Books

How Teaching Writing Makes Jonathan Lethem’s Own Writing Better

“It’s a conversation about what I care about.”

A middle aged white man with gray hair and a beard is wearing a flowery shirt.
Jonathan Lethem. Courtesy of Jonathan Lethem

On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with writer Jonathan Lethem, whose most recent novel, The Arrest, was published in November. They discussed Lethem’s creative process, how teaching has helped rather than hurt his writing, and his habit of seeking feedback on work in progress from writers he admires. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Butler: Do you have a regular writing practice? Are there particular rituals you do to get in the zone?

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Jonathan Lethem: I claim to have one, and that claim is very important, even though it doesn’t come true every day. The core of it is that I believe in the every day. When I’m writing a novel, adding something to it every day is for me the quintessence of practice. It might be four hours. It might be 20 minutes, but there’s something about contacting the project every day. It means that I’m thinking about it, even when I’m not thinking about it. When I’m sleeping, I’m solving problems semi-consciously. This is the center of it for me.

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And then secondary to that: Earlier is better, before the world has flooded in. After your first coffee. That’s been really helpful for me, when I can hold to it.

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You teach at Pomona College. How has that affected your writing process?

You know, there’s always a thing or several things that you’re doing that are not writing. So when I first began teaching, people would say to me: “Wow, that’s going to be a big change for you. Now you have to balance writing against teaching.” And I would always think, “Well, it was always balanced against things.” Often it was really centrifugal, it was journalism and lecturing or book touring or all kinds of other things that would be in the counterposition: writing and …

But teaching writing is a replenishing experience. It’s a conversation about what I care about. What I think and what I feel about what I’m doing changes, so this is a space where I can really detect that. I think I teach very differently now. I think I write differently now in certain ways. And that keeps it alive.

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You mentioned that you write a little differently now that you teach. Can you articulate what it was  that changed?

It would be misleading to make it sound like a shift or a watershed. It’s more a flow of continuous reflections, insights, destabilizations. It changes what I read. It changes what I know about people, because I’m in this conversation with really brilliant, younger people than myself. So it nicely disables some of my assumptions. It also disables some of my assumptions about what I write and what I revere in my reading and how it’s going to play, how it works. Things that I think are legible, you really notice it when suddenly the faces go blank, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s not part of the body of assumptions anymore. It’s just opaque. It doesn’t figure anymore.”

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So it’s healthy for my writing. I’m in my fourth decade of working on this weird esoteric thing of changing what I read and what I think about and what I see around me into stories and trying to make them into stories people would want to read and care about and enjoy, make my self-amusement into experiences for other people to undergo. That’s a really strange project, and it’s amazing it works even briefly.

To keep it going for so long is really daunting and also involves dumb luck. But I think being asked to teach and being in the conversation with people so much younger than myself and also with my academic colleagues who alter my assumptions and my framework has been really fortunate.

To listen to the full interview with Jonathan Lethem, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.

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