Porter Anderson

How did you become a writer?

I didn't become a writer. Writing has turned out to be my "aggressive default." By that I mean that each time I've placed my writing at the service of my other careers, writing has overtaken them.

I learned to write at an extremely early age because it somehow was clear to me that everything I planned to do would require writing and writing well. I was good at it, of course. When you're not yet 5 years old, you're good at everything. So I carried on. My father gave me my first typewriter. It's a gorgeous refurbished German machine, an Olympia with a distinctive, elegant font called Prestige Elite. I still have this typewriter, a completely metal contraption. It must weigh 30 pounds. With those keys under me, I never met a blank piece of paper I didn't want to fill up.

In college, people would have me type their papers just so they could get their work into this special font. And it was in college that the career-ousel started.

I meant to be a clinical psychologist, but I found myself doing special readings in the psychology of the arts at the University of Bath in England and realized that the pull of the arts was winning out over that of psychology.

I meant to be a stage actor, but I found that my own words were arriving with more pressure and power than those of our best playwrights. I ended up critiquing those playwrights' words -- my entry point into journalism was criticism, then hard news.

So yes, I've spent 30 years as a journalist, but journalists write about others' actions and successes and mistakes and goals and careers and lives and I'm profoundly tired of writing about others, unless they're creatures of my own making.

A few years ago, I thought the next move was in accepting a diplomatic appointment with the UN, then working as an executive producer and a humanitarian dealmaker and several other things. But the only part I liked in each field was the writing. My aggressive default.

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

Teacher: Maky Shell. She gave me my own personal "it gets better" message. In South Carolina's middle schools, you need to hear that. What she said was tailored to my situation and would mean nothing to anyone else. But it's still precious to me. And I'm still working to fulfill it, to make Maky right, as it were.

Author: Mary Shelley. She scared me to death with Frankenstein, which I read while we were living in Oxford (my father was at Mansfield College). Not until Nevil Shute's On the Beach would I find another book that welcomed the negative so fearlessly. I admired that, and still do. I appreciate people who can resist the populist clamor for happiness. I don't want to sit back and relax. I want to sit forward and be tense.

Author: Helen MacInnes. Scottish-American, wrote espionage novels that I value most for their direly serious delivery. No camp, no send-ups, none of Ian Fleming's stupid gadgets and playboy rubbish. MacInnes' husband was in British intelligence with MI6, she had genuine raw material at hand. One of her books, Assignment in Brittany, was said to be given to Allied agents going into the French resistance. She made a Campari-translucent shift into Cold War espionage from wartime spy fiction and wrote the rest of her life about the person-to-person treachery that underlies a social contract.

Author: Joan Didion.  The Last Thing He Wanted walks me out of the gray Orwellian Europe of MacInnes' espionage directly into the Ray-Ban-ed glare of covert Contra operations in the tropics. Daylight darkness. Didion's voice in this is stabbing, muscular, relentlessly paranoid and circular, I love her for it.

Author: Andrew Miller. Ingenious Pain, like the work of Didion and MacInnes, is an interface of emotion and intellect. He frames it with vocation, in this case Old World medicine. I find that the architecture of work always shapes the greatest characterizations. Miller's protagonist here is James Dyer, an 18th-century surgeon who can feel no pain, emotional or physical.

Author: Henry, my other Miller. Driven. So doggedly self-iterated that his emotion and intellect fuse like glass. If you want to "hear" Miller's fevered literary voice, get Campbell Scott's unparalleled reading of the audio edition of The Tropic of Cancer. And my favorite Miller is The Colossus of Maroussi. An excerpt:

In Greece one has the desire to bathe in the sky. You want to rid yourself of your clothes, take a running leap and vault into the blue. You want to float in the air like an angel or lie in the grass rigid and enjoy the cataleptic trance. Stone and sky, they marry here. It is the perpetual dawn of man's awakening.

When and where do you write?

All hours, darkness is especially good, inevitably behind the silky curtain called RescueTime.com. Its FocusTime function scrims out whichever online distractions I want to avoid for as long as I like.

I prefer my office setup because it has multiple screens so I can use several views of a single manuscript at once. And I'm at a stand-up desk, I've been doing this for two years now. I think better on my feet. But I can manage in most places – newsroom work does that to you. I do need to be near seawater to feel OK about writing. Not for nothing was I born seaside in Charleston. I'm happy writing on jets, especially if they have good wi-fi and electrical connections for my laptop. Delta operates my favorite flying studios.

Overseas, Scandinavia is better than Italy, but Greece is terrific for writing, so is Portugal and the Canaries. England, Wales, yes. Not Ireland for me. France, forget it. Germany some. Bulgaria's great, the Netherlands too small. Iceland, super. Malta is Iceland's warmer sister.

