Write Now with Brian Nelson
How an acclaimed author refuses to confine to a single genre
Who Are You?
I am Brian Nelson and I live in Colorado.
My interest in writing started pretty young. I had a few teachers — going back to junior high school — who told me I had a knack for it. I guess I didn’t quite believe them or I didn’t think that it was a “practical” career, so I studied Economics and International Relations in college. When I was 29 I was working in business and doing well, but also growing disenchanted with a life dedicated to computers and finance. I remember having a vision of my own funeral. I pictured what people might say about me as they stood over the casket, which at that point wouldn’t have amounted to much more than “Boy, that guy wrote great financial software.” I didn’t want to be remembered for that, so I took a leap of faith and decided to see if I could make it as a writer. I packed up my stuff and moved to Tucson, Arizona to get an MFA in Creative Writing.
What Do You Write?
I try to write everything and I’ve come to love the challenge of writing in different styles and genres. In fact I (somewhat militantly) reject the notion that one type of writing is superior to another. I really enjoy playing around. While my first book on Venezuela was Creative Nonfiction, my second book, The Last Sword Maker, is a novel that’s a mix of near-future science fiction, mystery, and thriller. When I’m done with this series, I want to try my hand at travel books, à la Bill Bryson.
Where Do You Write?
I’m a pen and paper kind of guy. Almost all my first drafts are in a journal — I use those black hardback art journals. Each time I finish one, I label the dates on the spine so I know when I wrote it. I’ve got stacks of them filling my office.
Writing in a journal does a lot of important things for me.
- It lets me be much more experimental. I feel like I can play around and fiddle with ideas that I would be too self-critical to write on a computer. I use different colored pens to revise and add material in the journal, so that when it’s ready to go into the computer, it’s in pretty good shape.
- I’m also more efficient. That may sound counterintuitive, but when I’m sitting at a computer, I’m like a bird, I get distracted by everything (email, facebook, the news). Writing in a journal helps me stay focused.
- Finally, the act of transferring my hand-written drafts into the computer is really the first revision. Once it’s in MS Word I feel much more confident about it and it’s almost ready for peer review.
When Do You Write?
I write early in the morning and in the evenings. In the morning my brain is alert and I can get three to four hours of focused work in. In the evenings, my brain is relaxed, so I find I can often generate fresh ideas better at that time of the day.
Why Do You Write?
One reason I decided to pursue writing was because I realized something about myself: I got restless if I was doing the same thing for too long. I felt that writing would be a good solution to that problem. Exploring different things in each book meant I’d be constantly learning about something new, then I could move on to the next thing that interested me. This doesn’t always work perfectly, of course. Once you commit to a big project you have to see it through, even when the material might have lost some of its novelty. But overall I think it’s a good way to go. First, it lets you make a life out of an identity crisis. Second, it challenges you. Third, it forces you to be versatile.
For example, after graduate school I got a grant to go to Venezuela to write a book. Even though my degree was in fiction, the crazy %#^$ that was going on there when I arrived made me realize that I had to write nonfiction — the truth was much more interesting than anything I could have made up. This pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to be much more of an extrovert than I really am. I had to travel around, network, conduct interviews, go to rallies, become an amateur photographer, etc. But it turned out be a fantastic experience. I became very passionate about the project and I worked hard to capture the lives and experiences of all the Venezuelans I met and it made me a better person.
That’s really all that you can hope for in a book project, because being a commercial success is largely out of one’s hands. (Luckily the book, The Silence and the Scorpion, was — at least — a critical success and was named one of the Best Books of the Year by The Economist).
How Do You Overcome Writer’s Block?
I don’t get writer’s block very often. I think that’s because I define “writing” as many different things including research and editing. So if I don’t feel inspired to create new material, then I just switch to a different “mode” of writing. In computer programming there’s a popular acronym — GIGO — which stands for “garbage in, garbage out.” It means that the quality of your output is directly correlated to the quality of your input. For me, if I’m not feeling like I have good ideas, I don’t force myself to write because that will most likely just result in a bunch of crap on the page.
Also, I think defining “writing” broadly takes some of the pressure off. Many writers will beat themselves up if they don’t hit a word limit everyday. But I don’t think creativity works like that. It has to be a mix of yourself and the things and people you are reading, watching, listening to, and conversing with. We aren’t machines, so writers (especially fiction writers) who expect to turn it on and off instantly will often feel frustrated.
Bonus: What Do You Enjoy Doing When Not Writing?
When I’m not writing I like being outdoors in Colorado with my family. We have two young boys so we spend a lot of time playing sports and enjoying nature.