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Recommended Reading: The Art of Nonfiction

Listening to writers talk about their craft can be more illuminating than even the best “writing advice.”

I’ve always been suspicious of writing advice given by authors. Like parenting advice, it’s based on knowledge that’s highly intensive, but also extremely limited: even the most prolific writer has intimate, unfiltered knowledge of the writing process of exactly one person — him/herself.

Instead of a list of tips or steps to follow (not that those can’t help every once in a while), what I love is listening to writers narrate their own experiences. They often tell compelling, illuminating stories about coming into their vocation, of finding their way into stories, and of dealing with the pleasures and challenges of a difficult and opaque process.

If some word appealed to me, I’d say it over and over again. It would go around in my head the way the snatches of a song would.

(John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction No. 3)

“The Art of Nonfiction,” a series of interviews with authors at The Paris Review, is a rich, incredibly satisfying resource if, like me, you love letting writers speak. And speak. And speak. About everything and anything. It’s not a huge archive just yet — its fiction counterpart is much bigger (you can find all interviews here) — but with extensive, sprawling conversations with the likes of Gay Talese and Joan Didion, there’s not much reason to complain, either.

One of my favorite installments is the interview with nonfiction writer John McPhee, a frequent New Yorker contributor and Pulitzer Prize winner. Instead of laying out a long litany of writerly tenets, McPhee gives honest, generous answers about his writing process and the long arc of his career. Here he is on a question close to my heart, the supposed benefits of reading your drafts out loud:

McPhee: Certainly the aural part of writing is a big, big thing to me. I can’t stand a sentence until it sounds right, and I’ll go over it again and again. Once the sentence rolls along in a certain way, that’s sentence A. Sentence B may work out well, but then its effect on sentence A may spoil the rhythm of the two together. One of the long-term things about knitting a piece of writing together is making all this stuff fit.

I always read the second draft aloud, as a way of moving forward. I read primarily to my wife, Yolanda, and I also have a friend whom I read to. I read aloud so I can hear if it’s fitting together or not. It’s just as much a part of the composition as going out and buying a ream of paper.

Interviewer: Why don’t you read aloud to yourself?

McPhee: I think because it strikes me as insane. I have to have somebody listening, and the somebody listening can be helpful with comments. But mostly the person is just listening. Yolanda doesn’t challenge me very much. The one stricture she set down was that she would only take ten minutes of geology at a time.

From discussing the genesis of some of his iconic pieces (like his profile of future-Senator Bill Bradley, in 1965) to sharing anecdotes about his many friends in the writing and publishing worlds, you leave this interview enriched. It’s as if you’ve lucked into sitting next to McPhee (or any of the other interviewees in the series) on a long, pleasant train ride.

There are many great writing resources on the internet — including here on The Daily Post — focusing on the nitty-gritty, technical aspects of stringing words into compelling narratives. Sometimes, though, it’s great to step back and just enjoy the voice of those who’ve already told great stories, and did it well.

Is there an author whose words on writing you’ve found especially powerful and/or useful? Share it with us in the comments.

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  1. It is so true that we are a makeup of our experiences. I recently started writing a series of blog posts on writing, because I’ve never shared much about it. My experiences tend to be a far cry different, as I was greatly influenced by my mentor’s teachings on method acting. As a writer, I can see where so much of how I feel about writing is also how I feel about acting.

    Thanks so much for sharing! I will look forward to checking out this series.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Writing is the most intimate yet the most extroverted thing at the same time. Writers who achieve the balance between the two create engaging works, fiction or non fiction, at least that’s how I see it.
    For non-fiction, I find Brenee Brown to be exquisite in achieving a great bond with the reader, while transferring her ideas.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. These interviews sound great, thanks for sharing. I’m always a bit dismayed by technical advice give by successful writers; they always say things like “never use semi-colons” and I think…but I LOVE semi-colons!

    Liked by 6 people

  4. I’m going out to left field here- I enjoy non-fiction science articles. Stephen Hawking and Jane Goodall along with others talk about history and the future based on past history. I find those topics appeal to me more then science fiction! Is there hope for me?

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I agree, I’m a writer myself and when I give advice, I always make it clear that it’s based purely on my own experiences. I also ask for tips in return. There’s no one right answer to problems we come up against as writers.

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  6. Great post. Great links. Thanks. You really pulled me in with your first two paragraphs, I could really connect. The Brainpickings blog often has great stuff about writing on it too by the way. I love Orwell’s thoughts on writing. I find them focusing: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

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  7. I enjoy Elizabeth George’s mysteries so I happily picked up a copy of ‘Write Away’ her book on writing. For each writing topic she includes examples from her own work and that of other authors. Either I had read the books referenced and felt inspired to go back and reread them, or she mentioned some book I hadn’t read yet that I would have to run out and get. I didn’t get very far in George’s book but added a lot to my Goodreads Want-to-read list. :-).

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  8. Thanks for the great post. I couldn’t agree more. One thought: I’ve always found a fascinating irony that (at least for myself) there is additional power to such conversations when I encounter them on radio or television–in other words, when I can hear authors discuss their experiences and processes in their own (aural) voice. Two of my favorite sources of such conversations:

    – From the 1950s through 1997, Studs Terkel hosted a daily one-hour show on WFMT Radio in Chicago called “Voices of our Time.” His guests were not limited to writers (or their topics to writing) but when they were, it was great listening along the lines of this discussion. There is at least one collection of CDs of 48 of these original interviews available (go to Amazon at this link to check it out: http://amzn.to/1wrhrqW). Among the writers interviewed in this set are James Baldwin, Dorothy Parker and Bob Woodward.
    – Even more specifically focused on authors and the process of writing was the old show on C-SPAN called Booknotes, hosted by Brian Lamb. It ran from 1989 to 2004 and these interviews are archived on the associated website, http://www.booknotes.org. While exclusively devoted to nonfiction with an emphasis on historical and political topics, the interviews always seemed to include questions arising out of Lamb’s desire to know how writers approach their work.

