity of voice and I don't know where it comes from but I think for me it was a big step was was accepting it so um I want to sort of talk about this business will nail you find you you you have to have the mood in place first and and David you're talking about sort of getting this idea about the coming from the clothes on the plane um if I want to talk about how you move into the structure of an essay when does when does that come into play for you Linda once you've decided that you know what the tenor of the pieces when does it when does the structure tape well um if I'm really lucky it falls out of my head I think that's happened twice and five years of writing you know or it actually just like boom there it is it's it solved itself for me most of the time I really struggle with structure um that do we struggle with structured I'm moving things around a lot in journalism you have there certain things if you're writing a piece of journalism if the target or feature there are certain things that have to be in place that editors are expecting to see and so I at least know okay well that's going to go about here in the column inches right about there so because I know they're going to be barking for it but the rest of it again probably sort of like the mood thing it it sometimes announces itself sometimes I do outline but I don't outline in the way that with the roman numeral and that you know none of nothing like that I might take a quote from someone that I just have been it's just been looping in my head and I'm thinking this is this is talking to me so that becomes one of the points in the piece and then it may be just a list of points that I want to make or quotes that I definitely want to right around there may be an image that sticks with me the in the piece that you read and slake that piece really did come out of me being detoured I did not was not thinking about writing that piece I had not been in that neighborhood in a long time going that way if I hadn't been detoured that piece wouldn't exist but it made me start thinking about oh my goodness what does this mean and that's a piece that actually found its own structure because I decided I'm going to pick some streets and I'm going to go drive down those streets and I'm going to go see what happens when I Drive down those streets so that actually that that structure came to me you know naturally so every piece is different and I try to stay really open to that even even though thinking that I've got an editor who's going to go worries a nut Graf no no where's that net graphics here and did the act of the writing of also shape the piece for you I mean did the writing sort of mirror that they're driving in some way or yes definitely in fact in the original version of this piece there two other streets that didn't make it him I am in the end because I decided we decided I decided and then the editor who worked on it also decided just this feels connected but not it doesn't it doesn't close a piece out I have a feeling you need to I think this is going to be a bigger piece so I've held on to those pieces and I think I probably will build a new structure that will contain all of those pieces all those streets oh um Tom tell us about the structure of escanaba is Magic Hour how did you when did you discover the structure of that s that's that the you guys read it right so that's the first reported piece I ever wrote in my life and I don't know what to say I just went did the reporting came home wrote it up so you don't do multiple drafts no not really are you are you know know if it really doesn't in it and it on we don't like to hear that no I thought I was in I thought I was gonna be cruising on easy street it is nonfiction thing that was gonna be really easy but I mean that was an exception for whatever reason that was like one of these essays that I was sort of born to write and it's not every day your tiny home town in Michigan gets turned into a movie right so I never really think about structure i just write it look at it and then maybe move stuff around but Timmy structure sort of makes itself clear when it's done uh-huh and I have one of the most inefficient methods of working imaginable and my essay collection the last kind of reported piece i did is a profile of a novelist Jim Harrison I don't any guys know him he wrote legends of the fall he's an amazing writer so research that piece I read all I read a 12 books that he written reread them took a bunch of notes when and did the reporting took a bunch of notes there then just wrote a bunch of paragraphs about what I thought about him typed up my notes from the books so when i was done i had 128 pages have typed up notes double spaced that's a bit more than anyone was asking for so I kind of knocked that stuff down to a 32-page essay so then you're just basically doing sculpture right I mean not that my work is you know what i mean by that you're just you're just chipping away what i mean and it's so amazingly disheartening and my girlfriend is in the audience can tell you that when i wake up knowing i have to knock 90 pages out of something it's not a good morning but but i really do feel like when you approach it that way the stuff that you cut is still there no one can see it but it's still there like the fullness somehow the work is there it doesn't feel thin and I like essays that feel like there's a lot more than than you actually wrote in the piece and so I wouldn't recommend that method to anyone sitting in this room I really wouldn't because it's really painful and awful but I do feel like if you're willing to write a hundred pages of notes about something and you haven't written like a word of the text yet you're probably committed enough and crazy enough to actually write good essays because that's the kind of just cockeyed weird method you have to have sometimes to do something to do a piece right I guess David you wanted to talk about structure sure I I believe in it firmly but I don't know quite what it is you know I know it's there I don't I don't consciously let's see how I want to put this I do structure things very actively but I sort of don't