What is your favorite book of all the ones you have you have written?
It has to be Between the Dreaming and the Coming True, though I am not always sure why. Part of it, I expect, is because it was the first one. Another part of it seems to be connected to the sheer joy that I felt when it turned out that someone actually thought it was worth the effort to publish it. ( I can still remember running around my yard and jumping up and down and laughing out loud when we got the letter. ) Another part is because it seems still to be the purest and most honest book somehow, colored with a kind of idealism and hope and wonder that is childlike in a way.
Where do you get your ideas?
Second things first. On a few occasions, a publisher has asked me to write a specific sort of book, and so I have.
But generally, and most often, I find myself writing about the things that catch my eye or my ear, the things that quicken my spirit in some way, the things that seem to be calling to me at a particular moment in time.
Some particular thing will keep coming up in conversations with people for weeks and months, or a bit of a question will keep turning up in my journal for a few weeks or months, and I will begin to see stories that I want to tell that connect to that thing. I will start to write the stories themselves, and along the way, I will begin to discover what it is that I am actually writing about.
How long does it take for you to write a book?
It takes about a year most of the time. Some books go a little faster and others a little slower, but this is a rough sketch of the pattern.
I spend about four months writing what I refer to as the ‘hand draft.’ I call it that because because I write it by hand. Then it takes about two months to type and edit and rewrite what I have written so that it is in good enough shape to show anyone.
The next step is to send it off to the fine folks who will edit it and publish it, and that gives me a couple of months or so away from it. When it comes back, I generally have a month or so to rewrite it according to the notes and suggestions that they have made.
It goes to the copy editors from there and they usually have it for a month. Then I get it back and have about a month to make the changes that have to be made.
By the time that it is finished I have written it five or six times.
Are you working on anything new?
Most of the time, I work on three things at once. And I am right now, in fact.
I am always working on the first draft of something new. Just now, I am working on a book about how to write a book, a little something to help people who think they have a book to write but do not know how to begin.
I also always have a book in the stage where I am typing it in and editing it and rewriting it so that I can get it in the hands of the publisher. These days I am just beginning that work for a new book about the daily office.
And I usually have a book in the rewrite stage. Right now, the editors have done their work and I am doing the last rewrite for a book called Digging In, a book about building a garden and the sense of place that comes from digging in your own dirt.
These days I also have two envelopes with scribbled notes on them that are hanging on the wall above my desk. I am mulling them over, and the things scribbled on them may well grow up to be a book.
Do you have a particular time that you like to write?
I like to be up and in my studio with my second cup of coffee between four and five every morning. I like to write when my mind is clear and the world is quiet. The longer the day goes on, the more distractions there are. I try to be finished with the writer part of being a writer by nine or so. By then, the business part of being a writer has snuck in under the studio door and there are telephone calls and letters and such that have to be done, and I find that I usually cannot write any more that day.
Do you use a computer or do you write by hand?
I write the first draft by hand in little sketchbooks. It makes me go slower. Writing fast, at least for me, leads to bad writing. In fact, once I have typed it all in and have a clean hard copy, I actually paste it into a sketchbook and do the next three rewrites by hand as well.
My idea of a hardware upgrade is a fresh bottle of ink.
Do you use an outline to plot everything out before you write?
Usually I start with little more than two or three stories that I think I want to tell because they seem to be related to some thing I have been wondering about. Or I have a question that has come to me that seems to point to something that matters and those stories seem to be connected to the question.
I begin by telling those stories to myself, on paper, to see if the story begins to tell me what it means. After a few stories, I have a sense of what the other stories might be, and the thing begins to take shape. When the stories are told, then I can sit down and shift them around and make an outline so that I know what I am actually writing.
How did you decide to become a writer?
I grew up in a family of writers and poets and letter writers and artists and musicians of one kind or another. And our family owned a publishing business that I worked in for some ten years or so, spending most of my time around creative people. At our house, a kid who wanted to be a writer was encouraged to try it.
