My Basic Philosophy
(as it comes to writing)
We have in our
society this wish, this fantasy, that writers are somehow inherently hypercreative people,
made so by a radically unusual background/childhood - as if writers are forged into being
sirens due to some searing experience they have lived. Their writing, we ask, should come
directly from that searing experience, lightning hot. Writers like James Frey, JT Leroy
and Nasdijj feed this fantasy, and thus rise to a phantom fame.
I'm none of that.
I'm the opposite. I'm a fairly regular guy. I don't have much of a particularly unusual
story. I have two kids, I watch Sportscenter nightly, I have a simple house, I come from
Seattle, I have two brothers, my parents were divorced but there was nothing unusual
there, I love my grandmother who is still alive, I play soccer, and I enjoy my
friends. I read pretty much the same books we all do. I read the same newspapers,
watch the same movies. I have known some deep pain, but most of the time I have felt
like my life is blessed. I have lost some friends, but my memories of them are always with
me. I have lucked into some adventures, but the long stretches between adventures have
been just as interesting.
I believe that
writers don't have to be forged by some radical autobiographical experience. Rather, I
believe writers shouldn't be romanticized. Most writers, rather unglamorously, are
really just people who find some solace in expression. Combined with some tenacity, or
refusal to give up, we spend years learning the skills of writing. One day we get
published and expression becomes our profession. We continue to seek an elusive mastery of
our art. What makes us good writers is our constant devotion to this craft, a
willingness to keep learning. More tenacity.
authenticity in what we read. Authenticity is the post-modern elixir. In an age of lies
and corruption - an age of irony and mass-marketed pop product - we have a longing, a
craving, for authentic work, for authentic people. As a lazy shortcut, we've made the
mistake of looking to the author's biography on the dust jacket as the stamp of
authenticity. Authenticity is only properly earned on the written page.
When we tie a
work's authenticity to a writer's autobiography, we are severely limiting our creativity.
We cannot restrict our curiosity or creativity to that narrow spectrum of "things
we've already experienced." Creative expression should never be handcuffed.
I highly recommend
my friend Stephen Elliott's essay on our culture's false attachment of literary
merit to a writer's personality, be it either a boisterous, braggadocio
personality, or a humble, librarianesque demure personality. We tend to prefer one or the
other, when in fact neither matters at all.
What do I have to
write about? I hope I'm an inspiration to all those writers out there who don't
necessarily have a dozen book-worthy memoirs in them. What I can do, instead, is listen. I
can give voice to other people. I can travel, observe, interview, research and bear
witness. I will get on a plane to fly across the country to sit in the living room of an
average person who has never spoken to a journalist before. I do this all the time. My
work might only occasionally be autobiographical, but there are worthy stories to report
in every nook and cranny of the world. A good writer - one who really has the skills -
ought to be able to wander anywhere and find a story. And then write about it in a
authenticity comes from the hard work I put into getting the story and shaping it into
something that sings.
Aren't I worried
about deconstructing the mystery that surrounds every writer? Not at all. I could tell you
everything there is to know about me, and I'd still be a mystery. No matter how well they
know me, I'm still a mystery to my wife, my brothers, my parents, my friends. I could give
you all my notes to every interview, and it'd still be a mystery where I saw those themes
I picked out, or how I decided to shape the story a certain way. The creative process can
not be demystified.
Can a writer tell
other people's stories? If they have the gift of empathy, then yes, certainly. The proof
is on the page.
In addition to the
non-fiction social documentaries I'm most known for, I have written novels, profiles,
op-eds, humor pieces, performance monologues, book reviews, screenplays, television, radio
scripts -- whatever form the material is best suited for. I respect each as its own art
form, and I believe that practicing each of these forms emphasizes particular writing
skills, which can in turn be employed in the other genres. I hope that some day I will be
able to draw upon all these skills.
I write inside this isolation
chamber/"closet" to concentrate.
It is incredibly
important for me to get out into the world and to hear and be inspired by the real lives
of real people. I spend a lot of time interviewing, hanging along, being a fly on the
I blurb and review
books because I think it is every writer's job to participate in their community. I
co-founded the San Francisco Writer's Grotto with Ethan Canin and Ethan Watters in 1994;
we provide a community and a work environment for published writers. I have been on the
board of directors of Consortium since 1992. Consortium
is the exclusive national distributor of over 70 fine independent presses. It is based in
St. Paul, Minnesota, where land is cheap and books can be trucked to either coast in 2
I believe anything
that gets people to read is worthwhile. Enduring the snobbery of literati and being forced
to read books we did not relate to is what turned so many of us away from books--in junior
high, high school, or later. I was one of those kids - I pretty much didn't read for
pleasure through high school and college. In my early 20's, I had to re-teach myself the
joy of reading, by starting with children's books and then young adult books and,
eventually, adult books. Then I began writing school, at night, and was thrown right back
into an environment that turns its noses up at anything but "fine literary
fiction," which is a vague phrase that really means the genre of "contemporary
domestic realism." During the days I taught reading and writing at two San Francisco
high schools, primarily to immigrant kids who couldn't read well, and it was no place for
literary superiority - if Tetje, who was from Sudan, wanted to read Jet magazine (because
everything else was too hard to read), then I would happily discuss with him what was in
I think when a
reader reads a whole book - which takes six to ten hours - that's kind of a gift to the
author. The gift of close, undivided attention. To who else do we listen so closely for
eight straight hours? And when readers give that gift to me, I'm grateful for it.