consciously structure than at least in the early going I am a writer who sits down M rights you know I mean I don't have a sense of I may have a sense that the piece starts here or that the SA starts here whatever I'm doing starts here this is true even when I write reported pieces for the paper but reviews whatever i don't i don't outline I don't know much more when i start than where i'm starting and then generally kind of I mean I've steeped in the material generally sort of the kinds of things i want to touch on in the case of the essay you guys read i had no idea it was gonna and it was going to go to New York until it went to New York I thought that I was just going to briefly have one sentence about New York and then I got kind of sidetracked into a few pages about New York that was interesting to me I it wasn't what I was planning on but it seemed worth going with that essay also was initially conceptualized as something that I thought was going to be about 500 words long just a little riff and then it turned into something bigger partly because I went to New York but um but I feel like for me the structure has to kind of assert itself in the writing of the piece and they don't want to make this sound you know magical or unconscious because it's not I mean that essay which is a short essay it's only eight pages long took me about two months to write so it takes a long time I go in you know I write I pull stuff out I put stuff back in but for me it's really a matter of kind of just sort of shutting my conscious brain off enough to just go with my instincts and see where they go sometimes they lead me astray sometimes they don't and so there is a real sense of sort of fortuitous I think to the way structured developed and then I in latch onto it as another quick example in the book I wrote about reading I you very early on that there was going to be a sort of three-part structure which would have been we can call thesis antithesis and synthesis but it seemed to linear to me and too on the nose and I knew I didn't want to write that the book that way and I couldn't figure out what the structure was and then I was sort of so i think i was kind of receptive to the idea that there was some other structure out there i just needed to know kind of what the frame was and then something happened that I write about in the book and after that happened I realized that that was the frame this thing that happened was my son coming to the reading was dead and literature was over and I realized that that was going to be the starting point of the book and then the trigger for the book and there was going to be this other super structure on top of that three-part structure but again it was sort of a matter of just waiting to see what happens and for me a lot of it is just waiting to see what happens so let's let's talk for a little bit about because I'm still this thing about structures intriguing to me I'm thinking now I don't you're obviously in the middle of writing the essay about wearing clothes on I haven't started I have a lot of notes but I mean I 128 days so I think I'm gonna adopt this strategy that's my strategy actively I always have 128 pages always but but but David so you know I want to talk about the difference between SI and memoir and the idea that you're you're going to explore this idea of comfort maybe a larger idea of comfort sort of your entry point is the is the clothing on the plane right and you want it so can we talk a little bit about that i know i don't know Linnell if you think of yourself as a memoirist but is there a difference between a memoir and essay for you guys and what is it I personally don't I've thought about this a lot and I don't to me I did it to me it's just a piece of nonfiction can this is the wonderful thing about nonfiction is that if it's not a poem and it's not a story it's not fiction and nonfiction can be a hundred hundred different things and I've got I had a review once for someone critiqued a book that I'd written for being too memoir istic and I was like I I didn't even know it wasn't that I mean do you consider that a memoir or a long essay or this is a book about my father in the Vietnam War he and I went back to Vietnam together he's a Vietnam combat veteran and so we went back to Vietnam together it's a very strange book and that it opens with a 100-page novella of my imagining the night my parents marriage kind of broke up on the night South Vietnam formally surrendered to the North Vietnamese which my father watched on television and I kind of only let you know that I'm basically making this up about two pages away from the end of that section up to then you think it's this hardcore documentary recreation based on all these interviews and it's not and then that's interspersed with a second part which is an account of my father's in my trip and then that's broken up by a third part which is just kind of an oral history of a bunch of kids whose dads fought in the Vietnam War both from the Vietcong savient means in American perspective and the North Vietnamese perspective so you know basically the four sides of this war just voices no one's identified just blocks of people talking so as I say it's a strange book there's a lot of me and if there's also a ton of history in it and there's also a lot of fiction in it and so I wouldn't begin to know how to even to describe that and that's kind of why it's of the books that I've written it's one I'm proudest of because I you know I wouldn't even know what to call it it's just a weird grab bag of non-fictional opportunities i would say and so but you would call it sorry you would call it non bitch absolutely um with a twist um so memoir nonfiction and si I think as a freebie young riders in the audience I think you can actually your head up a little bit thinking too much about these things a work of nonfiction is a contract with the reader that what you're telling them purports to be true within the limited context of its presentation that it's true to the experience at the writer that the facts in it as it represents them are accurate and that within these facts and within that representation you're telling them some truth of your existence and how it relates to a literary experience and so that to me is really the bond between the reader and writer of nonfiction everything else is marketing and my opinion David Allen L weigh in on this issue of your accountability with your readers I can I can go yeah I really love what you said about about it about not trying to box in which because if you start thinking about categories that's going to so limit what your imagination where your imagination can take you and in blending blending genre as long as my reader knows and it's not you know under my byline in the paper as a reported story and I'm making things up as long as you know it's like why it's not that we don't want to do that but but if I'm I'm writing in a space that clearly where I clearly let them know that okay I'm taking I'm going to I'm going to take you want to imagine ride here and I've done pieces where I am retelling history and then I start to wonder well what if you know what if this happens and so the floor falls out for a little bit and I'm taking the reader with me and then we come back out but there was something else Dinah when you were talking about just kind of going back and forth and making decisions I wrote a piece last year and it took me a while to write it about my mom's books my mom passed away and um it was very difficult it was a long illness and um I was hard for me to talk about it was hard for me to write about people can are you writing about it with no my running about it but what happened was I happen to be going through her books because I was going to make my mom's from New Orleans and I wanted to make gumbo when I wanted to make it she didn't really use a recipe but I wanted to have a guideline because I was sort of rusty and I start going through the books and I've noticed that she had written so much in the book and then I would pick up another book and you know Christina Rossetti homes and she had written a ton of stuff in these books and then I was finding old transfers from street cars in new orleans from the 40s so the book the piece i could i still couldn't figure out what kind of piece i wanted to write and so I just put it away for a long time I know I talked to David about it really early on and he said oh you know you want to talk to me about it but I couldn't even talk about it and finally um it just started to announce itself and i wrote a piece that I think again which is probably not the full piece but I wrote a big piece and then when it came time to run into the paper I ran in The Times the book editor at the time I'm saying we should call this a memoir as a the why but why are we calling it a memoir I've written first person essays before is it I'm not sure if it's a memoir I don't know if it's a piece of a memoir and he was saying but it's a memoir it's a memories but I don't know what it is yet you know I may end up being a lot of different things so um I think we did not end up calling it a memoir no I can't remember what we ended up doing with it but I kind of liked the fact that it was because of the way it was structured it could have been because i was doing what else at the very end you know and I was imagining would all these little pieces that I was finding inside the book here's this woman who I didn't know yet and I saw her as a teenager on the streetcar in New Orleans with her shopping lists and you know it just so it could be anything what if question is the key question and that's the question that I'm always asking I mean for me one of the things that I like about non-fiction writing or that it attracts me as a writer to nonfiction writing is that I don't know what it is and I often don't know what it is when I'm sitting down to write it and so I feel like the form has to get invented fresh each time out whether it's for an essay whether it's for a book whatever it is that's sort of great it's sort of scary too but it's sort of thrilling because I feel like we're kind of inventing the form as we go along and so I'm drawn to that I like that idea as I you know I've said before I like that idea of blurring lines and learning boundaries I like that idea of walking into a territory whether a narrative territory or structural territory or a genre territory that I don't quite know what it is that I can't explain and so that's true for me too I mean when I'm sitting in writing i mostly write in this form when I'm sitting and writing I'm not really thinking of what it is I'm thinking about sort of what is the sweat it well what is it that I want to say and how do I want to say it and so for me it's always a mix of things it's partially some kind of personal experience it's partially I draw a lot on reading almost all of my essays drawn reading because I spend most of my time reading I you know there's some kind of meditation sore sort of reflection let's call it I like to do reporting actually I don't like to do reporting elected on reporting hate actually repairing but I like the information or the immersion that that reporting gives me I like I do like the sort of the permission reporting gives me to ask whatever important I want to ask without feeling self-conscious about it because I'm just a reporter and the access it gives me although I also think that that raises certain issues of potential betrayal depending on what you want to do with that with that access but all of those things kind of come together in different ways and I don't really think about it consciously in terms of what it is I just sort of see how it fits together and how the story needs itself to be told and I do think and I say this both as a writer on as a critic that a lot of these labels that are created are simply shorthand for lazy critics so that they don't have to actually actually wrestle with what it is they're they're reading or seeing or listening to or whatever they can just group it into this graphic novel memoir you know sports book whatever cultural criticism great umbrella phrase everything that doesn't fit into another umbrella but I think it's actually much more interesting not to know so I'm curious to know how