Michael Chabon Reveals the Slow Method to Achieving Excellence

Several years ago, the keynote speaker at the Montgomery County Community College's Annual Writers Conference was none other than the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon.

Upon hearing in advance that he wouldn't be allowed to entertain questions after his talk, he decided to make the talk itself into a question-and-answer session--with himself.

Raising his hand, his shoulders shrinking slightly with mock timidity, he asked, "Michael, where do you get your ideas?" and "Why do you write?" His wide-ranging answers gave listeners a rich introduction to his life and work.

He conveyed with admirable economy the irony of his sixties childhood. A child of divorce and the son of an active feminist, he listened often to the album Free to Be You and Me (on which well-meaning adults tell children in songs and stories that they can be courageous and strong), all the while taking on household responsibilities to support his career-driven mom and lacking some of the nurturance that can make kids courageous and strong.

He told us that he imagines his readers as friends who'll understand his every allusion, enjoy his every turn of phrase and joke. He listed favorite writers (including Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, and Cortazar) and established himself as a fan of theologian Martin Buber's with a reference to the I-thou relation between reader and writer. And he conveyed with humor and appreciation the laborious method of writing required by a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. His story came from the typewriter era; I will translate it into computer-era methods.

1. Open a blank word document.

2. Type a sentence that could be the opening of a piece.

3. Print it out. Put the paper to your side.

4. Delete the sentence in your document. Examine the line on the printed page, then type it again, editing as you type, interrogating every word.

5. Print it out. Put the paper to your side.

6. Type the first sentence a third time, interrogating it again as you go. Then type a second sentence.

7. Print out the sentences. Put the paper to your side. Delete them from the document. Repeat from Step 4.

You get the idea. By the time you've done this for two or three pages, Chabon reports, you will be deeply enmeshed in a story that will carry you forward a while, until you realize that you have forgotten to keep retyping. This is good. Go on to the end.

With this method, combined with his life's harvest of intelligence and depth and of course much more, Chabon became an extraordinary writer.