When my good friend (and fellow freelancer) Claire Gibson invited me to a “blog party,” I said, “sure.” And then I said, “Hmmm.”
“What’s your process?” is a question writers get constantly. I’m sure I’ve asked it myself. But I have a hunch it’s really coded language meaning something else altogether, something along the lines of “Tell me the magic that will make this sh*t easy.”
There is no magic. It will never be easy.
When people ask the question, they/we seem to focus on the practical details—the routine: What time do you start writing? How many hours a day? Where is your writing desk? We imagine that if we could only create the perfect writer’s studio, uncluttered, with a tasteful vintage desk and single window overlooking a bird-infested lake, we will become Real Writers.
Certainly, the practicalities matter. And it’s great fun to read about the daily writing rituals of writers we admire. But finding out what works for someone else is like studying how Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment. It’s enlightening, sort of; but everyone’s path to nirvana is all his own.
What it comes down to is this: Do whatever it takes to trick yourself into getting words on the page regularly. Learn what your brain needs to function at its best—morning walks and coffee perhaps, or a good book before bedtime. Learn your own circadian rhythm—when are your most energetic and productive times of day? Write during those hours, and do less brain-intensive work (such as transcribing interviews or doing research) at other times of day.
A lot of writers call this discipline “the art of butt-in-chair;” New Yorker editor David Remnick calls it “sitzfleisch.” Just show up and produce, by means of whatever motivation works for you—usually, one part fear, one part guilt, and three parts raw desire. If you tend to rise at 4am and swim 100 laps a day, this probably won’t be difficult for you. But it is, at times, difficult for me.
Mastering sitzfleisch, of course, is only the beginning. The next step is to spend so much time in the chair writing bad stuff that you pass through the era of badness. This process might take years, says This American Life creator, Ira Glass:
We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
It gets worse. Once you’ve fought through the initial questions—the how, when, and where to write—then you have to ask yourself the big one: WHY are you doing it? What ideas do you care so much about that you’re willing to labor in obscurity and semi-poverty to launch your message into the world?
Here is what Kurt Vonnegut has to say on the matter:
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.
With that, I hereby attempt to answer the following questions:
What am I working on?
Among other things, I’m co-writing a memoir with my friend Chantha Nguon, a Cambodian social entrepreneur with an incredible life story. (By “co-writing,” I mean “ghostwriting,” except that it’s not a secret.)
Initially, she didn’t want to do this project. She told me so one night as we sipped cold beers in a deserted market stall in a tiny Cambodian village. But by beers’ end, we had it sorted: This would not be a Hero/Savior memoir, like those by the now-discredited Somaly Mam and Greg Mortenson. This would not be a register of lurid Third-World/wartime horrors, meant to inspire the sort of superior pity that emanates from some kind of misguided First-World schadenfreude.
This would be a story about losing everything and getting it all back, through sheer cussedness, love, and wry humor. And a lot of delicious food—the dishes her mother taught her to make. There will be laughter. Even better: There will be recipes.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Dear Literary Agent with 2,479 emails in Your Inbox,
“Instant Noodles” is a little bit war memoir, a little bit food memoir—think “In the Shadow of the Banyan” meets “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.” Steely Cambodian woman with wicked laugh gets her ass kicked by life, then turns the tables and starts kicking back. Have you ever seen a memoir that contains a recipe for making instant noodles in a Thai refugee camp? Or a cookbook with directions for how to capture, slay, and barbecue an escaped giant lizard, in an effort to recreate the most delicious meal of your life? That is about to change.
This is NOT “The Road to Lost Innocence” meets anything. Heroizing Chantha is the wrong move. Hero tales ring false. They dehumanize their subjects by perfecting them. They create an impossible standard. They distance us from the “hero”—we admire instead of relating.
Instead, this book is the story of your best friend—the story she never told you, until late one night, after five glasses of wine, when you finally asked her the right questions.
Why do I write what I do?
I am an introvert with latent extrovert tendencies. I want to curl up with a book all day, but I’m happier when somebody forces me to leave the house and interact with humans. I’m radically curious about people’s lives—the good kind of curious (I hope), not the gross, tabloid kind. And when somebody with an amazing life story trusts me enough to let me help tell it, I feel like I’m in my natural habitat.
I once drank vodka out of a canteen with an 89-year-old Russian airwoman who’d been a WWII attack pilot in the Soviet Air Force, won a stack of medals for valor, and been a POW in a Nazi camp. I promised her I’d help get her war memoir published in America, as editor and co-translator. And then I locked myself into a room for a half-year and endeavored to keep that promise.
Sending Anna Yegorova a copy of Red Sky, Black Death: A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front three years later was the best feeling imaginable. And I realized, my part in this was miniscule. It wasn’t about me. And that “not-about-me”ness is the big secret—telling someone else’s story somehow feels less self-absorbed than the writing life so often demands us to be. And when I’m thinking about someone besides myself, I’m at my best, and happiest.
How does my writing process work?
I agree with Claire Gibson: Routines are good. Unfortunately, I don’t have a very strict one. I love carrying a steaming cup of espresso into the garden first thing in the morning and turning out a giant word count before 10am. I’d love to say I do that every single day.
Instead, some mornings look like the photo at the top of the page; other days, I start the morning with a long walk or a breakfast excursion with Hal. On dreary winter days, I might work for 10 hours under the covers, locked into the bedroom with a space heater; and when I’m producing audio, I lose entire days (and nights) in our tiny backyard office.
A few definites: Deadlines work wonders. Fear motivates, but so does love. And when I love my subjects, I want to do well…for them. I don’t want to disappoint any 89-year-old warrior-airwomen; and I have no intention of telling Chantha I’m just not up to the job.
Also, coffee. And to chase away the late-afternoon brain-doldrums, a Pimm’s cup after 5pm never hurts.