much of this sort of want you having to discover the way the work is going to shape itself and and and the voice that you're going to tell the story in and how you and you said at one point that your voice is your voice and you had to accept what it was but I wonder it wasn't William Faulkner it wasn't clear I'm still resent that but but but by the same token you've all talked about how the then you can kind of affect your voice and inform the way you tell a story I'm just wondering um for your own work as you as you're doing this kind of Investigation as you're letting your imagination work how much does it have to do with who you're talking to who the I do you have an ideal reader in mind do you I know for me on when I don't know how to tell a story when I don't know how to say it helps me to sort of think well the person that I'm trying to tell this story will sort of architect my voice and my strategy in some way does that is that true for you do you have an ideal reader time I will quote Anthony Burgess you said his ideal reader was British middle-aged colorblind auditorily biased he was describing himself I don't have an ideal reader I and this is gonna sound like lame but I just write the kind of peace that I would want to read well I think that yeah i know somebody I was telling David this I have a friend who said that she writes for a younger slightly happier version of herself alright for a more muscular partier version no no I mean like I've been reading my whole life I think I know what good writing is and if I can read it as a reader and not think it's I think I'm probably doing okay I think that's real and I would encourage all of you guys to just put your faith in yourselves if you can read what you're reading and like recognize when you're doing something right and when if you can't recognize when you're doing well and when you're not you've got that doesn't mean you're not good but it means you've got bigger problems to get over until you're going to be a pro you have to be able to recognize oh that's good stop there move on to the next thing and if you can't do that there's a block in your head that you need to blow up and and so if you can please yourself as a reader you're you're you're doing well or you're deluded but but saying stop that's enough that's good that's very different from knowing when you've gotten to the end of something do you are you always clear about when you've gotten to the end of an essay yeah I think so I mean it doesn't mean you're done done that um but you know where the end is well and reporting things are hard well the piece I'll tell you a very quick story quickly i did a report at peace from iraq for six weeks in 2005 and there was this amazing moment I you know when you're doing a piece like that every experience feels so weird and intense that you don't really know what the end is and one night I was sitting with with a navy doctor on this little camp with some other guys and it was sundown so they were taking the American flag down so he's taking it down and then we do the thing we're folding it blah blah blah and then uh you know he hands it to me I put the flag down then he starts low the iraqi flag the newly installed government there so i'm waiting for him to hand it to me and he takes it any bundles up into a ball and he throws it on a chair and I kind of look at him and he looks at me and he realizes oh i just did that in front of a journalist and he said we don't usually fold that one and the minute he said it I said that's the end of my article and it was because to me it just spoke volumes about what was going on in Iraq at that point and our stated reasons for being there and what the guys you were actually fighting the more actually felt so sometimes in a reported piece you just have to be able to recognize oh that's the end aha that's the end I'm and I would say just to quickly jump in i think it's true of reported pieces but it's really a matter of just paying attention like when you get the gift which it is in a certain way of that of being the witnessing that scene and hearing that line you have to know you know you have to you have to be paying attention to the point where you know that's in right there and you know that's happened to meet with reported pieces also with us days to wear something happens and i know this is the end this is where it's going to end I got to figure out how to get there sometimes but I know this is this is the punch I want at the end and I'm always grateful a when it happens in be when I'm including enough to recognize that a topic um I have a question film no but David before i ask i just want you to tell them about your ideal reader i made the mistake of telling you i know that my ideal reader is actually someone I used to be friendly with who I don't I'm not friendly with anymore and i kind of right with that person in mind partly because largely because i'm petty got also driven by ray negative is actually negative emotion that they get it's not about yeah there's some there's some weird psychological thing going on there but then I don't always I don't always are even often right with this person in mind but if I ever do right with and most of time I don't write than any audience in mind because I was also telling Dinah that the idea that anything i write that there might be a reader that there might be a moment of public consumption while I'm writing is paralyzing after I've written no problem but they like to actually sit at the desk and think Oh somebody's going to read this and I really don't know that much about what I'm talking about that makes me want to stop but once in a while I write with this person in mind just as a way of saying so there and you know I it strikes me like you know i'm not there a paisa here but it seems to it would raise the stakes you know in terms of how smart and my how good am i at this how can i impress even somebody with whom I I don't have a wonderful rap or or what you know what I mean in terms of just being as smart as you can be at writing is a performance and you want to give your you want to impress you know everybody including the people