It occurred to me recently that I am one selfish mofo. When I interview fellow writers and artists, which I do a lot for work, I often take advantage of the conversation to seek advice on my own queries about creativity, productivity, and life. I’m supposed to be asking questions for the readers and viewers — and I am, I swear — but I also sneak in a lot of chit-chat on topics of my own personal interest. Because come on: It’s all about meeeEEEEeeee.
It was the interview I did recently with my friend Ed Tarkington that made me realize what I was doing. I’m a sucker for time management tips, and I’ve always been totally fascinated by the habit many writers have of getting up in the middle of the night to work in the dark, pre-dawn hours. I’ve never been able to drag myself out of bed at 3:30 a.m. though, so I asked Ed how he does it. (Answer: It helps to stand around outside in the cold for a few minutes or light a cigarette.)
As I looked back over other interviews I’d done, I saw countless instances where I’d asked something related to my own creative journey. (Or my own literal journey — once when I was about to leave for a trip, I asked food writer Michael Pollan what to eat in airports. See below for his response.)
Anyway — here’s a bit of the best and most surprising/unexpected wisdom I’ve gathered from just a few of the creators I’ve talked with over the past year or two. If I share them with you, then it’s not selfish anymore, right? Enjoy.
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Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley on what she’d tell her 30-year-old self now if she could: Stop worrying.
David Sedaris on editing aloud: All of my published stories have been read before an audience, some as many as 60 times. I’ll read something out loud, mark up the manuscript, and then return to my hotel to re-write it. Read, re-write, over and over. At first the changes I make are major: I’ll often cut an entire page or completely re-work my ending. As time passes, I might simply move a comma, or trade one word for another. Timing is such a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s a matter of moving the words “I said” from the end of a quote to the start of it. I wish I could determine these things in the privacy of my own home, but I can’t. Therefore I consider myself lucky to tour as often as I do.
Elizabeth Strout, another Pulitzer winner, on finding creative success later in life: I had been writing really my entire life, and very few people knew of it, although of course my family and old friends did. But when I began to have a public career I think it took my family and old friends a bit by surprise. I had been so solitary in my endeavor for so long, that when they all found out it had “worked” so to speak, I think they may have found it was strange.
The hilarious Allie Brosh on finding inspiration and new material: I thought I was out of material probably three weeks into my writing career. And every time I’ve written something since then, I’ve thought, “well, there it goes—my very last good idea.” But I seem to keep coming up with things that I can then think are my last good ideas, so I hope that continues to happen. Once you pick all the low-hanging fruit, fruit-picking becomes way scarier.
Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, on the strange bedfellows of humor and despair: Humor has saved me a million times. I always say if I’m not laughing and crying throughout the writing of the book, I won’t finish the project. I’m someone who knows the great highs and lows intimately. As an author, I need to represent both, mostly because I want to tell the truth. Humor can acknowledge tragedy and comedy simultaneously.
Elizabeth McCracken on a similar topic, the intertwining of comedy and tragedy: The fact is, any comedy I love is as full of dimension, of sadness and psychological insight, as Tolstoy. Life is full of bad jokes, in the end. It’s the writer’s duty to portray that.
Rob Delaney on whether there’s anything we shouldn’t joke about: The short answer is no. And I don’t mean that like, “I’ll joke about whatever I damn well please!” I mean that humor is a wonderful, powerful thing, and it can be used for good. So I can’t think of anything that I just wouldn’t go near. You know, one thing that people have been talking a lot about lately is rape jokes: can anyone even joke about that? I think it’s absolutely possible and the good and responsible thing to do to use humor to reduce and eliminate rape in the world. Not like, “Ha ha, the punchline is…somebody got raped!” But to use humor to dismantle the system that allows it to go on. Now, that doesn’t mean that whenever something awful happens, you should run out and go, “How can I make a joke about this?” But humor can be a fearsome weapon. Why not use it? When something bad happens, your psyche may use humor to deal with it, so why not use that in a good way, in a kind way that helps people?
