By drawing. By drawing cartoons. Before I could read or write I used to draw comics at school and at home. The funny thing is that I now realize that when I was in high school I had the reputation of being a writer, though I never in fact wrote anything. If there was a pamphlet to be written or a letter of petition, I was the one to do it because I was supposedly the writer. When I entered college I happened to have a very good literary background in general, considerably above the average of my friends. At the university in Bogotá, I started making new friends and acquaintances, who introduced me to contemporary writers. One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories. They are totally intellectual short stories because I was writing them on the basis of my literary experience and had not yet found the link between literature and life. The stories were published in the literary supplement of the newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá and they did have a certain success at the time—probably because nobody in Colombia was writing intellectual short stories. What was being written then was mostly about life in the countryside and social life. When I wrote my first short stories I was told they had Joycean influences.
Of course, Gabriel García Márquez’s writer’s origin story begins with drawing cartoons.
What is it about drawing that fuels other creative pursuits?
Alan admits, it’s OK not to read the great works everyday:
But you don’t read Shakespeare every single day and you certainly don’t read the tragedies every single day. Those are incredibly demanding for the same reason you don’t every night sit down and watch an Ingmar Bergman movie or 12 Years of Slave or something like that. You have to be able to give yourself a break from the demands of really great works of art.
Great works of art ask a lot of us and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can rise to that occasion every single day. So, sometimes you ought to be reading Harry Potter instead of reading Shakespeare because you need a break. And I think both Bloom and Adler were reluctant to acknowledge that.
On seeing where your W-H-I-M takes you:
Yeah. So, I got this from the poet Randall Jarrell, who ended an essay that way, read at Whim. And Whim with capital W, W-H-I-M is a kind of a principle or a policy. Let me tell you how I came onto this. What would happen is that year after year after year, so I’ve been a college university teacher for 35 years now and I would have students who would come to my office and they would say, “I’m about to graduate, but there’s so many great things I haven’t read yet. Give me a list of things to read. Give me a list of books that every educated person should have read.” And they’re coming in with their notebooks and they’ve got their pins poised over the notebook. Like, “Give me these things.”
And I would think you’re just finishing up four years of school, give yourself a break. You don’t have to do this now. You don’t have to read according to an assignment or according to a list of approved texts. Enjoy your freedom. Go out there and follow your whim. And by that, I mean follow that which really draws your spirit and your soul and see where that takes you. If it turns out that you spend a year reading Stephen King novels or something like that, that’s totally fine. That’s not a problem. Read your Stephen King novels, but there are also really good novels.
But whatever it happens to be, if you’re reading young adult fiction for a year, read young adult fiction for a year. After a while, you probably got to have enough of that. But don’t go around making your reading life a kind of means of authenticating yourself as a serious person. It’s just no way to live. So, I would always tell them, “Give yourself a break. Don’t make a list. See where Whim takes you.”
How to read “upstream”:
Well, what happens is that there is a kind of an emergent structure in a way, things emerge. So, here’s one of the things that I will tell people. I’ll say, “Let’s say you really love Tolkien and you’ve read Lord of the Rings like 10 times and you’re not sure you want to read the Lord of the Rings again.” First of all, I will say, “Rereading is always a good idea. It’s always a good idea. But there may be times when you think, yeah, maybe I don’t need an 11th reading of the Lord of the Rings.”
And so, I’ll say, “Well then, let’s move upstream a little bit. Why don’t you ask yourself what did Tolkien read? What did he love? If you love Tolkien’s writing, what writing did Tolkien love and kind of go upstream of him and find out what he read.” And in that way, you’re doing something that is really substantial. I mean, learning about some new things, some important things, things that are really valuable, but you’re also kind of following whatever it is in your spirit that responded to Lord of the Rings. You’re taking it to that next level.
Yeah. So, I’ve done this before, this going upstream, but in a different way. So, my favorite novel of all time, I said this before on the podcast lots of times is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
And then I started reading his like … I’ve read that thing like five times, but then I was like, I’ve got to read the prequels. I started reading like a Dead Man’s Walk and a Comanche Moon. And then I started learning about that. I was like, “These Comanche Indians, I didn’t know about this.” And so, I was like, I went on Amazon and just searched books about Comanche Indians and that’s how I discovered Empire of the Summer Moon, fantastic book. It was some of the best books I’ve read.
Right. But you wouldn’t have discovered it if you hadn’t been actually reading at Whim. You were not thinking, “Oh, let me see, I’ve read this Larry McMurtry book, now I need to read all the other books that were well-reviewed that year.” Instead you were following up something that was really drawing you on. In a way, you’re just obeying your own curiosity and that’s a much better guide to reading than having a list that somebody else has given you.
And rereading a book can shake your core:
Well, what do you think the value of rereading is?
Well, there’s a lot. I mean, first of all, if it’s a really worthwhile book and books can be worthwhile in a thousand different ways, you’re never going to get everything important out of it on a first reading. But then in addition to that, you go through different stages of life. And in those different stages of life, books speak to you in dramatically different ways.
