"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'" ~ C. S. Lewis

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why Write? E. L. Doctorow has the answer!

Sometimes I am so amazed at the opportunities that fall into my lap. Our school has authors in to do readings and last night we were blessed to have E. L. Doctorow come. I have class on Wednesday nights, but our professor arranged things so that our class could go. It was so great!

Here's a really horrid cell phone picture of him on stage:

He read a new short story called "Assimilation" that hasn't even been published yet. It's going to be in the New Yorker in a couple of weeks. It was really enjoyable to actually hear the author present his own work and the story was quite interesting (that sounds less enthusiastic than I intended...) The story was great!

The reading was fantastic, but the highlight of the evening for me was the Question and Answer time at the end. He was so funny and gave some fantastic advice that I just knew I had to share with all of you. I was just listening and enjoying until someone asked the question:

Why do you write?

Everyone kind of chuckled and Doctorow waited until the laughter had subsided. Then he leaned in to the microphone and said,

"Why not?"

Applause and laughter. What a great answer!

At that point I thought, this could make a great blog post! So I whipped out my notebook and started furiously taking notes. I think my friend thought I was crazy. It looked like I was preparing for a test. But I got some great quotes for you guys! So here's some of the Q&A:

Q: What authors influenced you?

A: Doctorow's father was a big Poe fan, so he grew up with him. "Poe is our greatest bad writer." When Doctorow started writing in middle school he wrote a lot of things that were heavily influenced by Poe. "'The cellar was dark and dank.' That was one of my great first lines." He read books because the titles interested him. He saw a book called The Idiot and thought, that's a great title. So he picked it up and read it - so he'd be reading Dostoevsky one day and a comic book the next. Some of the other authors that influenced him were London, Twain, Melville, Whitman, Dickens, Hardy, Chekhov.

Then he started writing. He said when a child stops asking "what happens next" when they're reading and starts asking "how is the author doing it," that's usually when you can see they're getting interested in writing. His writing is "just a response to good writing."

"If you want to write novels
you have to read them."

Q: How much research do you do before you let your imagination take over?

A: "Just enough" He went on to say that sometimes you can kill a story by doing too much research, but at the same time you have to do enough to be accurate. When he was writing Ragtime he needed to know if two of the characters could take a trolley from where they were to Connecticut. He didn't know where to find the information and he was wandering around the mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, not really sure where to go or what to do and he picked up a book that had been left on a table and it was a history of trolley cars.

Q: Do you use an outline when you write?

A: No. Many people do, but he never has. "You want to be in a position where you can find out what you're writing... It begins to tell you what will happen or what needs to be done."

"It's not an entirely rational process
and I don't know if I would recommend it to anyone."

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A: There is a "continuum between reading and writing. Just read continually."

"Try to write every day." He talked about just sitting there and letting the cursor blink at you on the screen. "Just say anything that comes to mind." Eventually you'll come across "something that interests you. Something that lights up the page for you. That could be the beginning of a story."

"Constancy is the key."

Q: What was the inspiration for Ragtime?

A: "That book came out of sheer desperation."

He had finished a book and was completely exhausted and unable to write anything for months. He sat down in his office. He likes his desk to face the wall, not the window. And as he sat there staring at the wall he started to write about it. He talked about the wall and described it and then moved from there to the house that the wall was a part of and just kept moving out from there.

After the Q&A time, they had books for sale in the back and he stayed around to sign books. Here's a slightly better picture of him as I waited in line:
So guess what I got:

Yeah! Another autographed book to add to my collection!

So, Why Write?



Jon Paul said...

Wow! What a great evening! And some great advice to boot!

That's as gooda reason to write as any I've ever heard. Great post!

BTW, thanks for joining over at my place. I'm pretty tardy getting around, but I wanted to say I appreciate it!

Theresa Milstein said...

What a great, inspirational talk. Why not? That's about as simple as it gets and so true.

If you get a chance, I'm hosting a Halloween Haunting at my blog "Substitute Teacher's Saga" from 10/28-11/1 if you want to join in. There are prizes!

Darby said...

What an adventure you had! Thanks for sharing it with us.

"Why write?" It's the only way to get these characters out of my head! And go bother other people!

Hannah Kincade said...

that's awesome! I love meeting authors and just hearing them say what I've always been thinking. Kindred spirits we all are.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

That sounds like an awesome evening! thanks so much for sharing all of this with us. I'm a bit envious! :-)

Melissa said...

Sounds like an interesting and inspirational evening!

Thank you for sharing

Also, I love that. Why write? Why not!!!

Melissa said...

ALSO! I forgot this!!! Thanks for coming over to stalk me... No, you totally didn't creep me out. I have a strange way of thinking so... yeah, it takes a lot to make me be like "wow, that person is weird!"

I'd LOVE to be NaNo buddies!
Just add me I'm MelissaWideen.

Send me a message so I know who you are and I'll add you back :)

Laura Marcella said...

Awesome post, Rebecca! What a terrific evening you had! I've included a bunch of quotes by him on my Monday quote days. He always has something motivating and compelling to say about writing. Thanks so much for sharing Doctorow's amazing advice!

Dangerous With a Pen said...

LOVE going to hear authors read and talk about their writing. They always say things about writing like it's just common sense ("Why not?") and it makes it all seem so accessible.

AchingHope said...


So good. Good stuff.

VW: soltrife, to trifle with the sun, to think the sun as unimportant...