Before a standing-room only audience, the 2016 ALA Midwinter Meeting kicked off on January 8 with a discussion about the creative process, featuring Ken Burns, Terry Tempest Williams, and Mark Kurlansky. Led by Booklist editor Donna Seaman, the fascinating conversation centered on the “writer as witness,” and delved deep into each author’s personal creative process.
“My mother died when I was 11, and there was not a moment in my consciousness when I wasn't aware of her impending death, and there hasn't been a moment since when I haven't considered it,” said Burns, whose award-winning documentaries include The Civil War, and Baseball, and whose first kids’ book, Grover Cleveland, Again! will be published in May 2016. Burns told the audience that his psychologist once connected his mother’s death to his documentary work, noting his work seeks to "wake the dead." But his new kids' book on the presidents, however, grew out of something different: a ritual he did with each of his four young daughters growing up before bedtime—running down the sequence of American presidents.
Terry Tempest Williams told the audience that writing her new book, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks, a literary celebration of our national parks, due out in June of this year, was a near death experience.
“And I don't mean to be dramatic,” she said, saying the book forced her to dig deeper than any of her previous 13 works. “I was forced to look at my own country, and there was no place to hide,” she says of the experience. “I wasn’t hiding behind my mother's journals, I wasn’t hiding behind a painting, I wasn't hiding behind mosaics,” she said. “I had to really write what I thought, and straight, and that required honesty, humility, and an admission that my vision had been too small.”
Kurlansky says his 29 books all grew of out his penchant to talk to himself. “I think of myself as a storyteller,” he said, noting that telling meaningful stories—both fiction and nonfiction—is what drives him. Seaman asked about the difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. “They really are different parts of the brain,” Kurlansky oberved, “but the thing that they have in common is that they both have to be true.”
Kurlansky said he has learned more from writing his most recent book, Paper: Paging Through History, due out in May of this year, than any of his previous books.
“One of the things I realized is that every new idea is confronted with the same objections,” he said. “When people started writing things down, from our oral tradition, there was tremendous concern about how we would lose our memory,” he said. “People were very troubled by going from oral to written, very troubled going from parchment to paper, and from printing rather than handwriting.” He dismissed concerns that the digital transition would be harmful, noting that a consistent theme throughout history is our search for more efficient ways of telling our stories and sharing our experiences.
The conversation ranged from personal work habits, to research—which all agreed is one of the most enjoyable parts of the work—to the process of cutting and shaping a work, and the conflicted feelings left by the “negative space” around creation—the film left on the cutting room floor, the words deleted from a book.
“You know, it’s practice,” Burns concluded. “We are in a place in publishing that is very much results-oriented—it about the thing, it's the book we talk about. But, in fact, it is about practice,” the filmmaker concluded. “It's about the daily catechism. It's about doing that research. It’s about the distillation process.”