Gay Talese On Writers Block

Writing has never been fun, but with enough time its pretty good.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Have you ever experienced writers block?

Gay Talese: Probably I have writer’s block as a natural condition. I mean when I was a journalist working on a daily newspaper, my only job was The New York Times and it was only between 1956 and 1965, a nine-year period, and I’d have about four hours to write something. And I’d go out and get an assignment in the morning and at one o’clock I’d go back to the office and by seven o’clock it was supposed to be into the desk, into the editor. And I’d be laboring over it and laboring on it. It would be two or three hours sitting there in the city room sweating it through. There were other colleagues of mine who would just sit there as if they’re playing a piano in a fraternity house. It was all coming easily and it was just fun. They were having fun. I never had any fun. I didn’t think writing was fun for me. It wasn’t then, it isn’t now. But I had always a feeling that I can do a better sentence. I can tell it better. If I only had another 20 minutes, another 50 minutes, another 3 hours, another 20 hours, another 20 years, I can do it better. And sometimes you become with that mentality, you create these blocks. I mean it isn’t blocks so much as you want to rise above the ordinary, the mediocre, the easy to do, the functionary. You want to rise, you want to do something. You want to do something more worthy of the more discerning reader. And that takes time. It takes time, as my father always said, to make a good suit. Well, it takes time to write a good paragraph. To write a good book takes a lot of time. So you might say writer’s block, but I thought writer’s block, I mean that’s the phrase, but I thought sometimes writers write too much. I mean sometimes writers should say, “This is beneath my level just so I can get it published and maybe some readers will read it.” But sometimes writers write too much and they write secondary- they let it go there and it goes out there and Barnes & Noble’s shelves are filled with this stuff. They’re a famous writer, you can write two bad books and you get a good book and a bad book. I’m not saying you always know what a good book is. I mean you think you’ve written a good book and then maybe you’re coming to believe because reviewers have penetrated your sense of self it’s not a good book. I mean I think of the writers who are great fiction writers. Let’s just take people in my lifetime. I think William Styron wrote very, very, very, very few books that were not on a high level, whether they were long or short, whether they were Sophie’s Choice or Confessions of Nat Turner or a book about his own depression, it’s a fine book. You know, some of the writers that are more prolific who are contemporaries, I don’t have to name them, you can probably imagine who I’m speaking, wrote too many books. Yes, they have established with this book and this book and this book their reputation, but there are a lot of books that had they not been done nor do I believe they had to be done in order to produce the good books; they could have put it aside. It’s tragic when you think that sometimes writers who die, their grandchildren or somebody related will come out of the drawer and find this unpublished book manuscript by some writer. It might be Hemingway or it might be any distinguished name, John Steinbeck for example, and they get published, they didn’t want them published because they had the maybe good judgment to know this was not on the level of which I am capable. But sometimes editors don’t care and books are published. But, you know, you’re hearing me talk in ways that probably doesn’t embrace others in the way of attitude, but it’s just the way I feel.

Question How do you decide which stories are worth it?

Gay Talese: This is a very, very, very difficult question because it’s how I’ve felt through everything I’ve done. I first started when I was 24 years old writing about the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which started to go up. It’s been Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York City. And they started to build that in 1959 and didn’t finish till 1965, ’64. And I started watching that going up, that bridge going up over this period when I wasn’t working full-time for The Times. On my days off or after hours, I’d go to Staten Island or Brooklyn and watch the construction workers. And I thought I really could spend 20 years writing this book ‘cause the book about a bridge is a book about a monument that is not timeless but can live for centuries, like the Brooklyn Bridge is more than a century old. And we do not know who the great builders of that bridge are except we know the designer, the Roebling brothers. But all the hundreds of people that put the stones together, put the wire, put the cables together, there’s no record of those people. So I wanted to do that in the Verrazano Bridge because I was there and I got to know the construction crews. But I could have spent a lot more time. And after the book was published, I was very saddened. I said, “You know, I blew it because now the book is out, the story is over, the bridge is built. I should have taken maybe 10 years.” And then the next book I did which is about The New York Times, I did take a long time. But sometimes in the books that I mentioned, The New York Times book and all the others that followed that in the middle of them I thought, “I’m taking too much time and I’m never gonna live long enough.” And sometimes you think you’re gonna die before the book is done and then you feel that you have to move faster and then there’s another side of you that said, “No, no, don’t do that. You’re gonna regret it,” as I regretted not spending more time on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I wish I had- I was too young or too impatient.  I don’t know what it was. But that book, it’s a nice little book, but it could have been more. I didn’t quite have the imagination or the willpower when I was young to do that. I haven’t made the same mistake since then. But at times since then, I have felt the opposite. I mean spending 10 years for a book is a long time and during that time, you’re doing nothing else. If you’re, you know, teaching college, if you’re lucky enough to get a teaching position, many writers do that, they think it’s a wonderful thing, but I don’t want to be on the faculty, not that I’ve had many opportunities, but there have been a couple of offers, but I felt I can’t commit to next year because next year, I’m gonna be on the road researching. I want to do here, I want to go here. I didn’t want to be tied down. I wanted to have what I mentioned before, the option of being free and going on the road and discovering things by chance. And I didn’t want to have to know that I had to teach three classes next year from September, you know, through June or whenever. Look, it is a very satisfying profession to be in something called book writing, very satisfying, but it has its downside and the downside has to do with your relationship to yourself when you’re alone. It’s a solitary profession. I mean maybe it’s fun to write a Broadway musical and to be Rogers and Hammerstein back in the 1940s doing South Pacific or to be a film writer working with a director or to be in a cast, you know, of a whole chorus, but when you’re a writer, you’re a solitary scrivener and only your own discipline will get it done. And you have to put in your own hours. No one’s saying you have to be there at nine o’clock or eight o’clock in the morning. No one says you have to put in five hours or three hours or twenty hours. No one says that. You have to be on your own good behavior, if that’s the word. And it’s really very demanding if you have any sense of dalliance or you drink a little too much or you’re on some drugs which you think are gonna be energy-producing when the reverse is true. You’re out of it. You’re out of it. And there are people who set great examples. Of my age group, I’d say Philip Roth is the one writer that I think of as a fiction writer who his whole life he’s done good work and he continues to do good work. And it’s not sloppy books that he produces. They may be not as- you know, shorter this time and longer the next time in terms of fiction, but he’s a great historian. If you read Philip Roth from the 1960s as I have to his most recent book published in 2008, you get a sense of this country as well if not better than a historian. It’s fiction, but he is also so in touch with the reality of what it is he’s writing about, no less than Faulkner writing about the south in the 1930s and ‘40s or Hemmingway writing about World War I. And you really get a sense of history in these great works. And Tolstoy in the period of Napoleon’s invasion in the early 1800s Russia, this is great stuff.