Friday, January 20, 2017

Writing tips from a quartet of Texas greats

Considering how many books, magazine articles, television scripts they’ve written, listeners at the recent Authors LIVE! “Four Great Texas Writers” program featuring Texas writers H.W. Brands, S.C. Gwynne, Stephen Harrigan and Lawrence Wright understandably wondered how the foursome kept track of everything. What ultra-sophisticated program did they use? And by the way, can it help the rest of us as well?
For some, the answer is something as simple as . . . notecards.

OK, Brands admitted that after decades of teaching, he knows enough about most of his subjects (presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan and Eisenhower, General Douglas McArthur, et al) to keep many of his notes in an even more low-tech system – his brain.

“I do the ‘60’s grad student thing,” said Lawrence, author of The Terror Years, Thirteen Days in September, Going Clear, The Looming Tower and more. “I use notecards. But,” he added, “you don’t put everything (from hours of interviews) on notecards. You must discriminate.”

“How do you file those notes,” Brands asked.

“In a file box with tabs – FBI, etc.,” Lawrence said. The material on those discriminating notecards, filed by subject, means that, “Implicitly, you’re already outlining your book.”
“Outlines, for or against,” Brands asked, turning to Gwynne (author of The Perfect Pass, Rebel Yell, and Empire of the Summer Moon).

“I do, implicitly,” Gwynne said.

“Stephen,” Brands said, turning to Harrigan (author of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, Aransas, Eye of the Mammoth, Challenger Park and more), “outline, for or against?”

Since Harrigan’s works are historical rather than contemporary, his research tends to be from books, not interviews, and he makes notation from his reference material as he reads. But, “when I’m writing a book, it’s more improvisational.” And, he noted, it’s tempting for an author to become too involved with research. “Unless I start writing before I think I should, I’m never going to write the book. I have to break it up into chapters and dwell in that chapter until I find a way through.”

“I’m with Stephen on that,” Brands said. “I teach what I write. I’ve been teaching these three guys (19th century senators Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the subjects of his work in progress) for 30 years. The easy part for me is to write the background. I know the broad story. What’s hard is, what the story line is within the broad picture.”

Given the work, and that these writers could find some other way to make a living (and usually have), why write at all?

“What is it about the craft of writing that gives you the greatest satisfaction?” Brands asked the group.

“I like having written,” Gwynne said. “Loving to write is not in my vocabulary. It’s a struggle and a pain.”

“I get great satisfaction in the end of a scene,” Brands said, but admitted, “I hate reading stuff that I’ve already written.”

“When people who most want to be writers stop writing,” Wright said, “it’s because they can’t take the frustration. But sometimes you break free and there’s this moment of flow.”


(Want more from writers about writing? See the Authors LIVE! site. The series continues February 2 with Will Schwalbe, author of Books for Living.)