Rules, Tips, and Commandments

Blogs

 
          
     
Recommended Books
  • A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation
    A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation
    by Noah Lukeman
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade
    Adventures in the Screen Trade
    by William Goldman
  • APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book
    APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book
    by Guy Kawasaki, Shawn Welch
  • A Room of One's Own
    A Room of One's Own
    by Virginia Woolf
  • The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts
    The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts
    by David Lodge
  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
    The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
    by John Gardner
  • The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present
    The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present
    by Phillip Lopate
  • Aspects of the Novel
    Aspects of the Novel
    by E.M. Forster
  • Becoming a Writer
    Becoming a Writer
    by Dorothea Brande
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
    Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
    by Anne Lamott
  • Booknotes: America's Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas
    Booknotes: America's Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas
    Three Rivers Press
  • Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Seventeenth Edition
    Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Seventeenth Edition
    by John Ayto
  • The Careful Writer
    The Careful Writer
    by Theodore M. Bernstein
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
    The Chicago Manual of Style
    University Of Chicago Press
  • The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications
    The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications
    by Amy Einsohn
  • The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear
    The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear
    by Ralph Keyes
  • The Craft of Fiction
    The Craft of Fiction
    by Percy Lubbock
  • The Editor's Lexicon: Essential Writing Terms for Novelists
    The Editor's Lexicon: Essential Writing Terms for Novelists
    by Sarah Cypher
  • Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do
    Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do
    Grove Press
  • The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
    The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
    by William Strunk Jr., E. B. White
  • Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives
    Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives
    by Lawrence Grobel
  • Fiction Writer's Handbook
    Fiction Writer's Handbook
    by Hallie Burnett, Whit Burnett
  • Fiction Writer's Workshop
    Fiction Writer's Workshop
    by Josip Novakovich
  • Flaubert's Parrot
    Flaubert's Parrot
    by Julian Barnes
  • Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction
    Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction
    by James B. Stewart
  • The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers
    The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers
    by Betsy Lerner
  • For Writers Only
    For Writers Only
    by Sophy Burnham
  • William Goldman: Four Screenplays with Essays
    William Goldman: Four Screenplays with Essays
    by William Goldman
  • Fowler's Modern English Usage
    Fowler's Modern English Usage
    by the late R. W. Burchfield
  • The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard
    The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide to the Best of the Bard
    by Norrie Epstein
  • A Glossary of Literary Terms
    A Glossary of Literary Terms
    by M.H. Abrams, Geoffrey Harpham
  • How Fiction Works
    How Fiction Works
    by James Wood
  • How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar
    How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar
    by William Safire
  • How to Get Happily Published
    How to Get Happily Published
    by Judith Appelbaum
  • How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (Genre Writing)
    How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (Genre Writing)
    by Orson Scott Card
  • How To Write Short Stories: With Samples
    How To Write Short Stories: With Samples
    by Ring Lardner
  • If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit
    If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit
    by Brenda Ueland
  • Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
    Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
    Mariner Books
  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Harvest Book)
    Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Harvest Book)
    by George Orwell
  • Lapsing Into a Comma : A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them
    Lapsing Into a Comma : A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them
    by Bill Walsh
  • Letters to a Young Poet: Translated and with a Foreword By Stephen Mitchell
    Letters to a Young Poet: Translated and with a Foreword By Stephen Mitchell
    by Ranier Maria Rilke
  • Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process
    Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process
    Penguin Books
  • Making a Literary Life
    Making a Literary Life
    by Carolyn See
  • Master Class: Scenes from a Fiction Workshop
    Master Class: Scenes from a Fiction Workshop
    by Paul West
  • Metaphors We Live By
    Metaphors We Live By
    by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson
  • The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain
    The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain
    by Alice Weaver Flaherty
  • Henry Miller on Writing (New Directions Paperbook)
    Henry Miller on Writing (New Directions Paperbook)
    by Henry Miller
  • Movie Speak: How to Talk Like You Belong on a Movie Set
    Movie Speak: How to Talk Like You Belong on a Movie Set
    by Tony Bill
  • Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form
    Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form
    by Madison Smartt Bell
  • New Grub Street (Broadview Editions)
    New Grub Street (Broadview Editions)
    by George Gissing
  • Nonconformity
    Nonconformity
    by Nelson Algren
  • On Becoming a Novelist
    On Becoming a Novelist
    by John Gardner
  • One Writer's Beginnings (The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization)
    One Writer's Beginnings (The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization)
