Getting to know how a writer thinks

In February my husband and I spent a month in Tucson, Arizona where I had been asked to give a speech to a philanthropic organisation on the topic of “Getting to know how a writer thinks”.

I admit I was perplexed by the title.

Frankly, I’d never thought about how a writer thinks – but was happy to rise to the challenge.

I rapidly concluded that the best approach would be to tell the audience about what and how ONE writer thinks.

I was off the hook!

First of all, I described my writing background. It goes way back to scribbling stories as a child, writing for the high school newspaper which was published in the town paper (first byline!) to majoring in English at the University of Michigan and getting an M.S. J. at the Medill School of journalism, Northwestern. Journalists don’t need masters’ degrees to write, but I must say that had I not had the good fortune to attend Medill, I never would have had the sheer discipline required to meet deadlines nor skill at turning out stories people would want to read, stories that were carefully structured, grammatically correct with no spelling mistakes, factually correct and reader-friendly (i.e., not boring).

As a freelance journalist in Paris, I had great gigs, ranging from reporting on business and culture for the International Herald Tribune (now International New York Times) to stringing for the Paris bureau of Time magazine, writing everything from obituaries to articles on strikes at French automobile factories to the coming of Eurodisneyland and the building of the Pei Pyramid. My favourite job was with a glossy publication called France Discovery Guide whose editors every year for about ten years sent out a bevy of reporters and photographers to cover specific regions of France. I calculated that I covered all 22 of those regions except Corsica and in doing so learned more about the food and drink and scenery of my adopted country than I ever would have from a book.

I loved journalism and the opportunity it gave to get into people’s lives, have different experiences, learn new things. But after freelancing for many years, I decided it was time to turn the page (pardon the pun).

I had often heard that writers write because they have to. They have something that they NEED to say. That was my case with my first book, French Toast. I wanted to tell the world (and especially my Mom) just exactly what it was like to live permanently in a foreign country literally “embedded” with a foreign husband, how it was different from being a tourist who can always go back home. In spite of fluent French and apparent assimilation, I kept running into situations and reactions I didn’t understand. I made a list of them and told my story using “I”. After all, it was my life and my book, n’est-ce-pas?

As for the matter of how I was thinking about that first book: I think writers need inspiration and I found mine in a serious and weighty book called Invisible Differences by Raymonde Carroll, a French woman living in the States where she observed and analysed specific Franco-American cultural differences from friendship to telephone behaviour. I loved everything she said – but vowed that if I wrote my own book I’d have some fun with it. Then, completely by accident, I came across Domestic Manners of the Americans, a book written in 1832 by Frances Trollope, the mother of the famous English writer Anthony Trollope. In it, she related anecdotes about the manners of the (mostly) uncouth Americans she met during a little tour of the New World. This frank and funny and no holds barred tome became an instant bestseller in its day – and the model for what I wanted to do in the book that would become French Toast. I wanted my book to be personal, light-hearted and informative. And that guided my approach to French Fried and Joie de Vivre, the two that followed it.

I could have spoken for several hours about the thought process that went into those three books but time was whizzing by. I decided instead to proffer a few generalizations about writing and writers. Some writers might agree: others might not. Once again, these are the observations of ONE writer – me.

  • A writer is neurotic (the ladies laughed rather nervously at this one). She is unhappy or at the least unsettled when not writing and when writing not too pleased about shutting herself off from friends and family.
  • A writer is alone. Why? She needs to do her job! Many friends wanted to join me on my annual reporting in the provinces gig in France. I mean, who would turn down an opportunity to travel down the wine road in Alsace or taste wine in Burgundy? As much as I love company, I had to say “no”. I would have spent my time chatting and laughing rather than finding and interviewing locals, dodging in and out of centuries old churches, checking out this intriguing monument or that hidden garden, giving myself the downtime to stumble on a totally unexpected someone or something that might give flavour to the story.
  • A writer is disciplined – or not. Sadly, I’m not. When I get into my subject, I can write for hours. But I’m not one of these people who gets up at dawn and writes until lunchtime, takes a break and goes back to it in the end of the afternoon. Oh how I would love to be like that. I guess I do have a certain kind of discipline but it certainly could be improved.
  • A writer writes for someone, maybe herself, maybe her mom, maybe a former teacher or even someone she wants to get even with (not all motives are noble).
  • A writer needs time to dream, invent, plan and work on her project.
  • A writer needs devotion to the task at hand.
  • For – and in this age of fast communication where few re-read what they write, leaving sloppy errors and fake facts behind them – real writing, good writing is just that – a task.

