Q: You’ve written quite a few books. Are you done now?
Clay: Not at all. I’d like to say I am just getting started but I recently observed my 60th birthday and the clock has begun to tick. I would like to write at least five more books, and finish my big one on Thomas Jefferson, The Paradox of Thomas Jefferson. If I had the right sort of life rhythm, advances and travel opportunities, I’d write a book every year for the next ten at least. I love to write. I love even more to have written.
Q: What is your best book?
Clay: I think The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness. The most inspiring sentence I ever read about writing was by the English poet John Milton, who said he aspired to write “something so written to aftertimes that they will not willingly let it die.” That’s precisely what I wish to do. I think my Character of Meriwether Lewis has already influenced the discourse in Lewis and Clark studies. Even people who disagree with my views have adopted some part of them, I think. I do believe that my Lewis book is the most important book ever written about Lewis per se. There are much better books about the Lewis and Clark expedition, of course, but my book is an attempt to get to the heart of the mystery of Meriwether Lewis. I think it essential reading for anyone who wants to try to understand Lewis, even if you wind up disagreeing with my conclusions. If I could put only one book in a time capsule, that would be it. And I don’t think it is going to be allowed to die, as long as there is interest in Lewis and Clark. But I could be full of beans. I’m with Woody Allen, who said he showed his magnum opus on metaphysical reality to his girlfriend, who reported back that it read likeAirport 1975. I’m with Socrates: the creator is not the best judge of his or her creation.
Q: Have you ever thought about writing a novel?
Clay: I have indeed, though I have no idea whether I could write a good one. I’ve begun a novel about white-Indian relations in North Dakota. I hope to finish it in the next year.
Q: What’s it about?
Clay: It is about the cultural divide between Anglo-Europeans and Native Americans. My home is North Dakota. We are exceptionally fortunate in North Dakota to have Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Dakota, Assiniboine, Ojibwe, and Lakota people among us. But the two cultures live across a great divide. Indians know white people much better than white people know Indians, of course, because they have to live in two worlds, but white people are content to live in only one. The average white North Dakotan doesn’t really understand why Indians struggle. In fact, the average white person says, “Why cannot they get over it?”
My novel is the story of a friendship between a young white boy and a Hidatsa girl. Not a romance, but an improbable friendship. They get to explore each other’s worlds, and they wind up making a very long road trip together through the heart of the North American “underground.” My goal is to help start a dialogue between the two cultures. I believe that cultural healing begins with honest, sometimes painful, dialogue.
Q: When will it be done?
Clay: I’m about 35,000 words into it, about a fifth of the total. I’d like it to be done on my 61st birthday, February 2016.
Q: How did you learn to write?
Clay: Of course, I do not consider myself a great writer. I’m a good enough writer. Sometimes I wish I could reboot, as in after a stroke, and learn to write in a much simpler and more direct way.
What I know about writing I learned from great mentors. Mike Jacobs, who is perhaps North Dakota’s most gifted prose stylist, is a master of straight muscular prose. Short sentences. I’m much more Ciceronian than that, and it’s a serious fault. My Renaissance English professor at the University of Minnesota, Thomas Clayton, was a very rigorous critic, who had no patience for woolly prose. He had a huge vocabulary, a ready wit, a powerful sense of irony, and a deep commitment to precision.
Mostly, I think, you learn to write by writing. The best method is to write fast, without frills, on deadline. That’s why a good journalism course may be better than a good composition course. The biggest problem young writers have is that they want to write flowery purple prose. In my opinion, most of them have been indulged by bad English teachers (language arts teachers) who don’t know how to write themselves. They tend to reward sentiment and “poetic” prose. This is precisely the wrong way to teach writing. I sometimes have my students write essays in which no sentence can be more than eight words long. Try it. (I’ll try it in the next paragraph. It’s harder than you think.)
Try to make every sentence as simple as possible. Never use two words where one will serve. Get to the point. Avoid the passive voice. Try to use as few adjectives as possible. Never use a cliché you could not explain. Use strong Anglo-Saxon terms instead of Latin polysyllabic words. Assume that you are going to be cut off after 250 words, so get right to the point. Avoid similes and metaphors until you are a much better writer. Don’t try for poetic effect. Look up words you are unsure of.
Q; Which writers do you especially admire?
