The Alchemy of Writing — More Tips from a Pro


Ernest Hemingway used to leave his final sentence of each day half finished. It gave him an easy starting point for the next morning.

This interview on the creative process is part II in an interview with award-winning author Fred Waitzkin. Part I can be found here.

Reading time:
– Bolded points (teaser) – 3 minutes
– All – 15 minutes

TF: But what about “inspiration”? Does it exist for you?

For me, inspiration is primarily energy. If I feel energy for a paragraph or a description I can almost always get to the essence of it. If I feel dead to myself, I don’t have a chance. I am always looking for energy. Where can I find it? What or who can give it to me? How can I amp up what I have?

A story can help us here. An older friend of mine was once depressed about his advancing years. He lacked zest or motivation for his regular gym workouts. He couldn’t concentrate on his career. One evening this man found himself in an elevator with a woman, a housekeeper who had worked for him in the past. But she was wearing outside clothes, a tight fitting sweater. She was young and beautiful. They talked a little. There was chemistry. She got off the elevator at his floor. They chatted in the hall. She said that she found him attractive. But he could feel this even before she said the words. She embraced him. And that was it. Nothing more happened between them. He was married and not looking for an affair. But he felt a big surge of life. He felt renewed, deeply so. There was a bounce to his step. He returned to the gym feeling ten years younger… There are many ways to experience the girl in the elevator.

If I’m beginning an important new project I try to get away for a few days to feel a different spirit–islands work for me. My mother was a great painter. She spent much of her life on Martha’s Vineyard because the tree line outside her house felt ominous and that spurred her work along with the sound and smell of the ocean.

I look for energy all over the place. Often just riding my bike along the river for three miles from my house to the office heightens my mood. Then I make a cup of green tea and look at my work from the previous evening. I always read back several pages before I try to write anything new. Moving back through interesting material seems to give me momentum to push ahead…

But what if there is no energy? I read the paper. I switch on sports talk radio. I look at my watch. I pace. I am eyeing the lunch hour. It’s getting closer to lunch. One hour before I meet my friend Jeff for turkey burgers. Forty-five minutes. Now I’m getting nervous. Thirty-five minutes before I have to leave my office! Suddenly I feel an urgency. I CAN’T leave for lunch without writing one good paragraph. I’m sweating, feeling the time pressure… and the words pour out. Sometimes a writer can do more in a fervent half hour than in a dreary eight-hour day. I’ve often played this game with myself.

There are many energy tricks. Sometimes in the afternoon when I’m groggy I wander over to Starbuck’s for a coffee. But it’s not just caffeine. I know all the women who work there. They know me. We chat. I love these talks–okay, innocent flirtations. Sometimes I even get a free latte. When I get back to my office I usually feel fired up.

Here is a story about deep mining for inspiration. Early on in the composition of The Dream Merchant I had an impression of the woman whom I wanted to be the great love of my central character’s life. She would be something like the girlfriend of Eddie the pool hustler, played by Paul Newman, in the great movie, The Hustler. She would be beautiful but a little worn from love and tough living. But her accessibility made her all the more desirable. The actress who played that part, by the way, was Piper Laurie although when I thought about what my character looked like, she was more voluptuous like Marilyn Monroe. This character would be hugely important in my book. She would have to be Jim’s match—she would love Jim and ruin him. Only problem was, I had never known someone like this.

I talked about the problem with Josh [his son, the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer] and one day he proposed an idea. “There is someone I want you to meet,” he said. He arranged lunch for me with a young actress, Maya, a girlfriend of a friend of his. We met in a restaurant. Maya was sensual, the right body type, and gorgeous. I spent more than an hour describing the character I wanted to write—her name was Ava. Maya listened but said virtually nothing. She was a sweet girl—NOT Ava. This great idea was beginning to feel like a failure. But then when we were leaving the restaurant she turned to me and her entire being had darkened, she had become sultry and damaged. It was thrilling. She was becoming Ava. She was Ava. It gave me chills.

For the next year we would meet in my office about once a month. I would send Ava, no Maya, a long email describing what I needed from Ava in the next chapter of my novel. Then during the course of an hour or two together we would imagine the scenes or she would act them out. When Maya left me at the end of a session I was shot out of a gun to write the new material into the novel. As time went on, I did less talking and Maya held court. After a year of this she had truly become Ava. I put her in dangerous situations and she embodied Ava’s responses, her muted passion, her madness, a reckless impulse to bolt to the edge of the cliff. Would she fall? I think it was deep fascinating work for both of us…Just to say, I’ve never tried to create a character in this manner before or since. But I could never have written Ava without Maya.

