Diane McWhorter is an American journalist and author who has received many accolades thus far in her career including the Pulitzer Prize for her book Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution about the Civil Rights Movement. She is also a contributor to The New York Times, USA Today, and Slate.
Howl: At what age did you decide you wanted to be a journalist?
McWhorter: Initially I wanted to be a novelist. I lived in Paris my junior year of college, and while there read the last three volumes of Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” practically without leaving my apartment. That’s what made me want to write fiction, but I just didn’t have the chops. I was a literature major, so after college the only thing I felt sort of competent to do was review books. I took baby steps from there, branching out into features and essays, and finally long-form magazine articles. That’s what prepared me best for book writing—it’s helpful to always have to be asking yourself, as you do when you’re writing for magazines: What’s the story?
I’m sure adults are always advising you to “find your passion.” That expression drives me nuts. For one thing, it’s not helpful—commanding someone to find passion is sort of the opposite of what passion is. But it’s also wrongheaded: Most people find their passion when they’re doing something else—and often it’s something that they have to do rather than want to do. So, I kind of got where I ended up by accident—not because I was out there looking for my passion.
Howl: How did you feel about being awarded the Pulitzer Prize?
McWhorter: Oh, I hated that; it was terrible. No, that was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I have to tell my girls that giving birth to them was the very best thing that happened to me, but this was right up there—and I don’t have to worry about where my Pulitzer is at 2 in the morning. I’ve found that when you achieve something that you’ve worked really hard for, it usually doesn’t turn to mean what you maybe fantasized it would. But this was something that surpassed anything I could have hoped for and really changed my life. It seems to make people look at you differently. Having said that, I must add that it doesn’t really change the work. Writing is excruciatingly hard, so it’s not like all of a sudden the work’s going to get easy. My day-to-day life hasn’t changed that much. It usually takes me about three drafts before I get a piece of writing close to where it needs to be. So, guys, don’t ever show anyone your first drafts.
Howl: What made you so interested in race and the history of the Civil Rights?
McWhorter: Certainly growing up in Birmingham during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. But I didn’t realize I was going to do write “Carry Me Home” until I was in my late twenties. I had left Alabama for college in the northeast, and assumed I’d never go back there, physically or spiritually. So you just don’t know where things are going to lead you. Coming from Alabama turned out to be one of the best things for me professionally. The current book I’m working on is also about Alabama.
Howl: On that note, aren’t you writing a book about the Nazis and the V-2 rocket?
McWhorter: Yes, during the Cold War, when we were in a race with the Russians to get to the moon, the people who built our (winning) moon rocket had actually worked for Hitler during World War II. They were Nazi Germany’s top rocket engineers—and had created the first ballistic missile, the first rockets to pierce outer space. We “procured” them—that’s the language that our military used—to come work for us (and the Soviets got some of the German “brains” as well). They ended up in Huntsville, Alabama, at the time that the state was the major battleground of the civil rights movement. Nobody’s ever done space as an Alabama story. Alas, this book’s turning out to be harder than the previous one—I’ve had to master World War II and I won’t say rocket science, but maybe a little engineering.
The thing about writing narrative nonfiction the way I do is that you sort of put yourself in the shoes of the characters you’re writing about, which means that there’s a “knowing” tone. So it’s doubly embarrassing if you make a mistake—for example if I’m writing about some engineering operation and use the wrong preposition, any engineer reading it will catch on that I’m an amateur. But I can’t pretend that I’m going to become an engineer in order to write the book—so the way I’ll finesse it is to have an engineer or two read the manuscript to make sure I’ve got the language as well as the mechanics down.
When I’m writing, I have to be able to picture in my mind what I’m describing. Think about what the reader needs to see in order to take in the meaning of what you’re saying. If you can’t picture it, then chances are the reader can’t either. Often the detail that makes a scene spring to life is tiny in its particularity. Another thing to keep in mind is that there needs to be analysis embedded in almost any description. The reader shouldn’t actively notice it, but you need to know why you’re choosing certain details over others.
Howl: In non-fiction, the author typically writes about what they know. What advice do you have for a budding writer, or more specifically, a budding writer who feels that they don’t have enough experience to get that inspiration?
McWhorter: When I was in college, I talked my way into a poetry writing class taught by Robert Pinsky, who went on to become Poet Laureate. He was young—like maybe thirty years old—but he was intimidating, and withering. My poems were pathetic, because I just had no ideas about what to write about. I’d be tearing my hair out before class because I thought I had nothing to say. And it turned out that all the material in my first book, Carry Me Home, happened before I went to college, so a lot of it was already “in” me. But at the time I didn’t have access to it. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I began to see in my childhood something worth writing about. But in the meantime I had worked on my craft. And when the right idea came along, I was ready. Well, sort of. I never feel “ready.” But whatever you do to develop your craft will serve you when you finally get your inspiration.—or, dare I say, “passion.”
You should all keep a journal. Don’t write down you hopes-dreams- and-fears. That’s likely to trigger the gag reflex when you go back and read it. Write down the crazy things you see and hear around you. I am so happy I did that. I could have never remembered that nutty stuff—the accidental poetry, the accidental stupidity; it’s just fantastic for writers. And if you’re keeping a diary of your life specifically, just describe events without worrying about getting down your “feelings.” You will thank yourself for being able to recover experience that otherwise—I guarantee—will be lost to you.
Howl: Of all the events that happened for the inspiration for your stories, how do you decide what goes into the story and what gets edited out?
McWhorter: That’s what I’ve been doing the last week and a half with the new book—trying to boil my manuscript down to the essential stuff. Carry Me Home ended up being about a thousand pages long in manuscript, but the original was 3,400 pages. So I had to cut it by more than two-thirds. Hemingway supposedly said, “Once I understand it, then I can take it out.” So a caveat about “show, don’t tell,” which I know you’ve been told a million times. Sometimes you’re showing stuff because you don’t quite understand it, so you’re just kind of laying it out there to let the reader make of it what she may. In Carry Me Home, I found that if I was writing something that couldn’t be summarized, it was because I didn’t understand it. Usually I’d have to do more research in order to understand– in other words, do more work to produce less copy. So there are times when you need to “tell, don’t show,” and that’s when the reader has to know something in order to understand what you’re “showing.”
The other advice is: You can’t fix things all at once. The first draft may be horrible. But rewriting is where the artistry takes over. When I’m starting a piece, I often just put down my random thoughts about the topic in a numbered list. And sometimes I will have tricked myself into writing a draft. I find outlines inhibiting as a starting point, but once you’ve got the list, then you can look at all the points and see how they fit together. And voila: outline. You have to be very forgiving of yourself. Let yourself write crap. But also be willing to get rid of a lot of stuff that’s good. It’s all got to serve the story, and even some of your best writing sometimes doesn’t.