that hate you but when the only thing actually I would like to add yes and I want to ask you something okay okay all right um is that and it just thought it was important because um I about audience is it if I thought too much about who was reading it sometimes I probably wouldn't go ahead and do the kind of peace that i'm going to write and i often get pieces that are incredibly difficult to write about hot-button subjects in the moment where everybody is the most angry and i'll never forget i was getting ready to go to Paris and what's like and I'm sitting in the cafeteria and i'm going to leave the next day and I see my boss walking across the cafeteria toward me and I thought no please no and she's like 10 I'm sorry the jury on the oj simpson trial they have come to a decision and to a verdict and you need to be ready to write a piece explaining what happened I'm like well nothing's happened yet well what happens when it happens you need to be here and ready to do it and I'm like okay and I'm going to be writing this piece for a million people literally and and a bunch of editors are going to be on top of it it's so it's not just my section editor it's the it's the the news editor they want editor and the editor-in-chief and he's the one that asked me to stay so I couldn't go and I remember one of my colleagues saying I don't know how you do these pieces because I mean I'm gonna be afraid to write about the things that you're writing about I mean you know what will people say and I said I can't think about what they are going to say I have to write the best piece I can I have to tell the truth I have to get the truth or sorry as close to the truth as I can and I have to be really careful with all of my contacts on all of my sources and then I'm blending it into a piece that actually ended up being more of an essay a reported essay about how the city of Los Angeles was feeling right now so it was weird and but to take the pressure off I don't think about the audience at all I just think about what I have to say and what needs to be said so so there's writing for an audience and then there's sort of determining how to get at something and the what I wanted to ask you was obviously you didn't so you wrote the oj simpson piece to get to the truth I love the way you said that phrase that but when you were working on the piece about your mother and after I asked this question I'm going to open it up to all of you but when you were working on the piece about your mother I just wonder um you know this piece that was what was neither SI nor memoir nor cultural history nor I mean a bit but some blending of all these things I'm thinking of a book called missing Lucille by a wonderful writer named Suzanne Bernie that is like that it's it's a a book that sort of draws all these threads together and in that sense I think of it as a real essay in the original sense of the world is you know what try it and figuring things out from various angles and I just wonder and this is you know a personal question I do that but how much did you but how much was it writing that how much were you writing that piece for your mother how much of it was getting it right on that level I know Suzanne Bernie was definitely trying to to conjure her grandmother for her father that was her that was the thing that sorry drilling her and I wondered what drove you in terms of getting it right and getting to the truth of that very personal piece I mean I guess in a way I was trying to I don't know so much it was honoring her as much as it was what she instilled in me you know she was an English teacher an avid reader and I watched that growing up and I really rude to me books were an incredible incredibly important part of my life ritual you know so she took a book everywhere I took I wanted to be like her I took a look everywhere so I guess what I was really trying to get at is probably reanimating what that experience was like for me as a kid and what was the key was when her friends started calling me and saying you know your mother would be so proud of you and that was not on my that wasn't in my head but I but really i did kept i was just kept trying to get back to what does that feel like being in the room with her with a book what did it you know i just was trying to I was it was like photographs I was in my head creating photographs which I was trying to write uh-huh so it's getting getting a right well memory and imagine are actually much the same thing aren't they so um I would love to open this up to to you guys do you have and are we passing them do we have to pass the microphone okay that's what I'll do so do we have questions for our essayists you guys kids please post a question when you know you're done and my question back to you is done making your argument at which point shape well I the question was when it what's the difference did I mean when I asked about when you know you were done if I met did I mean done making the argument assuming that the pieces in some way an argument which many pieces are or did I mean the entire shape of the piece and I actually I meant that I was interested in knowing about the shape of the piece on the sort of that the whole works a medic that it's satisfying for writer and reader and also I was very specifically talking about you know I know that I and many of my students have a problem with endings where you know it's hard to find the end and I think what David and Tom's said it's really true that you know it's usually there it's usually if you're if you're if you're willing to be patient or if you're listening if you're if you're present the ending manifests itself in one way or another so that's what I meant and your question for Tom in your piece for the soldier do you step back as a reporter consider that one that that could have repercussions other cultures can read it and assume that that represented the whole American feeling and not necessarily the feeling of soldiers in combat having been sold who tend to be more jaded especially when you're there your wife no no totally his question is did I think about the repercussions of rift misrepresenting this man in