Ta-Nehisi Coates on Writing as an Act of Self-Interrogation



Ta-Nehisi Coates. Via: (Wikimedia Commons)


The motivation of why people write is always appealing to me. Some people write for the pleasure of it. Others write because they need to preserve their experience in a form of structured and understandable sentences. There are also people who write in order to discover their thoughts or one wise man believes that writing everyday has helped him to notice things that people can’t even notice.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, a prolific essayist and national correspondent for the Atlantic, he credits his grandmother who taught him to write, not as a way to assemble words into clear and comprehensible sentences and paragraphs, but as an act of self-interrogation. He shares what his grandmother taught him about writing in his book of essays titled “Between the World and Me.”

Dedicating the book for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

“Your grandmother taught me to read when I was only four. She also taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation. When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions:  Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teachers? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson? I have given you these same assignments. I gave them to you not because I thought they would curb your behavior–they certainly did not curb mine–but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing–myself.”

Anne Lamott on the Gift of Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Writing



Anne Lamott and Fr. Tom Weston. Via: (Flickr)


Writing is hard for every last one of us–straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.” This was Cheryl Strayed’s uplifting response to a letter of despair she received from an aspiring writer named Elisa Bassist.

To write is to dig deep beneath our surface and excavate everything that needs to be said. This process is not always pleasant. Some days, if we are lucky, our words and metaphors can string together, creating equal parts of truth and beauty. But some days, as Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

Is writing really like what Vonnegut described? Even if it’s true, there are things that can help us to ease the uncomfortable experience of writing. Anne Lamott‘s book titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Public Library) (Amazon) is one of those comforters for any perplexed writers.

Lamott does two grand things in this book: offering non-cliche friendly wisdom on writing that can also be applied in life and sprinkling hilarious anecdotes in every page that will make her readers giggle uncontrollably. The combination of wisdom and humor makes this book hard to put down.

Lamott started reading and writing at an early age. Having born to parents who had an unquenchable appetite for reading, Lamott grew up around books, stories, and fantasies. Her father was also a writer who, as she described, “wrote books and articles about the places and the people he had seen and known.” Lamott dropped out of college at the age of nineteen to pursue her calling as a writer. Her path was circuitous. Right after she was out of college, she took up some odd jobs to keep herself afloat. She was a Kelly girl, a clerk-typist, a tennis coach, and a house cleaner. All the while, she would stubbornly write everyday until she eventually got her book published when she was twenty six.

She thought seeing her book on print was everything that she had wanted. But in spite of her early publication, she eventually realized that publication was not as glamorous as she had imagined. The real gift of writing, she realized, is what we write–the act of writing itself. Publication arrives as an extra gift.

She writes:

“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual act of writing–turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

Image by Caro. Via: (Flickr)


In her book, Lamott argues that publication is also an illusion or a fantasy.  Whenever Lamott teaches a class on writing, she always receives endless questions about publication from her students. Some of her students, she observes, write not because they believe they have distinct stories that need to be told. They write because they want to get published. This latter motive is something that Lamott wants to reconstruct:

“Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram–it’s the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar. What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better. At times when you’re working, you’ll sit there feeling hung over and bored, and you may or may not be able to pull yourself up out of it that day. But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And so if one of your heart’s deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so.”
And what are those reasons again? my student ask.
Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quite or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

Image by Ian Espinosa. Via: (Unsplash)


One of my favorite chapters of the book talks about perfectionism. As humans, we all know very well what perfectionism is. It is our disguised “weakness” that we like to brag at job interviews. Perfectionism looks very glamorous when we see it, but at its core, it is our fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of being judged insignificant, fear of being stuck. It is fear that drives us to be a perfectionist.

Lamott has something wise to say about this topic:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at the their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

Bridging perfectionism to writing, Lamott says:

“Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground–you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.”

No matter how hard we try, sometimes when we write, the voice of perfectionism will soar above our writing voice–the true voice that makes our stories alive. For Lamott, writing is always about clearing space, physically and mentally, to let ideas bloom. The hardest thing is when our state of mind is cluttered with an unnecessary voice that doesn’t contribute to the shape of our story. 

Lamott coins a funky term for this unnecessary voice. She calls it “radio station KFKD (K-Fucked)”. Writers need to be alert as soon as it starts playing its songs such as songs of self-loathing, perfectionism, and self-doubt. Lamott believes that once the volume of “radio” starts to get louder, we need to be less reactive and more reflective on its impulse. This is what she advises us:

“You have to get things quiet in your head so you can hear your characters and let them guide your story.
Still, breathing calmly can help you get into a position where the workings of your characters’ hearts and the things people say on the streets of your story can be heard above the sound of KFKD. When you are in that position, you will know.”

