After all, language is the thing that distinguishes us as a species, over all the others. Other creatures love their young, raise them, and nurture them. All animals seek warmth when it’s cold. But we’re the only ones with literature. You’re never going to see two monkeys talking about another one that’s been dead a hundred years. Or even just gossiping or telling jokes about another one down the road. But we do it every day. Though we take it totally for granted, it's the most amazing thing about us—and literature is the best expression of that miracle. Shakespeare can write something like this passage, and somebody 400 years later can feel moved by it. It goes far beyond that: I mean, think about Homer. When Shakespeare references Homer, he’s talking about what was even then, in his own time, ancient writing. In that sense, in our evolution, Shakespeare’s our contemporary. The best writing always remains contemporary.
It’s easy to say “write truthfully about experience.” But how to actually do it? The only way I’ve ever known is to try it, over and over again, until I can’t think of another way, or a clearer way. I write each draft, each scene, over and over again until I can’t think of a better way forward. My novel Hello to the Cannibals was almost 1,000 pages in manuscript—the exact count was 967. But I wrote it five separate times. There are scenes and chapters I wrote dozens of times, more, too many to count. And it isn’t the way people sometimes paint it—it’s not like you’re at your desk, tearing your hair. It’s just: I’ve got to do it again. This is what I’m doing today. And you do it.
The impulse, of course, is try to be faithful to what you initially had in mind—but the process, instead, calls for you to let go of all of your opinions, and all the things you think you think. You’ve got to go on down, as Robert Penn Warren used to say, into the cave. (James Dickey used to call it “the cave of making.”) You enter the cave of making without any opinions, without any preconceived notions, and tell the story as clearly as you can. You must not bend your characters according to some idea you have about how they ought to behave; you’re just letting them be themselves, whatever that is. If you do that, and you’re faithful to it, you’ve got a shot at writing something true. This is the only way it works for me.
Other people can have other ideas about this, of course. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t say this, who are writing really good stuff. John Irving will tell you that he never begins a novel until he knows everything about it. He conceives the story, he makes up the characters, he thinks everything through, and arranges it, and then he sits down and writes it. He’s written really good books, and they’re very true-feeling.
But for me, I’m going through—I’m taking a path. And I don’t have any more knowledge about what’s ahead than, say, somebody in a car with their headlights on. You can’t see beyond the fan of the headlights, and you just keep going until the road takes you wherever it’s taking you. I think it was Charles Baxter that expressed it that way. But in any case, whatever gets it done, I guess, is how a writer needs to work. And for me, that’s what gets it done: to sit down, try to be clear, and let go of everything you think you know.
Each time through, you get a little bit smarter about it. You’re educating yourself as to what this particular novel or story is. I think that’s why some people say “I feel like I have to learn how to do it every time I do it.” Because that’s in fact what’s going on. Gotta learn how to write this one. Each book has its secrets, and it takes its time letting you know what they are. Your job is to keep the faith. You sit down and concentrate on doing the work. Did I work today? If the answer is yes, no other questions. If you’re working, it’s always going well. If you are working, even when it feels like shit, and every single line seems to come as if it was burned into your forehead, you’re still working. So it’s going well.
It must become a part of your daily habit that you spend those two hours messing around with it. By the time it’s over, there are parts of it you’ve done two, three dozen times. They start to please you after a while because you’re getting better every time through it.
That’s the other thing I love to tell students, by the way. You cannot ruin a piece of writing, you can only make it necessary to do it again. You should see my students’ faces when I tell them this: You cannot fuck it up! You can only do it again. It ends up being very encouraging.
I think that’s why I cherish these lines so much, especially when the way ahead is hard. I often say them to myself, just for encouragement, because they make me feel happily in the company of Shakespeare. Not as a poet or a writer, but as someone who has been enlarged and whose existence has been enhanced by the great writing he brought forth. You are not different in kind than the bard when you sit down to write, you are partaking of that miracle. That's something to celebrate.