Mallory Ortberg, mad genius and co-founder of The Toast, on childhood (Note: I asked, “What were you like as a kid? Was your imagination always in overdrive? Lots of imaginary friends?” mainly because I wanted to know, “Were you like me?”): I read a lot, and I daydreamed a lot; I called it “thinking in cartoons” when I was a little kid. My parents had a hard time punishing me because whenever I got put in timeout I’d start shouting that I didn’t mind it at all and it wasn’t really a punishment because I was thinking in cartoons and I was free in my own mind, DAD.
Insanely popular YouTuber Grace Helbig on what she wished she’d known when she was starting out: That no one has any idea what they’re doing.
Megan Amram on the messages we pick up from what we read, including fashion ads: Every single ad or article or whatever is all about teaching women how to act and look and dress in order to please other people: a boyfriend, your friends, your boss. Maybe we could start telling people that the healthiest way to to do something is to figure out how to make yourself the happiest version of yourself, for yourself. It would take a very small perspective shift, but it would mean a lot.
The one and only Elizabeth Gilbert on the question of “But will it sell?”: I only know this: If I am worrying, before I begin a project, about whether my agent will like it, whether bookstores will be able to sell it, or whether it will be marketable to a wide demographic, then I have already taken the wrong exit SO HARD off the highway that I need to be on, in order to create. That wrong exit is guaranteed to lead me to the worst neighborhood you ever saw, where vandals and bandits will strip my car and steal all my belongings and beat me up and leave me for dead. Nothing good ever comes of beginning the creative journey by veering off instantly onto the exit marked: “BUT WILL THIS THING SELL?” Immediately, with that question, my creative self dies — to be replace by a zombie called “anxiety.” There is only one way to do it. Write, draw, compose, or create whatever it is that ignites your own imagination and makes you excited to get up in the morning and work. It may become successful, it may not. It may sell, it may not. But since there is no guarantee, either way, you might as well do the thing you love. Otherwise, trust me, there are a lot easier ways to make a respectable living than through pure creativity.
Anna Quindlen on the pressure to be “relevant”: If you can put the question of money aside – a stretch, I admit – being professionally relevant is seriously overrated. Being professionally relevant seems to consist largely of being written about by people who don’t understand what you’re doing, or want to be doing it themselves so are shirty about you. I think if you can look at your own work and say to yourself, self, that is good work, you’re on the right track.
Overnight sensation, suspense writer Paula Hawkins on following where your story leads you: It was an interesting process for me, because it felt as though I built the book in layers, with plots overlaid on plots, and the points at which they intersected become key, suggesting new directions, different strands of thought, and changes in the ways I viewed the characters. This meant that one or two of the twists were surprises even to me, they came to me late in the process.
Paula McLain on getting work done when you’re also in charge of a family: [I write] mostly in my home office in a very blue collar way, from 9-3, when my kids are at school. Morning — post-coffee — is prime time. I generally work until afternoon, and then switch over to mom mode for the homework/dinner/bath time trifecta. I’m pretty good about staying on task too, except when things aren’t going well — then I can’t seem to stop tackling huge cleaning projects or stress-eating cheese.
Michael Pollan on what to eat on tour: Eating on the road is always tough. Airports are the worst. If I absolutely have to eat at an airport, I’ll seek out the burrito place and have a rice and beans burrito.
Tony Earley on gratitude and the random chance of it all: No one has ever been able to explain to me why, given two books of equal artistic merit published in exactly the same manner, one becomes a bestseller and the other simply vanishes. So I don’t take anything for granted.
Pioneering adventurer Beryl Markham by way of writer Megan Mayhew Bergman, on work ethic and risk-taking: Beryl Markham has the greatest antidote to the dreamer’s mode of being, and I’ve taken her words to heart: Never hope more than you work. When it comes to my career, I often find myself torn between two notions: “Don’t take yourself so seriously” and “Take yourself seriously.” I don’t read maps well or remember calculus, but I am a hard worker. That I can say about myself. But when you try hard at something, you make yourself vulnerable, because you’re expressing your hopes through that work. When you dare to take yourself seriously, you take a risk.
