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for money— not enough money, as it turned out— and feeling as intensely dissatisfied as I’d been when I was still unpublished.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.”