How Does a Writer Write?

Novelist and Teacher Daniel Torday explains how it is done

By Ana Azevedo

It is said that those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. But what about the lucky few who get to do both?

Daniel Torday is a professor and the director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr college. He is also an author. More specifically, he is a novelist and short story writer.

His students at Bryn Mawr know him as their quirky, funny professor. A man who is always around to listen and give advice, whether it be about their writing or just life in general. He is someone who is kind, but also direct. Understanding, but firm. He is relatable, and outspoken about his views.

Daniel Torday

For example, all his students know how he feels about our current president. Hint; he is not a fan. He is the type of professor who would bring donuts on the last day of classes, but not without bringing along a substitute for any students with dietary restrictions. It’s obvious to whoever knows him personally that he cares about his students and their personal journeys as writers, very much. That is the man who his students and colleagues know.

But to the literary world, he isn’t just a quirky professor, he is a star.  He has written and published three books, “The Last Flight of Poxl West”, “The Sensualist”, and “Boomer1”. His 2012 novella, “The Sensualist”, won the National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction.

In 2015, his novel, “The Last Fight of Poxl West”, was published and received a glowing review from The New York Times. It was even featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Along with winning several other prizes, the novel was also long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award, one of literature’s most esteemed prizes.

His most recent work, Boomer1, has seen it’s own share of literary acclaim. His short stories have been featured in the New York Times, and in the Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays series.

To the world, he is a well respected author, but if you asked him what his definition of literary success looks like he would smile and say, “My dear friend the YA [young adult] novelist John Green once said, you know, the success is good, but it’s about touching one reader, somewhere, who really just gets it and loves it. So that.”

Torday does what he does because he loves it, plain and simple. This is clear from the way his eyes light up when you reach out to him to discuss writing and literature, from the way he gestures dramatically when the subject of his favorite novel comes up, and from his dedication to showing his students what works and what doesn’t in the world of writing.

However, he’s not out to train young writers to become cookie cutter versions of the literary greats. He emphasizes how important it is to establish your own writing style, all while encouraging students to break the rules of writing after they have mastered them.

“Some of the best works of literature have been produced from going against the grain, from doing what was never done before. But before you can break the rules, you have to learn them,” he tells his students.

You would be hard pressed to find a writer who is more passionate about their work than Torday, and who matches that level of passion in their teaching. There is much that can be learned from him and his artistic process of crafting a work of literature. However, it is also useful to know how he came to be where he is now. When people turn to novelists for advice, it is usually from a place of awe and admiration. People imagine them to be so different from themselves, so much so that their current position seems unreachable for the average human. But Torday’s start is most likely much more similar to yours then you would think.

The Making of An Author

Torday is similar to most writers in the sense that he has always loved this one specific thing, to read. When asked when he first realized he wanted to be a writer, one would assume, based on his success, that it was from the moment he picked up a pencil.

But his actual response is much more relatable, “It’s so hard to say! When I was a teenager I wanted to be an NBA basketball player. That didn’t work out.” He laughs. “When I was in my 20’s I wanted to be a novelist, but also a journalist, and a Supreme Court justice, and a rock star. More than anything I loved reading.” When pressed, he says that there was no specific “Ah-ha!” moment, but rather a slow realization over time that, as far as work goes, there was nothing he enjoyed more than to write.

Like most of us, Torday spent his early years grappling with what direction he wanted his life to take. Now we know that he wasn’t born knowing he wanted to be a writer, but he did grow up knowing that language had power. He was lucky to have parents who recognized and encouraged his passion.

He recalls a short anecdote from his childhood when this fact became clear.

“My parents took me to the Robert Frost Place in New Hampshire every summer. One summer when I was 6 or 7 my dad told me he’d buy me a book if I memorized a poem. I still know ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening’ to this day.”

Eventually, he decided to pursue writing with full force. Torday graduated from Kenyon College in 2000 and continued his study under George Saunders, a well-respected author, in Syracuse University’s graduate writing program. He later worked as a junior editor at Esquire.

“I actually planned, after working as a magazine editor for years, to go back and get a Ph.D in English Lit.” He says, “Took the GRE Literature test and everything. But I wanted the time to read and write.”

