I go over stuff that I’ve written, and sometimes I’m shocked by the pomposity, the stiffness, the plumminess. When I have that reaction, it means I wasn’t engaged. I was just throwing out a judgment, getting something over with. When I read stuff and it works, I don’t think, This is well done. I do have a great sense of event. I want to feel that writing something can open something for whoever is reading it. You don’t start with a judgment but rather with a feeling that something is going on here. That becomes an event in itself.
Sometimes, as you’re writing, you discover what you know. Sometimes you find out that you didn’t have a clue. The task for me is to make that into drama. I’m not very good at analyzing, but I like to dramatize. You open the door of a theater, and if you’re lucky, someone comes in. It speaks to them. It’s so far beyond suspension of belief, it’s suspension of identity. It’s like going to see a great production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night—you totally forget who you are and what you know.
In college, I never wrote a paper that wasn’t an all-nighter. I would clutch it in my hands, bring it in to class, feel absolutely heroic. I wrote a lot of Lipstick Traces in a state of ecstasy and delirium. I felt I was the first person to feel what was special about all this—that it was a wild horse, and I was riding it.
It goes back to Pauline Kael. When I read I Lost It at the Movies, I couldn’t believe how alive this person felt when she wrote it. I wanted to know how it felt to be engaged that way. In a way, I’ve yet to find out.
From The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, edited by Ben Yagoda, HarperCollins, 2004