What is your creative process?
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: The pleasures I get out of writing non-fiction, or writing essays, which is really what I do these days in journalism – is mostly a figuring out what I think. I wrote a piece about trying to figure out what I think about the current nightmare debacle of Iraq in terms of what U.S. policy should be, and what the debate should be. And that’s such a profoundly complicated thing to figure out, for me anyway. That it was only through writing and thinking it through that I was able to begin to figure out what I really did think we should or shouldn’t do. Or how long, or when we should leave and all of those things.
I sometimes begin a piece like that with a basic sentence, but I usually find that it is only through the writing that I get any clarity in my own mind.
For fiction, the pleasure, the joy, is being god of my own little world. And creating this world and these characters. In this latest book, in the middle of the 19th Century. As other fiction writers have said, they take on their own life and surprise one – the author – by doing things you didn’t expect. Still you are god. And so that’s hugely fun.
And since I’m relatively a new writer and I’ve dabbled in fiction before the last 11 years, but I’ve only been publishing, and I still feel like, as I expect to feel for the rest of my life, that I’m still figuring it out. So that the joy, if not mastering, at least having good moments of figuring out how to do this thing that again.
Because of my childhood and my parents sort of worship of fiction – great novels – I feel as though, you know, it’s if not the highest, best calling, at least one of them. And when I feel as though I’ve gotten a line right, or a character, or a paragraph, or a chapter; I was going to say it’s all struggle in what I do. But there’s very little struggle in what I do on the radio. It is a kind of unfairly pleasurable experience because the people I work with do most of the heavy lifting, and I just get to talk to brilliant people.
But any kind of writing – non-fiction or fiction – is a struggle. It’s a very moment-to-moment struggle of figuring where the right sentence, the right paragraph, the right page, the right structure for the larger thing. And when you’re writing a book – my two novels have been 600 odd pages – that becomes an enormous structure to try to get as right as possible. It’s a pleasurable struggle when you’re done; but it is a struggle while it’s going on.
I actually find the work of writing fiction less of a struggle, less of a stressful procedure than I do writing a 1,700 word essay. The essay, or journalism really is almost pure struggle. And then I’m only happy when I’m done. Whereas writing fiction has moments of pleasure amid the struggle while it’s going on. It depends.
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.
Recorded On: July 5, 2007
Andersen discusses his creative process. For him, it is both a solo and collaborative effort.
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