Loving the Process – Thinking about Writing with the Help of John Irving

Being in what is called the “writing-up-phase” of my project, I spend most of my days writing about what I or other people think or once thought. I feel, it’s time to pause for a moment and – instead – to spend some time with thinking about writing.

Towards the beginning of my project, I participated in a seminar on academic writing in English because after all, that’s what I do, trying to produce insightful and enjoyable texts using the English language. The seminar started with a mantra. “I am a writer. I am a writer.” the group of slightly embarrassed PhD students repeatedly mumbled into the void that was part of the hollow square seating arrangement and forcing us to awkwardly observe each other murmuring our newly found identities to ourselves. I remember my own astonishment in realizing this was actually true: I am a writer and if all goes well there will be a book in the not too distant future to prove it.* However, being a writer is not the first thing that comes to my mind when asked what I do all day. Undoubtedly, writing is an integral part of doing your PhD and rarely a day goes by during which I’m not engaged with some part of the writing process: making notes, drafting, re-phrasing, re-structuring, polishing…the list goes on. And so it comes as a surprise that we who spend most of our days engaged with words only rarely reflect on our own writing style – taking the art and opportunity of putting thoughts, notions, images and connections into phrasing of our own choice for granted. While from the experience of being a reader it is undoubtedly true: an article on the most interesting topic can turn into a dreadful read when drowned in academic jargon or when being clumsily structured. Eloquence alone won’t help if you’ve got nothing substantial to say either. Best case scenario: you have a compelling argument to make, an important insight to share and you can do so in a way people actually enjoy the read.

Luckily, writing ethnography gives you the freedom to experiment with different writing styles and voices, the ethnographic vignette being a most important stylistic and analytical tool. Vignettes are vivid portrayals of significant situations that are paradigmatic and illustrative of what the author wants to convey. In depicting details and capturing the atmosphere of situations in what Clifford Geertz termed “thick description”, stories are brought to life. However, these stories are not a figment of the ethnographer’s imagination but are based on fieldnotes, on observations the researcher made and noted into a journal while being ‘in the field’.

Still, there is great room for creativity. Choosing if you want to focus on a specific person and to relate her biography in detail or to rather concentrate on specific interactions you observed; determining where a story begins and where it ends, which information the reader needs and which details would be confusing and should rather be left out; deciding on the order of chapters, on protagonists and bystanders and when to introduce them. How will the book end? How does it start? How can you create dramaturgy making the reader want to continue reading and to discover more?

These questions clearly blur the line between academic and non-academic writing. John Irving – author of great novels like The Cider House Rules, Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp to name but a few – has always been a great source of inspiration to me when it comes to the writing process. Famous for writing massive 19th century style page-turners with intriguing developments, complex webs of relationships, and usually spanning over several lifetimes, there is a lot more than perseverance that we can learn from John Irving. Addressing the big topics of life – e.g. loss, family, the ambiguity of relations, the way our upbringing and experiences shape our (sexual) identity,  –  in Irving’s novels, fiction meets observation, each book taking him around 4 to 5 years to finish.

In the wonderful documentaries My Life in Fiction  (2005) and John Irving und wie er die Welt sieht (2012)**, the novelist allows us to catch a glimpse of his life in which writing is omnipresent. What has always amazed me is the level of rigour and structuredness that John Irving puts into the writing process. This is most likely the case because my own writing style is very different and often times, I only discover important aspects in the writing, the argument unfolding in the process. This also means that I usually cannot plan far ahead. Irving’s approach is very different and it offers important lessons. A little more structure, a little more architecture and planning ahead would definitely be beneficial for my own writing (and also for finishing one day). In the following, I will use quotes taken from either of the two documentaries in order to reflect on the writing process with the help of John Irving.

If you have had the pleasure to read one of Irving’s novels, you will have noticed his love for details, his thick descriptions of occupations, places and people that feed your imagination – be it logging, tattooing, urology, abortions, hotels, circuses, sex-work, organ building or what it is like to grow up on a dump in Mexico. It is this aspect of the writing process that brings Irving’s work very close to that of an ethnographer:

Research has more than one importance to me as a novelist. The more I have to learn about, the more I have to teach myself about walks of life and ways of life that I’ve not been personally exposed to, that’s another way of slowing yourself down. In addition to wanting to know the end of the story before I start, if there are these obstacles, such as what you have to learn about what was it like to be an obstetrician gynecologist in Maine in the 1930s? What was it like to be an Indian born physician now living in Canada with occasional return trips to India who’s a children’s orthopedic surgeon? Well, I have to learn those things and it’s going to take a while. I have to find the people to be my teachers. I have to go back to being a student. And I like that over the course of the 11 novels now, I like that moment of having to teach yourself something you don’t know about. Because, I believe that’s one of the pleasures for my readers as well, they are learning in detail, in-depth, about a world they really never knew anything about.

Being a student again, being in a position to ask questions, to observe, to learn is the ethnographer’s privilege and an integral part of the job-description is to be curious-minded. However, as Irving notes, learning in-depth about a phenomenon that lies outside of the life you are familiar with takes time. That is why an ethnographer usually spends a year or more living ‘in the field’, sharing other people’s every day lives, becoming as familiar with every just so tiny and seemingly insignificant aspect as possible. And this is where for the ethnographer, the writing process starts; with jotting down observations, thoughts and questions into a journal. Later, after research has come to an end, these precious journals will form the basis of the book that is yet to be written.


Fieldnotes taken during a workshop for domestic violence counsellors. Observations and a conversation protocol at the right, analytic ideas and links at the left.

