This month’s issue features a conversation with Matthew Algeo, whose latest historical narrative, The President is a Sick Man, tells the story of a secret surgery performed on Grover Cleveland. This is Algeo’s third book, and in his interview he expressed his belief that writing narrative non-fiction is really not that complicated. As he put it, the writer’s main job is to simply find a good story. After that, he or she need only piece the story together in some intelligent way. What’s more, he went on to say, non-fiction writers don’t even need to write the book to sell it; all they need is a good proposal. I admired his point of view. It is easy to glorify what we do, particularly when what we are doing consumes so much of our time. If it is strenuous, if it is a mountain to be climbed, how much more virtuous that we are committing dark and lonely hour after dark and lonely hour to it. While tales of a writer’s heroic journey can make for passable dinner conversation (maybe) and definitely good interview material, there is something to be said for keeping it simple in our own minds.
Tracy Kidder, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for The Soul of the New Machine, had trouble talking about his methods. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s what I do.” This is a frustrating answer for an interviewer, but as a writer, I understood his point. For all the writing about writing I do in this space, the truth is my writing method is to meditate on what I most want to say and then find the most accurate way to say it. Pretty simple.
In my own work, what might appear complicated to a reader—if I, say, tie together two seemingly disparate ideas—is usually a product of patience. Often, the most surprising and lovely stuff comes from doing nothing but waiting for my attention to sink below where I have been before, what I have heard before. When I am looking for that kernel of thought pulsing at the root of what interests me, I must do so with the faith that what I am seeking is simple, as simple as I—a single soul on the lookout for the next interesting thought.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.