The Alchemy of Writing — Tips from a Non-Fiction and Fiction Pro 63 Comments
(Photo: EJP Photo)
Total read time: 20 minutes
Bolded read time (as a teaser): 4 minutes
I first met Josh Waitzkin at a coffee shop in Manhattan.
About 15 minutes into sipping coffee and getting acquainted, I was thrilled to realize that he dropped f-bombs as much as I did. He was no Rain Man, and I felt silly for half expecting him to be. If you’ve read the bestselling book Searching for Bobby Fischer (or seen the movie), then you know of Josh.
Wandering through Washington Square Park with his mom at age six, he became fascinated with the “blitz chess” that the street hustlers played at warp speed. He watched and absorbed. Then he begged his mom to let him give it a shot. Just once! Soon thereafter, dressed in OshKosh overalls, he was king of the hustlers.
Josh proceeded to dominate the world chess scene and become the only person to win the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, Senior High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S. Junior Closed chess championships before the age of 16. He could easily play “simuls,” in which 20–50 chessboards were set up with opponents in a large banquet hall, requiring him to walk from table to table playing all of the games simultaneously in his head.
He was labeled a “prodigy.”
I disagree with this labeling because Josh has a process for mastery, and he’s applied it to many fields, not just chess. As it turns out, he’s not the only one in his family with this skill. His father, Fred Waitzkin, has processes and tricks he uses for writing both non-fiction (he wrote Searching for Bobby Fischer) and fiction…
As of late, I’ve become interested in the craft of fiction writing.
This interest was partially sparked by an early copy of Fred’s latest novel, The Dream Merchant, which is an incredible piece of art with praise from writers like Sebastian Junger.
This post is a conversation with Fred about his creative process: tactical, psychological, and otherwise. The lessons learned apply to much more than writing. If you like this interview, please let me know in the comments.
NOTE: For those who’d like to skim this to start, I’ve bolded a few of my favorite lines and takeaways throughout.
Enter the Conversation: Tim Ferriss (TF) and Fred Waitzkin (FW)
TF: You are best known for the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer, but can you give us some of your background from before that media deluge?
FW: In my twenties, I spent years learning my chops writing short fiction. I felt a lot of frustration. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write and I struggled to publish my work. When I look back on it now, I was too hemmed in by feelings and dark moods—I didn’t give enough sway to the story part of my stories. I didn’t understand the importance of plot. In the early 80’s I began writing feature length non-fiction for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine and a few others. All of a sudden my editors expected that I would be writing about something that really happened. This mandate was hard for me but also it was liberating—writing wasn’t all about what was inside my guts. Still, I thought of what I was doing as “creative non-fiction” which is to say I wanted my stories to have an arc, to build to some kind of revelation or impact ending.
I often wrote in the first person, which was unusual back then. You see, I didn’t believe in the New York Times credo, that a writer’s point of view about the subject shouldn’t be a part of the story. I believed that a writer always has a point of view and that masking it is a kind of fraud. So I didn’t write behind the mask. I put myself right into the story–Fred’s take–and somehow my editors put up with it. In my view, Norman Mailer was the greatest of all the contemporary non-fiction writers. He put himself right in–he let his imagination run wild in his non-fiction. Oddly, his imagination was a better friend to him as a non-fiction writer than as a novelist.
TF: Speaking of influences, or at least favorites, what are your top-5 favorite short stories?
FW: I’ll give you six, in no particular order, although I have never admired a story more than Kilimanjaro:
The Snows of Kilimanjaro–Ernest Hemingway
The Dead–James Joyce
To Build a Fire–Jack London
A Hunger Artist–Franz Kafka
The Swimmer–John Cheever
Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead–Milan Kundera [TF: couldn't locate link]
TF: When you were just starting out as a writer, did you seek formal training?
FW: No. I taught myself. I was a brash young guy, and I couldn’t accept criticism.
TF: Can you elaborate?
FW: I was turned on by Jack Kerouac’s vision of life and writing. I was rebellious. The idea of just digging life and putting it down like jazz improvisation seemed like the essence of great writing to me. Some professor telling me how to write sounded like cheating. Also, I suppose I was insecure, which is why I couldn’t accept criticism then.
