Michael Cunningham on writing

I have been making my way through Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share Their Thoughts on the Creative Process, by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman. The book is one-third writing text and two-thirds author interviews. It’s a useful book, if only for the interviews. (I haven’t read all of the fiction writing how-to section yet – what I did read I felt would be good for an intro course on novel writing. It’s drier and less inspirational than other writing how-to books I’ve encountered, yet provides the basics.)

I love reading author interviews and getting glimpses of how writers’ minds work, how they worked on their books, and learning about mistakes they made. Aside from (hopefully) learning a little bit from their experience, it’s nice to be reminded that authors are human, that they struggled with their writing as much as I do. If the interview is with an author whose work I have not read, I am sometimes inspired to go out and pick up their work. Such is the case with an interview with Michael Cunningham that’s in this collection. I am probably the only member of a bookclub who hasn’t read The Hours — and after reading this conversation with him, I’ve put it at the top of my reading list for the new year. I’m intrigued by the fractured narratives he seems to be drawn to – in that book and in some of his others. (I may or may not be writing such a novel myself. I can’t tell yet.) Some interesting excerpts from the interview:

On developing characters:
“One of the things I’m always aware of … is the fact that any character in any novel I write, no how minor, is visiting this novel from a novel of his or her own.” Every character is part of some “really gripping novel” that’s not written yet, Cunningham says, and it’s important to keep that in mind as that character develops in the novel at hand.

On MFA programs:
“I think MFA programs, though they can do harm as well as good, are great. It’s not like there’s anything else out there for young writers. … MFA programs are sanctuaries, places where [writing is] taken properly seriously.” Cunningham talks about the camaraderie he felt at Iowa — though he suggests that Iowa is certainly not the reason for his success and that it wasn’t always a positive experience.

On writing novels

I think one of the reasons this interview resonated with me so much, more so than the others in this book, is that Cunningham’s responses felt honest and open. (One of the authors interviewed in this collection seemed to be trying to create the image that he never hits stumbling blocks while writing his books, for example.) Of writing The Hours Cunningham said, “Of the books I’ve written, it was the one that felt most often and obdurately like it was just nothing, like it wasn’t going anywhere. It was just pieces, and they weren’t going to add up.”

I just appreciate knowing that, in the way that I appreciate knowing the story behind Junot Diaz’s Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We all have days in which our writing seems stuck or awful, and days in which we wonder if this is the right career for us, and it’s nice to be reminded that we are not alone in that.

Cunningham wrapped up the interview with this:

“I think we spend our lives learning how to write novels, and die still learning. A writer’s body of work is really a chronicle of his or her long attempt to learn how to write, by writing.”


One thought on “Michael Cunningham on writing

  1. I’m happy to read something positive about MFA programs since I’ll probably still be paying off my loans for another ten years! I feel like there are so many negative comments out there about them – that they’re only worthwhile if you want to teach, for example. Sigh.

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