How I write: Anthony Swofford
Published: September 26, 2003
|The American literature of war is a fine, sturdy tradition, with names like Crane, Hemingway, Mailer, Heller, Vonnegut, O'Brien, Caputo. Some critics would add to that list Anthony Swofford, author of the bestselling Jarhead, his profane, painfully honest memoir of his training and service as a Marine sniper in the 1991 Gulf War. Writing in The New York Times, Mark Bowden, author of the combat classic Blackhawk Down, said Jarhead "will go down with the best books ever written about military life." Swofford, 33, memorably captures the ambivalence of a young Marine at war and the weird, violent poetry of combat. "The [incoming artillery] rounds explode beautifully, and the desert opens like a flower, a flower of sand ...," he writes. "I've pissed my pants, but only a small, dark marker the shape of a third world country on my trousers." Swofford studied at the University of California-Davis and Iowa Writers' Workshop. A resident of Oakland, Calif., he teaches at Saint Mary's College, writes a column for Details and is at work on a novel. |
I was never good at anything else. And I am foolish and believe that while writing I am a better person than when I am not, and that I have something to offer the world. It is also a feeble attempt at scratching my name onto the windowpane of history, something I couldn't accomplish as an out-of-balance bank teller, though I tried.
I move between a pen and yellow legal pad and a laptop for new writing. I use 4x6 index cards as an ordering device, to sketch scenes and characters and to keep track of events.
I revise as I write, often going through a day's work at the end, but I, of course, complete full revisions of the text as well. The Jarhead manuscript went through five full revisions.
I usually start at 2 or 3 in the afternoon and go until I am finished. Sometimes this is at 7 or 8 p.m., sometimes 3 or 4 a.m. I never know how a day will develop. I know most of the day will consist of failure.
On honest writing:
All works of value are honest. I knew that without honesty, I would not have a book but rather an unfinished manuscript that would become a doorstop.
I suggest that developing writers try to understand what they're hiding from, because all writers are hiding from some or many things, and that they exploit that fear. Through exploitation, they will discover honesty.
|Finding his way:|
Structure and voice are mysteries for me. And I like it this way. They are organic to each piece of writing and must be found the old-fashioned way ... blindly stumbling down dark alleys of prose.
Memoir vs. novel:
Moving from memoir to a novel allows me a freedom of imagination that the real-life events of the memoir didn't. With Jarhead I had to choose which events to narrate, and how, and now I must create those events from character, plot, the philosophy and themes of the book. And there is still the most important question: How will I write this book?
Writing a novel is challenging and satisfying in the same way that writing my memoir was, in that it is hard work, lots of failure. And I look forward to the moment during revision when the book will come together for me, when, like a juggler with 50 balls in the air, I will be the writer with 50 chapters in the air, all of them inflated to the proper pressure, all of them with bounce and turn and wiggle, and I will know my book like I never had before, and like no one else ever will.
Read widely and carefully and take risks with your writing. Create problems for yourself on the page ... your solutions will reveal the work.
--Posted Sept. 26, 2003