By Andrew DiPrinzio, Co-Editor, Craft Essays
Peter Nichols is a phenomenal writing teacher, and I am privileged to have studied with him this past semester at Fairfield University. In the interview that follows, Peter cites a poem he believes all young writers should read—“For the Young Who Want To” by Margery Piercy. The first stanza says talent is a label you receive after your novel is favorably reviewed, but the true work, “the tedious delusion” of writing is what makes a writer a writer. In conversations with Peter, it is clear he loves the tedious delusion. To Peter, writing is a never-ending process, and no writer, even the most celebrated, ever arrives. He was kind enough to share some of his journey with us at Mason’s Road.
One of your nonfiction books, A Voyage for Madmen, tells the story of the 1968 Golden Globe race around the world. You are a writer and a sailor—I’m curious what, if any, similarities do you see between the craft of writing and the craft of sailing?
Good question. I’ve thought about this. Sailing—that is, crossing an ocean, as I’ve done (several times), as opposed to racing in Long Island Sound for an afternoon—is a long, slow business. You travel, on average, at little more than a walking pace sometimes, and you have thousands of miles to go. The mind reels when you look at the chart—the nautical map—of where you’re trying to get to, and you have to wrap your mind around the enormity of a project that you will accomplish only by persevering, day after day, at a snail’s pace. That’s also, as you can see, a good description of writing a book. In each case, too, you have to master a craft in order not to sink or grind to a halt. And for both efforts, you are scared; it will seem daunting and impossible; and then you need some kind of crazy faith in yourself to overcome that fear. So sailing tens of thousands of ocean miles before I turned seriously to writing was, in fact, wonderful training for me as a writer. It gave me confidence that I could do what others have done, no matter how hard and long it seemed. To get to the other side, you simply have to not give up.
Are you prouder after you finish a solo sail across an ocean or after you complete a book?
Infinitely prouder of finishing a book. It’s much harder. Lots of idiots cross oceans.
When did you find in yourself a love for writing and how did you know it was love?
Sailing, again, is a perfect metaphor here. Many people were drawn to the idea—the idea— of sailing around the world, but not all of them loved the doing of it, what it required of them in body and soul, once they’d set out. Some hated it. Some were overcome with fear and lack of faith, and they decided that completing the dream wasn’t enough to keep them going. Those who had any success at it loved the voyage, the day to day work in keeping a boat moving forward, as much as, or even more than, the end result. Many, many people are drawn to writing, to the idea of writing a novel or a book of short stories. This takes years of work before acquiring the necessary craft and confidence. What keeps them going must be a love of what they’re doing. But for most, for a long time, you may get nowhere. For me, writing was just like sailing: at first I was bad at it, but then I thought I could do better, and it became something I felt I wanted do, more than anything else. So I kept going.
You’ve mentioned that you think of yourself as a movie director. If you couldn’t write, is that the artistic career you would pursue? Or is there another?
I would love to have been a movie director. I lived in Los Angeles for a number of years and wrote screenplays (none produced but I was remunerated), and very much wanted to direct what I wrote. I didn’t see how anyone but the screenwriter could direct what he/she wrote. Clearly I was out of step with the program. I might have made it eventually, but once I published my first book—saw it actually become something instead of being drowned in a series of lunches and meetings—I kept writing books and gave up on Hollywood. They haven’t missed me.
As a speaker at Fairfield last summer, you shared that a few years ago you joined Antioch University as an MFA student. By that point you were already a well-established author. As a new writer hearing that, I was both inspired because it made me see that struggling to write is universal to all writers at any phase of their career, but also slightly jarred at the thought that it doesn’t get easier. What helps you the most when you’re stuck? Why was your time as a student so helpful?
It doesn’t get easier. Crossing an ocean in a small leaky boat is still a good metaphor. The ocean still has to be crossed, it still has perils, you can’t be sure you’ll make it. You may have more confidence—you say to yourself, (a little desperately): “I’ve done this before so I must be able to do it again.” I’ve said that to myself at the beginning of every book. You also get more ambitious. You want to write something bigger, better, deeper, but life still crowds in to thwart you. Everything in life—money, relationships, health, self-confidence—conspires against the peace and space you need to write. One of my favorite quotes from a writer is this from William Faulkner (something like this): “Writing a novel is like a one-armed carpenter trying to build a chicken coop in a hurricane.” It’s exactly like that. If you’ve done it once, you may have some idea of what’s coming, but the hurricane will always be different, and you will be trying to build a new design of chicken coop. Nothing pops out easily. Failure is always sitting beside you, an insatiable, salivating specter,ready to devour you. I went back to school for my MFA because I was stale as a writer, and not writing what I wanted to write, without knowing exactly what that was. I needed help, inspiration, safety, and mentors who were neither friends nor family but professionals who would be able to see and help me understand what I was trying to do. When I get stuck I go for a long walk. I take a long walk every day to let my work sort itself out in my head. This is different from exercise. I’ve been a runner for many years, but the long contemplative walk is now a major part of my working process.
