Advice

Scholars Talk Writing: Jay Parini

'You have to write a lot to get better at writing,' so 'don’t stop'

May 23, 2016

Jay Parini
L ongtime readers of The Chronicle who have never met him are nonetheless likely to think of Jay Parini as an old friend: He’s been contributing lovely personal and critical pieces to this publication for decades. I remember reading his 1990 essay about writing in restaurants. It appeared just after his novel The Last Station was published and just before it was translated into a zillion languages and made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as his wife. Parini’s been on the English faculty of Middlebury College since 1982, and his literary and scholarly output has been as distinguished and wide-ranging as it is prodigious.

You seem to be able to write everything — poetry, fiction, biography, journalism — and do it all well. Can you talk about how the creative work feeds the scholarly stuff?

Parini: I’ve tried not to make too many generic distinctions — on the assumption that it’s all writing, and that in whatever form or genre I write, I am using language that I believe in, that comes from my own sense of the world. I have written "scholarly" stuff from the day I entered grad school — in 1970! I have always liked writing and reading criticism, and I still keep a hand in this work. But I have a natural disinclination toward professionalism, at least to a degree.

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

I really do think young scholars limit themselves by writing articles and books that are meant only for their grad-school professors or, once they have a job, for their tenure committees. Criticism must be conversation, and it must take place in the broadest arena. There really is no excuse for tedious jargon. I don’t buy that it makes the work any better. Almost any jargon can be translated easily into standard English.

And there is no excuse for writing badly. I always encourage younger colleagues to write something for a general intelligent well-educated reader. That limits the scope enough! I would also suggest that writing in different genres can help anyone write with more energy and vision and scope. Memoir is always available.

Much of the best criticism now being written is highly personal: the reader in the work, responding. I wish more critics/scholars would try a hand at poetry and fiction, or drama. Biography has been an obsession of mine, partly because it’s the one genre where I can write criticism that is readable and useful, and it’s another place to practice the art of narration.

Who were your mentors and what did they do for you?

Parini: I had many many. Some were not famous, such as grad-school teachers and colleagues. Some were — Alastair Reid, Robert Penn Warren, Gore Vidal. I always sought out mentors, and this has helped me to become one. I try to help younger colleagues, younger writers, whenever I can: an obligation and joy.

I was helped so often, so lavishly. I try to do the same. I think of literature as conversation, so I’m always in touch with the writers I love: Frost and Eliot, Stevens, and many other poets. I think of Tolstoy as someone in the room with me, watching me work.

As a younger professor and writer, I would run ideas by my mentors — ideas for books, ideas for courses to teach. I would ask for editing help when I could. I often talk to younger colleagues about their careers, about the shape of their work, the directions of their scholarship. I love doing that. It’s part of the fun of the profession. I often suggest particular editors or agents — when it seems appropriate. I have worked with a lot of university presses and commercial presses, so I have a fairly good sense of what works, so I think I offer some good advice. In any case, I hope so.

When do you carve out time to write?

Parini: I’ve been a full-time teacher for 41 years. Still am, at 68 years old. I find that I really get more done during the term, when not on sabbatical. I like the structure of the teaching week. I like moving back and forth between the classroom and the writing desk. Reading for class keeps me reading strenuously. The classroom discussions keep my brain alight. I never work "hard." I’m not a machine. I just work steadily, staying alert to what lies before me. I find that leisure is hugely important, so I still play basketball at lunchtime. I’ve done this for four decades. I don’t waste a lot of time, I suppose. Hate TV. So my evenings are for reading.

How do you approach the big nonfiction books, like biographies?

Parini: I approach biographies in this way: I first read the work of the author carefully. It’s usually a case of rereading. I read a bunch of the criticism, other biographies. Then usually I close my eyes and write a version of biography, just touching the obvious main points. Then I do library research.

Sometimes I’ve been interviewing people all along, as with Gore Vidal: Thirty years of interviewing people when I had a chance. I talked to Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, etc., in the late 80s, early 90s. I did a lot of interviews for the Vidal book in the 90s and only a couple of years before I wrote the final draft of the biography. I always keep notebooks and diaries, and I used a lot of that material there. The final version is a kind of amalgam of many texts, strands, and stray bits and pieces.

Frost and Vidal took me decades — but I always worked on them now and then. I try to write poems when I can. And novels. These come more quickly.

What are your strategies for revision?

Parini: I’m not a great strategist when it comes to revision. I write a draft of a book, let it sit, then reread. I send it to friends. My wife reads everything and makes comments. I have editors who do the same. And my agent always reads everything and makes suggestions. With Frost and Faulkner and Vidal, I sent the book to friends or acquaintances who knew the material very very well. They would often very generously give me feedback.

With Faulkner in particular I was nervous that critics would pounce on me, so I sent it to several top-notch scholars who were very astute readers and gave me lots of suggestions and criticisms.

With poems, I rarely show anyone what I’ve done anymore. I revise them myself, writing them over and over. Novels I show to my editor and my wife, maybe a friend or two. I am lucky that I have a small but generous handful of friends who are also writers, and they read my work and I read theirs.

What kinds of experiences have you had with publishers?

Parini: Over the years I’ve probably worked with dozens of publishers. I’ve edited many books: The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, The Norton Book of American Autobiography, The Columbia Anthology of American Poetry — perhaps a dozen books in the Bread Loaf series. I’ve edited perhaps 25 volumes for Scribners — in two different series that they publish. I’ve published books with Yale University Press, Columbia University Press, Oxford University Press, etc. I’ve worked with Random House, Holt, HarperCollins, and Doubleday — among other commercial presses. I just published my New and Collected Poems, 1975-2015, with Beacon Press.

What does all of this mean?

It just means that different projects suit different kinds of presses, and I’ve been flexible and also attentive to what works and where. I’ve usually had very good relations with my editors. They often become friends, and I like to have warm relationships with editors. Now and then it was obvious that a particular editor and I didn’t quite see eye-to-eye, so I moved on. But for the most part, I’ve stayed with the same editor for multiple books over a long stretch of time. I would recommend that.

Advice for academics about writing?

Parini: Everyone is different, so no single approach will fit all. But I know a few things.

One: Don’t stop. You have to write a lot to get better at writing. If you find that your inner critic is making it hard to write, if you’re a perfectionist, lower your standards. Write badly if you must. You can always revise, making the sentences better, the paragraphs more coherent, the whole tighter and stronger.

Write every day. If you must, get up early — I tend to get up very early and start early. An hour each day is enough. John Updike once told me that he wrote at least two pages a day. He pointed out that this gave him a minimum of 600-plus pages a year. That’s a lot of writing to work with, revise, edit.

The real work of writing, the fun work, is rewriting. So don’t be fussy. Write, revise, and write some more. And don’t hesitate to use those weird little gaps in the day. I often have huge luck with a spare 20 minutes.

And don’t fuss. Don’t think you have to be at your desk in a quiet place. That’s nice if you can get it. But I’ve learned the hard way — raising three kids with my wife, being very busy as a teacher — that you can’t let chaos ruin a good hour of writing. I can usually find a good hour, somewhere, in my day. Often between 6 to 7 in the morning — before the noise begins.

It’s my probably superstitious belief that if you stick to your writing, it will stick to you.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.