Adam Silvera, who wrote book reviews before he starting writing bestselling books, on evaluating one’s own work: I actually put into practice “reviewing” my own book in the drafting stage, so I can identify its strengths and its weaknesses. I review it through every draft . . . I can identify the weakness, and by the next draft I should have tackled that and improved upon it.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of the heaviest book I’ve held in the past year, on ambition: My ambition for the book always felt like, “I want to make the kind of book I’ve always loved.” That necessarily entailed becoming the kind of person who could make that kind of book. And in a way, I had to renounce a certain species of ambition to do it. Just the sheer scale of the work . . . Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell anyone I was working on it. It wasn’t supposed to take me anywhere other than where the book itself wanted to go . . . Maybe in America it’s easy to get mixed up and waste years chasing being a personage, instead of sitting down with a pencil and paper like any other person.
Five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, Sharon Draper on humble beginnings: When I was in third grade I wrote something called “Clouds,” in which I described them as looking like bunnies, if I remember. That was NOT a life-altering moment, although I was very proud when it got posted on the school bulletin board.
Novelist and screenwriter Smith Henderson on the strangeness of releasing a project you’ve been working on privately into the big, public world: It’s incredible. You know how YOU feel about it, but as you find out how others feel and you realize that they like it as much as you do, there’s this intense satisfaction of having hit your mark — that what you were shooting for is coming across. That part is really the most profound act of communication that a writer gets to have. It’s really intense. Even when the response is positive, it’s emotionally daunting. I felt like I was proud of the book, and it would be all right if people didn’t get it, but generally I was pretty confident that I had written the book I would like to read — and I hoped others would, too.
Steve Almond, co-host of the Dear Sugar podcast with Cheryl Strayed, on how to have an authentic conversation on-air: It’s almost entirely improvised. We’ll look over the questions in advance, but we don’t talk about them until we can see the whites of each other’s eyes. That’s the thrill of it. Cheryl is a brilliant extemporaneous thinker and speaker. We both do best when we’re just yakking away and whatever stories or insights we offer arise organically. I think that’s true of most creative endeavors. “Self-consciousness is the death of art” — I think John Cage said that.
Gayle Forman on juggling multiple big creative projects at once: I don’t know! I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it up. I start on one thing, and then another thing starts pecking away at me. I just work on multiple things until something wins the endurance contest.
Lily King on feeling like an outsider: I think for the most part a writer always feels like an outsider, whether or not it’s true. It’s sort of a job requirement. When I was reading about anthropology, I learned that the best informant in the field is a person who feels separate from the group in some way, is from somewhere else, or is different in some way that sets him/her apart. That is the person who can give you a wider perspective on the culture. So I think we need to feel that way.
Jill Alexander Essbaum on reading reviews/comments: I know my limits. And they are low. There’s little good that reviews can do me but desperately hurt my feelings. If a review is good my husband will tell me. I used to read them. But — yeah. You know?
Photographer Melissa Ann Pinney on the risks and rewards of authenticity: There are two kinds of risk: physical and artistic. In the past I have done projects in dodgy Chicago neighborhoods late at night and alone; I’ve photographed a young gang member’s funeral. After my daughter was born, making photographs out of love for my family felt like a different kind of risk: the risk of appearing sentimental to an art world where a kind of bleak irony was more valued. The biggest risk and greatest reward is always in honesty and vulnerability.
Andrew Maraniss on chasing a creative dream while holding down a day job: There are times now where I sit and stare at the book and wonder how it really happened. Mainly it just came down to making this my sole focus outside of work and family. Any spare minute early in the morning or after the kids went to bed, I spent on the book.
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And what have I learned so far? That I really like turning the conversation back to topics of interest to MEEEEEEEeeeee, yes. (Is this somehow a conflict of interest, I wondered, using work opportunities to ask my own personal/professional questions? No, I decided, it’s a confluence of interest. That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it.) But also, when I look at it all on the same page like this, I’m struck by how much these folks have in common when it comes to setting goals, making revisions, letting go of hang-ups, and giving attention to the thing that demands to be created.
I’ll leave you with one more, from Joy Wilson (aka Joy the Baker), on what to do when you’ve made a real mess: Sometimes things go all the way wrong. It happens to the best of us. I try to flip my perspective when things go bad in the kitchen. Can I call this tart “rustic”? Can I call this pie “well done”? If the answer is no, can I cover (and glue together) this whole mess with frosting? Sometimes the answer is no… and so we drink bourbon and try again (or go to a bakery and get out the credit card).
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