Poetry News

Distracted Writing with Chris Abani

By Harriet Staff


At Sampsonia Way, Joshua Barnes talks to poet and novelist Chris Abani about books, writing, editing, and limits. We love what Abani has to say about his writing practice, and appreciate the distractions he needs and allows to filter through his writing. Abani says:

I write everything longhand first. I grew up in West Africa so computers only started to be commonly used when I was around 26. I’m used to writing everything by hand and then transcribing it onto the computer, so that’s already my first step of editing.

I’m also very old school; I don’t like editing on a screen. For me, it’s a process of transcription, erasure, print, transcription, erasure, print.

Sometimes a month will go by and nothing happens, and then there’s a week where I don’t leave the house. If it comes during summers when I’m not teaching, I can do 72-hour stretches. Usually within two to three months I’ll end up with a strong first draft.

Additionally, a lot of my work comes from lying in front of the television, moving my thumb and changing channels. When I’m working on a computer, there’s always a window—either Hulu or Netflix—open and a TV show or a film playing. I can’t write while it’s quiet. I grew up in a very noisy house and if it’s too quiet I get distracted. I need a background hum that I can pull away from. Years ago, in London, I used to take the train to Heathrow Airport and write in the departure lounge just to have energy around. I need distractions all the time.

Abani goes on to say some smart things about editing and its relationship to writing:

People think that writing is writing, but actually, writing is editing. Otherwise, you’re just taking notes. In a sense, the entire project of writers is to figure out their process.

For me, the process almost always starts with a title and then fragments of images and, sometimes, a character will emerge. Then I start to chase the idea and find that maybe 17, 18 drafts later the novel or poetry book is completely different from where I started.

In the case of some novels I scrap 299 of 300 pages and start again. I do what a close friend and one of my teachers told me: “Don’t go back to cut and paste. Locate what is left, read it, and then start afresh.” What happens is that 80% of what you just jettisoned comes back, rearranged in the new direction it needs to go in.

Part of my revision process consists of testing and asking how much wider the circle of influences can get before cutting it back. It’s a process of layering and removing; it takes months, years and is fed by different things.

As a whole it’s difficult to give a simple answer to this question because, for me, the process is very collage-driven, very expansive. I like to push things almost to the point of failure. If you have a spectacular failure as a work of art, it usually means you’re in uncharted territory, you’ve moved the form forward—if not for the genre, then at least for yourself. A friend of mine, Junot Díaz, says that the only time you’re doing something new is when you’re lost, and I love that.

And we love that! Check out the full interview here.

Originally Published: September 13th, 2013