Joshua Henkin on the Writer’s Continuous Learning Process
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
This week, Joshua Henkin joins Mitzi to discuss his new novel, Morningside Heights, out now from Pantheon Books.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: As a writer and an artist, how much do other writers help you grow? And you’re also a teacher—how do you learn there?
Joshua Henkin: I think you’re always learning up, down, and sideways. I have writer friends who don’t want to teach and wouldn’t begin to know how to teach—it’s just not their thing. And in some ways, with me, it was the opposite. I always had a good critical sense and I had to teach myself to become a more instinctive writer. The way I became a fiction writer is that in my early to mid-20s, I was working at a magazine at the California Bay Area and one of my jobs at the magazine was to be the first reader of fiction manuscripts. I saw how many terrible ones there were. I didn’t necessarily think I could do any better, but I thought if other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to do the same. So, I started to write fiction. I was a natural critic, and I was a less natural writer. I eventually I became a natural writer, but I had to learn how to do that. And so that’s my way of saying that yes, to this day, my graduate students teach me things. And I think figuring out what’s not working in someone else’s story, and what is working in someone else’s story can help you figure out how to make things work in your own story. I think a writer never stops learning.
Mitzi Rapkin: What’s the difference for you between an instinctive versus a critical writer?
Joshua Henkin: It’s a somewhat false dichotomy. But I guess I do think I had certain things that were instinctively strong in my work, even from the start. I had a real sense of language, but I think that I’ve seen writers who do things right, but don’t even realize why they’re doing things right. And then I’ve seen writers who understand much more of what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. The first kind of writer is ideal for a first draft; the second kind of writer is ideal for revision. If you don’t really learn craft, it’s hard to revise well. So, I think you need both things in some ways. But I think different people start from different vantage points. My dad was a law professor. I grew up with the more analytic brain. I grew up in a family that was that way. I studied Talmud as a kid. So, I was used to thinking more analytically. That’s an important way to think in fiction for a second draft and a hundredth draft. For a first draft, you want to be more instinctive, but also the dichotomy between being instinctive and being non-instinctive breaks down. I remember David Foster Wallace, in addition to being a really accomplished writer, was also a serious Junior tennis player. The New York Times Magazine used to have, for three or four times a year, a special sports supplement. In one of those supplements, David Foster Wallace had a profile on Roger Federer and in the course of the article, he talked about the term learned instinct. And that seems contradictory—instinct seems not learned. But I think what he was getting at is that you can learn to be more instinctive—that you’re going to hit the tennis ball over and over and over again. And what you’re doing originally, pretty mechanically, you end up doing more intuitively. So, I think you can train yourself to be more intuitive even though that seems like a contradiction in terms.
Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Morningside Heights, Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book, Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and The World Without You, winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for American Jewish Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.