THE VERY BEST WRITING advice I’ve ever received came from one of the very best living American writers. I am a great believer in asking an expert, particularly when the stakes are as high as what I do for a living.
Many years ago, I cornered the great William Kennedy in a bar. We knew each other at the time, though not well, and while I had already published a major piece in The New York Times Magazine, as well as a book that expanded that piece, and had written for some similarly fine publications, I knew only one thing for certain about writing: I had a lot to learn. Still do, by the way.
So I asked the man who had won the Pulitzer and the MacArthur genius grant, and had written some of my favorite pieces of fiction if he thought a writing class might suit me. Or an MFA? Maybe a month at Yaddo or Breadloaf or The Millay Colony? I pretty much pelted him with questions. A little overwrought, at the time I was struggling mightily with a book. His answer?
“Read the interviews in the Paris Review,” he said. Plain and simple. And all these years later it remains the best advice anyone has even given me on how to write.
Printed quarterly, the Paris Review, now 60 year old, is simply the very best education a writer, a reader, and thinker can get. And while I’ve been reading it now for 25 years, I recently put myself on a daily diet of the interviews, reading part of one each morning for 30 minutes. Why? Why not? Some people meditate. Some chant. Me, I read the Paris Review interviews. Last week this method brought me the great Ha Jin, Ray Bradbury and Ann Beattie. The week before brought me Ann Beattie, Janet Malcolm and John McFee. Fiction. Non-fiction. Memoir. It does not matter since every one of these writers provides long, illustrative answers to how to write.
Which brings me to this morning’s reading. A 2009 interview from Mary Karr. The topic? Memoir. And due to the absolute largesse of the Paris Review you can read it here.
When you are done with that, go see what Ernest Hemingway had to say about writing. That’s right. The interviews begin in the 1950s and are sorted by decade over the magazine’s sixty year history. Printed four times a year, sometimes with two interviews per magazine, you will run into the likes of Lillian Hellman, Truman Capote, T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, among dozens of others. Oh yeah, and don’t miss the incomparable William Kennedy. Get going. You’ve got some reading to do. Enjoy.