I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek post called “How I Write“. (Answer: In the Lotus position.)
Well, it turns out that there is a more serious project by that title going on in the English Department at Stanford, where successful writers talk about how they write. One of them is Robert Sapolsky, the same genius neuroscientist I mentioned in the previous post.
Of note in the long transcript is the crucial importance of rewriting — editing yourself. Compare what Sapolsky says below to how Khaled Hosseini, author of the Kiterunner (which is also published by Riverhead, as my book will be), talks about rewriting in successive drafts.
Here goes Sapolsky (emphasis is mine):
… I was not particularly into writing, and it was not until after I finished college—right after, a week after graduation—I went off to Africa for a year and a half to begin to get my field work started, which I have been doing ever since for twenty-five years and it was fairly isolated site, where a lot of the time I was by myself. I would go 8 to 10 hours a day without speaking to anyone, I would get a mail drop about once every two weeks or so, there was no electricity, there was no radio, there was no anything, and I suddenly got unbelievably, frantically dependent on mail. So as a result you wind up sending letters to every human that you have known in your life in hopes that they would write back to you. … So you would write to somebody about it, and then you would write to the next person about it, and you would realize that before the end of the day, you had just written 25 versions of it, each of which was a page and a half long. … I would get incredibly bored with the damn thing and would thus start editing and make it more concise, and all of that, and you could sort of see it shrinking until it was half an aerogram, and then I would have to come up with something else to say. So I think just sort of in passing it kind of forced me to start editing.
Interviewer: And so, yeah, you started editing and went through a process of revision actually forced by duplication…
Interviewer: …rather than the need to get it right. Just the need to do it again
RS: And the need to get it shorter and get out of there….
Another thing of note to me — an avowed generalist and never a specialist (not even in the subject matter of my own book) — is how Sapolsky explains his incredible skill at translating complex science into storytelling for non-scientists:
Umm…well this is going to sound silly, but I was actually not terribly well-trained as a scientist in college; I was much more of the social science type, so I actually never took any chemistry or physics in college and don’t have a very good fundamental grounding. So I am easily panicked in my science and I think thus I can easily imagine more readily than most people in my position how somebody else can be. …