How did you become a writer?
My identity as a writer was forged in fifth grade because I couldn’t sing (or so the music teacher determined). He selected all but five to be in the chorus, and my classroom teacher (perhaps to soften the blow) made us the newspaper staff. I wrote song lyrics (influenced by Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, and the like) and journalism throughout college, until the spring of my senior year (1970), when I began writing fragmentary poems (inﬂuenced by Richard Brautigan) during respites from anti-war protests. An English professor told me the poems “weren’t good but you could become a good poet.” Two days after graduation I was a reporter on a daily newspaper, which lasted only a few months. A senior editor advised me to get out and “be a writer” while I was young and could deal with insecurities and frustrations. He pointed to an aging colleague and said, “He waited too long before he quit. Went to New York, thought he’d write for The New Yorker. He forgot to clear his plan with them. Came back with his tail between his legs.” I went (back) to New York, and many times I had my tail between my legs, but I never had the nerve to quit.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
In college, Professor Jocelyn Harvey introduced me to the Imagist poets and the legitimacy of colloquial language in poetry. David Ignatow was my first mentor and, since he had been a protégé of William Carlos Williams, I consider WCW to be my grandmentor. I also studied with Kurt Vonnegut, who said I was becoming “a man of letters” (which continues to fuel me); Joel Oppenheimer, who encouraged me to become “less of a tummler and more of a poet”; and William Burroughs, who didn’t say much beyond his presence. Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen and Max Jacob’s The Dice Cup are two of the most influential books. Other writers include James Baldwin, James Tate, Borges, Luisa Valenzuela, Sei Shōnagon, Paul Krassner (for inventive journalism), and, later, the flash trinity: Diane Williams, Amy Hempel, and Lydia Davis.
When and where do you write?
I often take catwrites during the day: a few minutes here and there, perhaps in the rear corner seat of a New York City bus. Sustained sessions usually start at home, until the choice becomes to nap or go to a café (I know I’m in a groove when the café wins). I like having the TV or radio on in the background—the sound disappears while I’m concentrating, and it’s nice to have the company when I pause. On the night Kafka wrote “The Judgment,” he last looked at the clock at 2 a.m.; when the maid arrived—with the bed “undisturbed”—he stretched and declared, “I’ve been writing until now.” A version of that—minus the maid—occasionally happens for me. I can never write before I teach: even if I’m not scrambling to get ready for class (which I usually am), my focus is outward.
What are you working on now?
For many years I’ve been writing short memory pieces, with the hope that eventually they would morph into a book. I think I’m close to that happening, with the working title Based on a True Life: A Memoir of Sorts. I’ve also been working on Squibs, a collection of fragments. My fantasy is for the two books to be published as a boxed set. Many of the pieces in both manuscripts can be found on The Best American Poetry blog, which is my write-to place: Ziegler at Best American Poetry. I’ve also resumed writing songs, collaborating with Steve Noonan (one of the Orange County Three, along with Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne): In My Dream.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Three or four times a day, but rarely for many days in a row.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I crossed paths with the poet Gerald Stern, who spent a couple of days at the Interlochen Arts Academy when I was writer-in-residence. Over lunch, I gave him a book of my poetry, and at dinner he had some nice things to say about it. He especially liked a poem that I had added to the manuscript out of fondness though I wasn’t sure it would hold up to critical scrutiny. I asked Stern why he liked the poem, hoping he would articulate some literary quality to support my fondness for it, and he replied, “Because I got the feeling you didn’t know what the hell you were doing.” I did feel affirmed, and this attitude has helped me spawn many subsequent pieces. I treasure the luscious feeling I get when I don’t know what the hell I am doing but I really want to keep doing it.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Yes, writing has its pitfalls and pratfalls. Dorothy Parker (among others) has been quoted as saying that she hates writing but loves having written. I was a bit milder when I used to say (thinking I was the first), “I don’t always like writing but I love having written.” Now, more and more, I cherish the act of writing as its own reward. I try not to focus on the value of my creations so much that I lose touch with the joy of creation. The opinions of others and the occasional attendant perks remain coveted, but are not essential. Here’s the advice: Write because you love writing, even if you don’t always like what you have written.
Alan Ziegler’s books include Love At First Sight: An Alan Ziegler Reader; The Swan Song of Vaudeville: Tales and Takes; and The Writing Workshop Note Book. He is the editor of Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms (Persea Books), and his work has appeared in such places as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Tin House. He is Professor of Writing (and former chair) at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching.