Secrets of the Writer's Craft
The Hays Press-Enterprise Lecture, University of California, Riverside
February 11, 2010
There's a new George Clooney movie, "Up in the Air," in which his
character makes a motivational speech. His prop is a backpack. He advises his
audience of his philosophy, which is that modern life is for sharks, you have to
move fast, free and unencumbered, in order to stay on top of the food chain. To
make his point, he gestures to the backpack, which is his emblem for attachments
that slow you down, make you noncompetitive, make you prey for sharks like him.
The backpack seems light, he says, but just imagine putting a house in there. How
much does that mortgage weigh? How about a relationship? The audience laughs
uncomfortably. Clooney's character never actually opens the backpack, and one
naturally assumes there's nothing in it. By the end of the movie, that emptiness has
come to represent his life.
I carry a backpack as well. It's my journalist kit, and it weighs a ton,
not just metaphorically. Unlike George Clooney, I'm going to dump it all out on
the table for you. Inside are the tools of my craft. Each ounce has earned a spot in
the bag, even though I'm constantly trying to lighten my load. No doubt there is
some ethereal software that would eliminate a good portion of what I carry, and
I'm constantly trying to update my operating system. I warn you that my method is
going to seem retrograde. My only defense for it is that it works.
Most of my writing life is spent as a nonfiction journalist, but I also
write movies, plays, and the occasional novel. My goal as a journalist is to make
the writing as compelling as possible. That means using all the techniques of the
narrative art, with the richness of detail that one usually associates with fiction.
But to do that, the reporting has to go so deep that the events and characters I'm
describing seem both factual and fully realized. The secrets to my technique are all
here, in my backpack.
By the way: Why a backpack, not a briefcase, which is more elegant,
less juvenile in appearance? Because you need your hands free to take notes.
Several times I've tried using a briefcase and I keep returning to the backpack.
My backpack is divided into four compartments and the two side
pockets, which contain water and food. As a reporter, when you leave your office
or hotel room, you never really know when you're coming back. You're at the
service of the story. In the same way that you should never set out on a long hike
without provisions in case you get lost or diverted by some beckoning mystery,
you should always be prepared to stay as long as you need to get the story.
In the first compartment, there is a zippered pocket containing
various wires – power cords for airplanes and cars, firewire, earphones. Also here
in this compartment are my medicines: aspirin, sleeping pills, Imodium, melatonin
(essential for frequent changes of time zones), and back pads, which pay tribute to
the damage that so much travel has done to my body. In here you'll find a flash
drive with my latest draft and interviews on it, which I always try to keep separate
from my computer, so that if one is lost, the work remains.
I carry a sleep mask and earplugs to better zone out in public places,
such as planes and trains. Here are my business cards and those of my contacts,
which can be so useful for fact checkers later on. My own New Yorker cards say
"Lawrence Wright, Staff Writer." Such was my trust in the New Yorker copy
editors that for a whole year I was handing them out all over the world without
looking at them, until one day in Saudi Arabia a member of Saudi intelligence
looked at the card and burst out laughing. The card actually said, "Lawrence
Wright, Staff Writter."
Finally, here is a digital camera, which I've added in the last several
years. I doubt The New Yorker would ever use one of my photos, but they help me
remember faces and objects that I haven't had time to describe. Also, I learned in
writing my last book the value of taking photographs of your own because of the
cost of gaining the rights to pictures other people have taken. When I wrote The
Looming Tower, I spent thousands of dollars paying for photographs because I
didn't have the wit to take them at the time.
In the second compartment there's another zippered chamber where I
keep my receipts. I also keep a little money in here. An extra hundred dollars can
get you out of a lot of trouble.
When I'm traveling abroad, I keep my passport in this compartment,
and an extra credit card in case I lose my wallet. Here are my pens and pencils and
highlighters. The workhorse in this category is my Waterford medium nib fountain
pen. I know it seems like an affectation, and it often stains your fingers, and I
sometimes have made the mistake of carrying it in my pocket on an airplane and
have had it leak all over my shirt. But if you take a lot of notes – and I may spend
ten hours in a day constantly writing as fast as I can – you will pay for it. A
fountain pen diminishes the physical toll. A rollerball pen would probably do as
well. The point is to eliminate as much friction as possible. Of course, you also
have to carry ink. It's messy and old fashioned, like smoking a pipe, but it is still
the best way to write for long periods of time.
This is a little antique Nokia phone that I take with me when I travel
abroad. It doesn't work in all countries, but it does in most of the places I go. As
soon as I arrive, I purchase a new chip to turn it into a local phone. Of course, I
carry an iPhone in my pocket as well, but I want my contacts to be able to reach
me without making an international call.
This is my digital voice recorder, the newest addition to my pack. It's
a nifty, lightweight Olympus that records more than forty hours of conversation,
then breaks apart into a flash drive. It replaces the minidisk tape recorder that I
carried for years. I always try to tape my interviews, unless my subject forbids it.
In my office, I have a Radio Shack device that allows me to record my phone
conversations. Recordings provide a record that should work in your favor, in case
lawsuits ever arise. Thankfully, I've only been sued once in my professional
career. It was by a very colorful, famously obnoxious atheist, Madelyn Murray
O'Hair, who had participated in the lawsuit that outlawed prayer in public schools.
When you're sued, a marshal comes to your door and hands you a paper that says,
"You've been sued." It's very clear. My wife told the marshal, "Wait a minute, let
me get the camera." As the marshal put her arm around me for the photo, she said,
'This has never happened to me before.'" Me, either.
That lawsuit could have been troublesome except for the recorder,
which made it something other than my word against hers. Because of that, O'Hair
sued me for something other than libel, which she could never prove. The famous
advocate of free speech charged me with "using her famousness without her
permission." She was seeking $18 million. Fortunately, it was thrown out of court.
Madelyn O'Hair was later murdered, her body cut up in small pieces and buried in
a shallow grave in West Texas. I had nothing to do with that. But I like to tell the
story in case anyone else might be thinking of legal action.
In 1992, I was writing a profile of Ross Perot for The New York
Times magazine. He was running for president at the time, one of the strangest
candidacies in American political history, and as it turned out, a decisive factor in
electing Bill Clinton to his first term. I happened to ask Perot about his attitude
toward homosexuals. "I've got nothing against them," he told me. "Of course, I've
never met one." Soon after the article came out, Perot's campaign manager called
me demanding a retraction. "Ross does know a homosexual," he said. "He's got
two lesbians on his staff." Well, that's not what he told me. So I faxed a transcript
of that portion of the interview to the campaign manager, who called back
apologetically, saying that he had been pressured into making the demand. "Ross
is going to Seattle this afternoon, and he's got twenty thousand homosexuals
waiting at the airport to introduce themselves."
Ah, I can't help you with that one.
The recorder also plays a more subtle role. Often, the relationship
between a reporter and his source inclines toward something else, friendship, or
the kind of intimacy that naturally arises between two people who are deeply
interested in the same subject. The recorder on the table reminds both of us that we
are not friends, at least not now, and that what is said here doesn't stay here. There
are consequences to the words that pass between us. Unless I've been told that we
are off the record, I'm going to use those words. Even if we are officially off the
record, I'll fight to get essential quotes on the record. The recorder reminds both of
us that my real loyalty is to the reader, and I don't want to keep secrets from him.
Along with the recorder come, of course, extra batteries, Energizer
Max are my preference.
I also have in here a stack of 4X6 note cards. This probably looks
comical to you, but it's the heart of my system. I can't possibly remember
everything I've heard or read in the course of a story, so I go through my notes and
my research and I write down the points that interest me on these cards. Simply by
doing that, and by labeling those cards, I have begun to outline my article or book.
I resorted to this method as a young writer, when I found that, instead of writing, I
was often spending too much time trying to put my hands on a reference for
something I had read or been told. With the cards, everything is right at hand. It's
laborious, I admit, but I argue that it saves time in the end, because the writing
actually goes rather quickly when you have everything sorted out.
The cards are a net that I drag through the material. They help me
retrieve pertinent information and catch contradictions that can be invaluable. For
instance, when I was writing about Madelyn O'Hair, I noticed that she kept
claiming in various interviews over the years that she had graduated from law
school, or had a doctorate in philosophy, or medicine, or theology – eventually I
toted up twenty-three schools and eleven colleges she claimed to have attended,
with about as many degrees. The section in my card file labeled "O'Hair,
education," grew suspiciously large. I began calling the colleges to see if she had
ever attended. It turned out the only advanced degree she had was from a law
school in South Texas. The cards proved that she was a liar.
Now we come to the middle section, where I keep my notes. I use
letter-sized legal pads. At the top, I number the pad. When I was writing The
Looming Tower, I filled 85 of these pads. On the left margin, I keep an index of
the interviews. For instance, if I am in Khartoum interviewing Abu Rida al-Suri,
who was with bin Laden in the jihad in Afghanistan and became his business
manager, I'll write his name here. If I interview him more than once using the
same pad, I'll write a little "a" or "b" beside his name. Let's say it's pad number 42,
and I've interviewed him four times on this pad. I coordinate that with the
recordings. So if I want to check something in my notes in our last conversation, I
can go to "Abu Rida al-Suri, 42 d," and listen to what was said. If there are a lot of
these pads, I may put plastic tabs on the edges so that I can easily pick up the tab
that contains the interview I need. The point is to make things readily accessible,
right at hand, so I don't have to slow down the writing process.
I always carry a couple extra legal pads, and another pad that
contains my list of contacts. This is one of two such lists from my last book. I
began this list soon after 9/11. I knew I had to write about this event, which was in
so many ways a defining moment in our history, but how do you take such a vast
tragedy and make it human? Although I am on the staff of The New Yorker, I live
in Austin, Texas, and flights were grounded after the event. How could find a way
to get into the story? I began by reading obituaries that were streaming online at
the time, coming in by the hundreds. Three or four days after 9/11, on the
Washington Post site, I found an obit for John O'Neill, who had been the head of
counterterrorism for the FBI's office in New York. He had been forced out of the
bureau because he had taken classified information out of the office, a violation of
the rules. When he died on 9/11, he was the head of security at the World Trade
Center. The obit made him sound like a disgrace. I didn't know if he was a hero or
an incompetent bureaucrat. All I knew is that he was a way into the story. Through
John O'Neill, I could take the reader inside the world of counterterrorism and tell
the story of our failure to stop the attack. O'Neill was the man in charge of getting
bin Laden, but instead, bin Laden got him.
While still trapped at home, I began taking down names of people
who reported to have attended O'Neill's funeral. When I got their phone numbers,
I'd write them on the margin, and when I finally interviewed them, I would cross
them off the list with a highlighter. At the end of every interview, my last question
is, "Who else should I talk to?" That way, the obvious people lead me to names
that are more obscure, the people they would talk to if they were in my position.
And when I talk to that next cohort, I ask the same final question. In that way, the
roots begin to sink deep in the soil.
There are fifty pages on a standard legal pad and 29 lines on each
page, so one pad can hold 1450 names. I filled up one and a half of these pads with
names. Of course, I couldn't talk to everyone of them, a little more than 600 was
the actual tally, but the list describes the universe of people who inhabit the story
I'm writing about. When you run out of new names, you know you're touching
The contact list serves another function. It intimidates people. It is
visible evidence of your commitment to the story. When I pull out my list, I can
see the eyes pop. Just to heighten the impression, I use different colored
highlighters to check off the names, which gives the false impression that there's
some kind of sophisticated code involved. It's nothing more than voodoo to
gobsmack the natives, but it's especially effective with intelligence operatives,
who are trained to see more than is actually there. I've had sturdy FBI agents go
goggle-eyed when I show them the names, and more than once one of them has
corrected a statement had made earlier in the interview because he knew he wasn't
going to get away with it. I had him surrounded.
In this compartment, I also carry my itinerary and my reading
matter. I'm like Woody Allen, who said he has to buy a newspaper to ride on an
elevator. I also carry the book I'm reading at the moment. Rarely is it for pleasure.
When I was working on "The Looming Tower," I went five years without reading
a novel, an appalling sacrifice for me. The book I have in here now is a biography
of Richard Burton, who is a character in a play I'm writing about the making of the
movie "Cleopatra" in 1962. When I run across a passage I find interesting, I draw
a circle around it and label it. For instance, on page 134, the author, Melvin Bragg,
writes about Burton's legendary drinking while playing Camelot on Broadway:
One matinee day Burton took on a bet that he could drink
a bottle of vodka during the matinee and another during the
evening performance – while acting – with no effect. Julie
Andrews – unaware of this – was to be the judge. "What did
you think I was like today then, luv?" he asked at the end of
the day. "A little better than usual," she replied.
That passage gets circled and labeled "Burton - drink" for when I go
back and type up the cards.
Now we come to the last compartment, which is empty. It's where
my laptop goes. I don’t take it with me on interviews – right now, it's back in my
hotel room. I know a lot of reporters use it to take notes, but for me it's more
awkward than writing longhand.
That's my backpack. The tools I've laid out for you describe how I
gather the information and sort it into usable bits. Now I'll talk about the actual
The first thing I look for in trying to tell a story is a great character
whose life can take us on a meaningful journey. I think of this figure as a donkey.
I don't mean that disrespectfully. A donkey is a beast of burden. If the reader cares
about your character, you can load him up with information that would otherwise
be no more than data points but which gain significance and emotional resonance
when they carried by a serviceable donkey. I mentioned John O'Neill. I had no
idea when I began to write his story what a fabulous character he would turn out to
be – colorful, demanding, impetuous, heroic, and so reckless that he had three
women who believed themselves to be engaged to him, even though he had a wife
and two children in New Jersey. They all met at his funeral. What a great donkey!
I knew the reader would fall in love with him, with his struggle, his giant character
flaws, his uproarious humor. And because of that, I could load the entire saga of
our doomed mission to protect America on O'Neill's sturdy back. He was my first
I knew that bin Laden would serve as a second donkey, not just
because he organized 9/11 but because he killed John O'Neill. There were agents
in the FBI who told me that they actually believed that bin Laden selected the
trade center because he knew O'Neill worked there. That's not literally true, but in
a dramatic sense, it was. Their lives were fatally intertwined.
The Saudis, however, wouldn't give me a visa as a reporter. For
more than a year and four months after 9/11, I made one application after another.
Finally, I went to Egypt, where I had taught at the American University in Cairo
many years before. I had decided to write about Ayman el-Zawahiri, the number-
two man in al-Qaeda, the doctor who was always at bin Laden's side. I'm now
grateful for the Saudi's reluctance to let me in, because I learned that it was in
Egypt that radical Islam was born. Zawahiri was the donkey who could take me
into that world – Zawahiri, an ideologue who had started a cell to overthrow the
Egyptian government when he was 15 years old, creating the organization that
would later form the core of al-Qaeda. To this day, al-Qaeda is an Egyptian body
with a Saudi head on it.
Finally, I simply had to go to Saudi Arabia. Since the Saudis weren't
going to let me in as a reporter, I took a job. I became the mentor to a group of
young reporters at a newspaper in Jeddah, bin Laden's hometown. It was the best
piece of bad luck, because instead of being a reporter in a hotel room, making
calls, trying to get an interview, I had an apartment in a middle-class Saudi flat, a
car, a job I had to go to everyday, and all these young reporters teaching me far
more about their society than I could ever have learned as a journalist. It was a
humbling to realize how blinkered the reporter's vision really is.
While I was there, I met my fourth donkey, an elegant figure of
artful deception named Prince Turki al-Faisal, son of one of Saudi Arabia's most
powerful kings. Turki's story could take me into the royal family, of course, but he
had also been head of Saudi intelligence during the Afghan jihad, and had worked
with bin Laden during that time.
The mingled biographies of these four men – O'Neill, Zawahiri, bin
Laden, and Turki – form the architecture of my book.
Donkeys are essential, but the writer also needs scenes. Perhaps I
think more scenically because of my experience as a screenwriter and playwright,
but great scenes are a part of any driving narrative. When you run upon a
promising scene in your research, you have an artistic obligation to report it like
crazy. Moreover, a great scene allows you to fill in information that as a writer
you hate – the boilerplate stuff, the obligatory business you have to get through
but you're afraid if you do, you'll lose the reader. In The Looming Tower, there is a
scene where radical Muslims take over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. It's
significant because the bin Laden family built that mosque, and Osama himself
was placed under house arrest afterwards, although there's no evidence he was
involved. The event certainly influenced him. It is the moment that Prince Turki
walks on the stage. He has flown in from Tunis and arrives outside the mosque
where the army has set up camp. Just as he opens a door to go into the hotel where
a temporary headquarters has been set up, a shot rings out and the glass door
shatters in his hands.
I love it when shots ring out. Compelling events awaken the reader,
but they also provide opportunities for the writer, because once somebody has
pulled the trigger, literally or metaphorically, you know that the reader will keep
going until he finds out what happens. That's a strategic moment for the writer to
pause and paint the background – in this case, the tangled bargain between the
Saudi royal family and the Wahhabi clerics, and the longlasting personal ties with
the bin Ladens. A friend of mine calls this the Rubber Band Technique. When you
plant a question in the reader's mind – e.g., what happens then? – you don't answer
it right away. No. The reader tolerates the obligatory information because he
knows that the guns are about to blaze again, and there's something delicious about
drawing out the anticipation. It's that tension that keeps the pages turning. When
you finally do let the rubber band fly, there's a sense of release that is all the more
pleasurable for being fully appreciated.
It's perfectly fair in nonfiction to use direct quotes and attribute
thoughts to your characters, so long as you have interviewed them and asked them
what they said or thought at the time. Often you will find direct dialogue in court
records. When I was writing Remembering Satan, about a case of "recovered
memory," in which a deputy sheriff in Olympia, Washington, went to prison for
committing a crime that didn't actually occur, I happened to arrive at a time when
the last appeal had been heard and the records, including the recorded police
interrogations, were just sitting in the clerk's office. I knew, as a writer, that I had
before me the same tools that a novelist finds in his imagination, and it was all
there in twelve huge volumes. I practically wept with joy.
One last footnote – about footnotes. When Hemingway was asked
how do you write a novel, he replied, "Take out all the crap." That's one of the
hardest lessons any writer has to learn. Fortunately, for the non-fiction writer,
there's a closet to put those hard-earned treasures that are so difficult to surrender
but which impede the flow of the narrative. The footnotes are my favorite part of
the writing process. It's the most indulgent part of the book, where I can express
personal feelings, pay off debts of previous scholarship, acknowledge ambivalence
and contradictions. Few people ever bother to actually read the notes, but there the
writer is freer to be himself than anywhere else in the work.
At last, we have come to the words every writer loves: The End.