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The Alchemy of Writing

26 March 2013

From The Blog of Tim Ferriss:

This post is a conversation with Fred Waitzkin about his creative process: tactical, psychological, and otherwise.

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TF: You’ve written nonfiction for a lifetime. Now you have spent the past ten years immersed in a novel. Can you describe some of the core similarities and differences in these processes? How would you compare the core challenge of writing fiction and nonfiction?

Actually, it feels like I have been writing fiction my entire life. But maybe that’s because I worked on The Dream Merchant for more than ten years– that’s a lifetime for one book. Also, my non-fiction life prepared me for fiction–I learned the importance of story. It was the perfect training ground.

I always wanted to write a novel. It’s just that I took a long time to get to it. And then The Dream Merchant took much much longer to finish than I’d ever imagined. I kept discovering new levels to the story, and every change meant fifty more changes.The novel is a deeper and more mysterious construction, I suppose, than a memoir but I’m not certain about this. For me, the best of non-fiction isn’t so different from fiction. As a journalist, the stories that appealed to me most were like short fictions—a small twist here and there and they might have been short stories. Many people have told me that my memoir, The Last Marlin, reads like a novel. While I was writing it I flirted with the idea of changing a few things and calling it a novel. Read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Wolff might have called his great memoir of growing up a novel and no one who didn’t know his history would have blinked. Probably he was tempted.

But to dig into your question, a novel is constantly challenging the imagination. In a memoir, if you are playing more or less by the rules, you know what happened in fact, and the challenges have to do with how you are going to get there, the language you use, the moods you evoke, what you leave in and what you take out. With a novel there is more room to surprise yourself. Characters lead you to unexpected places, introduce you to new characters you hadn’t banked on meeting. Who are these strangers and what are they like? What are their passions? Who are their friends and lovers? All of this sounds obvious. But less obvious perhaps is how the novelist accesses the fictive side of himself.

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TF: What do you do when your creative process is blocked? You talk a lot about muses. Tell us about that.

Inspiration is frequently misunderstood. When I was a young writer I looked for it in all the wrong places. In my twenties, I lived with my wife in a studio apartment just off Washington Square. Somehow I decided that the best writing time for me was late at night–I guessed that was when the muses would be running wild and delivering intoxicating poetic secrets. Perhaps I got this impression from Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round about Midnight” which I played over and over–it was so hauntingly beautiful and sad. In those days, after a late heavy dinner with a couple of beers topped off by more than a few drags of weed, I took my yellow legal pad into the chilly unsightly stairwell across from my front door and got ready to write the great American novel. Ugh, wrong move, Waitz. I recall sitting in the stairwell waiting for inspiration to strike until I was dozing off or feeling too cold. Some evenings when my wife was off taking classes at N.Y.U., for inspiration I maxed out the hifi with Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane blasting pure madness solos while I tried to compose my delicate pages. Wrong. Wrong. All wrong, Waitzkin.

Now, many years later, when I’m working on a book I write everyday except Sunday, when I watch football or go to the country with my wife. This routine has settled deeply inside. It gives me confidence. I’ve learned that pages will come if I go to my quiet office and stick with my routine. Back in the younger days, the unsightly stairwell seemed cool, but not now. I could never do my best work after a heavy meal or with the music blasting. It would be a distraction–an energy robber.

Link to the rest at The Blog of Tim Ferriss and thanks to Dale for the tip.

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2 Comments to “The Alchemy of Writing”

  1. Thanks for this post. It prompted me to download The Dream Merchant.

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