In the States, the South. Probably being from the Lowcountry does that to me. West and Midwest, not a prayer. Texas was better than I expected it to be for writing, but too big to keep your ideas together, everything keeps floating away with the cottonwood fuzz.

What are you working on now?

Long-form fiction, and that's all I'll tell you. I've learned in the last year to shut up about my creative work, my non-journalistic work. You hear so many people sound like such self-delusional nut jobs talking about their own stuff. I'm trying to take that to heart.

I've also learned the hard way that my particular work of the moment is easily misunderstood if you can't put it into someone's hand and say, "read right there, you'll get what I mean."

So. More when I can put it into your hand and say that to you.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?


What’s your advice to new writers?

Wait. You're not ready. You cannot know what you don't know when you're setting out. This is precisely the amateur's dilemma: Whatever professionalism you may have in other walks of life, you have to earn it in publishing all over again.

Pace yourself for years, not months. If you seriously want to write something of value, not simply a commercially viable product, you're committing to learning to live with your writerly self, for the long haul.

It requires time and patience (and a straight face, many times) to learn the publishing industry deeply. Do not expect publishing people to teach you. They have little idea what their industry is anymore and they're obsessed with lunch. This is one of those odd periods when the consumers know more than the makers. You can hear tech-product engineers talking about users who have a better grasp on what they need than the designers do. Same thing for publishing right now. A lot of publishing's people are lovely, dedicated, clueless, and exhausted by their shared sardonic sense of humor – it no longer serves them, it just makes them say silly things when they need to straighten up and cope. The digital disruption has turned many publishing experts into high-visibility amateurs in their own profession.

All the way back to my earliest actor training, I had Stanislavsky, sweet Konstantine, drilled into me – the best actor knows himself better than the average man; love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art. This is true for writers, too, maybe even more so. Instead of having to find a single character's personality inside themselves as actors do, writers have to strip down and go skin-to-skin with the whole stageful, every character, every goal, dream, preference, gender, impulse, guilt, thrill, secret. Remember the old XM satellite radio tag line? A good writer is "everything, all the time."

So if you want to schlepp a lot of fast genre turns out there and hock 'em like Hocking for 99 cents, go ahead. I'm not condemning people for whom the rangier reaches of the realm aren't interesting. Like craft and art, we know these things exist. We have basketweaving. And we have sculpture. Your intelligence determines which of those you're here for.

If you think there's a chance you can make a contribution, if the sculptor in you keeps overtaking your other careers, that's your aggressive default. So wait. Work harder, work longer, cover yourself in the work.

Become a professional in the field of your own potential.

Give up the excuses of amateurism.

Stop answering people when they ask "how much longer before it's ready?" Step out of those long pants, put on your cargo shorts.

Forgive yourself when you don't feel like guessing your next revision's ETA for them. If they expect you to do the conceptualization, the design, the testing, the platforming, the publishing, the distribution, the promotion, and the fulfillment of your own damned career – and they do – then they can bloody well wait for delivery.

And don't talk about it. They don't really understand and they don't really care.

How has the Internet influenced your writing?

Remember when I mentioned needing to be near the sea? The Internet is my second sea. Now necessary. A lot like the first one, it can take you anywhere else. Your keyboard is coastal, your screen harbors the catch of your day, and digital tides push all that data around, nonstop, day and night, voices washing up and eddying around you in warm-water gullies, then rushing back out. It's a living medium, the Internet. Do your work on it, respect it, and you're never out of touch with the people who'll be your readers. They're all around you. Dogpaddling.

Porter Anderson is a critic, journalist, producer, and consultant based in Tampa. His weekly "Writing on the Ether" column on publishing is read Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com. He's also a regular, standing contributor to Writer Unboxed  and to Digital Book World's Expert Publishing Blog.  As a journalist, he has worked with CNN USA, CNN International, CNN.com, CNN.com Live, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other news outlets. He is a former producer (diplomat P5, laissez-passez) with the United Nations, posted to the World Food Programme's headquarters in Rome. He has also served as Executive Producer and Consultant with INDEX: Design to Improve Life, the Danish government's program in humanitarian design in Copenhagen. Anderson holds a BA from William and Mary, an MA from the University of Michigan, an MFA from Florida State, and he has done special readings at the University of Bath (UK). He is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute. He supports the Museum of Modern Art and WQXR's NPR-affiliated live stream Q2 Music in New York.

Site: PorterAnderson.com
Blog venues: Writing on the Ether at JaneFriedman.com each Thursday; Writer Unboxed each fourth Saturday; DBW Expert Publishing Blog–intermittent posts.