a way that possibly misrepresented his feelings about Iraq or I did think about that a lot he was not named I did not name him on purpose because I know he would have gotten in trouble how'd I named him I think the piece was a balance between soldiers that who were not colored as villains and the piece and soldiers who were colored as having a bit more cows feelings toward the people that they were there ostensibly to protect my father's a Vietnam veteran I've thought about this question a lot about soldiers and how you fight an occupation war when most of the soldiers fighting the war have resentment and sometimes even hatred for the people whose government they're supposed to you know be protecting the sovereignty of it's a weird gnarly question so yeah I did think about it but I thought the greater truth of it was that most of the soldiers that I encounter with soldiers I was Marines most of the Marines that I encountered in Iraq expressed emotions ranging from contempt to disinterest in the Iraqi people and so that experience was true to what the soldiers had told me privately and and I felt that it was not a malicious or an inaccurate representation of the feelings of the soldiers I was with yeah it's it to me to me it expressed that we don't have to get into a political decision it to me it just it discussed the disconnects between America stated motives for being in Iraq and what the people actually fighting the war felt and it was a poetical and even elusive and and it didn't have me to step forth and say hey there's this weird disconnect it was actually a thing I saw someone actually deal with it expressed it for me so I but I did think about that and I didn't name him on purpose even though they added the magazine's editors asked me to idealist course it's in Harper's Magazine you have to have a subscription to access it though other questions yes distractions writing across different forms both in the different works you do books reviews and distraction if you are in that newsroom or you know writing in that environment how do you channel yourself to focus on this so in this very distracting world um the question is how do you deal with distraction when you're writing in a newsroom how do you deal with distraction i'm assuming district how do you deal with distraction in different forms how do you what if you're writing more than one thing at a time how do you deal with that kind of distraction what if you can't get offline what how do you deal with distraction the first rule of dealing with distraction in a newsroom is do not go to the news never write I never ready newsroom ever I mean I shouldn't say never once in a while I get a half to write newsroom if I'm happen to be there and they and there's right of you know but for the most part you know the irony of newsrooms is that at least for what I do they are probably the single worst place to get actual reading and writing done so i redo almost all my reading and writing at home as far as the other question goes or the other part of the question in terms of moving perform to form I like it because I think that I have sort of a form of adult a.d.d so it's I like to be distracted or I shouldn't I like to be sort of focus it lead the strap in a certain sense I like to have a few things on going because I like to do you know that work on this today and this tomorrow I don't generally work on more than I mean I'll sort of have a few pieces on the cooker at the same time you know maybe especially if I'm writing a book I often sort of pull out to write short pieces because I like having something that I can finish in the middle of a book it feels like the I mean whatever the middle of the book feels like you're never going to finish and you're never going to finish well so it's always good to have something to pull out of but when I'm really going on something i really only work on that because i can't focus on multiple things at once multiple sort of big things at once but i like having a kind of what would you call it like a portfolio of things just again because I it's useful to move around if I get stuck on something I can move on to something else it's also on the reasons I like balancing writing and teaching because it's two different things they sort of support each other and reflect each other in many ways they both kind of talk to each other but it's great to get out of their mind um I did write in a Vulcan which is what we call the newsroom and it's hard it's really really really hard and what I did was I bought earplugs and I hadn't oils noise cancelling headphones but tell me on a two I could keep the noise out and also because of the other thing that happens in the newsroom is people are wandering around to find a conversation all you're not busy and so they come in the clock down and so you're on and you're on deadline so that's what I do because it also it would signal that I was busy and you never make eye contact no you keep your head down it's like riding on this one boy yeah I mean so that's that for that and for the i also like having a lazy susan of things to be working on so I keepo story lyst going um I I it's very difficult for me to write two things at once but I can be in different places in three or four stories so I can be reporting on one story I be finishing fine-tuning a story and I can just beginning be beginning to think of a lead for another one but it cannot be writing writing deeply writing two stories at once but I can keep stuff going and make sure that my editors know oh yeah I'm busy you know I've got you know I've got this coming and I'm going to go out and meet so-and-so and but you'll have that story by the the other story by the end of the week but that's the way I can keep jolly i I'm a mess basically I'm it's not a joke I mean it's I need total solitude complete silence and if I wake up in the morning and I have dinner plans at 8pm I'm not gonna write that day because the clock is ticking the clock is ticking the clock ticking clock is ticking oh my god is noon I only have because you have to start getting ready at six and then I fagina and then oh god it's suddenly three and I