| Don’t Write Alone
Toolkit Writer’s Block? Try Talking to Yourself
The self-interview is a way to ask myself real questions about whatever I’m working on without it feeling like work.
For one thing, writing is hard work. First you have to think of a couple of words, and then you have to rearrange them for hours, until they resemble either a brilliant observation about the greater culture or are just simply gorgeous, aesthetically. Then you have to do that over and over and over again until the Nap Gong chimes, signaling the first nap of the workday!
Whether writing is more difficult than other trades like rug making or animal husbandry is information I unfortunately will never know. I will say, as a working writer, it is not easy, molding language into narrative sculpture. Especially when you have to turn around a draft in a week, and rent is due the next one, and words are not exactly flying from your fingertips.
Also, I know it’s not a good look, but I am fundamentally very lazy. This is why I’m a writer and not an animal husband! In a concerted effort to spend my working time as efficiently as possible so I can also watch hours of television, I’ve tried many things in the pursuit of writing better, faster, clearer, and always.
Can’t do outlines. If I am asked to do an outline, I will skip right to the first draft. I’ve tried writing stories as “letters” to smart friends, but they always devolve into gossip. Also, who cares what S. said to B. about X.? The answer is me because I love drama, but the problem becomes that we have moved away from whatever I’m supposed to be writing about. If I am going to get anywhere near the heart of the matter, I have to go to my main source; I have to interview myself.
I’m calling this process the “self-interview” from here on out. Mostly it’s just a fun and stupid way to pass the time. But it’s also an excuse to ask myself real questions about whatever I’m working on and answer them without it feeling like I’m doing a workbook. If I ask myself questions about the intent of a piece of written work, and if I can articulate that intent, can I also start articulating that written work that needs to be articulated sooner rather than later?
For example, if I am having difficulty writing the middle part of a five hundred–word blog about men’s makeup (really just about “makeup,” but I don’t write the SEO search terms!), I pretend that I have already written it, it has already received a National Book Award—the first men’s makeup blog in herstory to do so!—and now I am doing an interview on the Longform podcast about how I wrote it. That usually gets me somewhere.
Such is the self-interview’s first use case: the writing process. A sentence reaches its end and suddenly there is nothing left to say, six hundred words short of the assigned word count. Or too many ideas have coagulated into one distended paragraph, cutting off blood flow to the rest of the essay.
Eagle minds will remember I was having a hard time articulating my thoughts re: The Prewriting Outline earlier. Suppose it was essential for me to explain my distaste for outlines to you, even though I know we both could not care less. I can simply transport myself to a temporary hot seat, record a snippet of audio on my phone, and then mine the Otter.ai transcript for useful bits of insight. Bonus points if you want to style it like an interview in The Paris Review —
You recently said that you cannot outline. Why do you think that is?
I do harbor a delusion that writing without an outline makes the piece somehow closer to the craft of writing, or the craft of putting together sentences and words. I know that outlining is helpful for many people, writers in particular, especially when you’re working on longer pieces. But to me, doing an outline transports me back to eighth-grade English, with the teacher that I did not get along with, who was needlessly mean, who told me that I would never write a book.
And now you’ve proved her wrong.
I don’t keep in touch with her, but I heard that when she saw me on the bestseller list, she whispered my name and then crumbled into a fine dust!
—which, you know, might not produce groundbreaking prose, but it can sometimes get you somewhere.
If I am going to get anywhere near the heart of the matter, I have to go to my main source; I have to interview myself.
The second use case for the self-interview can be invoked before the writing process has begun at all. Sometimes a self-interview can be gleaned for glimmering bits of poignancy that can be propagated into larger works of brilliance. It’s not always easy to find the words to say what you mean, but it’s much easier when words are pouring from your wet mouth in an indiscriminate torrent. Turn the spigot on, babes!
It’s embarrassing, but I’ll tell you anyway. Sometimes, when wringing out whatever available narrative material has caked in the folds of my brain, I babble out loud in the manner of a Longform -podcast blowhard and transcribe my thoughts into an empty email. One of those thoughts, about a former workplace environment, became a short story I wrote for Catapult . (I could share those thoughts, but I would much rather you read the story—thank you!)
But if a predefined set of questions is more helpful to get started with trying a self-interview, I recommend this interview Ted Chiang did with a magazine called Papercuts ; some of the questions are genre specific, but most generally concern “the craft” and are succinctly asked. The Paris Review ’s Art of Fiction series is also excellent, as was this recent Q and A with Elif Batuman on their blog : “How long do you spend every day writing emails?” yields an answer on record keeping and the diary as a “survival tool.”
The self-interview is also a tool, as well as a toy. And if you’re truly insane a la moi, it is free and legal to conduct a self-interview on any topic in the solitude of your own inner world. Here is a prompt: If you were to be interviewed for an Interview interview, who would interview you? I would love to talk to Gwyneth Paltrow.
PALTROW: That’s a great skin-care tip. But since you brought up Donnie Darko , I wanted to ask: Have you ever thought about writing a film?
KILBANE: I love movies, and would love for something I wrote to become a movie, but working on a film isn’t a goal of mine. My friend Sandra recently had a great idea, though: It’s Ratatouille but for a guy who sucks at oral. [Laughs] This American Spirit is hitting the spot, by the way.
How can you hope to know your work—or yourself—if you haven’t been asking yourself questions?