When I was thirteen or so, my father brought a young singer-songwriter to stay at our house while he was in town to record an album. I got to go back and forth to the studio for the sessions and when it was time to release the album, they asked me to write the liner notes. When the record came out, I took one look at my name in print and I was hooked. It took a long time before I was able to be a writer full time, but that was the beginning of it.
Who is your greatest influence as a writer?
In the beginning, it was my father, who was a fine storyteller and speaker and writer himself.
Next, it was a crowd of poets — Wordsworth, Coleridge, and later Rilke and Gibran. I still reread Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and some of Gibran’s work several times a year. The things that they wrote about the poet’s place in the world and the work a poet is called to do never fails to make me want to stand up and salute something. It also makes me want to sit down and write something.
Finally, I was introduced to the work of Annie Dillard and Frederick Buechner and Thomas Merton. They are the guiding lights for me as a writer. I spend most of my days trying to write one sentence that would be so good that you could slip it into one of their books and no one would notice that it had been written by someone else.
If you were not a writer, what would you be?
Several cheeky answers come immediately to mind — even more lost than I am; even less worthy to have space on the planet than I am now; a man without a web site.
Seriously — though I was more serious about the above answers than you might expect — I sometimes wish that I was a baseball coach and a teacher. I also have a hankering sometimes to be in the restaurant business, which seems a little odd. Evidently there is a genetic reason for this, I have two sons who cook in two very fine local restaurants.
Poet is a large word to me — it includes painters and singers and photographers and essayists and novelists and landscapers, as far as I am concerned. I was made to be a poet and if I had grown up under the influence of something other than the printed page, I would have ended being a poet still, just working in another medium.
How do you spend your time when you are not writing?
I sit in our back garden or in the little parlor with my best friend, the woman to whom I am fortunate enough to married. I play golf once or twice a week, more if I can afford the time and the greens fees.
I am a season ticket holder with front row seats to the local minor league team and try not miss a game if I can help it. I work The New York Times crossword every day. I swim for a half hour every day and claim it as an exercise regimen. And I read my favorite dozen or so writers over and over again.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I was taught that a writer has three jobs : Learn the craft. Find your voice. Discover what is that you have to say that no one else can say.
The last one takes time and miles and experience. It is a thing that one grows into, by and large, and is best discovered not only by writing but by living one’s life at some degree of attention for the things that catch your eye and your ear and your spirit.
Finding your voice takes time as well. It takes a considerable pile of pages to begin to know what is truly yours and what is not.
The first one is the only thing that you can actually do to help with either of the above. To paraphrase the advice from Michelangelo to a young artist, ‘Write, Antonio, write. Write and do not waste time.’
Write every day. Write whatever is given you to write with all the art and craft you can muster. Watch the faces of your readers and listeners when you can, the look on their face will tell you if you have turned the phrase or not. Take any job that anyone offers you that will pay you to learn the craft.
Read only good writing, never bad. If you can write better work than the the work that is in what you are reading, stop reading it.
Read Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard as often as is necessary to keep your spirits up. They are preaching to the choir but that is the best way to get the choir to stand up and sing. Or sit down and write.
And writing is the only way to become a writer.
Do you have any advice for people who have a full time job and want to write full time?
Pick a time of day and a place where you can write. Tell everyone that you have to tell that these moments are for writing and nothing else. Lock the door, hang a sign on the window, barricade yourself in. Write a few hundred words each day, no more, no less. And do it every day.
Writers produce sentences. If you are not producing sentences, and then paragraphs, and then books, you are not a writer, you are a dabbler. Which is not a bad thing, but it is a good thing that you already have a job.
Did you have a favorite teacher?
Three of them — Ms. Flatt, Ms. Payne, and Mrs. Kirby — English and History teachers all. They were the first people who had no vested interest in my writing and still grinned when they read what I wrote. So I wrote some more just to see if I could make them grin some more.
My mother, whenever I would make a bad pun, would often say, ‘Don’t laugh at him, it just encourages him.’ Evidently, these three teachers did not get the memo and they kept on grinning. It encouraged me along until no one could stop me.