Stanford author explores the idiosyncratic process of writing

Stanford lecturer and author Hilton Obenzinger hosted a series of dialogues with writers at Stanford from 2002 to 2015, exploring the sometimes quirky ways in which writers approach their craft.

hands typing at a laptop computer

What are the tools, habits and tricks writers use to get their job done? Stanford scholar Hilton Obenzinger shares information he’s gathered since 2002 in a new book, How We Write.

Who knew that the renowned Stanford literary critic Terry Castle wrote the entire first draft of her dissertation in tiny handwriting on just seven sheets of legal-sized paper?

Or that the acclaimed author and Stanford professor Adam Johnson learned the craft of storytelling at a young age in part by rifling through his neighbors’ garbage cans for inspiration?

These are just two of the many remarkable findings of the “How I Write” project at Stanford. From 2002, Stanford scholar Hilton Obenzinger organized and hosted the series, which featured groundbreaking conversations with writers of all stripes from Stanford and beyond.

Obenzinger, a lecturer in American studies at Stanford, is a novelist, poet and critic, and he probed writers to share their writing process. More than two dozen of his conversations are available through the “How I Write” podcast, which is available free on iTunes.

In his new book, How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience, Obenzinger describes the trends and stark idiosyncrasies that define the writing experience.

“Writing, at its root, is writing, with a lot in common between different fields or genres,” said Obenzinger, who for years taught honors and advanced writing at the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking.

“People would ask me if I taught ‘creative writing’ and I would tell them I taught ‘uncreative writing’ to shake them up. All writing is creative, even if it’s not imaginative fiction or poetry. So I thought it would be good to find out from people who are experienced in different fields how they worked and how they wrote,” he said.

Finding out what works

As Obenzinger chronicles in his book, all writers, whether they are novelists, history professors or chemists, rely on surprising tools, habits and tricks to get their writing done.

“One of the most profound findings of this project is how much work it is, almost putting a seat belt on the writing chair in what the Japanese call ‘face-the-desk time,’ even if nothing gets done,” he said.

“So many writers have a worker’s attitudes and schedules, with so much effort and care going into the process; it’s a job, and ‘inspiration’ most often is not a factor. They find ways around issues such as blocks and self-questioning because they have to get the job done.”

In the “How I Write” conversations, brought together and analyzed in his book, Obenzinger wanted to ask simple yet fundamental questions that had not been asked of all sorts of writers.

“When did you start to write? Who inspired you? Do you have a method? Do you have a time and place you choose to write? How do you develop your style? How do you revise? These were some of my basic questions, and as the conversations progressed I was struck by how idiosyncratic a process it is, so many wildly different approaches,” Obenzinger noted.

Adam Johnson tells of how he approached storytelling: “I would go down in the alleys, I would open the trash cans behind people’s houses and try to figure out the families inside by the garbage they threw away.”

In this way, he learned that lives – and stories – could be pieced together through shards of information, helping to shape how he approaches writing today.

Playwright David Henry Hwang, who wrote the hit play M. Butterfly, always used to write in bed late at night, keeping a pad on his bedside table so that he could start writing in the “dream state” as soon as he woke up.

Even now that he has kids, he still maintains part of that trait.

“I still tend to prefer writing lying down. I like to write on yellow legal pads, I like to use a pen, and then I lie on my stomach on the floor or on the bed,” Hwang told Obenzinger. After his longhand version, he transcribes it to his computer, with the transcription process also becoming the first edit.

In another approach, physicist Leonard Susskind revises his writing tens of times when he writes for readers who are not scientists.

The first draft is in “journalese” – what he calls the esoteric science language of the journal – which he then revises in a process that takes reading aloud, conversation and time at his desk.

When he was writing about entropy, for example, he realized that his first version “was very boring.” As such, he estimates that he revised that description of entropy a hundred times before he finally found a way to explain the concept in an accessible way.

The value of writing and rhetoric

Writing styles can also change suddenly. Obenzinger writes in the book how the late philosopher Richard Rorty adopted a radically different writing style after reading his graduate school friend’s groundbreaking 1973 book, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry.

“It was like nothing he’d ever written before and like nothing anybody else had ever written, except maybe Nietzsche. I thought, ‘Geez, if Harold [Bloom] can do it, maybe I can do it too.’ So I loosened up a bit.”

In his book, Obenzinger also recalls his conversation with Stanford President John Hennessy, who is also a prominent computer scientist and entrepreneur, about the myths of writing in his college days.

“We had a notion that engineers had to know how to use slide rules or calculators or computers but not how to write really well. And that is the biggest falsehood you could possibly perpetrate on young people. I think writing and rhetoric are the two most valuable skills across any discipline in any field,” Hennessy said.

Why did Terry Castle produce a whole draft of a dissertation in tiny handwriting?

She couldn’t say, except that she came up with the idea because she wanted her work “to turn into something bigger than it appears to be,” that it would “exfoliate, take up more room and, like an atomic bomb, explode into something dramatic.”

Obenzinger hopes to have inspired an open dialogue about the writing process and experience, and already several versions of the conversations have taken place at universities and colleges in Michigan, Connecticut and Ireland, among other places.

“The idea of the ‘How I Write’ project is not copyrighted or trademarked, and I’m encouraging people to do something similar elsewhere,” Obenzinger said.

For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Media Contacts

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu