Tom Bissell Explains How a Great Film Editor Can Help Writers

By Jason Boog Comment

What’s your favorite creative writing handbook?

Today’s guest on the Morning Media Menu podcast was journalist and author Tom Bissell. While talking about his new book, Magic Hours, Bissell shared the creative writing book that he made all his creative writing students read–an unexpected title about the art of film editing.

Check it out: “I have a really weird one I use that I’ll pass on to the GalleyCat audience: Michael Ondaatje‘s series of  interviews with the film editor Walter Murch. The book is called The Conversations. It’s about art and mostly film editing, but the stuff that they talk about in film editing is so incredibly applicable to fiction writing that I make all of my students read that book. It is a hugely helpful primer on what thinking like an artist means and what thinking like a creative person means and ways to avoid hackneyed thinking as a creator.”

Bissell (pictured, via) concluded the podcast by explaining how he decided what obsessions to follow in his own work, explaining that “ambivalence is our friend.” Here’s a long excerpt from the interview:

I think people who know my stuff know I spent several awful months strung out on cocaine and playing video games … I didn’t know when I was going through this experience that I was going to write what I think is one of the best things I’ve ever written (which is a chapter [in Extra Lives] about cocaine and Grand Theft Auto). No one would have said ‘Tom, this is a great obsession. You should pursue this for literary gain.’

But I think when the time came to write about that part of my experience with video games, I had the good sense to a) not do drugs anymore and b) to step back and look at it, not in a condemnatory way, not in a celebratory way and not in a naughty-memoir sort of way, but to actually look back and remember what it felt like.

So the obsessions you know you should write about are things that a) can’t let go of you and b) things that you are ambivalent about–that’s key. No one wants to read some Dungeons and Dragons geek write this ecstatic memoir about what a great Dungeon Master he was, but for very different reasons, people do want to read a wry, amused look back at a wayward youth spent Dungeon-Mastering.

Why this is, why ambivalence is our friend and we approach it and trust it as an audience when it comes to nonfiction, I have no idea. To me that’s a key part of what influences me, ambivalence. That’s what drives my interest as a writer as well.