Rodes Fishburne is an American writer with experience as a journalist, playwright, and novelist. His 2008 novel Going to See the Elephant explores the creative and financial difficulties of writing and employs a euphemism for “going out west,” replete with all the exoticism that comes with it. His 2004 one-act play Waiting for Henry to Snow revolved around the theme of honor, while 2002’s Note to Self dealt with theft and plagiarism. He has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times. Born in Virginia, Fishburne graduated from Emory and Henry College and attended St. Peter’s College, Oxford.
Question: How much do writers have to read?
Rodes Fishburne: Yeah, finding new writers for me has changed a little bit. My writing requires so much reading in various fields and my curiosity takes me in certain directions that I’m not the most up to date person about what my contemporaries are doing now.
I have some very close friends who have had very successful books in the past couple of years, and I always have to sort of politely dodge the fact that I have not read the book, but writers are not the best readers in the world. First of all, we have professional jealousy to overcome, and second of all, there is a time issue. If I spend all the time reading my contemporaries’ books, I wouldn’t do any of the work that I’m trying to do. Having said that, the writing that I do read, you find it in magazines, you find it in the library, things jump out at you, and I’m always amazed at how a really good story in the New Yorker we all seem to have read whereas stories that maybe are not so good pass by. I feel like that stuff tends to find an audience.
Question: What does it take to be a writer?
Rodes Fishburne: It takes an extraordinary ability to delay gratification. You asked me earlier if I was excited about my book coming out, and there’s a part of me that is still delaying the gratification of that, and it’s a weird psychological trick, but basically, if you are looking to be approved of relatively quickly, this is not the right place for you to be, or I guess you could be a op ed columnist for the New York Post, because you’ll get feedback pretty quickly on that, or a blogger.
But, my feeling is that writing long-form work requires a lot of time alone, a lot of living in your head, there’s a great Lyle Lovett song about that, and it also requires this ability to just delay any kind of feedback for probably an unhealthy amount of time. I remember sitting once in a theater, I had written a play that was being performed here in New York and I was sitting in the theatre in the audience and I was waiting for the audience to laugh at something I had written.
Alas, they didn’t, and I remember thinking that this whole writing thing, whether it is plays or novels or short stories or nonfiction, it is almost a benign mental illness, because what you are waiting for is some feedback that may or may not ever come and you feel like you are just alone in the wilderness, and not everybody can do that. And conversely, maybe some wonderfully talented writers who have wonderful talents but don’t have that psychological component, never actually pursue this as a career. I’m often reminded that being a writer is, I think, 90 percent psychology and 10 percent everything else.
Question: What is your creative process?
Rodes Fishburne: I find that writers in general, when they talk about their process, are very skilled liars because nobody ever asks us what we are doing; we are alone by ourselves all the time. And then, by the time somebody asks us what our process is, we come up with these perfectly polished anecdotes about how we get up every morning at 5:30, drink a glass of carrot juice and sit down and write for 90 minutes and then go off and play snooker for the afternoon.
And of course the truth is so much more horrifying than that, and there are so many stops and starts, and this idea that oh, I write every day because it is a muscle and I have to keep it sharp and all that, these clichés that you hear over and over again, I think the truth is a lot more of like stopping and starting as you are driving down a very short stretch of highway. I always get a kick when I hear somebody talking, a very esteemed writer talking about their perfect process, and I find it hard to ever put a whole lot of credence in it.
Recorded on: June 3, 2008.