When it comes to the initial phase of a book-project, Irving has developed a very specific technique: he begins at the end and thinks his way through the story backwards until he arrives at a point that should be the beginning of the novel. Either as a product or a source of this technique comes the author’s specific self-understanding:

I’m not an intellectual. I’m a story-teller. I don’t see myself as an artist either. I see story-telling as a craft. I’m a craftsman.

The notion of being a craftsman rather than an artist emphasizes the orderliness with which Irving handles the writing process that is usually romanticized as a creative and therefore somewhat chaotic endeavour. However, the sheer wingspan and complexity of his novels could not be reached without a careful construction:

Well, most of my novels are long. And if you’re going to tell a long story, if you’re going to demand a kind of stamina from your reader, just as I kind of demand a stamina from myself as a writer, I don’t choose easy novels; I choose complicated ones. And if you are going to make that kind of a demand on a reader, if you’re going to say, you got to be patient, you are not going to read this novel in a couple of days, this novel is going to occupy your life and you have to make time for it. … This is one of the reasons my novels all have a kind of superstructure. They all have architecture. They’ve all been constructed from the back of the story to the front. And I know what that construction is. I know how the novel is built. The most compelling reason to know all the important things that happen in a story emotionally before I start to write it, is that when I write that first sentence, I no longer want to be thinking about what happens in the story. I know what happens in the story.

And in more detail, he elaborates:

I’m the architect of the novel before I begin writing it. So, the architecture of a novel matters a great deal to me but that doesn’t mean that I believe that the world has a plan for us. There is a Straßenplan des Romans, there is a map of where I’m going. It’s not like a drawing. It doesn’t look like a map. It’s just notes. In the last chapter, this happens, this happens, this happens. In the next to last chapter, this should happen. I work my way back and this [the end of the novel] is the beginning. But they are just notes in books, in notebooks like this [shows an A4 notebook with notes all over in various colors]. They are just, you know, notes to myself. They are not really very interesting. I write on one side of the notebook so that I can correct myself on the blank side when I want to.

For the non-fiction academic writer, there is a great lesson here: you are still writing a book. And although the chapters deal with different phenomena and should also be relevant in isolation, they must add to a bigger picture, making their sequence and overall structure crucial. Getting the dramatic composition right matters a lot. However, despite all the effort, taking a step back and taking a break from the writing process can be fairly illuminating:

Only once, the first time, was I ever irritated by that interruption. Because, when you go back to the novel that you haven’t looked at for three or four months, you haven’t even read it, you haven’t had time, you’ve been too busy, a horse with blinders on with this screenplay, finally you get to get back to your novel. You see things about that novel that you never would have seen if that were the only project in your life. That’s what screenplays have taught me. Step away from that novel, interrupt that novel every time you can. Because it will only get better when you get back to it. When you get back to it, you will say: “Oh why didn’t I think of that? Why didn’t I see that?

If that is not good news for all of us who like to procrastinate from time to time!

Irving was a competitive wrestler long before he became a writer and his experiences as an athlete have clearly shaped his outlook on writing. Probably not recognizable on first sight, writing and wrestling share many similarities:

It was the first thing that I wanted to be good at to the degree that I was willing to make sacrifices and have a kind of dedication and discipline that certainly has been helpful to me as a writer especially of long novels that need to be revised and rewritten many times. So, the idea that repetition, doing some small thing over and over again, is not boring but is essential at becoming good at anything, any craft, any sport, I learnt first from wrestling, before I saw myself seriously as wanting to be a writer. The idea that the process of writing is a lot like the practising of a sport – no one sees you do it, no one is clapping, there’s no win, there’s no lose. It’s just repetition. It’s just a kind of drilling. And it’s where you will spend most of your life as an artist or as an athlete. The moment when a book is published, the window when it’s available to the public and people are talking to you about it is very small. It’s over in a couple of months. But the book might have taken four, five, six, seven years. And the next book will take a comparable amount of time. So, I learnt I think from wrestling that you better love the process itself, that you better love the practising, the repeating the same move a hundred times with the same boring sparring partner.

In line with the Confucian proverb making the journey the reward, Irving finds the joy of writing in the process, not in its completion. This includes endless repetitions of the same tasks, re-working and re-structuring pieces over and over until you are satisfied with the overall result. This is the laborious work of a craftsman who perseveres, repeats and continues:

An inch at a time, I’m crossing something out and moving this sentence here and taking that sentence and putting it there. It’s slow. People would fall asleep watching a writer write or a wrestler in practice. It was very important for me, you know, to learn those things, to begin something which I did at age fourteen and took seriously as a competitor until I was thirty-four. For twenty years, I wrestled competitively. I had opponents, you know. The time spent in actual matches when you are engaged in wrestling against an actual opponent is nothing in comparison to the time you spend practicing with people who become overly familiar. Just as you become in the course of any book so familiar with every sentence, every beginning, every ending, every middle, every chapter, every part. And the sentences that cause you to go back to them again and again and rewrite them again and again, they are always the same sentences. The things that give you trouble in a novel, if they give you trouble once, they will give you trouble a hundred times. Maybe there’s ten, twelve, thirty sentences in a novel that you just feel you never get right.

I think we all have encountered them, those sentences that just never feel right. Knowing that John Irving fights the same battles – at least sometimes – brings solace to my emerging writer’s heart.

*In Germany, you have to publish your PhD in order to receive your title.

**The title of the German documentary is a tribute to the German book title ‘Garp und wie er die Welt sieht’ – ‘The World according to Garp’ – one of Irving’s most popular novels. In this sense, the documentary offers the viewer insights into the world according to John Irving.


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