I recently listened to a great interview with author Salman Rushdie about creativity. I felt there were many parallels between his writing process and painting. He said the most difficult thing in writing is that the writing should not look difficult. This reminded me of Robert Henri’s advice about how painting should always look as if they were done with ease. Rushdie talked about how he tried to figure out why everyone hated his first book, which I felt was similar to keeping a bad painting and studying it to figure out why it is bad. My favorite part of the interview is Rushdie’s explanation about how publishing is similar to being naked in public. Below is an abbreviated transcript of the interview.
DESCRIBE YOUR WRITING PROCESS
I’ve always had told myself simply to treat it like a nine to five job. If you have a job, you just go and do it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re feeling good that day. If you’re a carpenter, you make your table. I don’t think that writers and creative artists can afford to wait for Julius to descend, or inspiration to descend. You have to just sit there and make yourself do it. That is a discipline that I really have developed. I can sit down at my desk every day and do my day’s work. I just do not give myself permission not to do it. And once your mind understands that it has no excuses, it’s remarkable how it begins to play along.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART ABOUT WRITING?
Bringing human beings to life on the page is a difficult thing. What’s most difficult about it is that it should not feel difficult to the reader– in order to create a living person on the page, which the reader and read and immediately recognize as that particular kind of living person– that’s really hard. The art that conceals art. A writer should have some interesting relationship with the English language, or whatever language they’re writing. That relationship changes over time. There are things that you do with language at one point in your life, and then you begin to feel that you’ve done that enough. You want to find new voices, new styles, new manners.
That constant wrestling match with the language is one of the best things about the job. I’m making it sound like it’s only hard work. It’s not. It’s actually the most enjoyable thing I could think of doing. I think that the moment at which I’m happiest in my life is when I’m writing a book, and I can feel that it’s working.
YOU SAID YOU DREAD PUBLISHING. WHY?
When you write, you fool yourself into thinking that what you’re doing is a private act, because you’re alone in a room. Nobody else is reading what you do. Three times it’s taken five years to write a book. All that time, it feels like something that is just privately yours, and nobody else’s. Then along comes publication. This thing that you thought of as a private act is actually an extremely public act. It’s very naked. People get to say what they think of you. It’s like I’m dressing in public.
YOUR FIRST BOOK WAS NOT WELL RECEIVED. WHAT MADE YOU KEEP AT IT?
One of the things that makes a writer a writer is that it’s something he really needs to do. It’s not just a choice of a job or a career. It really is in the old fashioned sense of a calling. It’s a vocation. Writing speaks to something very deep inside the person doing it. And it’s necessary. It’s necessary to the writer.
HOW DID YOU RESPOND TO CRITICISM?
Anybody who claims that they don’t care is probably lying. It was very upsetting. It was very shocking to me when my first book came out and was received unkindly. And very pleasing to me, by the way, that that book is still in print, and doing quite well, and that people seem to like it. You know, you lose the short game, but you win the long game sometimes.
But it was very shocking, and it was actually very helpful to me. Because what it did, after I got over the shock, was made me question, all over again, what I thought about writing and how to go about it. What did I think was wrong with that book? Never mind what the critics thought was wrong with it, what did I think was wrong with it. And it really made me go back and re-examine everything about my writing, and, if you like, start again in a different way.
You can read the full transcript or listen to the interview in its entirety here.