TF: Did this solo approach hurt you?
FW: Well for one thing, I never met many writers or editors. I didn’t make connections. To work for magazines you have to know the editors. If you know them, and they become familiar with your work, you get assignments. If you send in stories or story ideas over the transom, it is far more likely that you will be ignored. A good writer can be ignored for years. It’s a shame.
TF: Looking at your writing career — was there a stand-out turning point? Or inflection point?
In 1984 I wrote a long piece for New York Magazine called “The Grungy World of Big Time Chess” that told the story of brilliant guys in New York who played the game with passion and devotion but couldn’t begin to make a living from it. This story appealed to me I suppose because my mom was an abstract painter, a great one, but she never made much money from her work. I loved the fifties idea of “art for art’s sake” and chess players embodied that. Anyhow, this legendary editor at Random House, Joe Fox, who loved chess, read the piece, and invited me to his office. He asked me why I was so passionate about the game when I wasn’t even a player. I told him that I had a six-year-old son who was remarkably good at chess, who beat up adults every afternoon playing in Washington Square Park. “That’s your book. That’s what you have to write about,” said Fox. I gulped. He wanted me to write a book about my six-year-old kid who had only been playing chess for a few months. But Fox was the foremost literary editor in the country. He was Truman Capote’s editor and Roth’s and Mathieson’s —how could I say no to such a luminary?
So I began writing Searching for Bobby Fischer in terror. It was such a risky proposition. What if Josh got bored with the game and quit before he was seven or before I finished writing? What if it turned out that he was just a flash in the pan talent? What would happen to my book? Also, I didn’t know how to write a book. What if the great Fox thought my work was terrible? How could I possibly measure up to Truman Capote and Philip Roth? Yes, I was terrified. Also, there were personal things in my life that had me depressed. I worried that my book would be about gloom because I was feeling that way—that gloom would filter through and darken the writing.
I began taking notes about my feelings about Josh’s chess life. We went to the park and Josh played heroic games against seasoned players—or they seemed that way to me. I wrote it all down on yellow pads. Each decision about his chess life seemed huge. Should he take formal lessons? Should he play in tournaments? Should he play speed chess? I wrote in my journal that his park games were more important to me than anything else in my own life. That was hard for me to look at, but it was true. Was I living my life through my six- year- old kid? Yes, for sure. And it was doubly true because of the book. The book gave an additional layer of urgency to everything that Josh and I did. In a minute, my career had become linked to his terribly youthful hobby–although to me it surely didn’t feel like a hobby. Was it fair to put so much pressure on a kid? Very big question. For sure it was interesting material to reflect on and write about.
TF: Isn’t it difficult to write so candidly about yourself? Did you find it embarrassing to take your clothes off in public, so to speak?
FW: No, I got over that fairly quickly. It became my work to write truly about how I felt about myself and my kid as we moved through the chess world, just in the same way that a lawyer or a financial analyst does his research. I wrote it all down on yellow pads. I developed a working attitude about my confessional approach. I soon stopped thinking about whether or not I would embarrass myself. The book became a work of “introspective journalism.” I used that phrase when people asked me about it. I wrote about myself as if I were composing paragraphs about a fictional character. I adopted this strategy: If I wrote about “him” it wouldn’t hurt me. Of course once the book was about to hit the stores, I had my nerve-wracking moments.
There is a lot of alchemy in writing. You make a soup, put a lot of stuff in. But if it is a really good soup, what comes out is sometimes surprisingly different than what you put in. This is the coolest thing in writing. I have an idea to write a story about a guy I know. I write three or four notes on a legal pad. I’m raring to go. I begin churning out the words. I look at it again after a few days and I ask myself, “Where did that come from? Very interesting, but where did it come from?” If there is greatness in a book, it is usually the magic part–the revelations there were truly revelations to the author himself.