She continues talking about KFKD, and strangely finds a revelation that helps her to understand more about it in a little book on prayer she steals from her church. It’s not a book on writing, but it adds a new understanding of writing.

She writes:

“The meeting ended, and on my way out, a little book on prayer caught me eye. I picked it up and stuck it in my purse, figuring I could look at it over dinner and then return it the next Sunday.
I started to read and within a page came upon this beautiful passage: ‘The Gulf Stream will flow through a straw provided the straw is aligned to the Gulf Stream, and not at cross purposes with it.’
So now I always tell my students about the Gulf Stream: that what it means for us, for writers, is that we need to align ourselves with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious, of memory and sensibility, of our characters’ lives, which can then pour through us, the straw. When KFKD is playing, we are at cross purposes with the river. So we need to sit there, and breathe, calm ourselves down, push back our sleeves, and begin again.”

Image by Alexa Mazzarello. Via: (Unsplash)


More than twenty years after its publication, Bird by Bird remains one of the most important books on the craft of writing. The amount of writing advice in the world is plenty. What separates the good ones and the greats ones is rarely articulable, but to me, the great advice on writing is the one that can be applied directly to life. Writing is part of the reality of living. It is part of how we further our understanding of the world we inhabit. To talk about writing is to talk about life itself. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott doesn’t only talk about the art of writing but also the art of living.

Behind The Grapes of Wrath—Steinbeck’s Forgotten Journal on Discipline and Persistence



J. Steinbeck, sitting on a chair. Stackpole, Peter, (1930-1960) From New York Public Library


Long before the world was shocked by the intensity and the truthfulness of The Grapes of Wrath, little did everyone know, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) did not initially set out to write this novel. The process of writing this novel was long; it was unglamorous, demanding, arduous, and so far from the public notion of writing a novel. Steinbeck did not sit in a café in a gloomy day while sipping a cup of warm cappuccino and waiting for inspiration to strike. The Grapes of Wrath was a final product of his wholehearted and tireless immersion in the deplorable migrant conditions in California from 1936 to 1939. It was three years of moral and emotional battle for him.

He was commissioned by The San Francisco News, a bay area daily paper, to write a seven-part series of newspaper articles from October 5 to 12, 1936, titled The Harvest Gypsies. His articles were full of alarming facts about migrants’ lives (illness, incapacitation, death). A year later in late 1937, he attempted to write as he called a “rather long novel” called The Oklahomans, to capture the characters of the migrants that he believed would change the shape of California. However, in late January 1938, not even six months since he started writing it, he stopped working on the novel. The reason behind it was somewhat vague, but the misery of migrants’ condition in Visalia and Nipomo pushed Steinbeck to ditch his writing and be involved in helping them. As he wrote in a letter to his agent, Elizabeth Otis, “I’ve tied into the thing from the first and I must get down there and see it (…)”

He continued to write about his vivid investigation of migrants’ lives from February to May 1938 that later became “L’Affaire Lettuceberg. After he finished the first draft of the book, which was a little over seventy thousand words, he destroyed it. The book, as he said in a letter to his main literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, could have sold probably 30,000 copies but the nature of the book was not feeding his artistic integrity—making people understand each other. This book was, as he said, “a vicious book and a mean book”, and he aimed to start hatred through this book. He wrote to Otis, “My father would have called it a smart-aleck book. It was full of tricks to make people ridiculous. If I can’t do better I have slipped badly (…) It is sloppily written because I never cared about it. I had got smart and cocky you see (…) A book must be a life that lives all of itself and this one doesn’t do that.”

The final part of his writing development eventually produced The Grapes of Wrath. From late May 1938 through winter of 1939, Steinbeck embarked on one of the most rigorous writing activities that he’d ever done. As he was tirelessly working on his novel every day, he kept a daily journal (Public Library) as he said, “to map the actual working days hours” of his novel. His journal had been helpful for him to keep him grounded and remind him of his purpose to create this novel. Right before he started writing, which was usually around 11:00 am every day, he would always write in his journal about his agonizing self-doubt, fear, hopes, dreams, the progress of his craft, and his complexities as both a novelist and human being. The journal itself, though he never intended to publish and only wrote it for himself and a future use for his two sons (Thomas Steinbeck and John Steinbeck IV), is in fact a work of art. It’s a glimpse at how a person was stubbornly bringing forth into the world what he believed were “truth, meaning, and beauty”.