TF: Do you have any friends you rely on to help breakthrough deadlock? If so, why do you find them helpful?

I have a couple of friends that I rely upon. They are very perceptive about the human heart. I’ll talk quite specifically about what isn’t working in a section of my book. I listen closely to what they think. I’ve done this many times. My wife Bonnie has helped me many times like this.

Here is the curious thing. Often her advice or the idea of a friend isn’t what I end up doing. But listening to the ideas engenders a new idea. The whole point is that you have to get moving. Movement begets movement. You need to get unstuck.

TF: There are many people with brilliant ideas, fascinating lives, and a good feel for language–but who have never seriously taken on the art of writing. What is some specific advice you would give to up and coming writers?

If a young person is not passionately motivated, talent aside, I would never encourage him to try to become a professional writer.

Even if you love writing, and it possesses you with missionary zeal, it is such a hard thing to do. First you need to learn the art, and the path is littered with generations of talented writers that couldn’t sit alone in a room and apply themselves for thousands of hours to become really good. Then there are legions of devoted writers who did good work but couldn’t crack the profession, they couldn’t get published or if they did they couldn’t make a living. It is a very tough field.

But whenever I happen to meet someone who is talented and possessed by writing, and particularly a youngster, it is a great pleasure to have a chat. However, the conversation needs to be personal to have any real meaning. I need to know my “new friend” somewhat deeply, to feel the play of his mind and what turns him on before I would presume to offer advice. There are many different ways to be a writer.

For a teenager who is dreamy, who makes uncanny associations like a poet, it can be ruinous to force onto him a rigorously academic approach to writing, even with a good teacher. Teaching him to compose organized mannered essays, like all the other smart boys in class, can make him inhibited and ultimately edit the imagination from this unusual fellow. For another classmate who plans to be a lawyer, proper carefully constructed essays are perfect.

A writer has a core, a sensibility to draw from like pulling gold from his own acre of earth. What you have to say on the page will be different than what I would say. Good writers have their own voice. A paragraph by Philip Roth sounds like Roth. His sensibility and prose rhythms are all through his pages. Same for Hemingway or Thomas Mann. A young writer can deepen his voice and make it richer. But a writer is on perilous ground when he moves away from his core into an area he doesn’t know, when he “lies” or when he cheapens himself with compromises.

Let me give you an example. I have a young friend who is gifted with words and sentences. The scenes he writes are emotional. And he feels impelled to write. He’s got the right stuff. This young man has led a difficult life. He is an orphan. As a teen he became an addict and alcoholic. He suffered greatly getting clean. He’s known a lot of women and hurt some badly. Okay, in shorthand, that’s his base. It is very rich with pain and dark-side-of-the-moon adventures. But whenever he writes more than a paragraph he feels the need to say that in his new life he is redeemed and he is so grateful. He proselytizes. The embarrassment about his past life is thwarting this writer who has such an interesting story to tell. It makes it hard for him to dig deeply. It is difficult to get over such habits like a quarterback who has an awkward throwing motion. But he can do it if he wants it badly enough.

Here is one generalization that might be useful: A good writer needs to become intimately involved with “fictive truth.” Bullshitting never works in writing—a good reader can always tell when a writer knows what he is talking about. If you write about the ocean, you must know the movement of the ocean, the smell and taste. Don’t try to invent it. It will smell like a fake. When you are trying to create a character he or she must be “true.” Fiction is not making up stuff out of whole cloth. It is always linked to a writer’s experience. Fiction is a wonderful tango between the writer’s experience and his imagination.

When I write a scene I always put it to a personal test: does it relate to something that has happened in my own life either directly or by analogy? Perhaps something similar happened to my father or a close friend. If I can feel it deeply, and if I know my craft, then chances are you will feel it. If I am guessing, chances are I will fall on my face. Even if you are writing fiction, research isn’t cheating. If you are writing about the ocean, go out on a boat when it’s rough, feel queasy in a breaking sea, smell the salt water. Then read Conrad’s great passages on the ocean for inspiration, or Jack London’s. In The Dream Merchant it was part of my plan that the last third of the book would take place in the dense rain forest of Brazil. I didn’t dare write that section of the book until I travelled there and spent a month in the jungle.