haven't really done it I can't I cannot focus so for me to get I have to wipe the slate clean of days so I didn't really work much at all today because yes thank you for ruining my day thank you for taking food out of my unborn children's mouths so if anyone else is like this in the audience you're not alone and to me to get anything done you kinda have to be alone and quietly miserable but a lot of the writers we've seen talk about writing for two hours a day no matter what and then moving on but they mostly I think works like they're not write a mom assignment or and you guys stop by your process of making yourself right away so the question is about process and discipline individual Thomas told doesn't I I gotta pay college tuition starting next year so that's where my discipline a lot of my discipline comes from so and that's actually true like I one of the reasons which we haven't talked about but one of the reasons that I became I saw as I said I kind of backdoored into journalism but I did want to be a working writer from the time I got out of college and I did want to make my living as a writer and I did everything I could to try and figure out how to do that one of the reasons why was that I didn't want there to be a disconnect between how it was feeding myself and you know potentially at that point now really my family and what I care about I didn't want to be a great interview with John Irving where he says you know he was a schoolteacher he was writing the world according to GARP for an hour in the morning before he went to work to be a high school English teacher he said it was like being a doctor for an hour right it's like you know no doctor would have office hours from eight to nine a.m. and then go be a school teacher and he wanted to be the doctor full-time that was what he wanted to do and I did too and it was less important to me necessarily what that was although it was important to me what that was as to kind of function in that world and then I think I'm not inherently a disciplined person but I was a freelancer for a full-time freelancer for almost 20 years and so I had to learn how to be disciplined from too often many of many of those years with little children in a small apartment making noise in fact you know one a friend of mine just was telling me she remembered this story when my oldest kid was really little like to I walked into his room one evening if you had this little electronic rolodex I'd give him that looked like a computer he was banging on it I said when he helped to it he goes on my deadlock and then I started saving money for therapy but but i think that discipline comes out of the work and i think that there is that the other thing I'll say about and this comes back to sort of knowing when enough is enough is that I think there is also quality of knowing that you've worked really hard on a piece of writing I think this is true of stuff that for me at least stuff I'm doing on deadlines and also stuff that I'm not stuff that I'm doing for myself but that I've worked as hard as i can on a piece and I've gotten it into the shape I can get it into and now I need to cut it loose a move on to another piece partly sometimes because there is a deadline clock ticking and someone's pulling out of my hands and saying we need it and partly also because it's just time we do the best we can these things are what they are and then we move on to them and for me one of the things that discipline has really helped me do is undermine a kind of a kind of counterproductive perfectionism which I'm also pray to in the sense that it's okay it's time and I think that that's really useful it's time in terms of deadlines it's time in terms of having other things that I'm working on other projects I want to I want to do it's it's it's time yeah so two hours of JS six hours it's whatever the story requires yeah I mean for a journalism it's it's it's you may get a call Sunday night and have to start on something good to do the next day or the day after and it requires you know this deep focus and my friends my closest friends completely understand if I call up and go I can't come to dinner Oh deadline yeah I just got something and I have to write through it and just like you if I have plans at the end of the day and I'm starting the beginning of a piece and I know my deadline is the day after the day or two days and I start to get worried and nervous like that's not enough time maybe have to cancel everything because I want to be able to make that deadline and i want to i want to write where I have enough space at the end to polish so i can i can gun through a piece you know I can crash a piece but I want to have the time to polish it and I'm at the end and that's the part i really like um but yeah you could just be on a piece all day and then the next day it depends on the length but usually from the recording to the final piece depending on the length maybe you know it'll be three hard days of just crashing it and and that maybe hours with a you know four or five hours six hours with a break to you know grab something and then do something else but and we didn't even talk about transcribing interviews which is just the most horrible awful thing like are you done yet Castle castingwords calm okay they do it they do it for you okay thank you oh come on talk to you it's actually great yeah baymont horrible mom say you have that whole long stretch of day in front of you and worth or weak in front of you how many hours a day are you I'm what's called a burst writer so I might go ten days without writing a word and then I'll go three days in a row writing 20 hours a day it's not very efficient but I'm a really believe this if writing is a pain and you don't want to work you shouldn't I mean Norman Mailer said the difference between a writer and a dilettante is the writer writes on days when he or she doesn't feel like it and I've really tried my whole life to embody that but if I'm just not enjoying it I'm not producing anything that's gonna feel good so I right when I really want to and I've never had to work on like deadlines deadlines I've written magazine pieces on