Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Writers on Writing - by Ballard, Jones & Sullivan

There's been a few great interviews I've come across lately featuring top level writers dishing on the process of writing.

Its probably fitting that one interview was with Esquire writer Chris Jones as he's the guy whose writing helped spark my interest in great non-fiction prose, and then fed the flames of said interest with his Son of Bold Venture blog about "writing and words". Interview itself was done by Brandon Sneed on his website (which has also been a source of motivation about writing as a process). It was really interesting content under the title "Chris Jones of Esquire on His Zanesville Zoo Massacre Story 'Animals,' 'The Most Dramatic Story Of The Year'". I'm waiting for the hard copy Esquire to arrive before reading the piece, but there was excellent nuggets of wisdom from Jones (prompted by Sneed questions) around writing. My take aways (which may well be different than other people's) from the piece are as follows: Heavy sense of content focus by Jones with it being centered around the police and the writing in it being something sparse, that "reads almost like a police report". Idea I took from this was the import of deciding on a particular approach to take and then following through (maybe that approach gets course corrected in the writing process, but hopefully doesn't come to that). Also interesting from Jones was his commentary about writing to music... which I've heard before and his doing so actually referenced in one of the other recent interviews I've seen).

Since I just brought it up... Sneed even more recently did for his website another great writing interview, this one with a writer answering questions about a piece I've actually already read! "Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated on his Mike Powell Story "Man In Full"—And Way More" contains some excellent writing wisdom type content from Ballard (again, extracted by Sneed's questions), most notable to me being the following: Ballard started at Sports Illustrated as a fact-checker and built up to doing feature pieces (a completely different approach to getting an SI gig than Thomas Lake wrote of his path being). Interesting was how fact-checking hammered home the need to be thorough in reporting... a common theme from writer wisdom pieces (like this featuring Michael Kruse) is the importance of solid reporting rather than simply grabbing perfect words out of the air. Also tremendously insightful from Ballard was his comment about immediately writing down an insight or feeling that strikes him. I've noticed in my own writing that I'll have a visceral reaction towards something I read, but if I don't note it immediately, I may have a hard time remembering what it was (this has led with the reading of books to needing to decide whether to take notes whilst reading as opposed to just finishing the thing and then going back through to capture the high points). Ballard also writes in this interview some excellent structure content with the Powell story (which was great, and I will post on before long) as containing multiple acts and a specific focus (reminiscent of Jones and his decisions made prior to writing). From a where and how to write perspective, there was interesting content about writing with friends in a bar as well as the idea of (poached from Jones) of writing to one song on repeat). Additionally, there was good content on the outline, structure and lede of this particular piece written about Mike Powell and Ballard provided recommendations to other great writing, including The Imaginary Girlfriend, a sort of autobiography by prolific writer John Irving.

After I've rambled on about the great content from Jones and Ballard, will be somewhat more brief about the third writer piece I've seen lately. Bookforum did an interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan which included content both on his book of essays, Pulphead (which I enjoyed tremendously) and areas of interest as a writer. Specifically, Sullivan wrote "I’m working on a book now about a German lawyer, an obscure jurist from Upper Saxony who came to the New World, to South Carolina, in the 1730s. He tried to establish an enlightened republic among Cherokee Indians beyond the frontier, and he wrote a book, a kind of utopian manifesto that, based on what we know about it, was a century or more ahead of its time philosophically. It was destroyed when the English arrested him in the 1740s and it became a sort of a famous lost book. In my book, I’m making the case that I’ve identified it, that it exists. I’m very curious about what happens to the Enlightenment when it arrives in the South." Sounds to me like it would be a terribly interesting read and brings to mind someone like Erik Larson who writes history, but seems to do so with an excellent narrative bent.