Energy needs to go into the soup. I’ll talk more about energy later, I’m sure, but just one thing here. Moods are energy. Think of a river flowing. If you are sad about some loss or terrible rejection, the river flows slowly in that direction. If you are ecstatic, the river rushes ahead with glee. But the main thing is movement. I mentioned before that I wrote Searching for Bobby Fischer when I was feeling depressed. Early on I discovered that I could divert that river and write passages that were hilarious. I marveled at it. My depression somehow gave me the impulsion to write humor. That was a great revelation to me and I’ve used it over the years. Movement begets movement. It is much better for a writer to feel badly than to not feel at all. If he feels badly he can turn it like a fire hose.
TF: How did you personally respond to the success of Searching?
The success of Searching was confusing and for a time it was even emotionally devastating. Perhaps when I think of that period in my life, I am conflating the book with the movie–all of this happened a long time ago. And people were constantly speaking of them as one and the same. But they weren’t. The book was very close to the experience of our lives, or as close as I could manage. The movie was a 125-minute version filtered through the sensibilities of many creative people, the script writer-director, the producer, a cast of greatly talented actors. The movie was a separate thing. Everyone in my family was upset by the movie when we first saw it. It wasn’t exactly what happened. It wasn’t our lives, not really, although the characters used our names.
Friends and strangers were always complimenting me about the movie as if it were my doing. Some people loved my book as well, but many more admired the Hollywood movie seen by millions. It was deeply confusing. Should I shake hands and say thank you, should I carefully explain that my book was quite different and really they should read it? But that seemed like a big bridge to cross with stranger after stranger who wanted to tell me how great the movie was. I shook hands and felt a bit like an imposter.
Also, for a writer who spends years by himself trying to actualize an inner vision, who covets silence and aloneness, hearing hundreds of compliments takes a toll. In my case there reached a point where I became insatiable. I wanted more and more great reviews. I wanted more people to tell me how terrific it was. This experience was like eating too much of the richest chocolate cake. I wanted more and at the same time my senses had become deadened from too much. I had to get away from the book and movie before I would be fit again to write anything decent. I recall having to wean myself from praise. I had to learn to sit by myself in a room again. That’s what I did.
TF: You’ve written nonfiction for a lifetime. Now you have spent the past ten years immersed in a novel. Can you describe some of the core similarities and differences in these processes? How would you compare the core challenge of writing fiction and nonfiction?
Actually, it feels like I have been writing fiction my entire life. But maybe that’s because I worked on The Dream Merchant for more than ten years– that’s a lifetime for one book. Also, my non-fiction life prepared me for fiction–I learned the importance of story. It was the perfect training ground.
I always wanted to write a novel. It’s just that I took a long time to get to it. And then The Dream Merchant took much much longer to finish than I’d ever imagined. I kept discovering new levels to the story, and every change meant fifty more changes. The novel is a deeper and more mysterious construction, I suppose, than a memoir but I’m not certain about this. For me, the best of non-fiction isn’t so different from fiction. As a journalist, the stories that appealed to me most were like short fictions—a small twist here and there and they might have been short stories. Many people have told me that my memoir, The Last Marlin, reads like a novel. While I was writing it I flirted with the idea of changing a few things and calling it a novel. Read This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Wolff might have called his great memoir of growing up a novel and no one who didn’t know his history would have blinked. Probably he was tempted.
But to dig into your question, a novel is constantly challenging the imagination. In a memoir, if you are playing more or less by the rules, you know what happened in fact, and the challenges have to do with how you are going to get there, the language you use, the moods you evoke, what you leave in and what you take out. With a novel there is more room to surprise yourself. Characters lead you to unexpected places, introduce you to new characters you hadn’t banked on meeting. Who are these strangers and what are they like? What are their passions? Who are their friends and lovers? All of this sounds obvious. But less obvious perhaps is how the novelist accesses the fictive side of himself.
Working on The Dream Merchant with numerous characters and dramatic scenes to bring to life I had to learn how to access my unconscious. This is an important part of my creative process. Let’s start simply. We all dream but some of us cannot recall our dreams in the morning. You can train yourself to remember your dreams. Put a pad on the shelf beside your bed and begin writing the second you open your eyes. Even before you open your eyes reach for the pad. Don’t turn on the light. Start scribbling in the dark. You will remember your dreams if you do this. The way I think of it, and I’m not a psychologist, you’ve created a bridge between your conscious and unconscious.