You never get used to how hard writing is, actually. After three nonfiction books, I set out to write a historical novel based on a true story. The action takes place in Paris and southwestern France during World War II; the protagonist is an ordinary woman in extraordinary times whose fate is sealed by her carefree nature and willful ignorance of political realities. I knew my character who became more real by the minute and I knew the area I was writing about. I did the research to find out about what I didn’t know about political tensions during that frightening period called the “Ă©puration” or purification. It took me years and years and tens of drafts before I finally finished. The book, which will be published in 2019, was a long haul and a magnificent learning experience. I can only hope that my readers will enjoy the result of all the hard work that went into it.

But I digress: what and how does this writer think right now? That it’s time to finish this article and time to give neophytes a little advice: write your heart out if that’s your wish. Don’t think of publication. Just think of what you’ve got to say, what’s important for you to get out of our system. Think of your craft. Do your best. The rest will take care of itself.

10 thoughts on “Getting to know how a writer thinks

  1. Janet Hulstrand

    This is wonderful, Harriet! Thank you for speaking for many of us. I think that actually was quite a wonderful title for a talk, no? Nice to know that someone cares “how writers think” 🙂

    Reply
    1. harriet.welty Post author

      Thanks, Janet. Yes, it was a thought provoking “open” title. I enjoyed thinking about the subject, preparing and delivering talk. And totally agree with you that it’s nice to know that someone actually cares “how writers think”!

      Reply
  2. Patsy

    Interesting reading, Harriet. And good luck on the success of your new book coming out this year?
    Hope to see you for a coffee visit when spring comes to Paris.

    Reply
    1. harriet.welty Post author

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Patsy. Will make an announcement when the book comes out. I look forward to a coffee visit come spring.

      Reply
  3. Chuck Offenburger

    Bonjour, Harriet! Your reflections about writing are just excellent, and I’m excited to hear your novel is publishing soon. As I was reading your quick outline here of your career, and then thinking about your life, I really think the time has come for you to do a full-blown autobiography, or call it a memoir if you want. Your experiences growing up in one country & culture and then spending the rest of your life in another, are fascinating. You need to do full-blown profiles and reflections of the people who’ve been important in your life, how ex-patriate living has changed as the world has shrunk (sheesh, is “shrunk” really a word?), how France & America have changed (especially rural vs. urban), a good chat about writing with your novelist son, your view of what the future holds, and more. You’ve seen so much, you’ve got to have lots more to say!

    Reply
    1. harriet.welty Post author

      Bonjour Chuck, you should be my impresario! Seriously, I’ve been sitting around thinking about ideas for a next project and am happy to have your ideas. Here’s a story for you: I gave my first draft of French Toast to an esteemed editor friend who kindly took a look and then said the following: “Harriet, you are funny but your book isn’t. Just relax and tell people about your life – your way.” I replied that no one knew or cared about little old me and he insisted that it was important to be “me” in my writing. I went back to the drawing board and came up with French Toast whose success and longevity proved him right. In the current instance, I can’t see anyone caring about a full-blown memoir by “me” but it’s true that I’ve seen a lot and have lots to say. Too bad you’re not here – we could repair to a cafĂ© and brainstorm over an espresso! I’ll definitely put your suggestion in my “ideas file”. Merci!

      Reply

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