I remember once I used to teach Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina almost every year. And one year I was reading it and I came across a passage, which totally knocked me out and I couldn’t even remember having read it before. I’d taught the book six or seven times and I had completely passed over this particular passage. And it’s a passage where one of the two protagonists, a man named Konstantin Lëvin, his wife kitty has just given birth to their first child. And he picks up his newborn son and the first thing he thinks is, now the world has so many ways to hurt me. And it’s just an incredibly powerful scene.
Why didn’t I notice it before? Because I hadn’t had children before. It was as soon as my son was born, I saw that passage in a way that it would have been irrelevant to me before because it was so disconnected from my experience. At that point I thought to myself, what’s wrong with you that you didn’t notice this? Did you have to have a child in order to understand how emotionally overwhelming it is to have a child? I guess so. So, I learned something about myself there. I learned about the things that I was paying attention to and not paying attention to.
Read on a W-H-I-M.
Forge your own reading path. You don’t always need someone’s list to guide you.
The entire conversation will expand your mind, but I wanted to capture Adam’s suggestions for being a productive writer:
COWEN: You’ve written an enormous amount. Just this last week you had a major piece come out in the Guardian, one in London Review of Books. Your books are very long. What is your most unusual writing habit?
TOOZE: I’m not sure it’s unusual, but I think it’s the writing habit that many people have who do write a lot. I write every day, basically. I haven’t always found writing easy at all. I’ve been to a lot of therapy of various types to stabilize myself emotionally and psychologically. I still do. It’s very important for me in handling the stresses that arise in writing.
And one of the things I realized in the course of that is that, actually, rather than thinking it was something terrifying that I had to steel myself to do, the best way to think about it was as something I do every day, so it’s like exercise. If I have the chance, I like to exercise. It’s a puzzling activity. I just treat it almost as a game, rearranging the words, trying to fix things.
I’ll say to all of my grad students, you can do that for 10 minutes every single day, regardless of what else is going on in your life. You can always find that 10-minute slot. So that is the thing that I make sure I do. And that means even big projects slowly move along because then, when you get the big slice of time, the three or four hours at the weekend or something, it’s actually top of stack. You know where to go because you’ve been puzzling away at it and chewing on it every day, even if it’s only for 10 minutes.
COWEN: I give the exact same answer, by the way.
Not ground breaking advice by any means. But it applies well, specifically to editing.
10 minutes of edits a day and eventually you’ll have a finished piece.
Also, Adam’s suggestion for the best way to travel through Germany:
I would say travel. Get on the train. Unless you’re a car nut, and you want to experience the freedom of driving a Porsche at 200 miles an hour, which you can do if you do it at 2:00 am. The roads are clean enough, and they’re smooth enough.
But other than that, ride the train. Sit in an ICE going at, absolutely no kidding, 200 miles an hour, powered by solar power, and watch your coffee not even vibrate. It’s absolutely stunning. They have to put speedometers into the trains to make people aware of how fast they’re going.
I would like to begin by asking how you started. How did you become a writer? What was the first thing that you ever wrote and when?
Everything important always begins from something trivial. When I was about twelve I loved horror movies. I used to go down to New Haven from my suburb and watch films like Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Wolf Man Meets Abbott and Costello. So the boy next door said, Well, if you like that stuff, you’ve got to read Edgar Allan Poe. I had never heard of Edgar Allan Poe, but when I read him I fell in love. I wanted to grow up and be Edgar Allan Poe. The first poem that I wrote doesn’t really sound like Poe, but it’s morbid enough. Of course I have friends who say it’s the best thing I ever did: “Have you ever thought / Of the nearness of death to you? / It reeks through each corner, / It shrieks through the night, / It follows you through the day / Until that moment when, / In monotones loud, / Death calls your name. / Then, then, comes the end of all.” The end of Hall, maybe. That started me writing poems and stories. For a couple of years I wrote them in a desultory fashion because I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a great actor or a great poet.
Then when I was fourteen I had a conversation at a Boy Scout meeting with a fellow who seemed ancient to me; he was sixteen. I was bragging and told him that I had written a poem during study hall at high school that day. He asked—I can see him standing there—You write poems? and I said, Yes, do you? and he said, in the most solemn voice imaginable, It is my profession. He had just quit high school to devote himself to writing poetry full time! I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. It was like that scene in Bonnie and Clyde where Clyde says, We rob banks. Poetry is like robbing banks. It turned out that my friend knew some eighteen-year-old Yale freshmen, sophisticated about literature, and so at the age of fourteen I hung around Yale students who talked about T. S. Eliot. I saved up my allowance and bought the little blue, cloth-covered collected Eliot for two dollars and fifty cents and I was off. I decided that I would be a poet for the rest of my life and started by working at poems for an hour or two every day after school. I never stopped.
One question in and I already have to recommend the rest of this interview.
With libraries and bookstores closed I’ve returned to my own shelves. During a session of pull-any-book-off-the-shelf and read game, I stumbled on this excerpt from The Dangerous Book for Boys.
Titled: The Rules of Soccer, it reminded me of the joys of practice.
Soccer is the example, but the idea of practice, daily practice, applies to any discipline:
It’s an old, old phrase, but “practice makes perfect” is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago. Natural-born skill is all very well, but it will only take you so far against someone who has practiced every day at something he loves.