Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jonathan Lethem, Part Two

In my last post I tried to relay all the wisdom Jonathan Lethem imparted during his time at Butler. Since then, though, more bits of Lethem wisdom have floated back into my consciousness and I realize that because he was so generous in sharing his thoughts about his writing process, and about writing in general, there is much more to tell.

So here's part two:

When a student asked Lethem what authors have influenced him, he reported that, depending on what he's writing, a wide selection of authors inform his work. Still, he gave us a short list of the authors that became what he called structural influences, impacting everything he writes: Lewis Carroll, Shirley Jackson, Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler.

Lethem said he first aspired to the writing life as a boy. He said he had always been enthralled by books, but it wasn't until he read "Alice in Wonderland" that he had the sense that an author's hand was responsible for structuring the words on the page. He added that it wasn't long after that he developed an awareness of what constituted good writing -- and what didn't. He used "The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories" series as an example of the type of books he read that were predictable and formulaic, and lost the surprise and mystery he craved. Lethem said his goal as a writer now is to constantly challenge himself by exploring the uncertainty in the world, in an effort to find the surprise in a story.

Lethem then spoke about writing in general, saying that it is an intellectual pursuit that organizes one's thinking and increases one's understanding of the world, adding that writing is a game for the tortoise, not the hare. He compared writing to athletics, saying that the practice of training every day is common to both pursuits.

He discussed the genesis of the Tourettes suffering protagonist in "Motherless Brooklyn," and in doing so delved even deeper into the meaning writing holds for him. The idea of a character with Tourettes syndrome came from reading one of Oliver Sacks case studies. The man in the case study was a brain surgeon whose flagrant symptoms subsided only when he operated. When pondering the contrast between the chaos and the focus in the surgeon's head, Lethem saw a comparison in his writing. He imagined his own brain as a generator of a random boil of ideas that becomes focused when he writes. The disparity between the wild chaos and single-mindedness in the brain surgeon's mind echoed Lethem's view of his writing process. Further riffing on this theme, Lethem then saw his bustling, brash hometown of Brooklyn as "having Tourettes." Painting this line of thought broadly, Lethem said that, like Tourettes symptoms, the "wrongness" and bullshit that are generated in his own mind are what is golden to writing.

All this, of course, culminated in Lethem's welling up when he spoke of those moments of connection, when an author experiences readers "getting" the work. This is the moment that stuck. It's rare thing to find someone brave enough to peel back the artifice, reminding us that at the most fundamental level, the essence of the impulse to put pen to paper is the basic desire to connect.

Oh, one last thing. Lethem has an awesome website, offering free stories and song lyrics for others to develop. Check it out at

In two weeks Elmore Leonard is scheduled to read at Butler, but until then, more book reviews!

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