Tom Wolfe was a storied journalist, essayist, and novelist who’s highly admired for his style. These reflections are taken from a 1974 interview in Writer’s Digest, when his nonfiction classic, The Write Stuff was about to be published:
On his writing techniques: “The actual writing I do very fast. I make a very tight outline of everything I write before I write it. And often, as in the case of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the research, the reporting, is going to take me much longer than the writing. By writing an outline you really are writing in a way, because you’re creating the structure of what you’re going to do.
“Once I really know what I’m going to write, I don’t find the actual writing takes all that long. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in manuscript form was about 1,100 pages, triple-spaced, typewritten. That means about 200 words a page, and, you know, some of that was thrown out or cut eventually; but I wrote all of that in three and a half months.
“I had never written a full-length book before, and at first I decided I would treat each chapter as if it were a magazine article—because I had done that before. So I would set an artificial deadline, and 1’d make myself meet it. And I did that for three chapters. But, as in the case of most magazine pieces that I’ve written. I usually ended up staying up all night one or two nights in the last week that I wrote. It’s horrible.
“So I completely changed my system, and I set up a quota for myself—of 10 typewritten pages a day. At 200 words a page that’s 2,000 words, which is not, you know, an overwhelming amount. It’s a good clip, but it’s not overwhelming. And I found this worked much better. I had my outline done, and sometimes 10 pages would get me hardly an eighth-of-an-inch along the outline. It didn’t bother me. Just like working in a factory—end of 10 pages I’d close my lunch pail.”
Why do you write? “… once I was asked the question: “Why do you write?”—which really spun me around; because I didn’t have any ready answer for it…. And the answer I came up with after standing mute at the podium for about 30 seconds, which seemed like an eternity—suddenly, it just popped into my mind—was something from the Presbyterian catechism, which I hadn’t looked at since I was 7 or 8, I guess.
The first question was, “Who created the heaven and the earth?” And the answer was “God.” The next question was, “Why did he do it?” And then there was this marvelous answer, which was “For His own glory….” I don’t know—it just jumped into my head. And suddenly I realized that that’s probably the only honest answer for “Why do you write?”
What living novelists interest you most? “For my money, the best of the current novelists is Philip Roth. I think he’s terrific. Oddly enough, he’s much more of a social historian than anybody would usually ever think of him. Particularly, you look at these vignettes, these set pieces, in Letting Go or in Portnoy’s Complaint—a picture here of the Bohemian, the aging Bohemian, a picture of the—oh, the father sitting in the chair in Portnoy’s Complaint.
“You know, I ran into him on the street the day before he turned in Portnoy’s Complaint, and he told me he had sort of wanted to jog himself into a new style, because most of his first three novels are very much influenced by Henry James. So he read a lot of Henry Miller! And it really worked. You know, it doesn’t end up being something that’s written like Henry Miller. It just enabled him to break away from his old style and into something that really has a lot of drive and energy about it.”
Writing for the glory of it — why not? Lets ponder this as we all write on!