Dave Eggers on Writing from the Subconscious
This Week on the Talk Easy Podcast with Sam Fragoso
Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
Author Dave Eggers joins us for a bonus episode! We discuss his new novella, The Museum of Rain (5:26), our tendency to mythologize creation (13:57), and why the best art often comes from the subconscious (18:53). The flip-phone nature of this episode leads us to unpacking Dave’s anti-technology outlook (20:56), the radical rise of smartphones (28:40), his first experience with the power of journalism (31:12), and the origin of his non-profit, 826 Valencia (32:58). Then, as we leave, Dave walks us through his idea of a day well spent (40:52).
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From the episode:
Sam Fragoso: In The Museum of Rain you write, “If we believe there’s a dramatic origin story for every human endeavor, we deprive our species of the ability to simply conjure an idea. To just make stuff and do things.” This feels prescriptive in a way, especially in an era where I think we have a tendency to mythologize creation, to explain away how and why art comes from someone.
Dave Eggers: Yeah, it’s a terrible thing. I don’t know if it started with giving every superhero an origin story, but we so hurt the cause of art if it’s just the end product of some personal evolution or therapy or catharsis. We have to allow that serendipity of creation sometimes—that sometimes you just come up with something, and there is no tidy origin story for something. That’s kind of glorious and fun.
A painting would come into the brain of a painter, or a musical progression would just appear in the mind of a composer. It isn’t about these rosebud moments that I think have become easy currency. Everybody wants to know: when was that moment, what was that thing, and how does it tie into a birthday party where you didn’t get the cake you wanted when you were six, or whatever it is.
I think that Freud has entered and laid waste to so much of how we understand how art is made, and we need to extricate him from this before he destroys it completely. He has insinuated himself into every aspect of our lives, but this part of it is personal to me.
Sam Fragoso: Do you think this tendency to understand the origin story—to remove ambiguity from creation—does it feel generational to you? Or merely the byproduct of growing up in the age of information where so many of us believe there is a knowable, Googleable, rhyme and reason to everything?
Dave Eggers: I don’t think it’s new at all. This has been going on for a long time. In every biography of every writer, or in every analysis of any great work, they take it apart to the point where it’s lifeless and inert, and almost invariably that analysis is wrong and reductive. We have this need to put together some understandable moment of creation for everything. But I think it’s a mistake.I think we kill and take all the life out of anything when we overanalyze it.
Sometimes it comes from a place of love. You want to know everything about the making of something that you love, whether it’s a movie or poem. But I think that we have to also sort of resist the idea that it’s ever going to be completely knowable and that we’re going to have an easy, comprehensible story about the making of any one thing. We have got to allow the mystery and the magic of it—and also the fact that it’s almost impossible to recreate those conditions and know exactly how it all came together.
Ray Bradbury had a thing over his desk that said, “don’t think.” That was to tell him to really write from the subconscious. Whatever your subconscious is telling you to put down there is a better storyteller than the intellectual part of your brain.
Dave Eggers is the author of many books, among them The Eyes and the Impossible, The Circle, The Monk of Mokha, Heroes of the Frontier, A Hologram for the King, and What Is the What. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company, and co-founder of 826 Valencia, a youth writing center that has inspired over 70 similar organizations worldwide. Eggers is winner of the American Book Award, the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Education, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the TED Prize, and has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.