So he took it, then he turned around and created a few of the books that are so popular with people today.

The Writing Process

As Torday has emphasized with his students, it is essential to develop your own voice as a writer, your own style that sets you apart from other writers. When asked what he would classify as his interesting writing quirk, his answer is short and direct, “Coffee.”

What about how long it takes to write a novel? Does one have to sit down and dedicate oneself to one book at a time? Torday doesn’t think so.

“It’s so variable.” He says, “I’m always working on a million things. It took eight years for POXL, but I was working on my first novella at the time. And years of that was putting it down. Boomer1 took three.”

For those of us who go through phases with our writing process and feel the urge to give up on a project now and then, Torday’s response is comforting. He says that this feeling is common, and he’s gone through the same thing more than a couple of times, but he claims it’s simply part of the process

Some writers believe that you should write everyday, but Torday disagrees. He is, however, strict about how long he writes when he does write. When asked how many hours he writes a day, he responded with, “three hours, no more no less. But I don’t write when I’m not writing.”

So what about the background for your storytelling? There are people who believe that heavy research only needs to be done when writing a work of non-fiction, but this isn’t true. Even when writing a work of fiction, one needs background knowledge to create a world that is believable. Research comes in many forms, Torday says, and it is not always in the traditional sense of interviewing the experts on a subject or reading up on certain topics.

“I do a ton of research,” Torday says. “but mostly to throw it away, or not use it. I’m a big fan of first person narratives, especially unpublished– for Poxl it was self-published memoirs. For Boomer1 it was just trolling around chat rooms.”

He explains that research for a novel can also come from reflecting back on ones own experiences. Imagine you are attempting to describe how a character feels in a certain scenario: Have you ever personally been in that scenario? If you have, how did you feel? Even if your character is very different from yourself, you may use your own experience as a basis for discovering how to frame that character’s perception.

If you love to read and do it frequently, this can only help you when you’re attempting to describe a characters emotions, Torday says. After all, reading develops empathy. Which is the ability to understand how another person is feeling. Or in other words, the ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Most people envision the writing process to be between the writer and his writing and that’s it. Eventually your work goes to an editor, but the process before that includes you and only you, right?

Torday believes otherwise. He says that work-shopping your writing with other writers can only improve it, and it may be exactly what you need, especially if you’re stuck. To workshop your writing is to meet with other writers and engage in discussion over your work, while others provide helpful feedback and you search for advice. As anyone who loves to write will tell you, while you are first starting out it can be very scary to allow others to read your work. Downright, terrifying even. You have put your heart into your work, to listen to someone else judge it can be overwhelming.

Torday says it’s worth it, “I’ve actually come to believe that early on, the process of reading fellow writers’ work closely might be the most useful part of workshop—if you can come to see your own work as clearly as you generally see another’s, that might be 80% of what you need.”

You may have a vision in mind of what you’re trying to convey with you’re writing. But you don’t know how to reach it. You may struggle with finding the right words to express what you want to say, but at the same time, you know exactly what you want say. Torday wants you to know that this is not only common, but also part of the process.

In an interview with Hilary Plum, the book review editor for Kenyon Review, he put it best when he said,  “You know when your mom would walk around asking, ‘Where are my glasses?,’ when she was wearing them the whole time? Being a writer is like that, only with sentences, structure, characters.” Glasses on, but—where are my glasses? But the serious part of the metaphor is that I think it’s supposed to be that way. You can see just fine, but you’re blundering around going, Why can’t I see? Part of me feels like it’s because your subconscious gives you only what you can manage at the moment, while retaining the ability to move forward.”

Since Torday is such an experienced writer it is easy to assume that the writing process comes easy to him, that he’s always confident about his work. But he says this is far from the truth. When asked what is the most difficult part of the artistic process for him, he says “Knowing when I’m done, knowing when to stop. I could edit a single sentence a year if I wasn’t careful.”

These are comforting words to budding writers who often feel like their work is never good enough. If even the best writers feel the same way sometimes, what does that say about your own work? Trust yourself, and trust the process.

The best thing you can do to become a better writer is something you most likely do all the time anyway. When asked what his advice would be to a writer just starting out, Torday replied: “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read.”