11 April 2012

Joel Achenbach talks about writing books (Johns Hopkins Visiting Writer)

Visiting writers are one of the unique and interesting aspects of taking graduate-level writing classes. I don't know if every graduate-level writing program is lucky enough to be able to frequently lure in published writers, but here in D.C. they seem all too happy to tell us about their book-writing experience.

Here are some of these people, teachers and visiting writers, along with those of their books which I have read and heartily recommend:
Most recently, Joel Achenbach talked about his experience writing A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea. I didn't know anything about Joel except that apparently all the teachers in the writing program were all atwitter that he was coming to speak--probably more excited than most people are about getting to see the Dalai Lama, for a point of comparison. My teacher introduced him with the comment that a lot of journalists' teachers and editors tell them to "write like Achenbach." Joel seemed surprised by this.

Joel Achenbach on the deck of the Development Driller II
Photo from Joel's website.
Joel Achenbach writes for the Washington Post on the National desk, and he's the washingtonpost.com's first blogger. (His blog is Achenblog: Joel Achenbach on whatever strikes his fancy and it tends to be entertaining.) Joel appears to be a nice guy and a strikingly humble writer. I very much enjoyed listening to him speak about the process of writing his book. I wrote down some quotes from his talk which struck me as particularly interesting and encouraging to hear from a successful writer.

I usually don't share things that writers tell us in class because I think there's a bit of an assumption that it's a writer talking to student writers, without the same public atmosphere as at a book reading or a public lecture. However, I emailed Joel for permission to share them, and he said that was fine. So here you are...

On reader response and criticisms:
“You write a book, people may not like it. You expose yourself, you get kicked in the teeth.

“Some weeks you only sell one book, and it’s to someone in Wyoming. You want to find out who it is and say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Do you need somewhere to stay next time you’re in DC?’”

On the editing process:
“The thing about a book—this is on my Book Bad list: when done, not done.”  (He'd made up a list of things he liked and didn't like about writing a book. Book Bad was what he didn't like.)
“It’s really a lot of work to put out a book.”

On freedom of writing location:
“I wrote a lot of this book on my porch...I liked not showing up to work for six months.” (He works at the Washington Post.)

On other people reading/critiquing his work on the book:
“It was unbelievable, the generosity of people.”

On the concept of prior review, pertaining to science writing:
“Should you show something that you’ve written to a subject before publication? You don’t want to imply prior review. But with technical stuff, it can be useful.”

On the difference between journalism and books:
“Everything is done too quickly with journalism. That’s the trade-off.” (In journalism, you have to push content out quickly and don't have the luxury of delving as deep into a topic as you do when writing a book.)

I particularly love his comments about reader response.

Now You!
Has anybody in your field of interest told you anything that you found useful or encouraging?