TF: What inspired you to write The Dream Merchant? Tell us a story or two that will help us understand the process behind the book. How did you draw from real life characters when writing fiction?

The inspiration for The Dream Merchant came from many people. Certainly the earliest influence was my father who was a lighting fixture salesman–a great one. I have often referred to him as the Beethoven of fluorescents. During his best years in the fifties, my dad sold the commercial lighting for nearly every new skyscraper in NYC: The Seagram building, the Saucony building, the United Nations building–his jobs sounded to me like poetry. As a boy I would look out at the magnificent night skyline of Manhattan as though it were my father’s work. Like Jim in the novel, my father did some terrible things—he destroyed men who got in his way—but it did not dampen my love for him. I knew that I wanted to explore this undiscriminating father adoration in my book. That was a key connection between Jim and the narrator, insofar as the narrator loves Jim despite his profligacy and shocking moral drift. By the same token, Jim idolizes his own father who has a considerable history of sins.

Without my father there could never have been Jim. But Jim is not a portrait of Abe Waitzkin—not by a long shot. They were both larger than life salesmen. Neither was impeded by conscience or restraint. Abe was perhaps more ruthless. Jim was much more lusty. My dad didn’t care much about women. Jim was a physical powerhouse. Abe was a dominant personality but he was sickly.

The great comedian, Lenny Bruce, has a small but important role in my novel. To write him I felt that I had to know this one-of–a-kind-personality inside and out. If I didn’t get into his skin the scenes would be fake and would ruin the book. I read books about him and his wife and I listened to performance tapes. I learned his dark slicing humor until I could write it myself. I did write it. After a half year I felt like I was Lenny Bruce. Then Lenny moved through the scenes naturally—he fit right in. It was a pleasure writing in his voice. I’ve already talked about Maya who became my Ava, Jim’s wife. Lenny Bruce and Ava become lovers. They go to very dangerous places together. For a while it was hard for me to stop being Lenny Bruce.

Here is an interesting story about inspiration. More than twenty-five years ago, when I was writing feature magazine pieces, I happened to read a short article in Time Magazine about illegal gold mining in the jungles of Brazil. The piece described secluded enclaves deep within the rain forest called garimpos where men slaved in deep muddy pits trying to collect gold to feed their impoverished families living in the cities. Their employers hideously exploited these scrawny little men, lured them into the camps by offering beautiful women. These poor men spent their hard earned gold on a single night of desire. Then they had to go back to the mudpits to work for another month before they could return home. It was an endless cycle. The workers were sometimes murdered by marauders or they died of disease or animal attacks. Many never made it home. This whole jungle scene was so exotic, violent, sensual and unlikely that I felt I had to write about it. I signed a contract to do a long piece for Harper’s magazine and was preparing to leave for Brazil when I received a contract from Random House to write Searching for Bobby Fischer. I abandoned the Brazil trip to write about Josh and the chess world, which greatly irritated the editors at Harper’s–they didn’t return my calls after this. Anyhow, the scene in Brazil haunted me for years and once I began my novel I decided that my character would ultimately save himself or perhaps perish in the Brazilian rain forest. I wrote the earlier sections of the novel aiming for Brazil.

TF: Tell us about the Amazon trip. What were you researching? What did you learn? Why was it so important to go there?

Oh man, what a trip. Josh wouldn’t let me go by myself. He was determined to protect his old man in the jungle. By then Josh was already one of the top martial artists in the world–he had won the Tai Chi Push Hands World Championships in Taiwan a year before, and now he was training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu [Tim note: Josh later became the first black belt under the legendary Marcelo Garcia, the Michael Jordan of BJJ]. I was thrilled for him to come but not so much for protection as camaraderie—so that we’d see it all together. By then I’d already written the first half of The Dream Merchant and as I’ve already said, I’d been pointing toward Brazil. I’d been writing about a great salesman who takes ethical short cuts to make it big and then loses everything. The deep jungle was the perfect pallet for the changes I wanted in Jim who by now was ready to cross any line to win big again—and he did. I wanted the last third of the novel to switch gears and come on like a firestorm—this was my homerun idea. But to work, as I’ve already said, the Brazilian scene would have to be truly rendered, all the smells, the violence, the animals, the decadence, the disease, the astonishing beauty.

