How I write: Chang rae Lee
Published: July 1, 2005
|It's surprising to hear Chang-rae Lee, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for his first novel, Native Speaker, describe writing as difficult. After all, he has his M.F.A. from the University of Oregon, teaches writing at Princeton, has won several prestigious writing awards, and was named one of the "Twenty Best Fiction Writers Under Forty" by The New Yorker. Still, he says, writing is challenging, and it takes him about three years to complete each book. It's encouraging to learn that "gorgeous prose and sharp-eyed metaphors" (Los Angeles Times) do not always come easily, even for acclaimed writers. Lee serves to remind us that anything worth doing is worth doing well, and a hearty dose of skepticism about your own work never hurts.|
Lee is currently at work on his fourth novel. He lives in Princeton, N.J., with his wife and their two daughters.
Why: I had a love for [writing], and once I started doing it, I realized how difficult it was. For me, it's really the all-encompassing challenge, all the time. Even now, writing this fourth book, I feel as though sometimes I can't do it. So it's always kind of exciting. Desperate. Like you maybe won't make it this time. That's attractive.
When: I write weekdays, and that's because I have young kids and a family, and the weekends just don't seem to work. When I'm finishing a project, I tend to work everyday during the day and at night too, to make a big push while I'm trying to finish the book. But normally it's during the weekdays, generally fairly regimented from the morning to mid-afternoon or so.
Output: I'd love to sit there and say, "I'd love to write 500 good words a day." For me, the focus is on good words, words that I like, and that I feel like I'm going to keep. That often doesn't happen. I think in the end I feel like if I've written a really good paragraph, that's a good goal, that's a realistic goal for a day's work.
Writing and revision: I try to [polish as I go] because what leads me to the next sentence is the sentence before. I find that it's hard to move on unless I've really understood what's happening, what comes before and where it's heading. I do try to work sentence by sentence rather than thinking in larger units.
... I have to throw away a lot. I find that I can't fix what I've written, there's nothing really wrong with it-it just doesn't fit. It's like a perfect triangle for a circular hole: It's nice on its own. That's the kind of revisions I do-taking out large chunks and starting again.
Writer's block: I think I have it every day ... but it's just the way I work. It feels like I'm always kind of pulling teeth, but I just keep going.
Obstacles: The biggest obstacle is the work itself. It's very difficult work, I think. It's so easy to write just competently. That's the easiest thing in the world, to write stuff that's OK. And because it's so easy, you sometimes do it. I think that's the hardest thing, to write really well.
Advice: I would say two things. My advice has always been to read the writers that you love over and over again, and try to figure out why you love them so much, whether it's their storytelling or their language or their sensibility or whatever it is-political passion-it can be anything. But I think you have to identify it. That's sometimes a good clue as to what you might want to write and what your voice might be.
The other thing is to be kind of stubborn about your writing and to be very critical of it. I know immediately if the younger and beginning writers I meet are not good writers because they tend to like their stuff. Most every professional writer I know is very critical of their material, even after it's published, even after it has won prizes, because they're constantly looking for other possibilities to push their form. So I would urge writers to be skeptical of what they do and to keep pushing. Not try for the easy mark.
--Posted July 1, 2005