By Kate Tattan
On a chilly Wednesday afternoon in February, Worcester State University students gathered in the warmth of Sheehan Hall among writers, aspiring journalists, English department staff, and most importantly, author and writer for the New York Times Anand Giridharadas. The meeting was a quiet, intimate affair – somewhat of a hidden secret. Giridharadas took the time to share some of his biggest secrets on journalism and the writer’s life.
In his most recent book, The True American, he challenges readers to look at one of the most controversial topics in America—Sept. 11—in a completely new way. By delving deep to where no journalist has gone before, Giridharadas unravels the intricate story of a man who has forgiven a murder and his attacker.
So how does he do it?
That’s exactly what Wednesday was all about. Giridharadas shared how to report on such an overwhelming topic with precise detail, all while convincing the reader to have a complete change of heart. True journalism, ladies and gentlemen.
“There’s power in specificity,” he told us. You can’t dwell on the fact that your topic may seem too big to handle. Focus on the little things; they make the story come to life.
He asked us to observe the room as an exercise. We all looked around the Sheehan multipurpose room, observing our surroundings as closely as possible.
A hand cautiously went up. A student noticed that the room had more men than women, and that many people were writing on notepads. Good—but not what Giridharadas was looking for. Again, a hand raises. Someone else describes the light coming through the window at a certain angle—still not it.
Just then, a new a hand raises. A young woman describes the lights that hang quite low all around the room. “They look like pasta,” she said, pointing at the wire that lights hung from, spinning her index finger in a swirl much like the wire. Exactly.
“Try to start seeing things weirdly,” Giridharadas said, nodding approvingly. “It’s all about the detail.” How many people would look at that light and think “pasta”? Giridharadas challenges writers to let their minds and eyes wander. If you do this, you begin to see things in a new way. It’s important that everyone sees and experiences completely different things.
“People overvalue their ideas and undervalue their experiences,” Giridharadas answers, after being asked how he finds his unique ideas. It’s not about the ideas, necessarily. The human experience has a value your ideas can’t hold a candle to. They hold a richness that can expose the true story. It is from there that the details flow.
That detail is in your experiences. It “brings you as close to reality as you can get” in writing, according to Giridharadas. Just write what you know. Do not focus on those overwhelming ideas you may have, but have not written about because it is too much. With experience, the overall idea will come.
That is precisely what Giridharadas did with his book The True American. He met one of the main characters in his own life and learned about this man’s unique story. It is through those experiences that the idea grew. He then knew what the message would be.
So, take value in what you experience. Do not dwell on the writing. Ironically, Giridharadas says, “Writing is not about writing, it’s about life. ”Don’t worry about whether you think people will care. You are unique and what you see, smell, taste, hear—whatever it may be—is different than the person sitting next to you. Share it.
Someone else asked how Giridharadas reported so largely on his characters. He told us that you have to find and create round characters. It takes work and a lot of digging, but a flat character will never do. It’s “making them universal,” or round, that can allow you to bring such an individual story to be of interest to so many readers.
“Find a way to relate the character to everyone else.” That is how he turned his beyond impressive journalism into a novel worth the read. Every single page of it.
One student wondered about the more material aspects of Giridharadas’ process, and thought to ask if he preferred to handwrite or type his pieces.
Giridharadas thought for a minute. He said typing was his obvious preference, describing how much he loves to use “Scrivener” to outline his work. It gives him the ability work within things—documents within documents. He “eats” from the top down, working through every little thing, taking one topic of the novel at a time. He said this process allows the writer to be more creative and less systematic, because you’re piecing things together.
But then he contradicted himself. He told us that handwriting is equally, if not more, valuable in the process because it gives the writer “an inability to change as much.” When you type you become “both a writer and an editor,” he said. Your tendency to stop and self-edit is much greater when typing, but handwriting makes it much more difficult. It allows the writer’s creativity to flow more freely.
It’s not as difficult as you might make it out to be. Again, focus on what you know. Writing can—and will—change the way people think.
“I really think more people should write,” Giridharadas concluded. “It shouldn’t be some specialized thing only some people do.”