3 Questions with Bill Deresiewicz
Writer Bill Deresiewicz on change, routine, and stubbornly pursuing quality.
3 QUESTIONS is a series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.
“Procrastination is never worth it. Work…always feels better
than avoiding work.”
What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?
I don’t like “career,” for the arts. The word sounds too determinate, as if the road were all laid out before you, the way it is in law or medicine. The thing I’ve liked the most about being a full-time writer, since I left academia six years ago, is precisely how unpredictable it is. As a professor, I knew exactly what I would’ve been doing for the next thirty years; as a writer, I can’t tell you six months in advance. So that’s what I would say: let your path surprise you. The world is unpredictable; your work is also unpredictable, if you do it right; so take that unpredictability into your “career,” as well. Be patient with yourself. Everything you think you know about your work, including how you do it, is probably going to change, and keep on changing, as you go forward. Knowing that can allow you to worry less about the future and help you be more present to the present.
How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?
Routine. That’s the flipside of surprise. If my time is open year-to-year, it’s very structured day-by-day. I get up, I have breakfast, and I go to work. I try to keep distractions to a minimum, and I never work on more than one thing at once. I’ve also learned that procrastination is never worth it. Work, no matter how recalcitrant it is on any given day, always feels better than avoiding work. Ultimately, my energy comes from what I’m working on: from the text, whether it’s a novel I’m reviewing or something in the culture that I’m thinking about. Learning just feels really good. So does making. There’s another motivation, which is pride. With any given thing I write, there’s going to be at least one person, and probably many more, for whom it will represent their first encounter with my work. So I cannot bear to phone things in, even a little. I feel like my reputation is on the line every time I put something out there. I’m not a perfectionist, because I don’t think there is such a thing as perfection in creative work, but I am stubborn. I refuse to let things go before I’ve done my best.
Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?
I’ve never really had that kind of epiphany about my work. My most important recognitions have always been retrospective. I realize that something has become true, through a slow, unconscious process, at some point in the past. (It’s analogous to falling in love.) In terms of my work, the most important recognition has been simply that I am a writer. For a long time, I didn’t give myself permission to think that way. I was a professor who happened to write—no more. Eventually I realized that I had come to feel that it was okay to own that identity, but I did so by ceasing to think of it as an identity. If I am “a” writer, it is simply because I write. I think we fetishize those labels way too much: “writer,” “artist.” At most, it is a job description. What matters is the work, not the hat.
Bill Deresiewicz writes about books, higher education, culture, politics, and anything else he can get away with. His forthcoming book is Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, to be published in August by The Free Press. He is the author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter (2011), which is under development as a television series. He is a Contributing Writer for The Nation and a Contributing Editor for The New Republic and The American Scholar, for which he wrote the All Points blog on culture and society from 2011-2013. His essays and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Bookforum, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Yorker online, and The London Review of Books.