NOTE: When I first started this site, it was called Writers on Process, and I interviewed writers across the spectrum (not just songwriters, as I do now). Today, I return to my roots to interview Toure. For a list of my non-songwriter interviews, scroll down the left column.
Sure, Toure is everywhere. He's a television host, a regular contributor to MSNBC, and was the first pop culture critic for CNN. He's written four books and writes for magazines and newspapers everywhere. His new book, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness, is receiving considerable critical acclaim. And in the ultimate endorsement of his intelligence and clear-headed, rational thinking, he recently attracted the ire of Rush Limbaugh.
But nowhere is Toure more visible than on Twitter, where he is a reliably consistent poster. Twitter is a part of his writing process; he told me that he uses it to "spark some idea and . . . unpack something further." He uses it in the invention phase of his process. He told me, "I Tweeted something recently that I thought for sure people were going to attack me for, about how 9/11 nostalgia was weirding me out. And all these people agreed with me, and this gave me the courage to further unpack the idea. I didn't realize other people were feeling that too. But you have to use Twitter as an interactive media, not just as a passive audience relationship. If you do it that way, you won't come up with many original ideas." In other words, he sees Twitter as a place to hold a conversation, not just spew random thoughts.
Watch this interview with Toure as he talks about Twitter. Then read my interview with him about his writing process.
Part of what's always in front of me are Post-It Notes; I first accumulate my ideas there. Something will occur to me, some spark, even a pair of words, and that's when the ideas come. This might happen while I'm driving, walking, whatever. Some of it comes out as sentences, some come out just as fragments. So when I first sit down to write, I first deal with the scraps of ideas that have amassed in the previous days or weeks.
I used to always need some snack to get going, like pretzels or nuts, but that has subsided somewhat. When my writing is stagnant, I can eat something and get going again. That's really only in the beginning of the process, though. I would never just say, "Blank page, go!" but I never have a twenty-point outline either. I'm somewhere in between. I have a bunch of ideas to cover, then I spend a lot of time thinking about the right way to grab the audience's attention.
There's a bit of a sculpture metaphor to my process: I write, then add as well as chip away. It's not so much chipping away, actually; it's about adding to the middle. That's a new thing for me, because in the past I would just add to the end. More recently, though, I want to unpack an idea in the middle more instead of just going straight through.
I don't know. Writing for me is always a building process, where I work on something, then need time away from it, then come back to it. I construct sentences and think they're good, then I go back to them and realize I can add to them and make them explode, like making popcorn kernels explode into popcorn. There's a performance aspect to writing, which is kind of why I tend to go straight through, then return to it later. I have notes, but what happens when I finally get to the computer is different.
Sometimes I'll write it out by hand and then go to the computer, and what comes out on the screen is different, because as I'm typing I'm realizing how many different ways I can say something. So it become a little more live and conversational and voice-y.
One of the things that struck me about your new book is that I can turn to any page and start reading because every topic sentence makes me want to read that paragraph. It's a very lively style. I can start anywhere and immediately engage with the text.
A discussion of place is important in writing to give you grounding as a reader. Temporal grounding is also important, and this should be at the beginning of a sentence or at the end. Never in the middle, because I want you to know what time I'm talking about. If that grounding is in the middle, I'm asking you as a reader to remember too much.
I used to write a lot of fiction, and I've soured on it, mainly because of its relationship to the audience. I feel like fiction is when I call you up at midnight, and you're probably in bed, and I tell you to come to my house because we're going to have an awesome weird party. And you're like, "I'm sleeping." And I say, "Yeah, but it's going to be awesome." A lot of people will just go back to sleep because they don't want to be taken out of their lives. But with non-fiction, I come to your house at 8pm, a reasonable time. I come to your world to talk about something that you're interested in. I'm relating to you because I'm not asking you to come out of your life.
How important is physical environment to your writing process?
I need quiet. I need a momentum of quiet, like several hours of alone time. I'm not like Studs Turkel, who can work in a greasy spoon. It's challenging, of course, since I have young kids. But then I think about Toni Morrison, writing The Bluest Eye at 5am as a single mother before her two kids were awake, while she's also working at Random House, and no one in the world was waiting for a novel from Toni Morrison. So if she can do it, I shouldn't complain when I'm in a marriage with two kids. This book was written partly at one friend's house, partly at another friend's house, and partly at my agent's office. As long as I could create quiet, I was happy.
No, but I have noticed that with my previous novel, which I wrote in New York and in Jamaica, there were differences. From New York came the more violent scenes, and from Jamaica came more harmonious introspective scenes.
Do you find that having kids makes you more disciplined as a writer?
That hasn't happened to me, but I wish it would. Things that once took me three days, for example, seem to take me ten now. I can't believe how hard it is to get to the writing process with kids. But on the macro level, it makes me look at the world in a bigger way and want to make the generational statements and to see the epic scope of life. As a journalist, it makes me think of some of the musicians I've interviewed as parents, not just as artists.
What do your first drafts look like?
For the most part, they are pretty good. I don't even look at drafts as a first draft, second draft, and so on, because it's very rare for me not to have the right starting point. It's more about building on what is already there. I will make sure that the ground floor is right before I can build the second floor; I do like to make sure that a paragraph is good before I can move on to the next one.
