How did you become a writer? I don’t know precisely. I don’t think I ever really set out to be one. It would have seemed like way too much to wish for—like wishing to be the shortstop for the Yankees. I never had any sense that I was destined for it, or had any real suspicion that I might be good at it. What I set out to be was an English professor. And that entailed a lot of writing. And I found that I enjoyed it, and that I actually was pretty good at it. For the last decade or so, I’ve been writing books and articles. But it’s only recently that I started thinking of myself mainly as a writer.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). I never had a great exemplar really, a writer that I fell in love with and tried to emulate. I actually had a lot of bad models. Academics—especially in the humanities--are encouraged to write in a way that violates ancient wisdom about what makes good writing good. I tried writing that way for a while, and then realized it was a mistake. To unlearn my bad habits I started reading good books—reading them slowly, and really paying attention to what makes them work. When I read something that I like, I always ask the same question: “How exactly has the author pulled it off?”
When and where do you write? I write almost exclusively in the mornings, at home. In the morning, my mind is fast and the words come relatively quickly. As the day wears on I get dumber and slower. I can almost feel my mind emptying out, and by early afternoon I’m only capable of drudge work. Sometimes I try to write in the evenings but it’s always a disaster.
What are you working on now? I’m doing a lot of small writing projects as publicity for my new book (The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human). And I’m deep into the research of the next book, which I think will be called Monkey Dance. This will be a book about the culture of cage fighting, but it’s also going to break out into big philosophical and scientific questions about men and aggression. For the book, I spent a year and a half training at an MMA gym and trying to learn to be a fighter myself. So there will be a participatory journalism element.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? Yes, I’ve suffered from it terribly, but not recently. Like many other writers, I’ve found that I can avoid [writer's] block by committing to a really hideous first draft. I find that once I’ve written a rough draft, no matter how horrendous, the psychological pressure is off. I’m much less likely to bind up once I have something on paper.
What’s your advice to new writers? That there’s no great mystery to it. It’s just like any other domain of skill. Success is at least as much about doggedness as talent. Writers sit at desks. And they just keep on sitting at desks until they whip the badness out of whatever they are writing.
Bio: Jonathan Gottschall writes books about the intersection of science and art. He is one of the leading figures in a new movement that is trying to bridge the humanities-sciences divide. His most recent book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology and biology to argue that storytelling has evolved to ensure our species’ survival. His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American Mind, New Scientist and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. He is the author or editor of six books, including The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer and Literature, Science, and a New Humanities.