Anthony Bourdain - 'The Last Interview and Other Conversations'
An interview book from the 'last interview' series.
Susan Griffin is a professional author who’s written more than twenty books since before the dawn of popular Internet. This book is about her writing process. She tells us about what’s important, about avenues to discover, the importance of letting go of pre-conceived notions about writing, etc.
I’ve read many how-to guides on how to write. Swedish author Bodil Malmsten wrote a book about how she wrote, which is named Så gör jag, which roughly translates to How I do it. The important thing about the book, she said, was that the book dealt with how she wrote, not how anybody else should write. I mention this because Griffin’s writing is similar to that from Malmsten.
The idea of a blank page can be daunting, frightening enough to stop you in your tracks. But, fortunately, the blank page is not really where most writers begin. With a few exceptions, that page usually appears much further along in the process, when you are better prepared to meet the challenge.
Griffin’s forté is her ability to carefully craft short sentences that, per paragraph, pack considerable punch; she nearly leads the reader by means of Socratic method: she doesn’t tell us how to do something: she opens a door to waft us into a sea of possibilities.
The worst kind of guide is the one that is written as though the author is God: they know all, you know very little, and the author’s tone is from up-on-high. Griffin is clearly aware of this kerfuffle and has completely side-stepped all of that by playing with open cards.
Her writing not only pulls the reader in but engages them by constantly showing examples of what she thinks is important to do or not do, as seen in this paragraph that touches on inspiration.
It may begin inauspiciously. A neighbor’s front porch light is always on at night, for instance, and two nights in a row, at three in the morning, you see a young man sitting on the steps. After a while, you find this observation turning into a story. Or perhaps you just have a hunch, an outlier notion, about a current minor political issue, in which no one else seems to be as interested as you are and to which, nevertheless, despite all your attempts to abandon this idea, your attention keeps returning. Bit by bit you find yourself formulating an argument. Then again it may start with a compelling dream. Or even with what seems like a fleeting observation, except that it stays in your mind, like the grain of sand that irritates an oyster (and let’s hope this results in a pearl). Or it might be a story you heard as a child and only dimly remembered until one day this tale suddenly comes to the surface, carrying with it a host of new insights. Or is it a story you come across when you are looking for something else? Yet again, perhaps you are obsessed with a celebrity, a film, a novel, a painting. (More than one book or film or story or poem has been inspired by previous works such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.) But perhaps it is not just a memory that moves you but instead a sensation, the taste, for instance, of a particular cookie, called a madeleine, dipped into a cup of tea.
I mentioned that Griffin touches on what’s important to not do. Here’s an example of this:
It used to be, and probably still is in many classrooms, a common practice to chastise and humiliate any student who is caught looking out the window, fixed in a rapt gaze at seemingly nothing at all. But with all due sympathy to any teacher who wishes her or his lessons to be heard, such moments of reverie are known to yield many creative insights.
Griffin clearly has collected many of her points over time, and it’s easy for even the most experienced writers to find themselves in her advice.
You might eventually discard anything you write. You may produce only a sentence or two. Or nothing at all. What is important is that you are present to the process. Being there, while focusing on nothing else, will ignite your creative mind. The results may not appear immediately. Yet somehow out of sight, your mind will be working. The delay resembles those times when you are asked a question for which you cannot think of an answer until hours later, when the perfect response comes to you. If you keep showing up, eventually what you are seeking will show up too.
I think Griffin’s advice is at its very finest when touching on how writing works from a human, psychological angle. I’m glad she hasn’t spouted off business-like advice. An example of what I mean:
As long as you are paying attention to your thoughts, be aware of your own mood too. Do you feel like Lillian Hellman, as she was portrayed in the film Julia, when, in exasperation, she threw her typewriter out the window? Then again, your own writing may be putting you to sleep. Whatever you are feeling as you write—whether you are bored, exhilarated, rapturous, solemn, studious, fascinated, angry, sad—will somehow make its way onto the page, and as a result the reader will feel what you are feeling as you write. Take time to find the words and images or ideas that please and excite you in some way. Don’t settle for less.
Of course, you can try to think through what your true feelings are (as you will inevitably find yourself doing in any case). But writing itself can help you locate deeper and often less-than-conscious emotions. As you look for the right words to express this inner experience, you must become an exacting master. Instead of searching analytically, listen to the sound of your words to find out if they resonate. Let your inner experience be the tuning fork. You are not looking for the most pleasing or impressive words. You are searching for what rings true.
There are many beautiful paragraphs found throughout this book. Griffin draws from personal experience and paints pictures that are clear and sometimes funny, for the benefit of the book.
My only grumble about this book is not really a grumble: it’s focused on fiction and not as much on non-fiction, but that’s just personal. Most of the advice is, in some ways, applicable to non-fiction as well.
This book contains plenty of technical writing tips that are both tangible and helpful. Griffin radiantly casts off examples to clarify what she means.
It’s easy to use common phrases when you write, and even at times preferable, where they fit or are accurate. (If you are constantly striving to be inventive, not only will you wear yourself out, your reader will soon get tired too.) And, speaking of “fresh,” it’s important that as you write, you listen to the language you are using with fresh ears. Recently linguist George Lakoff suggested to activists regarding the issue of student debts that they forgo the habitual phrase, which is to forgive debts, and use the phrase cancel debts instead. While this campaign argues that students should not be forced to incur debt in order to be educated, the use of the word forgive implies that having debt is a sin. Employing a habitual phrase, the organizers had failed to really hear what their words implied.
All in all, this is a wondrous book that deserves a spot next to those by Verlyn Klinkenborg, Joe Moran, William Zinsser, Robert Graves, and Peter Ginna.