Inside the Writing Life

In the Winter 2015 edition of The Exeter Bulletin, the alumni magazine of Phillips Exeter Academy (the boarding school from which I graduated) there is an article Inside the Writing Life.  It is an interview of Roland Merullo (class of ’71, and quite a bit after my time).  Merullo has written 13 novels and four works of non-fiction.  He has been recognised for a Booklist Editors’ Choice, a Maria Thomas Award and was a finalist for the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Prize.  The interviewer is David Weber, who is Emeritus English Instructor at the Academy.

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Roland Merullo

Q: Does the act of writing allow you to enter a space where it’s only yourself you need to please?  Or do thoughts of agents, publishers, other writers, or readers enter in?

Merullo: I think you really have to work to keep agents, publishers and especially critics out of the room where you write.  At the same time, in order to improve, especially in the early going, you have to be open to criticism and suggestion, so it can be a tightrope sometimes.  I support my family only from my writing, so I can’t indulge myself and write a 2,000 page essay on the meaning of life, or golf, or learning to swim, or my love for my daughters.  But I’ve gotten pretty good at going into my interior room and mining my own truth, even if its eventually packaged in a way that will please publishers and bookstore owners.  Before I started on In Revere, In Those Days, I was well into another book, hundreds of pages, and it just felt false to me, as if I were writing to please  some outside critic and not from my center.  One night, I just said, “Screw this” out loud, put all that work aside and wrote 30 pages of In Revere in a couple of hours.  That felt right.

My comments: I agree that one needs to exclude external influences when one is writing, but that one has to be open to critiques at other times.  I, too, have scrapped whole sections of a novel that didn’t ‘feel right’.  I started over with what I felt was good and genuine.

Q: Do you think of writing as existing above all in its own realm, called art?  Or do you want your books to act in some way on the worlds of culture, politics, society – or even on the inner lives of readers?

Merullo: There is art to it, and art is essential to any healthy society, but I take a workmanlike approach to writing books.  It bothers me a great deal to hear writers talk about their work as if they have a special line to God or something, or as if it’s “torture” to face a blank page. People who value words should use that one more carefully.  Writing reminds me very much of carpentry, in both its methodical aspects and in the need to think ahead . . . though my body hurts less after writing a novel than it did after building a deck or a garage.  I’m all about the inner lives of readers, and the interior life in general – an area we tend to ignore as a society.  But I feel that for it to matter, the interior dimension should be linked to our outer lives, to things like politics, for example. . . .

My comments: I like the comparison of writing with carpentry, and I agree that both require methodology and planning.  I’m surprised by his comment, below, that he doesn’t outline.  To me an outline is essential to avoid the unnecessary and to include the essential, just as a carpenter’s drawing assures that the project will be completed as envisioned.  I sometimes feel that I have a muse – some external influence – because, occasionally, I will suddenly think, after I’ve written something: “Where did that come from?  That was brilliant!  I could never have thought of that!” I doubt that it was God, but maybe The Presence spoke up.

Q: By this time do you write intuitively, having internalised the skills you needed?  Or does technique remain a conscious focus?

Merullo: I write almost completely intuitively.  Early on, I’d study the work of other writers, but I’m not particularly analytical or scholarly.  I don’t outline, try not to over analyse.  When I taught in college – 10 years at Bennington and Amherst – it wasn’t especially enjoyable for me to analyse the great works of literary art, to break them down into pieces, and try to explain why they were so good.  Some of that is a teacher’s job, of course, necessary and good, but to me it was too often like eating a delicious piece of pie and having to sit there and talk about the ingredients in elaborate detail.  I just wanted to eat the pie.  And now I just want to bake the pie.  My feeling is that if you go down deep into yourself – beyond the purely intellectual level – you can maybe write something that reaches down deep inside the reader; you can connect with them in the most profound way.  I think about technique very little now.

My comments: I write pretty intuitively, but as I review what I’ve written, I think about details: technique.  I think his comment about reaching down deep inside yourself and thereby being able to reach something deep inside the reader is tremendously important.  I just wish I could do it more often!

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