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William Finnegan: Writers on Writing

"If you can make that imaginative leap, which is much more difficult than it sounds, you can land in the zone where things are really getting across."

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William Finnegan
William Finnegan

William Finnegan is an award-winning author and journalist. His most recent book, the 2016 memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, won him the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, and his four other books and 30 years as a staff writer at The New Yorker have earned him numerous other honors and nominations, including the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism (twice) and the Edward M. Brecher Award. His other books include Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid, which the Times Book Review chose as one of the 10 best nonfiction books of 1986; Dateline Soweto; A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique; and Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?

To consider the reader, by which I mean imagining what it might be like to read this thing that I’m writing. I mean, that seems totally obvious, but writing is a two-way street – you’re writing for a reader. But actually in the loneliness and craziness of writing, it’s really easy to lose track of that. So if you can make that imaginative leap, which is much more difficult than it sounds, you can land in the zone where things are really getting across. Whereas, if you’re focused entirely on your topic, your story, it’s very easy to lose sight of what is obscure and what is tedious and what is self-indulgent, and that self-critical part is crucial to writing anything halfway decent.

And how has that helped you as a writer?

For me that realization that I had to think hard about a reader’s experience came really before I started publishing books. In fact, I doubt if I would ever have got a book published if I hadn’t started mastering that, at least a bit. I grew up in a literary moment, the ’60s and ’70s, that, at least in my corner of California, encouraged a certain solipsism, a certain kind of arrogant genius complex, that you had to say what you had to say, and figuring it out was the reader’s problem. Obviously, if I’d worked on newspapers and magazines and had editors as a kid, they would’ve probably knocked that out of me. But I didn’t. I just wrote thousands of pages of mainly fiction and called it great.

I was reminded…the other day, in fact, of how important to me it has been to be in workshops. I did an MFA, and I was terrible at workshops. I mean, I would try to be helpful as a reader of other people’s work, but when I presented my own stuff, people would say, “I don’t get it. This is so obscure.” My fiction was kind of avant-garde, I guess, and I was just completely unreceptive, and just said, “Well, you don’t get it because you’re stupid.” And I wouldn’t take criticism constructively at all. But it got to me over time and persuaded me subconsciously that I did need to start considering readers. And that slowly turned my ship toward professional writing.

—Gabriel Packard is the author of The Painted Ocean: A Novel published by Corsair, an imprint of Little, Brown

Originally Published