5 Lessons Anthony Doerr Taught Me About the Kind of Author I Want to Be
I'm on a roll with author talks this year. First Cheryl Strayed, then Sherman Alexie, and most recently Anthony Doerr. That's right---the author of All the Light We Cannot See, the novel that rocked me to my core in such a way I still have trouble articulating it even a year later.
And if you think Doerr is a good writer, you ought to hear him speak. He held the audience captive in a way I've never seen another speaker do. There were several things I learned from his talk, as well as the brief moments I got to spend with him as he was signing my book, that showed me the kind of author I want to be.
1) Be curious about everything. Yes, everything.
One of the things Doerr discussed in his talk was his insatiable thirst for knowledge, which started at a young age. He wanted to know the hows and whys of all the world's mysteries. As an adult, he realized how vital approaching the world with a sense of curiosity is and how that outlook can impact your writing.
Believe it or not, it was a cell phone conversation that sparked the first twinkle of what would become All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr was riding the subway in NYC in 2004 and was listening to a man talk on his cell phone. As soon as the subway car went underground, the call was dropped and the man pitched a fit. It led Doerr to wonder how we built the technology for two people to be able to talk to each other without wires. This led him to study the history of radio, which plays a large part of Werner's story line.
Approach every aspect of life as if you're an alien trying to understand earthling concepts for the first time. Have the curiosity of a child with the maturity of understanding of an adult.
2) Don't be afraid to wander. It's true that not all who wander are lost.
All too often we're pressured to set a goal and achieve it in the most direct way possible. This is never more true than in college. Pick a major, take the required classes, graduate. But that's not quite what Anthony Doerr did. He wanted to take a variety of classes, so he did. Any- and everything that interested him, he enrolled in.
Because the classes he took didn't have a clear connection that might result in a major approved by the university, his advisor accused him of being a dilettante. It is odd that at an institution with the purpose of intellectual curiosity there is the limit to the exploration of knowledge one is allowed to do.
Nonetheless, being a dilettante isn't the worst thing in the world. The only way you can learn something new is by trying it. Despite its connotation with a lack of professionalism or dedication, a dilettante is a wonderful thing to be, especially for an aspiring writer. They say write what you know, but if you don't try new things that will get old fast.
3) Take your sweet time. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither are masterpiece novels.
It took Anthony Doerr ten years to write All the Light We Cannot See. TEN YEARS. But that wasn't all he worked on during that decade---he wrote other books, too. He understands the fundamental nature of creativity: it can't be forced. Especially as a writer, you have to step back from your work, give it the time it needs to breathe, and come back to it when the timing is right. Sometimes that means it takes you ten years to write a novel, but when the novel is as flawless as All the Light We Cannot See, that decade of work is worth it.
Anyone can create a piece of art, but only a true artist can create a masterpiece. If you're not an artist yet, give yourself time to become one. Then give your work the care and attention it deserves to make it shine.
4) Take a public speaking class. Being an author is more just writing.
When you're really good at your art, you're going to be called to talk about it. You're going to be asked questions as a representative of your craft. This is good because it shows people trust you as an expert in what you do, and because it boosts sales, builds your brand, and strengthens your relationship with your fans. Too often I hear aspiring writers say they "just want to write" and not have to worry about "all that marketing stuff." Yeah, good luck with that. There's a reason the most famous authors do book tours and signings.
And when you do those book tours, you're going to have to talk---to a bunch of people at once, as well as individual people. Anthony Doerr gave the most engaging talk. He asked the audience questions, he showed pictures, and instead of just talking about his life, his rise to author fame, and how he wrote the book, he made the personal universal. For example, he didn't just tell the audience to approach life with curiosity---he illustrated how to do that by telling the story of his brother who worked in a lab, then showing us pictures of microscopic things and having us guess what they were.
That's the kind of public speaking prowess that separates the people who have the audience at rapt attention and those who have the audience wondering if what's happening on Facebook might be more interesting.
5) Always be gracious to your fans. ALWAYS.
Needless to say, there were several hundred people there to see Anthony, and many of them had multiple books. The event started at 7:30pm and his talk ran for an hour, then he started signing books. When you've got a couple hundred people with close to a thousand books, you know you're going to be there awhile.
As luck (or the lack thereof) would have it, I was at the tail end of the line. I could've shook hands with the unfortunate soul who was dead last. It was after 10:30pm before I got my book signed. As I approached the table, I figured he would be tired and his hand would be cramping. As much as I wanted my book signed, I started wondering if maybe I should leave so he'd have one less book to sign and one less person to talk to. But as I neared the table I saw that he looked just as lively as he did onstage hours before. Big smile, cheerful disposition, and even making jokes.
What surprised me even more was that he didn't just sign his name and move on, he talked to each person. He asked the woman ahead of me what she'd been doing over the weekend and if she enjoyed it. And I discovered upon getting my own book signed that he wrote a personal message. While I'm sure some of those messages were repeats, I was impressed that he didn't just sign his name.
It was then that I realized why it took several hours to get my book signed. He treated every person like he was legitimately grateful they were there. He understood that even as tired as he was, each person in that line came for the sole purpose of expressing their admiration for his work. Anthony Doerr treated every single person in that line like they mattered. It was well worth the wait.
All that to say, if you have the opportunity to hear Anthony Doerr speak, GO. Especially if you're a writer.