It was December. Caryl Rivers entered the library and encountered a really big crowd. She was thrilled.
“Wow, the whole hall is filled,” she thought.
But, as she kept walking, something seemed unusual.
“What’s that strange smell?” she asked.
“We let the homeless in to stay warm,” the guy who was next to her answered.
Then she realized “half my audience was homeless people with no interest in my book, but had interest in stay warm.” Journalist and writer, Caryl Rivers laughs when she tells this anecdote. Interviews are the perks of being a published author. When the art of writing directs your life, the odd experiences are worth it.
Writing is a personal, individual decision. It’s hard and demanding. But it’s also rewarding. “It’s a great way to express ideas and feelings. A wonderful way to be creative,” Rivers said. She started writing at a very young age. “When you do it earlier, you get addicted to it, and you love it.” She has been reporting, commenting, writing and –lately- blogging about racial issues, prejudices against women and LGBT in the United States for over four decades. “One thing that a journalist –and a writer- is lucky to do is to try to change things. And when you feel you have helped a little bit, that’s gratifying.”
Each writer approaches his or her work with a specific attitude and a particular manner. “Writing allows me to organize my own personal experience: try to understand myself and where I’ve been. What has happen to me in my life and so forth. It serves as a way to clarify my sense of self, who I am,” Lou Ureneck revealed. In 2011, 90.0 WBUR Boston’s National Public Radio (NPR) news station described his second memoir, Cabin, as “a moving story about a man coming un-stuck.”
For Ureneck, he discovered the privileges of writing while he was in a college class. “Something that I could learn, its mysteries could be unlocked through an understanding of technique and that I thoroughly enjoyed the task of making sentences that snatched and then conveyed the ideas, feelings, and images that were slopping around inside of me like water in a bucket,” he wrote in the Op-Ed “The writing craft, from hand to hand,” published in The Boston Globe in 2009.
“Writing, and journalism by extension, is something people should do because they can’t live without it,” Ta-Nehisi Coates told journalism students on a lecture at The University of New York (CUNY) in 2014.
After writing poetry and reading compulsively, obsessively, Coates, started his journalism career as a reporter at Washington City Paper almost 20 years ago. Now he is the senior editor and writer correspondent of The Atlantic Magazine. He writes because he deeply enjoys it.
“I have no habits. I write everyday,” he said in CUNY, and continued, “How do you become, say, a better essayist or better feature writer or better long form writer of any sort? You have to do it a lot.”
On becoming an interviewee: “once you write a book, people want to talk to you.”
“When something is said that is not expected; when there is some surprise; when an interview gets very close to what somebody is truly feeling and they are able to express that honesty, that is a great interview,” explained Ureneck.
In 2007, John Ydstie interviewed him for the NPR’s Weekly Edition Saturday. Ydstie was in Washington and Ureneck went to WBUR station and he put on the headphones. “He asked good questions, surprising questions, difficult questions and I felt I have done a terrible job. I left there really depressed; several days later the interview aired on NPR and I was in my car. I pulled the car over to listen and they have done a beautiful job editing the interview. I sounded brilliant. I thought to myself thank God he was a good editor,” he told me.
Caryl Rivers has answered so many questions, that now she can distinguish immediately if the person has done his or her job before the interview. The interviewer should be curious and interested in getting to know the writer. If they are, then there is a good chance that it becomes a conversation, based on a connection. “They don’t just wander in and flop out and say, “Well, what do you do?” It’s much more rewarding when you are talking to someone that comes with an idea of what they want to get.”
There are no typical questions or bad questions.
For the three writers, being on the other side of the chair, and having to come up with answers, was surprising. Rivers likes to discover how good or bad people are at asking questions. For Coates the change has been bizarre. And Ureneck still struggles to make appearances in TV or the radio, because he gets really nervous. He thinks he’s not a natural performer.
Ureneck likes to anticipate the questions, “and I try to think about answers that I can give people that will be stories. Because if you can answer in stories, you can typically hold people’s interest.” During book readings he gets two sets of questions: about the book, and on how to get published. “There are always people in the audience who will say, where do I go with my idea. They are not interested in me or my book, they are interested in my advice on helping them become writers.”