    by Eudora Welty
  • On Writing Short Stories
    On Writing Short Stories
    Oxford University Press, USA
  • On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft
    On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft
    by Stephen King
  • On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
    On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
    by William Zinsser
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions (Oxford Paperback Reference)
    The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions (Oxford Paperback Reference)
    Oxford University Press, USA
  • Poetic Meter and Poetic Form
    Poetic Meter and Poetic Form
    by Paul Fussell
  • The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4
    The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4
    by The Paris Review
  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.)
    Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.)
    by Francine Prose
  • The Rhetoric of Fiction
    The Rhetoric of Fiction
    by Wayne C. Booth
  • The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life
    The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life
    by Julia Cameron
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print
    Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print
    by Renni Browne, Dave King
  • Dan Poynter's Self-Publishing Manual, 16th Edition: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book (Self Publishing Manual)
    Dan Poynter's Self-Publishing Manual, 16th Edition: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book (Self Publishing Manual)
    by Dan Poynter
  • Simple & Direct
    Simple & Direct
    by Jacques Barzun
  • Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences
    Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences
    by Kitty Burns Florey
  • The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative
    The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative
    by Vivian Gornick
  • The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing
    The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing
    by Ben Yagoda
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting
    Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting
    by Robert Mckee
  • Stylish Academic Writing
    Stylish Academic Writing
    by Helen Sword
  • Successful Television Writing
    Successful Television Writing
    by Lee Goldberg, William Rabkin
  • The Summing Up
    The Summing Up
    by W. Somerset Maugham
  • 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
    13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
    by Jane Smiley
  • Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories
    Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories
    by Peter Hanson, Paul Robert Herman
  • To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
    To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
    by Phillip Lopate
  • What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
    What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
    by Anne Bernays, Pamela Painter
  • Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
    Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
    by Scott Mccloud
  • The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
    The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
    by Steven Pressfield
  • Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do
    Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do
    Plume
  • Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews
    Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews
    Modern Library
  • The Writer Got Screwed (but didn't have to): Guide to the Legal and Business Practices of Writing for the Entertainment Industry
    The Writer Got Screwed (but didn't have to): Guide to the Legal and Business Practices of Writing for the Entertainment Industry
    by Brooke A. Wharton
  • Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers
    Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers
    by Ambrose Bierce, Jan Freeman
  • The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century's Preeminent Writers (Modern Library)
    The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century's Preeminent Writers (Modern Library)
    Modern Library
  • The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition
    The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition
    by Christopher Vogler
  • The Writer on Her Work, Volume 1
    The Writer on Her Work, Volume 1
    by Janet Sternberg
  • The Writer's Legal Companion: The Complete Handbook For The Working Writer, Third Edition
    The Writer's Legal Companion: The Complete Handbook For The Working Writer, Third Edition
    by Brad Bunnin, Peter Beren
  • A Writer's Reality
    A Writer's Reality
    by Mario Vargas Llosa
  • A Writer's Time: Making the Time to Write
    A Writer's Time: Making the Time to Write
    by Kenneth Atchity
  • Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past
    Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past
    by William Zinsser
  • Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Paperback)
    Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Paperback)
    by Natalie Goldberg (Author)
  • Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular
    Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular
    by L. Rust Hills
  • Writing for Your Life
    Writing for Your Life
    by Deena Metzger
  • The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work
    The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work
    by Marie Arana
  • The Writing Life
    The Writing Life
    by Annie Dillard
  • The Writing of Fiction
    The Writing of Fiction
    by Edith Wharton
  • Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print
    Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print
    by Lawrence Block
  • Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life
    Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life
    by Bonnie Friedman
  • You're a Genius All the Time: Belief and Technique for Modern Prose
    You're a Genius All the Time: Belief and Technique for Modern Prose
    by Regina Weinreich, Jack Kerouac
  • Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
    Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
    by Ray Bradbury
  • Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives
    Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives
    by Lawrence Grobel
« Bonnie Friedman | Main | B.A. Shapiro »
Tuesday
Dec082015

