What Do We Really Want To Know About a Writer?

Six Tuscan Poets for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer?

Who would have guessed—certainly not me—that the most popular blog post I’ve written so far would be the July 24, 2014 post called “The Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer.” I have to wonder—besides MFA writing students, bookstore owners, and media interviewers—what audience accounts for all those clicks?

In the sixteenth century, an Italian artist and historian Giorgio Vasari wrote an unprecedented book, an encyclopedia really, called The Lives of the Most Exceptional Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, comprised of more than a hundred biographies of famous artists.Bloom & Genius for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer? Four centuries later, the irrepressible scholar and critic Harold Bloom created the 800-page compendium Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. During the intervening centuries there have been thousands of biographies written about artists and writers. The general public seems ever more curious about the lives and minds of our creative folk. The question is why?

Wallace and Lipsky for What Do We Really Want to Know About a WriterI recently saw the 2014 movie The End of the Tour based on David Lipsky’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, an account of his riveting experience as a journalist spending five days interviewing David Foster Wallace for Rolling Stone during Wallace’s 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest.

What struck me after seeing the film, aside from the fine acting of Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, and the evocative cinematography of Wallace’s lair and the blunt horizontals of the Midwestern landscape, was that there were almost no scenes of Wallace actually writing, no real glimpses of his mucking around with language and story-telling. What we get instead is personality writ large on the screen—Wallace’s amiable, introverted, giant genius and Lipsky’s mish-mash of little brother adoration and envy.

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer

Of course I’m simplifying a more nuanced plot, but this is my question: as a culture do we relish a voyeuristic intimacy with our artists more than with their created works? (Imagine how the reclusive Dostoevsky, Dickinson, or Proust would have felt about this.) Is the current fascination with writers’ lives akin to another era’s curiosity about the lives of saints? How are writers important to our culture? Are their lives exemplary in ways worth studying? Or prophetic in some way? Do we want to know how they got to be who they are? Do we inquire because we really want to ask ourselves, “Could I become a writer too?”

These questions interest me even though I am one of them—a writer by profession and temperament. Writing is a lonely business, and I have to admit I find great satisfaction in reading this passage from Orlando by one of our true writing geniuses, Virginia Woolf:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished;Virginia Woolf in What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to ask myself if I were interviewing Dale M. Kushner, author. Self-inquiry is an essential aspect of being a writer since self-knowledge is the basis of empathy and understanding others.

Here are my questions:

  1. Are there any early experiences that encouraged you to become a writer and a story-teller?
    Yes. See my previous blog post, “My Jewish Question, My Father.”
  2. Were books accessible to you as a child? Were you encouraged to read? What were your favorite books?
    Yes and Yes. I liked to read in private in my bed or in a corner in the library. I did not like to read at school, especially if I had to read out loud to a class. My favorite books as a child were a book of Chinese fairy tales, Little Women and The Diary of Anne Frank.
  3. Are there aspects of craft that engage you more than others?
    I love language. I love the sensual quality of words. I make sense out of the world through images and the percussive rhythms and           resonances of words. I can feel a satisfyingly written sentence vibrate in my body. It takes me forever to write a novel because I might     spend hours searching for le mot juste.
  4. What props are most necessary for you to write?
    My lightbox in the winter. A bag of raw almonds. My tartan plaid flannel bathrobe. And Maisie, my Golden Retriever pup.

Readers of my “Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer” post may notice that these are slightly different than those listed there. So now you have nine.

Watch Charlie Rose’s 1997 interview with David Foster Wallace

The Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer

Since May and the publication of the paperback edition of The Conditions of Love, I’ve been on the road visiting bookstores and talking to readers. Book tours are not without stress—Will it rain? Will the fine weather keep people away? Who will show up? Will the book sell?—but no matter how these external circumstances play out, without fail I personally have been touched by every audience, even the reader who told me she threw the book across the room because she was so angry with Mern in her outrageous mother incarnation. I took the reader’s response as a compliment (which it was!) since it means I must have created a believable world in fiction.

I hope to write more about my encounters with readers and the experience of being a private person who assumes a public life, but at the moment I still am on tour, about to head up to the Wisconsin’s Cape Cod , the Door County peninsula for several book events. I expect that once again I’ll be engaged in thought-provoking discussions about TCOL and about the writing life. Just for fun, I came up with this list of the Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer. Every writer will, of course, have different preferences, but here are some of mine.

The Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer 

1. What were the early influences on your writing and how do they manifest in your work?

2. How does writing change the writer?

3. What books have fortified you as a writer?

4. Why is the unconscious mind a writer’s best friend?

5. What are you working on now?

This leads me to wonder if you’ve ever received a surprising answer when you asked a writer a question. I’d love to hear about it.

[This has been such a popular post that I wrote a follow-up to it with “the four questions I’d like to ask myself” in the post “What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer?]