“When I first began doing this, I sometimes lost my place. I marked the pages that I was going to read. I would read a little bit and then answer questions. I remember once when I couldn’t find my way into the book. It took me a long time to find the pages. Everybody was getting very impatient and I started to panic, so it made it more difficult. It was awkward,” he said.
Those uncomfortable, strange and peculiar moments as an interviewee are part of the deal, once you decide to spread your ideas out and try to sell your books. Even if that means accepting to share the same TV interview with a body builder, and being absolutely overshadowed by a Herculean Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Rivers was promoting her book on feminism, “Beyond Sugar and Spice: How women grow, learn, and thrive”. Unfortunately the host was not interested in talking to her, whatsoever. “We were seated. Arnold was here, I was here, and the host was there. She kept leaning over me to feel up his muscles, asking him to take off his shirt. Her arms were over my face. Clearly she didn’t want me there in that set. I wanted to say, “Lady, if you talk about my book, I’ll take my shirt off!”
But she didn’t.
Another way to gain readers, writers and their agents prepare book readings. Lou Ureneck, for example, responds to the audience. If it’s friendly and interested, then he can relax. “I begin to be myself and open up and it gets a lot easy. I even come to enjoy it.” He remarks, “A friendly audience makes it a pleasure: you begin to have a conversation.”
But sometimes the audience is not enough.
“I was invited to speak at the American Museum of Fly Fishing way up in Vermont. I drove seven, eight maybe nine hours to get there. I appeared with my book and three people showed up for the reading. I think they all bough books, but still, it’s a long way to drive to sell three books,” recounted Ureneck.
On getting better at difficult things.
A writer needs stubbornness. “The most difficult thing about writing is that some days the words just don’t want to come. Finding the language to express what it is that you want to say is the challenge,” explained Ureneck. Obstinacy and persistence on getting it right is a key to writing. “Shaping it to the point were it works, because the start is kind of ragged and rough,” said Rivers.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is very critical of his own work. He examines every single sentence he writes. “You gotta be brutal in terms of interrogating yourself and looking at your work and revising. And, at the same time, you have to believe that ultimately you can do it,” he said.
Writing is like a physical activity: a journalist –and a writer by extension-, according to Coates, needs the courage to get up, go out, ask questions, and sit down and write. Then, the terror of being mistaken mixes up with the excitement of what can happen next.
Coates is learning French because, that is his way of “giving myself an opportunity to get better at difficult things,” he wrote on the blog post “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” And continued, “There is absolutely nothing in this world like the feeling of sucking at something and then improving it.”
Writing, then, is to be able to challenge your own limits. “I think the main reason more people don’t write is the sheer terror of confronting yourself on the page,” Coates wrote in 2011 on his blog. “I believe that many people have the talent to write. But very few have the courage to rewrite. Even fewer have the courage to rewrite fail, and live to do the whole thing again.”
On writing and facing personal terrors.
Coates fears that even if we have the fight –the racial fight he faces monthly with the pieces he publishes at The Atlantic Magazine-, we don’t understand how much we don’t understand. “I write about racism, and the thing you always confront is the idea that maybe everything they say about us is correct. All the awful thing they say is true.”
Caryl Rivers’ terrors are related to discrimination and power abuse. She grew up in a society where segregation, racism and prejudices against women were seen daily. “What concerns me is that if we forget about how difficult it was, how long it was, it’s easy to slip backwards. I think it’s really important to keep in mind and remember those struggles, and not to let them fade away and to pretend it was always easy.”
So she keeps writing in order to maintain her position inside the river of change. Rivers likes to think of herself as “another voice moving the ball along the road.”
“I think that breakthroughs come form putting in an unordinary amount of pressure on yourself and see what you can take. And hope you grow new muscles. It’s not really that mystical. It’s repeat and practice over and over and suddenly you become something you had no idea you could be,” declared Ta-Nehisi Coates on the The Atlantic video “Creative Breakthrough: Ta-Nehisi Coates”.
Caryl Rivers was introduced to the show as a feminist.
“Mommy, what’s a feminist?” Little Miss America asked. She was wearing a mink coat.
“They’re people who don’t want little girls to go to beauty pageants,” mommy answered.
All them three participated on the same show.
The odd experiences are worth it. They are part of the personal history, and maybe the next chapter of a future book. The writer just needs the courage to go on, and on, and on.