deadline but like Daily News deadly I mean I would I would turn to Adams I mean I I would I would I would disintegrate I could not handle that it would be too much for me so I would encourage you all to try to write every day but just in my own experience that doesn't work you don't feel like writing every day you really don't and in something but here's the trick here's the trick use a trick right when you're not writing yes right when you're not writing just sit there and think about it and I'm a video game critic believe it or not and so I spent an awful lot of time writing in my head and I'm when I'm playing games I do a lot of writing that so we have time for one more way in the back of moments in the writing where you experienced a profound sense of spiritual gratification I'll start yeah absolutely um to me there are moments in the writing process where three hours goes by and feels like 10 minutes doesn't happen very often but it happens sometimes when you feel like you've really written a paragraph and I hate mysticism I'm not a spiritual person but you actually feel like you've reached out into the blackness between you and the universe and you've pulled something back you don't even remember thinking about what you've got on the page but it's there and that's the moment where the where the weirdness of writing is most powerful that's kind of the moments that you write you know writing is kind of an addiction and I'm not convinced it's not you kind of right jumping from those moments of what feel like real communions with something bigger than yourself to me at least I am I guess yes to and I guess I don't think about it but I realized i've been writing since i can remember and i've been literally like I can't remember when I wasn't reading and writing or trying to emulate what I just finished writing or illustrating my own little books and that sort of thing but I've been writing professionally since I was in my 20s and there was one year about four years three years ago where I wasn't writing regularly at all and I and I felt I was depressed or I felt outside of myself that's probably closer to it and I couldn't figure out what was going on and when I finally took an assignment and I wasn't even writing on my own because sometimes I would you know start doodling essays and that sort of thing and when I took an assignment and it was something that I really wanted to do and then I realized this is what it is that's the problem I'm I cut off part of myself and and feeling that sense of like entering a story and writing in a story and writing in the voices of the people that you are you're writing about and you're pulling them in and I actually really do like reporting I sometimes over report because i like it so much because i really want to immerse myself so when you were talking about you know doing the 120 pages i I'm guilty not quite that one but I've done it and but I told a friend of mine I you know I interviewed somebody recently because I was just so excited to be back at doing this and I talked to this person too long and he said made a mistake you know you know you don't talk that long as like no I was knew that I was in a flow so yes definitely and I would say the same i mean i am skeptical about i don't know what i am i'm ambivalent about spiritual stuff and mysticism and those kinds of things but i do think that for me the kind of the weird thing about writing is that if it's going and there's no way to know when that's happening it it does take you someplace you weren't expecting or it crystallizes things and so it it can be that paragraph or that sentence but it's also like that idea that thing that I didn't realize I was even writing about or that I didn't quite understand and then all of a sudden I you know I get struck him there's that moment I were like whoa that's what this is about that's really interesting and so that's always that may be kind of kind of what you're talking about but I also think that it is just a matter of I never think as clearly or as well for myself and you know that as I do when I'm writing about something I and I've had the similar experience so I know you know about when was this like 10 12 years ago I know and I co-hosted this radio show which was a sweet little gig like 10 13 weeks or something in good money and all this kind of stuff and I was i am i'm a tortured right I've at the time I was a much more of a tortured writer and I thought this will be great i'll get 13 weeks off where I won't have to do any writing because I you know they'll take me it'll be a full-time job doing this radio show on excuse to not write for 13 weeks so excellent Sam and then about halfway through the show I started to get in I started to notice that I was in a really really bad mood all the time and it was only partly because of the shirt like but um you know snappy nasty all kinds of stuff and a position on the radio except on the radio or had to be professional and then um as soon as the show ended I started writing again and I felt much better and I realized at that point that it was in fact an addiction I am totally addicted like most addictions it starts off really fun and only when you realize that your book do you realize that it's completely up your entire life that's your trap and that's the for me that's the thing so I do think that it does have that but it is that sense of equilibrium for me life without writing would be life without equilibrium even if I wasn't publishing I would be writing it is the main lens through which I understand the world and going back into thinking about pieces that may or may not actually happen it's just a way of framing experience so even if a piece doesn't get written the experience doesn't to me doesn't get felt as much when I'm not thinking about it as a source of writing and that was it just a brilliant gift that part about of your life for the rest of your life that was wonderful David I think that's a perfect place to hang you balled up the flag my boss ball but it was so much for coming that was really funny caption now signing face to face

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