As you were writing Post-Blackness, did you discover things as you wrote this book that made you change directions?
Not really. That happened for me during the interview process, but I guess when you interview 105 people, that's bound to happen. There, you're working out your thoughts and having them attacked or beaten back in small ways by the people you talk to. Some thoughts survived, some didn't, so by the time I got to the computer after talking to all those people I had a pretty good sense of my own ideas. A lot of it was because I had heard my own voice make those arguments so many times, and I was able to refine them. The discovery process was, for me, during the interview process.
Some writers have told me that writer's block is a myth, that it's actually failure of courage. How do you feel about that?
I have not had that problem too often, fortunately. But when it happens, I read, and that's the cure. I won't even read two pages before some word or phrase leaps off the page and gets me going. When I get stuck, it's usually because I've taken a misstep. So I might erase the last two sentences and go back a thought, then go in a new direction. That new direction usually feels more natural.
With this book, I listened to music as I'd start to write. That's pretty typical for me. One of the things I listened to was "Monster," the Kanye/Jay-Z song. At one point, Kanye says, "I shoot the lights out," and for some reason I linked that with a basketball player at the Rucker scoring 60 points and blowing the crowd away. That got me thinking about the energy and excitement that attends those amateur events like a game at the Rucker or an amateur boxing match, where people are just hanging over the railing. I thought about how I can bring that into my writing, thinking about the fact that the world is watching and what I'm going to say.
It seems like that would make you more anxious!
No, because for me heaping on more pressure makes me rise up and go. When I do TV, taped television is relatively boring, but live TV is very fun. You can't mess up; when that light goes on, you just plow ahead. I like the performance aspect.
What tips would you give people, then, who have to write under deadline? A lot of people tell me that's when writing is the hardest.
As soon as somebody tells me an idea, I start to think of ways to answer the question. You call me and want me to write about something, immediately waves of thought occur to me, so I write them down usually in an unpolished form. I never want to be stuck trying to remember them later because then new thoughts can't come in. If I write those ideas down immediately, my mind is free to journey to new ideas.
You have to have a relationship to the audience, to be constantly thinking about them. You've got to think about what they know and what will push their buttons. David Foster Wallace talked about loving the audience without caring whether or not they love you, and that's something I've always tried to do. I don't care if you think of me in a weird sort of way. For example, I wrote about D'Angelo once. I was backstage talking to him at one of his shows when the band got in a circle to pray. We were holding hands in this prayer circle, and I could feel what it was like to hold his hand so I wrote a detailed paragraph about what it was like to hold his hand. I used the second person "you" to recall the event, as in "you are holding D'Angelo's hand." And it fit because he's a sexual being and women want to experience him like that. And I wanted to give them--my audience--that feeling. It never occurred to me that so many people would think I was gay after reading that paragraph. But it was a righteous opening that really brings the reader into the story.
Regarding deadlines and revising, I notice that I write differently with a pen as opposed to on a computer. And when I print it out, I notice things that I never noticed on the screen. I can look at something a million times on the screen, and when I print it out, I catch new things every time. And every time I read to revise, I do it on just one level. Like one will be for grammar, one will be for structure, one will be for language.
A few months ago I interviewed Paul Banks from Interpol, and he maintains that song lyrics can never be poetry because they require music as an accompaniment. He said that hip-hop is the closest we have to poetry, but it's still not poetry. How do you feel about that?
Song lyrics are not poetry. From Jay-Z to Dylan, they can be poetic, but not poetry. The best popular music lyrics don't hold a candle to average poetry. And when you talk about good poetry, they aren't even in the same ballgame. I don't think that music lyrics need to stand on the crutch of "this is poetry" to be great. A lot of hip hop is poetic, but it's not poetry. If you printed it out, most of it would fall apart. Let's talk the best hip-hop lyrics and put them up against Sonia Sanchez or e.e. cummings. It is exasperating when people try to talk about song lyrics as poetry because it's disrespectful to poets. I learned a tremendous amount by reading Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings. The amount of intellectual heat applied to poetry, the amount of time they put into it, versus the time spent on song lyrics, is not even close.
If someone wants to be a better writer, what would you tell them?
Read. Read a lot. Read about writing, and read about the sorts of things you want to do. Samuel Delaney's book About Writing is great. Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Steven King's book on writing, even Strunk and White. Strunk and White helped me a lot because it gave me bedrock ideas about writing that, once in place, gave me the freedom to explore new ideas. Hemingway's A Moveable Feast is also a good one.
But after a while you'll learn more just reading good writing. I learned a lot by reading Joan Didion. She taught me a lot about structure and voice and playing with paragraphs and sentence variety and rhythm. I also learned a lot from James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Nabokov, David Faster Wallace, Greg Tate. I read what I love and try to see why I love it. I remember in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon really paying attention to her use of metaphors. Good writing is about communicating with people, not showing off how smart you are. They'll appreciate that. You don't need to show people that you have devoured the dictionary. When you write, don't put your finger in front of the lens. Let your audience see the subject.
Also read my interview with Himanshu Suri of Das Racist here.