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Writing Tips

Adam Gopnik: Writing from the inside out

The acclaimed New Yorker contributor and judge of our True Winter Tales Challenge on where your best writing should come from... and why writing is a lot like going to the gym.

The one thing I try to tell students, assistants and apprentices is that writing is primarily and surprisingly a physical challenge. Your mind, in a certain sense as a writer, is smarter than you are - it's more filled with images, sentences, obsessions - and the real challenge of writing is just getting something written. You have to physically take your writing from out of your head and plant it in your stomach. It's exactly like you are riding a stationary bike at the gym, or you're on a treadmill, or something of that kind. You have to say to yourself, "I'm going to do so many hours, I'm going to do so many minutes and I'm just going to treat it as a physical challenge." You have to forget about asking yourself is it good or is it bad, because something that exists can always be made better, but something that doesn't exist doesn't exist at all.

And so making writing from a mental challenge into a physical challenge was the moment, I remember specifically when it happened to me in a little basement room in New York 30 years ago, when you go from being somebody who wants to write to someone who is writing, that's the first thing.

And the second thing, and this is sort of obvious: writing is done from the inside out. And you have to figure out what is the thing, the image, the vision, the obsession, the story, that you have to tell, that comes from inside you that has not yet been told, and I think if you look at any writing that you admire, it is narrowly, almost narcissistically, obsessive. It belongs to a tiny world, it doesn't belong to a vast world. It doesn't represent a vast world, it represents a tiny slice of human experience, and that's the thing that you have to articulate, whether it's bringing up a baby in Paris or, for example in The Catcher in the Rye it's the experiences of one prep school kid on a winter week, and that's what you have to tell. And the alchemy of writing, the unpredictable alchemy of writing is that those images, those internalities, somehow become externalized. Those "I's" that you write somehow become "you's" for other people. It doesn't always happen, but when it does happen, it's one of the great pieces of transformation in human culture.

Adam Gopnik is a bestselling author, essayist, magazine columnist and the 2011 Massey Lecturer. He is also judging the Canada Writes True Winter Tales Challenge. Born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Montreal. From 1995 to 2000, he lived in Paris. He now lives in New York City with his wife and their two children.

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