Clay: For the quality of their prose, Daniel Defoe, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, Bertrand Russell. Orwell says the best prose is “transparent.” In other words, the reader is not really aware of the writing, because the writing is clear and doesn’t get in the way of the matter. I love Dickens beyond all other English novelists, but he is constantly wanting you to be aware of the magic of his writing.
Q: Have you always been a writer?
Clay: Well, yes and no. I have been writing since I was sixteen years old, and I have written millions of words. I haven’t written every day for those 44 years, but it is a very strange week in which I do not do some writing on three or four or even five days. Now most of what one writes is of no consequence, but the process of writing keeps us proficient at it.
Still, I never considered myself a writer until I moved back to North Dakota in 2005. Then I started writing a weekly column for the Bismarck Tribune. That meant that I must meet a pretty strict deadline every Wednesday no matter where I was on earth, no matter what I was doing, and no matter how I felt. About a year into the column, I remember being asked by someone on a plane or at a conference just what I did. And for the first time in my life I said, “I’m a writer.” And I did not feel embarrassed or like a fraud.
Q: Physically, how do you write?
Clay: I only use pen and paper when I don’t have access to a computer. I write out endless outlines and notes to myself in longhand or block capitals, but when I want to write I like to be at a keyboard. When I want to write a very special letter, to my daughter, to the governor, to an old dear friend, I sometimes get out my Hermes 3000 portable manual typewriter and pound the thing out. I regard that as a sacred form of writing.
But it doesn’t matter how I write. Whatever works for you is all that matters? Some people think better with pen in hand. Some like to dictate. I could never dictate an essay or book. But I don’t like fetishism in writing. You know, a certain kind of fountain pen or just the right kind of cream-colored paper. That’s entirely the wrong approach. I think it was in the Rambler that Dr. Johnson said something to the effect of: The man will not write much who is particular about pen and pencils.
Q: When do you write?
Clay: I prefer to write in the morning, because as Thoreau says, it is a new dawn for the whole universe. But I write when I have to, when I can, when the moment opens up, when the deadline demands it. For example, I wrote these last few sentences at 6:02 p.m. on a September evening.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for writers, or people who would like to write?
Clay: There are three or four things I have learned over time that I believe might be helpful to other. First, don’t wait for your Muse. It’s a very very long wait. If you only write when you are in the mood to write—well-rested, in great health, without significant distractions, with plenty of time on your hands, and inspired to get started—you may never write at all. You have to be able to write in good health and bad, when you are happy and when you are miserable, when you are rested and when you are completely exhausted. You have to write every day, without fail, or you won’t be able to sustain the project. Second, as my friend Warren Lerude taught me, “Always park on a hill.” Always end the day’s writing by starting a new paragraph or at least a new sentence, but don’t finish the thought. That way, when you return the next morning, you never have to stare at a blank screen. You simply finish the sentence or the paragraph, and you are off and running. Even the best writers have a daily writer’s block. This fixes that. Third, in the age of Microsoft Word, writing is easier than it has ever been. You can cut and paste. You can revise without having to retype. You can use autocorrect and then spellcheck, and even grammar check. It may seem daunting, but if you keep plugging away at it, you will finish. Fourth, don’t necessarily write in linear order, from Alpha to Omega. Write what you are most prepared to write today, even if it something that won’t appear until ten chapters from now. Sixth, every time you come to something you don’t know and need to look up, just write an X in the sentence, and move on. About once every hour or every two hours, you can Google every X, or look every X up in the books you have around you, and fill in those blanks. If you stop every time you come to some fact that is not at your fingertips, you will grind to a halt.
Q: For whom do you write?
Clay: That depends on what I am writing. In my scholarship, I write for literate and curious adults, but people who are not necessarily experts in the field. I learned long ago that the duty of the humanist is to write for the broadest possible audience. I do not like to write academic prose, or prose merely for other experts.
I really regard myself as an essayist more than anything else. The essay gives me the latitude I want to explore ideas and subjects that interest me, without too severe a channel of expectations. I like to have the license to write with joy and whimsy, sometimes analytically and sometimes passionately, and not always in a strictly linear fasion.
My ideal reader is someone who appreciates my style and my perspective, but does not necessarily agree with me. My ideal reader takes the challenge, wrestles with my perspective, quibbles with what I regard as a truth or an insight, but who brings a measure of generosity of spirit to the occasion.
We all want to be read by readers who “get us.” I have known a dozen or so such readers. When they write to tell me that I am in error, or confused, or silly, I take their criticism very seriously, because they have earned it with their gift of taking me seriously.