What are your deepest questions?

Dear Writing Friends,

I managed to spend the better part of last Saturday at the Texas Book Festival, which takes place every year at the State Capitol in Austin. It was a glorious fall day, cool and sunny, and the grounds were crawling with glitterati. Attendees stood in lines winding around the Capitol rotunda and into its halls, sometimes for an hour, to get into sessions.

The three events I attended took place in the Texas House Chamber, which is quite grand with its gold and white, coffered ceilings, hanging chandeliers, and wood paneling. The authors spoke from an elevated podium with American and Texas flags behind them, while members of the audience sat in the wide leather armchairs normally occupied by state senators. Each of the writers I had the privilege to hear addressed the questions and obsessions that drove their work. I share them with you here.


Robert Caro began his remarks by addressing a question he frequently gets at these types of events: Don’t you get bored writing about the same person over and over again? No, he does not. Caro was never concerned with writing the great man biography. His passion has always been power.

He said he was “interested in a man’s life for the ways it could illuminate the forces that shaped his time, especially with regard to the use of political power.”

Caro’s latest installment of gargantuan tomes on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage to Power, focuses on the forty-seven days between the Kennedy assassination, when Johnson took power as President of the United States, and his first State of the Union address, by which time he was able to harness the powers of the presidency to pass John F. Kennedy’s entire legislative agenda.



The moderator for this session, Elizabeth McCracken, asked O’Brien about the blurring of fact and fiction in his work. He said that the ambiguity in his books echoed an unacknowledged ambiguity in the larger culture. For example, he pointed to the plaque outside the building emblazoned with the Ten Commandments including, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and contrasted it with his experience as a soldier in Viet Nam, where he was commanded to kill. O’Brien shared the ethical ambiguity in his decision whether or not to go to Viet Nam in the first place.  Should he enroll because he loved his country? Or escape to Canada because he didn’t believe in the war?

 “Those kinds of human choices are the crux of fiction,” he said, “on both the moral and the dramatic plane.”

 They are the kind of situations he likes to put his characters in, letting those difficult decisions drive them. By the by, in the course of conversation, he mentioned that of all the novels he had written, The Lake of the Woods was his favorite.



Much of the conversation with Cheryl Strayed centered on the tremendous success of her memoir, Wild, which hit the New York Times bestseller list the week after it was published and caused Oprah to reignite her book club, so moved was she by Strayed’s story. Strayed told the audience flat out that she had been so busy keeping up with the buzz of her current book, there were so many opportunities and invitations to speak and sign, she had little time to write. It was late in the day and while I was thrilled for this young woman with two small children to be enjoying such huge literary success (go team!), I wasn’t in the mood to hear about the culinary selections at book club meetings where Wild was begin discussed (they were eating camping food—that stuff in the pouches they give to astronauts). I thought about leaving early, but changed my mind when Strayed began talking about the questions she was often asked at signings. She said that people always had stories about their friends or brother’s or aunt’s big adventure, some dangerous situation they had survived, and did she think they should write a book about it? Is this person a writer? she would ask them.

 For a writer, Strayed said, it’s not the experiences we have, but the consciousness we bring to bear on our experiences. Her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail was her way of healing herself from a horrible grief, her mother’s sudden death that led her to bottom out at the age of twenty. In making the journey, and later in writing the book, the question she continually asked herself was how to bear the unbearable.

 What are your deepest questions? What gnaws at you? Answer by setting your timer for ten minutes—and keep your hand moving. Drop me a line and let me know how it goes.


My best to each of you,



P.S. I am in the process of transforming my business, website, and newsletter to include other art forms, interviews, and shorter posts. I’ll also be more up to date with links and widgets and other technological wonders that will allow you to do things like subscribe and unsubscribe to my list. In the meantime, if you would like to be automatically included in mailings, let me know. If you no longer wish to receive my missives, let me know that, too. I won’t hold it against you.

 P.P.S. There is still time to enroll for Writing Deep, Writing True, A Day of Meditation and Writing, Saturday, November 10, at the Writing Barn. For more information and to register, go to www.writersleague.org/calendar/WritingDeepWritingTrue.

(C) 2011 Saundra Goldman