As a novelist I want to travel on this bridge, regularly–in fact, every day I want to cross over. Here is a deep trick that I learned from an interview with Ernest Hemingway: At the end of each writing day I leave unwritten a small portion of what I still had in my mind to compose that day.
[Tim note: Hemingway would routinely leave a sentence half finished, as discussed in A Moveable Feast.]
Then riding home on my bike from my office, at some level my mind is working on the unwritten paragraphs that I might have written but didn’t. I’m working on these paragraphs while I’m chatting with my wife or watching the ball game—but I am making connections that I never imagined. Sometimes my thinking is just a vague sense of impressions but other times an idea comes rushing to the surface. I always carry a small pad in my pocket to write it down. I’ve learned that if I don’t write it down, the insight is likely to disappear like many unwritten dreams. Then when I begin writing again the following day, I’ve discovered that the unwritten scene already contains hints and urges about where the narrative might next go–very often there are elements here that I hadn’t consciously thought about before.
When I was writing The Dream Merchant this dalliance with the unconscious felt very natural and I was able to give this hidden part of myself assignments. I would say to myself what does Jim worry about at night in bed? Or how does he tell his wife that he is going to leave her for another woman? Then I would be riding on my bike or watching the game, and the answer would rise to me–this would happen surprisingly often. Although each time it was a little thrilling, this bolt from the blue connection with a shadowy hard working world that we don’t know so much about.
One last point about my unusual dialogue with myself: It takes practice like running or swimming fast miles. When I haven’t written for a month or two I cannot access this part of being and I have to begin training in my fashion. But it gives me confidence to know that I have been there before and will probably be able to get back again.
TF: What do you do when your creative process is blocked? You talk a lot about muses. Tell us about that.
Inspiration is frequently misunderstood. When I was a young writer I looked for it in all the wrong places. In my twenties, I lived with my wife in a studio apartment just off Washington Square. Somehow I decided that the best writing time for me was late at night–I guessed that was when the muses would be running wild and delivering intoxicating poetic secrets. Perhaps I got this impression from Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round about Midnight” which I played over and over–it was so hauntingly beautiful and sad. In those days, after a late heavy dinner with a couple of beers topped off by more than a few drags of weed, I took my yellow legal pad into the chilly unsightly stairwell across from my front door and got ready to write the great American novel. Ugh, wrong move, Waitz. I recall sitting in the stairwell waiting for inspiration to strike until I was dozing off or feeling too cold. Some evenings when my wife was off taking classes at N.Y.U., for inspiration I maxed out the hifi with Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane blasting pure madness solos while I tried to compose my delicate pages. Wrong. Wrong. All wrong, Waitzkin.
Now, many years later, when I’m working on a book I write everyday except Sunday, when I watch football or go to the country with my wife. This routine has settled deeply inside. It gives me confidence. I’ve learned that pages will come if I go to my quiet office and stick with my routine. Back in the younger days, the unsightly stairwell seemed cool, but not now. I could never do my best work after a heavy meal or with the music blasting. It would be a distraction–an energy robber.
TF: But what about “inspiration”? Does it exist for you?
For me, inspiration is primarily energy. If I feel energy for a paragraph or a description I can almost always get to the essence of it. If I feel dead to myself, I don’t have a chance. I am always looking for energy. Where can I find it? What or who can give it to me? How can I amp up what I have?
A story can help us here. An older friend of mine was once depressed about his advancing years. He lacked zest or motivation for his regular gym workouts. He couldn’t concentrate on his career. One evening this man found himself in an elevator with a woman, a housekeeper who had worked for him in the past. But she was wearing outside clothes, a tight fitting sweater. She was young and beautiful. They talked a little. There was chemistry. She got off the elevator at his floor. They chatted in the hall. She said that she found him attractive. But he could feel this even before she said the words. She embraced him. And that was it. Nothing more happened between them. He was married and not looking for an affair. But he felt a big surge of life. He felt renewed, deeply so. There was a bounce to his step. He returned to the gym feeling ten years younger… There are many ways to experience the girl in the elevator…
Posted on March 24th, 2013