Anna Quindlen: Why I Write

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve gone gaga for the National Day on Writing, which we’re celebrating with our buds the National Writing Project, the New York Times Learning Network, and Edutopia.

In addition to asking writers why they write, we want to hear a little more about how, what, and where they write, and so from now until the Big Day (October 20!) we’ll be asking some of our favorite writers—a mix of pros and Figs alike—to tell us a bit more about their writing processes.

Photo by Maria Krovatin

Today we’re pinching ourselves to be able to share some writing words from Anna Quindlen, the Pulitzer Prize winner whose talents of wordsmithery know no genre bounds.

How did you become a writer?

AQ: I’m a writer because of teachers. I was a little challenged in the self-control department when I was a kid, mouthy and strong-willed and more or less what I am today, which didn’t play as well on a nine-year-old being educated by nuns. But over and over again I would hand in a story or an essay and hear, “This is very good.” When you’re praised for something by the authority figures in your life, you tend to repeat the behavior, even to embrace it. And so here I am.

What are the things you’re most proud of having written, from any time in your life?

AQ: One of the greatest gifts of being a writer is that you can resurrect the dead. Each time I write about my mother, my grandparents, my absent friends, they are alive again, at least on paper. And the other moments I treasure are those moments when readers say they’ve felt comforted or buoyed by something I’ve written. I’m very proud of being able to work as both a columnist and a novelist. But it’s that ability to pay homage to the dead and comfort the living that really gives me a sense of joy.

How would you describe your writing process? That is, how do you usually research, write, revise, edit? What routines help, and what challenges do you regularly face?

AQ: I am challenged by the fact that I hate to write. I would rather do anything else: make pot roast, fold towels, watch TV. I am always terrified by what appears to be the inevitable gap between the vague and wonderful ideas in my head, and what finally winds up flopping around on the page. But most morning around 9:30 I force myself to go up four flights to my office and at least try. Some days I have a good day and I start to type and look up suddenly and three hours have gone by. Some days, not. But one of the useful routines I have developed to help overcome my paralysis is this: I never knock off for the day at the end of a chapter, or the end of a paragraph, or even the end of a sentence. I always stop in the middle of a sentence somewhere. If I had to start again next morning at the beginning of a new chapter, I might freeze for days. But I can finish a sentence. I can always manage to finish a sentence.

What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve ever written about or researched for a writing project?

AQ: In my last novel, Every Last One, one of the main characters was a 17-year-old girl named Ruby Latham who wants to be a writer. Like lots of young writers, she writes poetry.  (I think younger people think poetry is somehow easier because there’s less of it. Actually, it’s much harder because there’s less of it. If you have a hamhanded phrase in a novel, it’s a glitch. If you have a hamhanded phrase in a poem, it’s an utter failure.) At a certain point I realized that I had to include two of Ruby’s poems. Creating an authentic and identifiable voice for a character is always one of the challenges in writing fiction, but writing in someone else’s voice, in a medium not your own, was particularly challenging.

How do outside forces influence or shape your writing? (For instance, your audience, editors, the market, things you read, etc.)

AQ: When I am revising I pick up other people’s stylistic tics, so during revision periods I only read mystery novels. I don’t mean to denigrate mystery novels by saying this, since there are some very good ones being published nowadays. But somehow they don’t get under my skin the way, say, Alice McDermott or Martin Amis might. My editor reads and suggests extensive revisions for my books, and I adopt as many of them as I see fit, which usually comes down to two out of three. As for the audience, I never think of it. The person I write for is me.

Why do you write?

AQ: My usual wiseass answer is “contractual obligation,” but I guess that won’t serve here.  And it’s not good enough to say that it’s the only thing I know how to do, although that’s true. Here’s the best I can come up with: once, when I was in high school, I went to the public library and looked at where my books would be shelved when (if?) I wrote them.  Between Marcel Proust and Ayn Rand—pretty amazing real estate. I suppose I did that because, as an inveterate and devoted reader, I realized that if I was ever going to be part of something bigger than I was, I wanted it to be that. Generations pass on, people die, the world changes, the borders of nations are redrawn. But Dickens and Tolstoy are forever.

Hungering for more author Q&As? Visit the New York Times Learning Network and National Writing Project. Then head over to the Forums to post your own burning writerly questions to any of the authors featured on the site. We’ll post answers to the questions after October 20. And of course, be sure to let us know why you write . . .

One thought on “Anna Quindlen: Why I Write

  1. I really like your novel Blessings. I am writing thesis on the themes of this novel. 🙂
    Hats off to the writer.

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