What inspires you?
Kurt Andersen, host of Studio 360 on NPR, is a journalist and the author of the novels Hey Day, Turn of the Century, The Real Thing, and his latest non-fiction book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. He has written and produced prime-time network television programs and pilots for NBC and ABC, and co-authored Loose Lips, an off-Broadway theatrical revue that had long runs in New York and Los Angeles. He is a regular columnist for New York Magazine, and contributes frequently to Vanity Fair. He is also a founder of Very Short List.
Andersen began his career in journalism at NBC's Today program and at Time, where he was an award-winning writer on politics and criminal justice and for eight years the magazine's architecture and design critic. Returning to Time in 1993 as editor-at-large, he wrote a weekly column on culture. And from 1996 through 1999 he was a staff writer and columnist for The New Yorker. He was a co-founder of Inside.com, editorial director of Colors magazine, and editor-in-chief of both New York and Spy magazines, the latter of which he also co-founded.
From 2004 through 2008 he wrote a column called "The Imperial City" for New York (one of which is included in The Best American Magazine Writing 2008). In 2008 Forbes. com named him one of The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media. Anderson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, and is a member of the boards of trustees of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Pratt Institute, and is currently Visionary in Residence at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He lives with his family in New York City.
Kurt Andersen: Inspires me. I would say any time I come across, either in person or in reading about, an act of courage. Not an unusual or necessarily physical courage, sometimes that, but moral courage, intellectual courage. Those always inspire me.
And it doesn’t need to be as dramatic as a journalist in Zimbabwe who, at the risk of his or her life and limb, tells the truth; but that’s an example. But it can be smaller and more banal than that. But those things are what inspire me.
I will see a work of art. I mentioned Bill Viola. Some of Bill Viola’s video work, I wouldn’t say inspires me, but I am left awestruck and full of questions about existence and perception and all kinds of things as a result of experiencing various works of art.
The same is true of fiction, films, all kinds of things. I am often amazed and inspired by the skill and luck of those creators.
I would say the most common way in which I feel inspired, and I try to remind myself to do the right thing, is when people behave courageously.
My creative process, depends on what I’m doing. To the degree my life now is divided among working alone in a room, essentially, writing fiction or writing essays, it’s a matter of doing whatever research is necessary and then just being at home with all of whatever facts there are, notes, thoughts, stray bits, and letting that marinate until I can figure out a way that it looks interesting, or enlightening, or entertaining to write a page.
It requires, for me, it requires to do what I consider good writing, to be alone in a room for a few hours at a time. And then whatever alchemy happens, happens.
But then the other half of my creative life, which is doing Studio 360, as well as editing magazines in the past, is this entire collaborative process, entirely or significantly and vastly different from the creative process of writing, which is about finding a team of people with whom you’re comfortable, but not identical; and being open to all of the various ideas and approaches that that team brings.
And if you’re a leader of the team, trying to inspire those people to do good work and keep a vision of what it is you’re trying to do collaboratively, so that it’s not just a collection of 10 different people doing 10 different things, but all fits into the large vision.
Those are very different. I get satisfaction out of both. Literally my days are divided between those two forms of creative process. By the time I’m done doing a radio program, and all the meetings, and conversations, and all the back and forth that that requires, I’m very happy, the next morning, to go back in my room and spend five hours alone.
I have never suffered from writer’s block. When I’m working on a book, I’m pretty disciplined – unless I have something else I have to do – about going in a room and working.
Some days the result is crap and I throw that away. I can’t imagine having writer’s block, because I can imagine; I don’t know if this is how it is for other writers; but feeling as though you’re writing the crap as you’re writing it, and then stopping because you can’t bear to commit crap to the page anymore. But so, I never have had it.
I listen to the critic or the editor within me as I’m writing. I think that’s unavoidable. I can turn it off or turn it down enough that I am able to write through the kind of distant criticism in the back of my head.
Recorded On: July 5, 2007
Andersen goes into a room, and waits for the alchemy to happen.
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