Podcasts and workouts. Perfect, like oysters and champagne. Get your head into something else and that thirty-minute elliptical workout just flies by, well, not really but it does go a little bit faster when the mind is occupied.
Lately I’ve been listening to writers talking about writing, something most people would find about as interesting as golf on the radio or your uncle’s Orlando vacation photos. But I can’t resist. I don’t learn much but I do get to feel like part of the club, experiencing many of the same frustrations and satisfactions. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and every once in a while it feels good to connect with other writers in this virtual group. Real writing groups are not for me, I prefer my therapy one-to-one.
These interviews do give you some sense of the writers and, when they respond with generosity, I’m more inclined to want to read their books. Debut novelists usually see the interview as a great opportunity and respond enthusiastically, veterans often find it a chore and grudgingly impart clichéd answers to standard questions. Certainly not a reliable indicator of talent but you need some way to work your way through the incredible number of volumes published daily.
The interviews usually begin with the writer describing the genesis of the book, then move on to discuss the elements that most interested the host: “Why did you decide to set your book in this tiny town in France?” “Because I live there.” One of the standard questions concerns the value of the MFA, a hot issue in literary academia: “It was a wonderful experience and it worked for me, but certainly it’s not for everyone.” Or, “No I didn’t take an MFA, but these programs have produced many wonderful writers, but we won’t get into names.”
The conversations usually end with the host asking the writer if she has any writing advice for listeners like me and, while there’s some variation in the wording, the message is almost always the same: just write. It’s a job and it’s hard work and you have to keep at it. Write in a Starbucks, or complete solitude; maybe mornings are best for you, or not; maybe you make an outline, or have no idea what comes next; write for three hours a day, or one thousand words, or just as much as you feel like; whatever methods you employ only work if you keep writing. You learn by doing it. You improve by revising it. And then you do it again, until someone thinks it’s worthy of publication – or not. At which time, you’re already at work on the next book. Success may bring confidence but it also brings the knowledge of just how hard this is.
In a different vein, the New Yorker fiction podcast is a wonderful way for any reader to occupy an hour.
A writer chooses a story (not his own) from the magazine’s archives, reads it to us, and then discusses it with New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. Very different than a writer discussing his own work, it’s fascinating to hear two intensely focused and perceptive readers analyze a piece of short fiction, revealing to even casual listeners why it works and what went into making that happen. This is the big leagues.
No need to count, this piece is only about 560 words.
©2015 Ron Scherl