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‘Don’t write–just type,’ and more advice from author Daniel Mendelsohn
Our May pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This” is Daniel Mendelsohn’s “An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic.” Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
Daniel Mendelsohn, writer, critic, translator, and editor-at-large of the New York Review of Books, struggled with his first book. Like many new authors, he felt blocked, anxious and unsure whether it would be any good. Then, a mentor stepped in, and told him not to wait for the “angel of inspiration” to visit, but instead to just get words down on the page.
It worked. Mendelsohn’s first book, “The Elusive Embrace,” published in 1999, became a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. He’s since written nearly a dozen more books across different genres. “An Odyssey,” which is part family history and part literary criticism, was short-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction.
Below, read more writing advice from Mendelsohn, author of “An Odyssey.” He shares the books he thinks deserve more attention, and his daily writing routine:
1. What is your daily writing routine?
Early mornings and lots of caffeine. As I get older I find it harder to work creatively in the evenings, as I used to do when I first started writing for a living back in the early 1990s and was a total night owl. Now I save evenings for reading, note-taking, stuff like that.
I get up quite early in the morning–between 5:00 and 5:30, most days — and if I’m working on a book like “An Odyssey,” I’ll shuffle downstairs, make a pot of coffee, and bring it upstairs to my study, where I can usually work for about three to four hours. That’s three or four hours of intensive writing: my night-time reading is usually material that’s connected to my writing — my own notes, books or articles that are related to my book project — and so whatever I’m reading sort of percolates in my head overnight, so that when I wake up I’m ready to produce: I sit down and start typing. I can usually write about 1,000 to 2,000 words of useful material in a session. Then I’m totally spent and wander around my house like a zombie for the rest of the day.
2. What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?
Long before I was interested in Ancient Greece and years before I ever laid eyes on the “Odyssey,” I was an Ancient Egypt nut — when I was a kid my poor mom had to put up with me copying tomb paintings on my bedroom walls and walking around the house wearing pharaonic crowns made out of bleach bottles. My favorite book at the time was a Newberry-winning YA book set in Ancient Egypt called “The Golden Goblet,” by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, now a classic — although when I read it in the late 1960s it had only been out a few years. It’s about an Egyptian boy, apprenticing to be a master goldsmith, who cracks a tomb-robbing ring. I must have read it 20 times by the time I was 12, and it gave me a taste for imaginative reconstructions of the distant past that, obviously, eventually shaped my whole life.
3. What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?
I don’t know if anyone reads Noël Coward’s only novel, “Pomp and Circumstance,” any more, but it’s the funniest book I know. It’s about the residents of a tiny South Sea British possession in the 1950s who learn that the Queen and Prince Philip are coming on a state visit and basically the whole little nation falls apart in the hysterical build-up to the royal visit. I read it every August and I am weeping with laughter the whole time.
On the more serious side, the novels of the 19th century German writer Theodor Fontane are remarkable and deserve more attention — not least, because he was very interested in the experience of women living in a man’s world, a subject he treats with great finesse, penetrating sympathy, and no sentimentality whatsoever. He’s not very well-known here in the States — Thomas Mann has totally overshadowed him as “the” German writer of the period — but he should be.
4. What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?
It’s a tie between two pieces of advice that I got from my great friend and mentor Bob Gottlieb, the former editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker. One was something he told me when I was writing my first book, “The Elusive Embrace,” and was pretty blocked for a while — I was so anxious about how it was going to turn out and whether it was going to be any good, etc., etc., etc… Bob said, “Your problem is that you’re trying to ‘write.’ Don’t write — just type.” It’s great advice: if you think of writing as a job, as just getting the stuff out there, you’ll do a lot better than if you keep waiting for the angel of inspiration to visit. Just produce, and the other stuff will come.
And then, a week before that book came out, Bob took me out to lunch to give me what he said what going to be “the best writer’s anyone is ever going to give you.” Now that I’d actually written the thing (thanks to Advice #1), I figured he’d be telling me about how to read a royalty sheet or why I shouldn’t worry about how many copies I sold — something practical and business-y. But he looked across at me and said, “The only thing worse than a stupid bad review is a stupid good review.” And it’s true: There is nothing more mortifying than clueless or excessive praise. Books are like children: In your heart of hearts you know exactly how good they are.
5. Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?
The road to “An Odyssey” started more or less on the evening my dad called and asked me to sit in on my first-year “Odyssey” seminar at Bard College: Even then I knew there was a “story” in it, although at the time I couldn’t know where it would lead or how it would end. In fact, at the beginning I thought it was just going to be an article — I remember calling my editor at The New Yorker and telling him that I had the perfect idea for one of their “Personal History” pieces, about how my octogenarian father decided to be my student. It was a total comic set-up.
But then as the class went on and the experience — both pedagogical and emotional — got deeper, I began to think, “Hmm, there’s more here than just a sitcom.” And then we went on the “In the Footsteps of Odysseus” cruise, just after the class ended, and it was really on board the ship, when my dad began to show this other, unexpected, rather charming and touching side of his personality, which I’d never really seen that much when I was growing up — when he began to have his magical, “Odyssean” transformation — that I thought, “O.K., this is a book.” But it wasn’t until he died, a few months after we got back from the cruise, that I could see the shape of the book: the classroom, the cruise, the hospital. I knew all along how I wanted it to end, with the climactic moment the day before he died, when I knew that he recognized me. When I wrote that scene I knew I was finished.