The Writing Life
according to Andrew Todhunter ’89
By Andrew Todhunter / Created 2009-12-15
So precisely what is a “Writing Life”? Does writer’s block really exist and if so, how can it be beaten? Oh and why even try and sell books these days, anyway?
These and many other questions were patiently – and wittily –addressed by Andrew Todhunter at a creative writing workshop for AUP students at the AMEX in November. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Now, prepare yourself for a glimpse into the experience of the professional writer…
“Fighting cliché” is the writer’s daily battle, in the quest for authentic experience, cutting through those oversimplifications to look closely at the fact, like a reporter.
“You could be writing on mountain climbing, child birth, politics, Buddhism, food, or what have you. A degree of diplomacy is necessary, but it needs intensity; you need to ask your interview subject to dig deep. What were the smells in the room at the time? Ask them to search for particularities. Details are important.”
The reality of living as a writer is probably far from most people’s idea of a man of letters. Andrew believes one needs to know that writing is a “crazy life,” with self-doubt and brick walls regularly closing in on the free and open mindset sought so avidly by the writer. However, on this point he is adamant: “We do not see self-doubt enough for the ally that it really is; it is positively dangerous to lack it.” He sees this humility as essential and desirable. Within this so-called “writer’s block” lie “moments of mortal fear. We are all profoundly imperfect. This is not only acceptable; it is a Good Thing. Every time we cling to or grab at something, the more familiar we become with this experience and the more it helps intensify [it]… So, we have those moments, we look at them, study them, but then we move on and enjoy the champagne.”
Todhunter often wonders why he’s writing another book, when there are so many millions of other tomes kicking around the globe. Why bother, given the difficulties encountered when attempting to find a publisher? “One of the big reasons I write is an early realization that though many people may get nothing out of the subject, if just one reader somewhere, someone very different or very similar to me, comes across my work and reads it, to whom it feels like a gift… that is enough.” The book could have been like a letter to that one person, a sort of message in a bottle, and everything becomes worthwhile in the certainty that at least the book has been of some use to that person in terms of self discovery.
Speaking to groups of people about his profession is an activity enjoyed by this author. Todhunter claims that “Rather than reading a prepared talk, I prefer the collusion of the speaker and the audience… where you get to swirl the flavors… The audience is always different and it’s hard to predict precisely what will take place.” One favorite subject is New Media and its role in today’s world of exploding communications. He makes nonfiction films and is currently researching a screenplay for a science fiction film. “We are all fascinatingly bizarre…” A lot of rigor has to be applied to keep each scene tight and concise; in film, each scene must pull its weight. “If it’s not challenging you’re not working at the edge of your ability. We should always be pushing that edge, seeking that challenge.” Todhunter firmly believes writing is just content in a larger framework, whether it is on the Web, iPhone, games, and so on. Blogging is “huge.” The effect on writers, especially of the post-thirty-something generation, can be a bit frightening as the market palpably implodes before our very eyes. YouTube alone, according to Todhunter, has had a huge impact on the way people regard the world around them, and has meant major knock-on effect changes for writers.
Moving on to the print-versus-digital debate: “Remember books? Seriously, let’s not forget the uproar and suspicion of people when confronted with the very first books hundreds of years ago, the lashing out against books when they were invented. Fighting is fruitless. We can’t fight the digital age; we must accept it and live with it intelligently, and find ways to influence the direction of it so it develops in better, rather than inferior, ways.” News from entirely nonpaper sources is all on the Web now. Andrew Todhunter admits to loving books and the smell of paper but firmly believes writers need to evolve with the situation. It is one thing to be a hobby writer, comfortably and romantically writing on backs of envelopes for as long as one likes, but you need to “keep your eye on the ball”, representing other media if you are seriously to make a living out of the profession: You have to adapt to pay the rent.
Dangerous Games is a collection of previously published magazine stories written by Todhunter on sports, along with essays and a travel piece. It somewhat recklessly includes a lesson on learning how to use a chain saw. All stories involve elements of risk, dangers of the world, and why we are fascinated by them. He was always drawn to sports, especially water sports, and those that are potentially dangerous. Todhunter describes these as a “communion of human beings with dangerous elements.” He believes we should connect with the natural world rather than try to oppose it. “In the wilderness I often feel minuscule. You are truly awake at such moments; the sense of living is much sharper. It’s like having fifteen minutes left with a loved one; a real intensity of emotion, each moment counts. Knowing that you can die at any moment brings you into the heart of existence.”
Asked about his alumni contacts, here is what Andrew Todhunter had to say:
“It has been great to be part of the AUP community, to stay in touch with friends and to meet newer students, staff, and faculty at events in San Francisco and in Paris. I adore teaching, and very much look forward to the opportunity to teach writing or new media at AUP as a visiting professor… I’m always impressed by the energy and passion of my AUP network. I recently exchanged emails with a close friend from my student days at AUP with whom I saw the Berlin Wall come down in 1989. We shared an historic experience, and it was great to be back in touch.”
Watch the video of the talk on AUP’s own Paname TV
Andrew Todhunter '89 is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and new media consultant. He studied humanities at AUP, has a BA in Ancient History from UC Berkeley and has studied film production at NYU’s Graduate Department of Film and Television. He is the author of three books, including the PEN USA Literary Award-winning A Meal Observed.