Writer’s Block and Research

Sebastian Junger is a former war reporter, bestselling author, and award winning documentary filmmaker of Restrepo. He made a couple of key points about non-fiction writing recently on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, worth transcribing and sharing here:

Really there two kinds of writing: fiction and non-fiction. And the first step, if you’re a journalist — which I consider all non-fiction should be — the first thing you have to do is your research. You are writing about the real world and you need facts and quotes and interviews and all that. So my writing process really starts out in the world as I’m researching a story or in a library or on the Internet or wherever.

Fiction writers are trying to re-imagine the world in a way that’s never been done before, and reproduce it on the page and have people enter this fictional world and be riveted by it. And that’s where inspiration comes in, and that’s where you really have to be at your desk every morning because you never know when the ‘creative gods’ will speak to you.

But for a journalist, it’s much more like carpentry. You get the lumber, get the bricks, you build the basement and start putting it together. There’s a process, and a lot of inspiration in the actual language that you use. But it’s much more procedural than I think fiction writing probably is. . . .

I sit down with coffee and write for a couple hours. And if I feel that I’m blocked in my writing — I just can’t write the next section, I keep re-writing it, and it doesn’t work, and I get stuck — it’s not that I’m blocked, it’s that I don’t have enough research to write with power and knowledge about that topic. It’s not that I cannot find the right words, it’s that I don’t have the ammunition. I have not gone out into the world and brought back ‘the goods’ that I’m writing about.

You never want to solve a research problem with language. You never want to become such a fine writer that you can thread the needle and get through a thin patch in your research because you’re such a great prose artist.

Source: “Lessons from War, Tribal Societies, and a Non-Fiction Life” (May 22, 2016).

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