John mentioned false starts. Elif, do you make fewer of those, as you gain experience? Why does a writer make false starts in the first place?
I wish I knew. My editor at The New Yorker was like, Why don’t you just skip the whole part where you do all the wrong things and just do the right thing?
JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN
Thank you. Thank you, editor.
And then he was like, Of course I’m just joking. He wasn’t joking! I don’t think I make fewer false starts now than I did before. Maybe I get faster at recognizing them.
How do you recognize a false start? Does it give you a particular feeling?
Yeah, but not right away. I think any start has to be a false start because really there’s no way to start. You just have to force yourself to sit down and turn off the quality censor. And you have to keep the censor off, or you start second-guessing every other sentence. Sometimes the suspicion of a possible false start comes through, and you have to suppress it to keep writing. But it gets more persistent. And the moment you know it’s really a false start is when you start … it’s hard to put into words.
When you start pushing it forward?
Exactly! When you start pushing.
And you feel the slight exertion, like your tires just hit sand.
And you have some line of dialogue that doesn’t look as funny as you thought it would, so you try to add something funny after it. That’s always bad.
Only, just as your realizing it’s a false start, you’re also realizing it has some really good writing in it. Maybe even, like, some of the best writing you’re going to do—
In your whole life!
So you keep going, but it’s already a phantom thing at that point. You know nobody’s ever going to see the stuff, but you have to write through it. You’re just trying to satisfy some grim, barren mandate. There’s probably a German word for that.
How about the long threads—the useful starts? Do they tend to have anything in common?
A lot of times it’s humiliating, because the long thread ends up being the simplest way in—what to another person might have seemed the most obvious thing to do. What a child would have seen. But as a writer you must first chop through all kinds of illusions you had about how the piece would go, aggrandizing visions of what it would be.
It is humiliating. When I was in graduate school, I went to Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, for two months to prepare for a job that, for bureaucratic reasons, it then turned out I was not legally qualified for. So for two months I was in Samarkand learning the Uzbek language for no reason, and that was an experience I did nothing with for years and years. I’d been taking notes the whole time, because it was super interesting. But it was also really hot and difficult and painful. It’s hard to learn the Uzbek language in two months! There was a lot of pressure because I was the only student in the whole program, so all of my classes were one-on-one, with teachers who were looking me in the eyes the whole time like, You’re it. Anyway, the story turned out to be about being somewhere for two months for no reason, which is so like life.
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Yasiin Bey, One Called Trill
Steven Cramer, Lackawanna
Regan Good, The Wasps’ House
Geoffrey Hill, Three Poems
Devin Johnston, Means of Escape
Ben Lerner, No Art
Linda Pastan, Ah, Friend