Peter Trachtenberg

How did you become a writer?

I was the only child of parents who spoke English as a second (or really a third) language, so long before I learned how to write, I was making up stories as a way of entertaining myself.  Probably, I was also trying to express some deeper truth about myself, or rather, discover what that truth might be. By the time I started school, I was so practiced that making up stories became an easy way of getting favorable attention, as opposed to the other kind. That ease meant I didn’t value it too highly or devote much effort to it, not even in grad school, which I entered mostly out of cluelessness and a floundering desperation to be seen. I had no idea what I wanted to write, I certainly didn’t like the process of writing the way I liked the process of reading or having sex or getting high. I just wanted to be published someplace (note the passive construction), and I spent the next two years trying to imitate the kind of writing I saw being published in literary magazines. In the early 80s that was minimalism, for which I had no feel or talent. Imitating Raymond Carver and Joy Williams was a pleasureless exercise for me, and it’s no surprise that I never published a single one of the stories I wrote under their influence. The first piece I did publish was the libretto of an imaginary opera about a character based on Patty Hearst, ostensibly composed by her rejected fiancé. The songs were classic Motown and rock n’ roll songs whose lyrics I translated into very literal Italian and then back into even more literal English so that their sources were only distantly recognizable. I’d be surprised if a hundred people read it, but it was fun to write, and it expressed some fundamental part of who I was, a love of music, a love of language, and a love of literary play. It was another ten years before I found a way to translate those impulses into a book, and that was only after I’d had the experience of writing other things for money— not enough money, as it turned out— and feeling as intensely dissatisfied as I’d been when I was still unpublished. If I have any professional regrets, it’s that I squandered the better part of twenty years using writing as a means to some other end—money, recognition, love—when the only value it’s ever possessed for me is as a thing in itself, a practice that may result in something good, or, if I’m honest, something I can look at a few months later without cringing, but whose true significance is that it makes me feel alive and conscious and fulfilling some larger purpose. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)

Among writers, Philip Roth, the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil, W. G. Sebald, Primo Levi, and Spalding Gray. Among non-writers, the late Lou Reed, who saw his songs as short stories. My three great teachers were Frederic Tuten and James McCourt, two avant-gardists possessed of bottomless reserves of erudition and playfulness, and Donald Barthelme, who in my first workshop with him let me read for 15 minutes from a story I was too proud of, then stopped me, and told the class, “After this is when it gets good.’  

When and where do you write? 

I sit down at my desk at around 9 and stay there more or less till dinner-time, with a 2-hour break for exercise. On days I teach, I still write for an hour or so before I start grading or prepping for class. I find the only way I can write successfully is to treat it as a job, one I may not always love or even be that good at, but that I have to show up for. If home, as Frost wrote, is "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” a job is the thing you have to show up for, even when you don’t want to. 

What are you working on now? 

At the risk of sounding coy, I try not to say too much about work in progress, lest I end up jinxing myself. But I’m working on two books, one a novel set mostly in New York in the 1880s, the other a collection of essays on singers. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Of course. See above. Aside from whatever intrinsic value it has for me, the second piece is always a hedge against getting blocked on the first. I also sometimes copy pages of a writer I love. I make my students copy 500 words of Primo Levi’s essay “Zinc.” I tell them that the only way to learn how to write a good sentence— a sentence that’s beautiful and truthful and startling— is to copy them, so that the rhythm of those sentences is propagated through the nerves and muscles and the microscopic pathways between the hand and the eye and the brain, with the heart about midway between. 

What’s your advice to new writers? 

Whatever advice I have for new writers is implicit in the answers to the earlier questions but could be summed up as:

1) Don’t write as a means to an end but rather as a thing in itself, the one thing you have to do, even if you never make a dime at it, even if nobody ever reads it, or nobody but your mom, though maybe not even her since what you write might shock her or hurt her feelings. 

2) Treat your writing as a job and perform it faithfully and reliably, as though you were an aircraft controller, the only one in your city. 

2a) Given the contradiction between 1 and 2, you’ll probably need to take a second job to support the first. Find one that pays you the most money for the least time and the least humiliation and moral compromise.

3) Read constantly. Read great writers, and good ones, and even the occasional shitty one. Part of your reason will be to see how they accomplish whatever they do, though personally I find that you can identify what makes a particular writer good or shitty, and even imitate it. Greatness, however, is impossible to imitate. 

Peter Trachtenberg is the author of 7 Tattoos (1997), The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning (2008), and Another Insane Devotion (2012), a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. His essays, journalism, and short fiction have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, BOMB, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, among other journals. His commentaries have been broadcast on NPR’S All Things Considered. Trachtenberg is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh and part of the core faculty at the Bennington Writers Seminars. He’s the recipient of a NYFA artist’s fellowship, the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction, a 2010 Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and a 2012 residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. The Book of Calamities was given the 2009 Phi Beta Kappa Society’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award “for scholarly studies that contribute significantly to interpretations of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity.”

www.petertrachtenberg.com.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>