    If anyone has other examples of recorded interview collections with writers I’d love to learn of them!

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  9. I can’t agree with you about advice on either writing or parenting or anything else for that matter. If you can’t listen to advice, it will probably take you twice as long to learn anything.

    Of course advice comes from one individual’s experience, however it can also come from knowledge about the topic beyond the speaker’s own experience.

    It’s really a matter of listening intently, sifting through what you hear and deciding what makes the most sense for you.

    Patricia at http://www.parentingadultchildren.com

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Anne Lamott provides inspiring and honest advice for writing in her compilation of short stories titled This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I just read Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. In an interview at the back of the book, she describes how she came up with the plot line and characters. She demonstrates that you can write a story about anything that you are moved by, even if you are not an expert on the topic.

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  11. I love non-fiction–especially memoirs and personal essays. I’m working on my own and have found “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between,” indispensable.

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  12. James Baldwin compelled me to write non-fiction. He was a master essayist, yet he could also write fiction, commentary, and plays. I was drawn to his voice, because he wrote the truth–his truth–sans inhibitions.

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    1. Baldwin is my favorite writer. I just spent a couple of hours of insomnia a couple of nights ago re-watching the documentary of his life titled “The Price of the Ticket”. I agree, a real master and a fascinating author to listen to, as well.

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  13. My favorite author is Stephen King, I admire the way he can make ordinary things and occurrences right down scary using ordinary words; to me that’s powerful.

    My other hero is of course the King of them all… Edgar Allan Poe. His thoughts are simply unequaled.

    At this moment I am reading Charlotte Bronte’s Villette and I found myself underlining some of the paragraphs (yes I abuse books) for future reference because they strike me deep in my core.

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      1. I’m still looking for it, even today. But so little English books here and I’m still in denial about E-books. I want a proper one I could hold and thumb. Thanks for suggesting.

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  14. I have to admit, John McPhee’s quote is probably some of the most honest statements about writing I’ve ever read. You read from most writers and they just keep saying “Write! Write! Write!” but they rarely give out anything useful – it’s more like just elementary-level encouragement.

    Out of all of the advice I’ve heard, the best was from Chuck Jones – simply put “We wrote Looney Tunes for ourselves”. That’s a huge key, if you aren’t writing something that you’d enjoy, it’s not going to be good.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’m more of a fiction reader than a nonfiction reader. Of fiction authors, I’ve got to say Veronica Roth. I know she’s popular with her Divergent trilogy, but that’s not why I like her. At the end of the book, she gives writing advice. One thing I’ve taken away for use with writing my own novels is NEVER LOOK BACK! You have to just type the story out. If it doesn’t feel right, retype it. But after you get a chapter right and start the next one, you can’t reread. It gives you perspective. It separates you from the story. You have to stay in the book, and for that you have to stay lost. You can’t look back at your own work until the whole thing is finished and ready for editing. Roth’s advice stretches further than that, but that’s the one thing that really works with me.

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  16. Ben, more and more I’m enjoying reading The Daily Post. Thanks for your commitment to all of us. Getting advice from other writers can be a big help no matter what kind of writing you practice. (“Practice” being an operative word here.) I belong to a writers’ group which meets monthly and for years, we have helped each other find confidence and accountability whether we’re beginners or prolific authors with multiple books published.
    I found a helpful book, also a collection of essays by authors, in the late 80s called “Just Open a Vein.” The title comes from advice by sportswriter Red Smith: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter (sic) and open a vein.”

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    1. Thanks everyone for your valuable suggestions. Will take me a while but will check them out in time. I am very new to the blog world and on a steep learning curve. Just wanted to share with you this book called – ‘On writing well’ by William Zinsser. A classic guide to writing non-fiction. It is educative, entertaining, expansive and filled with funny examples. Loving it! xxx

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  17. Thank you Ben Huberman for the excellent article. I am new to WordPress, actually still constructing site, taking Blogging 101, and today am spending some time reading and responding to what others are posting.
    You requested some ‘powerful words.’ Here is what I have taped to my computer currently:

    “In the months that follow you bend to the work, because you know in your lying cheater’s heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.”
    Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her

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  18. McPhee is the master, for sure. Nonfiction is everywhere, and if you want good reads in the genre and good reads about writing, check out the magazine, Creative Nonfiction. Also the blog Longreads is awesome… thanks for the info about The Paris Review interviews!

    Liked by 3 people

  19. It might have already been mentioned but Stephen King’s memoir/how-to titled “On Writing” is, in my opinion, a must read. I like that King doesn’t believe there is much “magic” to writing, you just have to read a lot and write a lot. The general message behind the book was both encouraging and inspiring and made me think about my own writing much more seriously.

    Plus it’s less than 300 pages long, easy read!

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  20. Thanks for sharing this. I really enjoyed Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car. In particular, I was startled by her approach to NOT writing down every idea she has. I have found this quite freeing … and it’s also saved at least one or two dinners from being burned when I dashed off to scribble a “quick” sentence …

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  21. I’d love to be able to write like HP Lovecraft. His style of writing is so formal yet bizarre. I love the way he used to put words together, the end result always being nothing short of mesmerising! Does anyone know of a writer with similar writing styles and/or some advice on how to develop a style like that?

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  22. Thanks for this post. I’ve just started the Blogging 101 course and entering the world of blogging and writing. I found the tip to read my writing out loud a wonderful tip for gaining a sense of flow most helpful. Cheers Mx

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