What is your philosophy of creative writing education and did becoming a student again change your teaching style?
My philosophy about teaching creative writing is very simply to encourage writers, to tell them to keep going. Becoming a student again in middle age only reinforced this. Some teachers can be very insensitive to writing students, very lofty and hard on them. That can hurt, especially when you’re young. I wrote in a fitful, groping way for years, yet I felt I was a writer long before I was able to produce anything worth publishing. I was often discouraged, in real despair about my career (and life—they go together) but I couldn’t imagine doing anything different, and I couldn’t give up. Many people—many talented writers—do, however, get so discouraged that they give up. They get that ‘real job’ because everyone else one the world is working at something and making money and getting ahead and having families, living a ‘normal’ life. It’s very difficult to be an unsuccessful writer who keeps writing. Very hard on relationships. Writers are marginal characters anyway in society; unsuccessful writers are viewed very dismally by people living ‘normal’ lives. There’s a wonderful poem about exactly this by Marge Piercy, titled, “For the Young Who Want To.” Every student writer should read it. I didn’t start writing my first published book until I was forty-five. It was hard to get there, and I only made it by not giving up. So my whole approach is to encourage students and tell them, “Yes you can—but only if you don’t stop.” I think anyone who tries to write seriously for several decades and doesn’t give up will publish something worthwhile and even make some money doing so. What they need is encouragement. And a lunatic self-belief.
If you could pick the top five or three or even just one book, fiction or nonfiction, that most shaped your view of what great literature is/does, which books would you pick?
Ah, the best or most influential book(s) question. My view of great literature is that it’s what takes the reader entirely away into another world, and this depends a lot on the sensibility of the reader. Like the Emily Dickinson line: “There is no frigate like a book, To take us lands away.” We are shaped greatly by the books we read as children—for me Jules Verne, Dickens, stories of adventure and exploration. As an adult, I’ve been most influenced by old-fashioned novels: The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, books by Proust, Flaubert, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Henry James, Nevil Shute (a now entirely forgotten author), Bernard Malamud, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter. And great nonfiction books of travel and exploration: at the top of this nonfiction list I’d put Scott and Amundsen (The Last Place on Earth is the American title) by Roland Huntford, one of the greatest books I’ve ever read (about the race to be the first to reach the South Pole, and in the telling a story of the whole world of human endeavor), The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin—the 19th century equivalent of the voyages of the Starship Enterprise (and which caused me to write a book about the captain of the Beagle)—and many sailing narratives by people who have sailed, often alone, almost always broke and in small leaking boats, to distant parts of the world. These were all immensely influential for me. I read very little modern fiction—I’ve tried, mainly I don’t like it—although I loved the recent Patrick Melrose series of novels by English novelist Edward St Aubyn, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. And the short stories of the late Chilean writer Roberto Belaño. What did I learn from them? A version of life, of the life I wanted to lead, how to live, what to dream of.
I find your list interesting because I do see you as a Miniver Cheevy type, in that you seem to have a deep appreciation for the older ways of doing things. Even in A Voyage for Madmen you take some jabs at modern sailors who, with technology, have it easier. So it is not surprising to me that you are mostly influenced by older works. Is there a relationship between the quality of writing and the struggling that went into creating it? Or do you not like much modern fiction for a simpler reason?
I think all serious writing is a struggle and the quality varies because of the writer, not the struggle. I do look at modern fiction—say, beyond the 1970s— but, with exceptions, am not engaged by much of it. I haven’t read enough of it, don’t know enough, to make generalizations. I like much of the style of modern writing—we’ve learned some stuff after all, even beyond Hemingway who was hugely influential on style. I feel the same about movies, by the way. America produced some great movies up to and in the 1970s—the Godfathers, early Scorcese, early Woody Allen, movies like The Deer Hunter. Movie technique is superb now, but what great movies are being made?
Peter Nichols is the author of the international bestsellers A Voyage for Madmen (finalist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year), Evolution’s Captain, and three other books of fiction, memoir, and nonfiction, which have been translated into many languages. His nonfiction has been nominated for an American Pushcart Prize; his novel Voyage to the North Star was a Book Of The Month Club Main Selection and nominated for the Dublin IMPAC literary award. His novel The Rocks will be published by Heron Books/Quercus in 2014. He has taught creative writing at Georgetown University, NYU in Paris, Bowdoin College, and currently teaches at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Before turning to writing full time, Peter spent ten years at sea working as a professional yacht captain, during which time he sailed alone in a small leaky boat across the Atlantic, the subject of his first book, Sea Change. He has also worked as a screenwriter.