Tom Wolfe On Writing
I began to honestly believe that this New Journalism was far more exciting in a literary sense than fiction was. And you could make that case because talented young novelists were all going to these MFA programs and being told, “write about what you know,” which is brilliant advice for your first novel but it makes them helpless on their second novel. It was Emerson who said every person in the world has a great autobiography in them if only they can remember the details that made them different from other people. But Emerson didn’t say you could write two that way.
… I suppose the success I have had comes from a holdover of the journalistic emphasis on reporting. If a young person comes to me for advice on how to be a successful writer, I say, “Leave the building.” My God, it is a bizarre world out there.
1. People say to me a lot, “I have a book in me.” No, I want to say, you probably don’t. Most people lead perfectly ordinary lives. Or, to put a fine point on it, the lives most people can recall having led are perfectly ordinary, because most people are poor storytellers. I’ve been bored out of my skull listening to someone drone on about some adventure they had in an exotic locale, and I’ve been utterly captivated by someone talking about an ordinary event in a quotidian life. The difference is not the locale or the character of the event; the difference is in the discernment of the storyteller. You have to be reflective, and know how to tell the difference between meaningful details and mere clutter.
2. And you have to be able to get outside of yourself fully enough to grasp what it is about the story you have to tell that will interest other people who don’t know you. I’m thinking right now of a couple of people I’ve known in my life who could be counted on to deliver ordinary gossip as if they were returned from Troy to break the news of Achilles’ wrath and its effects. They were so caught up in the penny-ante drama of these narratives that they failed to see how little this stuff mattered to people who didn’t have a personal connection with the dramatis personae (or how little it mattered even to those who did).
Someone here in my town expressed displeasure with The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, saying that they expected it to be a book about Ruthie, not a book having much to do with me. I explained that in order for the power of Ruthie’s life and example to be made clear to readers who didn’t know her or have reason to care about life in our little corner of the world, I had to demonstrate the effect Ruthie had on those around her — her students, her friends, her neighbors, and most of all, her brother, who was very much unlike her (and whom she didn’t much care for), but who nevertheless saw so much grace revealed in her life and death that it changed his heart, and the trajectory of his life. The life I’ve lived — leave home, see the world, achieve worldly success — is the standard American narrative of our time. Ruthie’s life — stay at home, build a world on the foundation your family gave you, achieve within those bounds — is not. That I was able to see the true value of Ruthie’s way of life, and that her narrative had, in her death, enough power to trump the narrative I (and many, many Americans) embraced — well, that’s the real story here. That’s how Ruthie’s story becomes relevant to people who never knew her. She lived modestly and unfussily, but she had such an impact. You couldn’t look at Ruthie’s life and think of it as the kind of life that would make a dramatic story, standing on its own. The real story was the revelation, through her suffering with cancer and her death, of what kind of impact her modest, unfussy, but generous and constant presence had on her community and the people who lived in it. To have written a standard biography of Ruthie would have been possible, and would have meant a lot to the people who knew and loved her, but it wouldn’t have grabbed the attention of many people beyond our part of the world. In short, I told a story that helped people know about my sister’s character through the effects she had on the people around her. That was what was essential to her character, and her character was indeed her destiny.
3. Wolfe is so, so right about learning to write by getting out into the crazy world and seeing what you see. That’s not the path I followed, by the way, because it was not the path open to me. In many ways I regret it. I mean, I can’t say that I’ve not been successful, but my success as a writer came not as a reporter, which I never really learned how to be, but as an interpreter. I’ve been a critic and a columnist most of my career. I happen to live in one of the most interesting parts of our very interesting country, but it is hard for me to get out of my armchair and go see what there is to see around here, and write about it. Part of it is my chronic illness, but if I’m honest with myself, that’s only a small part of it. Mostly it’s because I’m a contemplative by nature, and because I’m lazy. Put another way, I’m far more inclined to be Plato, a contemplator of ideas, than Aristotle, an observer of phenomena. We need both, of course, but if I could get off my ass and be more of an Aristotle, I’d be a better writer. Heaven knows there are so very many great stories all around me, waiting to be told.
The great Tom Wolfe didn’t start writing The Bonfire Of The Vanities till he was in his fifties. There may be hope for me yet. The point I would make to younger writers is: don’t pin your hopes in moving to New York or Washington and getting involved in the elite media. That’s what I did, and it worked out for me, but I can see where it hurt me as a writer. I have a good friend who is working at a small-town newspaper in flyover country. He’s going through a tough time there now, but if he can endure, the experience he will have had observing the real world around him in that little town will make him a much better writer and observer of the human condition than if he had started off with a magazine internship (say) in NYC or DC. As Walker Percy said in the 1980s, in his book Lost In The Cosmos:
I predict that working artists and writers will revert to the vacated places. In fact, they’re already turning up in ordinary houses on ordinary streets long since abandoned by the Hemingways and Agees. …What else? Where would you rather be if you were James Agee now and alive and well: stumbling around Greenwich Village boozed to the gills, or sitting on the front porch of a house on a summer evening in Knoxville?
The thing to watch out for is the potential for reverse snobbery in that position. You could in truth be a third-rate writer who never could have made it elsewhere, and who is reduced to making a virtue of the fact that you were afraid that leaving would have revealed your mediocrity. That’s always a risk. Not everybody is called to walk the same path.