Image: Matthew Loffhagen
I may as well admit it now: Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy was, of all the books I read last year, my favorite. It’s clever, serious fiction, but it’s silly, satisfying, and stylish too – it liberally plucks tropes, clichés, and ideas from different genres and plays with then, and its interweaving plotlines wrap around one another before uniting in strange and satisfying ways. Then there’s the sheer weirdness of it all – not to mention the long, muted sadness. Suffice to say, I liked it a lot.
So when I say Paul Auster (author of, among many other things, The Music of Chance, Leviathan, and 4 3 2 1) can teach you a thing or two about writing, you know I’m deadly serious. Auster is arguably the most prolific and well-known relic of America’s obsessive postmodern period (it’s either him or Don DeLillo) and, through his dozens of books, plays, poems, and translations, he has delighted, surprised, and confused readers across the world.
He’s also been helpfully vocal about the writing process – so, without wasting any more time, let’s jump into the six lessons Paul Auster can teach you about writing.
1. Wrangle that ego
Watch or read any interviews with Paul Auster and you’ll perhaps be surprised to see that he’s a remarkably humble man in his mannerisms. This, however, was apparently not always the case; Auster reports struggling with his ego as a young writer, and even feeling that what he was doing was so important that, if it were to not work out, it would be an absolute human tragedy.
This, he says, held him back; after all, it’s difficult to get any writing done when you’re convinced that the slightest deviation from perfection could result in a disaster of untold proportions. For Auster, this meant a whole load of unfinished projects: ‘many false starts, many abject failures.’
Part of this is learning to fail; Auster submitted City of Glass (the first novella in The New York Trilogy) to dozens of publishing houses before it was picked up, something he doubts his younger self would have had the fortitude to do. He says he’s now come to recognize ‘the prospect of failure as part of the routine of writing… the whole business of it.’
2. Passion is vital
Writing in The Guardian, Auster spoke of literature in, well, less glowing terms than you might expect from a writer of his standing. In short, he called it useless – ‘magnificently useless’ sure, but useless nonetheless.
His point is that writing stories is, when you think about it, a pretty colossal waste of time. It serves no purpose, no function – maybe you’ll entertain someone at the end of the day, or make them think about something, but hey, other people are out there turning bricks into houses.
So why do it? ‘The only answer I have ever been able to come up with,’ says Auster, ‘is: because you have to, because you have no choice.’
If you’re going to write, do it because you’re horribly, savagely passionate; because you absolutely have to. Otherwise…
Don’t do it. You are asking for a life of penury, solitude, and a kind of invisibility in the world. It’s almost like taking orders in a religious sect. Writing is a disease, it’s not anything more than that.– Paul Auster
Well, good to know we’ve got that to look forward to.
3. Don’t be afraid to improvise
We’re all different – there are writers who like to have any fine detail, plot twist, or character betrayal (and subsequent redemption arc) planned out beforehand, and then there are those who get an idea (or a ‘throb,’ as author Martin Amis describes it) and try to chase it, hoping that a story emerges in the process.
There are writers who map out their books in advance and sometimes write quite extensive outlines of what’s going to happen in the novel. And then they doggedly go through it day by day, page by page, and reproduce in a more elaborate form what’s in the outline. I can’t do that. I think it would be very dull, and I would lose the excitement of not knowing. On the other hand, when I was younger and very confused about how to do any of this, I thought that was what you had to do. I thought you had to know it in advance.– Paul Auster
I especially appreciate Auster’s final admission that, when he was younger, he thought there was a right and a wrong way to write (and that, naturally, he was doing it the wrong way). If, like Auster, you’re worried about process and about doing the same thing as other writers, stop – try doing it your own way. You may surprise yourself.
This tip’s short, sweet, and speaks for itself. You can’t write well if you don’t read; it’d be like trying to be a chef without ever eating, or a musician without ever listening to music. It can’t be done.
Auster is a firm believer in the strength of the unconscious mind when writing; he claims to do most of his writing in a kind of ‘trance,’ and credits his smart unconscious with making up for his humdrum conscious. And how do we sharpen our unconscious mind? By feeding it. What do we feed it? Books.
Unlike many authors of genre fiction, however, Auster’s pretty clear about what you should be reading: ‘the great ones […] the ones who’ve withstood the test of time.’ For Auster, this means canonical writers – he names Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville as among his own favorites.
5. Write longhand
I’ve written about the writing advice of a fair few authors by now, and I’ve been surprised to see how frequently this turns up. It seems a lot of our age’s established authors prefer the pen or pencil to the laptop.
For David Foster Wallace, writing in longhand meant slowing down enough to really think, while for Martin Amis, it’s all about the non-deleteable accumulation of words on an actual, physical page. For Auster, it’s something different again, and rather more difficult to quantify…
If I could write directly on a typewriter or a computer, I would do it. But keyboards have always intimidated me. I’ve never been able to think clearly with my fingers in that position. A pen is a much more primitive instrument. You feel that the words are coming out of your body and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had that tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.– Paul Auster, The Paris Review
Of course, Auster is of an older generation; our newest, youngest writers will have grown up with keyboards and touchscreens. Whether they’ll feel as blinkered by keyboards is a whole other question.
6. Be patient, be reasonable
As a younger man, Auster recalls that when he ‘got stuck – and every writer gets stuck at certain points – I would go into a kind of panic.’ Such pauses in productivity – known as ‘writer’s block’ – can certainly be terrible for morale, and it’s easy for writers (especially new writers with a lot of ego invested in their work) to ‘go through some very tormented times’ before giving up on the project and starting something new.
Hold up, Auster says with all the hard-earned patience of an older man – there’s no need to throw in the towel, especially if you’re early in a book. Beginnings, he says, tend to go very slowly. Everything is new; you’re still working things out (and, in Auster’s case, improvising – ‘teach[ing] myself how to do it as I’m doing it’).
It’s only later on, when you ‘go deeper into the project, [that] the pace accelerates. You begin to feel more comfortable in the music you’ve established.’
Now, Auster says, when he hits a wall…
I say to myself, if this book needs to be written. If it’s something valuable, if it has the power that I think it might, then I’m going to figure it out, and all I have to do is be patient.– Paul Auster
Sometimes, being patient means taking a couple of days off. Sometimes, as during the writing of his 2009 novel Invisible, it means taking six weeks! Auster suggests that during this time, you’re unconsciously meditating on your work, slowly untangling things in your head… and that, when you return to work, the answer will be waiting for you.
4, 3, 2, 1…
If you’ve not read any Paul Auster, I’d suggest rushing out to do so. He’s something of a publisher’s dream, in that his work spans so many genres that it appeals to pretty much everyone, from your murder mystery nut to your sci-fi enthusiast to your literary snob. His sharp, conversational style and preoccupations with deep, ever-relevant themes (coincidence, failure, the weirdness of the everyday, etc.) further position him as that rarest of beasts: a smart, stylish, literary writer who undeniably has things to say but who manages to do it without sacrificing story. Goodness me.
Here, I’ve cast a light on his own processes, doubts, habits, and solutions. Try them, see if they work for you – but, if not, don’t force them. If you take just one lesson from Auster with you, it’s that the correct way is the way that works for you.
What are your favorite books by Paul Auster? How has he influenced your own writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out 3 Ways Martin Amis Can Help You Improve Your Writing and 5 Things Jennifer Egan Can Teach You About Writing for more advice from literary greats.