Josh and I flew to Manaus, which is an island city surrounded by rivers and jungle. It’s a haunting place, sultry from the heat and danger of the jungle all around. My character Jim would own a big estate in Manaus, where he would sell his gold to buyers, and then after several days he would travel back to jungle—the jungle became Jim’s greatest passion. But first, to set up his operation he needed to hire an army of gunmen to protect his garimpo from marauders in the rain forest, to guard the gold. Josh and I travelled to gun dealers to learn the business of small private armies. We met with gunmen, talked about their malevolent work. We visited steak restaurants where Jim would dine with his top men. We visited poor shacks on the fetid riverbanks where he recruited hundreds of miners and we went to huge ornate brothels that catered to miners, where Jim hired gorgeous sad-eyed girls to work on their backs for him in the remote camp. Really, Jim constructed a little jungle empire that mirrored his runaway ambition.

There were many ways to maim oneself or to die in Jim’s jungle world but also it was a captivating place. Josh and I spent several weeks in the deep jungle, with its dense foliage a crazy tangle of living sculpture. We hiked for miles learning to softly push the vegetation aside like swimming. It was the dry season and watermarks on towering ancient trees were ten feet above our heads. In six months, four hundred pound fish would be swimming where we were walking. We swam in the rivers terrified about piranhas, and tiny fish called a candiru that swim up a man’s penis and with sharp spikes become lodged in the urethra. We played with pink porpoises that swam through our legs. We visited abandoned gold mining operations and met with garimpeiros who explained the work of searching mud pits hoping to find gold and pull themselves out of poverty but rarely did. These men were addicted to this difficult work—I suppose they were addicted to hope.

We spent nights in hammocks suspended between acai trees listening to an infernal racquet of insects and the bleating of hunting creatures. We worried incessantly about being attacked by jaguars. Every night we heard them hunting nearby. Travelers in the jungle worried about jaguars. Every native we ran into carried a rifle. We were told that a man by himself in the rain forest was a dead man walking but parties of two or three men were more likely to be left alone by jaguars. There were little cats, the size of house cats called jaguatiricas. They attacked howling like babies in packs of five or six. They ran up a man’s legs and ripped him apart. The little ones scared the hell out of me.

I could go on and on about the Brazilian Amazon: the beauty of the women, the unforgettable people we met. The jungle has a deep intoxicating call–really it is a siren’s call. It was hard for me to leave and return to the states. My character Jim couldn’t bear to leave even though staying would likely cost him his life.

TF: Last but not least: what are your top ten favorite books?

FW: This is a risky question to answer. For one thing, I have loved so many. How can I narrow it to ten? And to further complicate the process, I’ve noticed that books are always changing for me. Some books that I admired at thirty feel dead to me today. I know that I never got more excited reading any novel than Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece, On the Road. But would I revere it as much today, forty years later? Last week I read This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. I was so taken by the painful truths in these stories and the amorous Latin rhythms of his prose. Before reading Diaz I was telling all of my friends about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. These are my recent infatuations. But did I love these books as much or more than The Sun Also Rises? I just don’t know. Last time I read Hemingway’s classic it was a hard push for me…but ten years before it thrilled me.

Here goes:

1. Love in the Time of Cholera — Gabriel Marquez
2. Heart of Darkness — Joseph Conrad
3. The Great Gatsby –F. Scott Fitzgerald
4. Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov

a. For Whom the Bell Tolls — Ernest Hemingway
b. The Old Man and the Sea — Ernest Hemingway
c. The Sun also Rises — Ernest Hemingway

6. On the Road -- Jack Kerouac
7. Death in Venice — Thomas Mann
8. The Sheltering Sky — Paul Bowles
9. Invisible Cities — Italo Calvino

a. The TrainGeorges Simenon
b. American PastoralPhilip Roth
c. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold John le Carre


Read more about Fred Waitzkin and The Dream Merchant here.

Posted on: March 25, 2013.

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74 comments on “The Alchemy of Writing — More Tips from a Pro

  1. Thanks for all the great information, I particularly like the section on energy and how each author pulls gold out of their own acre in a different way. This inspired me to find my own strengths and sharpen them into something quality.


  2. I cant wait to get my life going here!!! I have automated parts of my life and has helped tremendously!! BUTTT!! I still havent found MUSE>>>Any advise for the struggling person in this position? Greatly needed!!



  3. Writing is such a difficult sport , i tried years ago but I spent a lot of energy without success:-). Personally, my favorite is: “A Visit from the Goon Squad”.