Anatomy of the Writer
What are writers for?
When I set up my website some years back, I started the home page with this: “Jedi knights roam the universe helping to set things right. What I do is something like that—the difference being, I help set things write.”
Much like creating illumination in a darkened night by catching fireflies and putting them in a closed jar, writers capture the feelings, shapes and tastes of experiences that we all have and somehow, through the alchemy of words (those remarkable closed jars), make those experiences translucent, sometimes even transparent. Joan Didion wrote, “I write to find out what I think.” Here’s what I think: we live to find out who we are—and writers help us gain insight into both the “live” and “are” sides of the equation.
Quill and parchment or touch typing?
I grew up playing the piano and cello, and I have an affinity for playing fingers over keys. I love playing my Mac laptop almost as much as playing a piano. 95% of the time: touch-type. But there are times, principally when I am first trying to tease a brand new article, chapter, or storyline out from the unknown ether into a state of semi-conscious identification, when nothing beats sitting in a comfy arm chair with a pad of paper and a pen. There is something about the analog tactile sense of pushing a pen across pressed wood fibers that helps the smoke of ideas form into tangible shapes.
Once the idea is there, it’s off to the keyboard!
Required beverage while editing?
There are three, depending on the type of work. I am a tea drinker. Love tea. Used to be a confirmed coffee drinker and still have a delicious cup of Blue Mountain now and then, which really revs the forebrain. But mostly, Darjeeling. Ahh.
Then, in the evening: a good cabernet sauvignon. Ahh.
And finally: cool pure water—when I’ve had too much of either of the above. Nothing cleanses the digestive and circulatory system (to which the brain, to its frequent bewilderment, is attached) like pure water. Ahh.
Describe your imagination.
Hmm. Sometimes it feels that my imagination, or at least my creative drive, is more in my fingers than my head. I get going, and letters pour out. Someone once made a marvelous statement about the prolific composer Arvo Pärt, that “when he shakes his sleeves, notes fall out.”
For me writing is a lot like the way Jack Niklaus described golf: 90 percent of it is lining up the shot; for there is a lot of preparation, getting material lined up, outlining, raw material, whatever the case may be (depending on the project)—and then, once it’s all lined up, my fingers kick in, and it feels for a brief moment the way it must feel for a hawk or gull to float on currents of air.
Anatomy of the Reader
Where’s your favorite place to read?
The red armchair my wife put downstairs just outside my study. But here’s the thing: since I put the Kindle app on my iPhone, my favorite place to read has become just about everywhere—in line at the bank, standing in the bathroom brushing my teeth (I kid you not), at the stove waiting for the tea kettle to boil. Thank you, Steve Jobs! (You too, Jeff Bezos!)
Have you ever read one of your books for pleasure?
Actually yes, I have, and often. I’ve read a lot of authors, film directors, and other creative artists say they can’t watch their own work. I don’t get that. I love my own books. That’s why I write them! I can’t imagine writing a book I wouldn’t also enjoy reading. Plus, with some of my books I’ll read and find myself saying, “Man, where did he come up with that?”
It is quite clear to me that the things I write are not me—or more accurately, they are partly me, but partly other stuff that just flew through me. It’s a little like watching your grown children: there’s some familiar DNA there, but then there’s this whole other existence you can only stand back and watch with amazement.
What’s the one thing that the book you’re currently reading is missing?
Wow. That’s the first question that’s stumped me. Missing? Nothing occurs to me. Earlier this year I discovered Turow, and read everything he wrote. Then I discovered Lee Child (Jack Reacher) and read ‘em all. Now I’m halfway through reading all of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone “alphabet” series. God I love these books. They are delicious! Missing? When I’m in the book, there is absolutely nothing missing!
Describe your perfect book in the form of a three course meal.
That’s an interesting question, because I love to eat, and love to go to great restaurants. (And love to cook.) I tend to judge a restaurant on things like: its bread. its rice. its Caesar salad. On things that seem dirt simple, but in truth, are very easy to get wrong. And…I just don’t do dessert.
Now, a book. Hmm. I know this: when I get very near the end of a great book, I start to feel postpartum blues, even before I’m finished. Almost like a let-down. I wonder if I should start eating dessert—maybe that would change how I experience the ends of books!
I’ll try it. Check back with me in six months, and I’ll let you know.
Favorite places: home. Plus, any place on the water, with views of mountains or trees. Barnes & Noble. Apple store. In front of a large audience (hey, I grew up a performing musician)
Weaknesses: none. (Kidding, kidding!) I am a sucker for beauty, but I take that as a strength, not a weakness. Tech toys. Classical music. Insanely great films. Brahms. Bach. Bartok. Wait—are we talking about weaknesses or loves?
Believes in: God. How one could listen to Die Kunst der Fuge, or the late Beethoven Quartets, or Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies, or Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste, and still think there is NOT a God, is beyond me. And I believe in humanity. Call me a sucker, but I think humanity is endlessly amazing (even though it is also endlessly disappointing. But hey.)
Refuses to: Live a life of mediocrity. Accept limitations I don’t agree with. (Learning which ones to accept is a key survival tool.) Do what someone else tells me to—unless I’ve already made a prior decision that their judgment is in my best interests. (My wife, my editor, my accountant.)