Lettuce workers. California 1937. Lange, Dorothea. From The New York Public Library


Habit, for Steinbeck, was an indispensable ingredient for writing, more than either willpower or inspiration. He did not wait for any inspiration to strike and managed to do the best he could despite all the distractions. Not only The Grapes of Wrath, but all the books under his belt and the way he oriented himself in the world as one of America’s greatest writers was because of the discipline that he had crafted every single day, tirelessly. In the process of finishing The Grapes of Wrath, in June 13th, 1938, he wrote:

“Now a new week starts and unpropitiously for me. Last night up to Rays’ and drank a great deal of champagne. I pulled my punches pretty well but I am not in the dead sober state I could wish. However, I will try to go to work (…) All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers (…)”

In August 4th, 1938, he persisted to finish what’s in front of him even though he was missing the drive to work:

“But I’ve got to go on and think of nothing but this book. I’m behind now and I want not to lose any more time, and I simply must go on. It’s good to work even if the absolute drive isn’t in you. Here goes.”


Migratory field worker’s home on the edge of a pea field. The family lived here through the winter. Imperial Valley, California. Lange, Dorothea. 1937. From The New York Public Library.


He was worried if he ever managed to finish his novel. Written in August 16, 1938 at 10:45 a.m.:

“My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.”

Though he was very focused on finishing the draft of The Grapes by cutting both internal (self-doubt) and external (uninvited guests) distractions, what I thought was interesting about him was he was still paying attention to what was happening in the world, especially about the escalation of Nazism. Writing in September 12, 1938:

“Things get no more peaceful. Today Hitler is to make his war or peace speech. That may toss the world into a mess. Apparently the whole world is jittery about it. All armies mobilized. It might be a shambles by tomorrow. And it might be recede for a while. Can’t tell (…)”


Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. Lange, Dorothea. 1936. From The New York Public Library.


A year later, on April 14th,1939, The Grapes of Wrath eventually was published. As his masterful “The Grapes of Wrath” catapulted him under an immense spotlight along with bringing fame and financial success to his life, the demands to give public lectures from clubs all over the country increased significantly. However, Steinbeck flatly refused any invitations and chose to be close with the source of his happiness—writing. In July 1939, he said to an Associated Press interviewer:

“Why do they think a writer, just because he can write, will make a good after-dinner speaker, or club committeeman, or even a public speaker? I’m no public speaker and I don’t want to be. I’m not even a finished writer yet, I haven’t learned my craft.”

Steinbeck still kept the journal after the wild success of his novel, but at this time the tone of his entries was radically different. There was no obsessive urgency to finish the novel. In other words, his pace was less frantic and calmer than the entries when he still composed The Grapes of Wrath. The entries varied in length, frequency, and details but he still pondered with the things that he pondered when he composed the Grapes: self-doubt, the reflection of being a human being and being a novelist, and his wife.

Entry 101, dated October 16, 1939, almost a year after he finished the first draft of the Grapes and six months after the Grapes was published, he reflected in his journal about the immense pleasure of success that he received from the book. He wrote:

“In the first place the Grapes got really out of hand, became a public hysteria and I became a public domain. I’ve fought that consistently but I don’t know how successfully. Second, we are rich as riches go. We have money enough to keep us for many years. We have this pleasant ranch which is everything one could desire. It lacks only the ocean to be perfect. We have comfort and beauty around us and these things I never expected. Couldn’t possibly have expected (…)”

On the same entry after he reminded himself about the victory of the book sales, he expressed his fear of losing a creative force—a vital force that had made Steinbeck persist through bad days of writing and propel into public consciousness. This is also a force that a lot of creative people try to preserve and maintain.

“Now I am battered with uncertainties. The part of my life that made the Grapes is over. I have one little job to do for the government, and then I can be born again. Must be. I have to go to new sources and find new roots. I have written simply for simple stories, but now the conception and the execution become difficult and not simple. And I don’t know what the conception is (…) I do not know whether there is anything left of me. I know that some of my forces are gone.”

A year later, in one particular entry dated July 29th, 1940, he once again found himself contemplating the notion of habit as a more transformative recipe than willpower or inspiration to finish a manuscript. The notion of habit, showing up day in and day out regardless of any other obstacles is something I believe, the thing that sets apart the master and the ordinary. His habit was slowly built upon his deep sincere purpose of the work and his exceeding stubbornness to bring forth his novel within his body. He wrote:

“The trouble with being too casual about a manuscript is that you don’t do it. In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently, there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not. And I am a little afraid that they are not much good. However, down they go. The forced work is sometimes better than the easy, but there is no rule about it. Sometimes they come out better than at other times that is all one can say (…)”


Migrants’ camp, California. 1935. Lange, Dorothea. From The New York Public Library


In 1940, he earned the Pulitzer Prize for his The Grapes of Wrath, and later in 1962 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for, as the Swedish Academy said, “his realistic as well as imaginative writings, distinguished by a sympathetic humor and a keen social perception.” The Grapes of Wrath has been translated into nearly every language on earth and has sold more than 14 million copies in the past half century.